Commonweal (originally The Commonweal ; name shortened in 1965) is the oldest independent lay Catholic journal of opinion in the United States. Founded in 1924 by Michael Williams (1877–1950) and the Calvert Associates, it reflected a growing sense of self-confidence among American Catholics as they emerged from a largely immigrant status to become highly successful members of the American mainstream. Modeled on the New Republic and the Nation, the magazine's goal was to be a weekly review "expressive of the Catholic note" in covering literature, the arts, religion, society, and politics. Never bound by a strict ideology, it became a forum for thoughtful, urbane discussion, and had a distinguished roster of editors and writers.
Liberal in temperament, the magazine's editorial strategy was to reject sectarianism and to rely on reasoned discussion. It never shrank, however, from taking strong and controversial positions. When it declared its neutrality during the Spanish Civil War (1938), circulation plummeted by 20 percent. During World War II, it condemned the firebombing of Dresden and the use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It criticized American racism, the anti-Semitism of Father Charles Coughlin, and the smear tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy; supported resistance to U.S. involvement in Vietnam; and took issue with the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae vitae.
The magazine benefited from long editorships: Michael Williams (1924–38); Edward S. Skillin (1938–67); James O'Gara (1967–84); Peter Steinfels (1984–88); and Margaret O'Brien Steinfels (1988–); it was also energized by a variety of remarkable supporting editors, including George N. Shuster, John Cogley, Daniel Callahan, and Paul Baumann. Edward Skillin's association with the journal was unique. He joined the staff in 1933, became editor and a principal owner in 1938, served as publisher from 1967–99, and transferred ownership to the nonprofit Commonweal Foundation in 1982. Part of the price for the magazine's independence was its periodic ostracism from various church and political circles, and its chronic sense of financial precariousness (it was forced to become a biweekly in 1974). The Commonweal Associates, established in the 1960s, met the magazine's annual revenue shortfall through donors' gifts, and an endowment fund was inaugurated in 1994 to assure greater long-term financial viability. Its circulation in the 1990s was 20,000.
Commonweal was credited with helping prepare American Catholics for Vatican II and its aftermath, and for introducing readers to a new level of literate Catholic discussion. It published such authors as Nicholas Berdyaev, Emmanuel Mournier, Francois Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Hannah Arendt, Luigi Sturzo, G. K Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Graham Greene. It printed the short fiction of Evelyn Waugh and J. F. Powers, the poetry of W. H. Auden, Josephine Jacobsen, and John Updike. Its cultural columnists included Walter Kerr, Wilfrid Sheed, and Richard Alleva; there were illustrations by Jean Charlot and Emil Antonucci.
On the occasion of Commonweal 's fiftieth anniversary (1974), historian John Tracy Ellis wrote that, with the exception of the nineteenth-century lay trustee movement and lay congresses, Commonweal "was the American Catholic laity's most ambitious undertaking, and to date remains the most successful one."
Bibliography: p. jordan and p. baumann, eds., Commonweal Confronts the Century (New York 1999). r. van allen, The Commonweal and American Catholicism (Philadelphia 1974); Being Catholic: Commonweal from the Seventies to the Nineties (Chicago 1993).