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Commonweal editor upholds liberal tradition in conservative church

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter McDermott

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels’s job requires a sense of tradition and a sense of history. For she edits Commonweal, which has been a consciously liberal voice within the Catholic church for the last 76 years.

From the beginning, the magazine took positions that were at odds with a conservative and immigrant-dominated church.

"Free speech, freedom of conscience and separation of church and state were always issues that Commonweal cared a great deal about," said O’Brien Steinfels, who talks about the subjects that concern her calmly and often humorously.

She became editor in 1988 when her husband, Peter Steinfels, a fellow Chicagoan, vacated the job to become senior religion correspondent with the New York Times. "This will sound very Chicago: we referred to this as ‘the succession that combines nepotism and meritocracy,’ " she said. At the time she asked the board if they wanted to conduct a wider search, but they insisted on their first choice.

She’d had a varied career as an editor in publishing since graduating from Loyola University in 1963. She worked, for example, for the Hastings Center Report, which dealt with bio-ethics, and was an editor at Basic Books.

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O’Brien Steinfels said that the kind of Catholicism found in her native city has been a major influence on her life and an early preparation for her present job. Not only was it rich liturgically and theologically, she said, it had always been interested in social questions and politics.

"When I was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s, there were a number of very active lay organizations, including for young people, like the Young Christian Students, where you spent some time thinking about what your religion meant to your everyday life," she said.

When she was at college, the civil rights struggle was coming to the fore in Chicago. "Our YCS group would spend a lot of time talking about things, and a certain amount of time organizing," she said.

"The magazine represents a combination of issues and interests I guess I could say I was born to and raised to pay attention to and to think about. So in that sense it’s absolutely the perfect job for me."

Commonweal is a stylish and serious-minded biweekly covering politics, movies, books and the arts generally, as well as religious and ethical issues. Its circulation is approximately 19,000. O’Brien Steinfels leads a team of nine full-timers. Editorials are unsigned. "We have to come to sort of consensus about what we’re going to say," she said.

"It’s a general magazine like the New Republic or the Nation, but is edited by Catholic lay people," O’Brien Steinfels said. "What we try to do is to bring to all of those issues some perspective that draws on the Catholic tradition."

One issue that makes it hard to be a liberal Catholic, O’Brien Steinfels said, is abortion.

"Commonweal basically thinks that Roe v. Wade was a bad decision in 1972," she said. "We consider it very important to continue to talk about what it means for there to be 1.3 million abortions every year. That is a fairly shocking and disturbing figure to us, but if you live generally in the liberal world, people don’t want to hear about that; they don’t want to think about it."

Commonweal occasionally publishes articles by people who’ve had abortions and have lived with some sense of regret in the long term.

"We call attention to people’s work when they are really saying it isn’t so black and white," she said.

The Commonweal editor reviewed "Articles of Faith," by Cynthia Gorney, a pro-choice journalist with the Washington Post. "She wrote a book that was really interesting and careful about what each side of the debate was saying and doing. And I admired her ability to do that," she said.

The magazine also follows the euthanasia debate closely; it editorially opposes the liberalization of existing laws.

O’Brien Steinfels supported Cardinal Bernardine’s concept of the "consistent ethic of life," which he enunciated in the 1980s. "He tried to join the abortion issue with euthanasia, with care for the marginalized, with just-war thinking in a way to suggest that it was a Catholic position that all life should be respected and cared for and supported, and that we should not focus our attention on only one of these issues," she said.

The issue of contraception is much more clear cut and indeed a defining issue for liberal Catholics. Commonweal was opposed to Paul VI’s Human’ Vit’. "It was wrongly argued, it was the wrong move, and my own view is that it has made the abortion argument incredibly difficult to make," O’Brien Steinfels said of the papal encyclical.

She doesn’t believe opposition was motivated simply by rebelliousness. "I know a lot of people who thought it through very carefully and read it and prayed over it," she said. "And they really did think it was wrong: the notion that a pope could willfully come to some conclusion about an important thing for most adult Catholics and seem to treat it in such an arbitrary fashion when he had a commission that prepared the way for a shift in teaching."

She rejects the notion that a "cafeteria Catholicism" prevails in America. "I don’t buy that. I think people are more careful about how they think about these things," she said.

Commonweal covers some of the same ground as the Jesuit weekly America, which is also considered liberal. O’Brien Steinfels, though, is not impressed with the content of their conservative rivals. "Some of what they publish is utter propaganda," she said.

"One of the virtues of orthodox anything is that you know where your boundaries are; you’re pretty clear about where you stand on everything," she said. "I think a lot of people feel safer being told how to think about something and what the answer is. Sometimes I long for that too."

The alternative isn’t necessarily being lukewarm on issues, in O’Brien Steinfels view. "You should lead your life in a way that is informed by what you believe and the conclusions you draw from it," she said. "If you’re going to be an adult and a Catholic, you have to obviously think these things through."

Even though polls show most Catholics support liberal positions, the right wing seems to be resurgent. "There are growing movements of conservatives who are insisting on consolidating moves or returning to the Latin Mass or returning to the days when Catholics paid, prayed and obeyed. They can do that if they want; I just think that there’s relatively little chance what they’re working toward is going to come about," she said.

The clergy may be more conservative than in previous decades, but this isn’t so important if they are good pastors, she believes. "You meet priests who say, ‘I didn’t know what it meant to be a priest until I got into a parish and the parishioners taught me what it meant,’ " she said. "As conservative as some of these new priests may be, they’re going to get a reality check; one hopes that it’s a reality check that they can pass."

O’Brien Steinfels believes she has experienced what might be the best of all possible worlds. She was raised in the era of the Baltimore Catechism. "You know things," she said. "You can’t forget them even if you wanted to." The Benedictine nuns, though, went beyond that, teaching students to think about what it was they believed. Then she came of age while the Second Vatican Council was in session.

She grew up in a close-knit Catholic family in St. Ita’s parish in the Uptown section of Chicago. Her grandmothers lived close by; her cousins went to the same school. "There was a strong sense of tribe," she recalled.

The maternal side of her family was German, the paternal side Irish. A more important difference in their backgrounds was her mother’s support for the Cubs and her father’s preference for the White Sox. "I’m not a baseball fan," she said. "Early on, I decided I wasn’t going to choose between these two teams."

Her mother worked as a bookkeeper and secretary. Late in his career, her father, a bus driver, became the full-time president of the Transport Workers Union in the city. He still lives in Uptown.

"My parents, along with everyone else’s parents, expected you to work hard," she said. "People did think school was a serious business."

"We didn’t have television for most of that period," she remembered. "Kids were freer; there was a children’s culture made up by children."

O’Brien Steinfels majored in history in Loyola University. And it was there that she met her future husband. Peter Steinfels’s background, though similar to hers in some respects, was more middle-class and suburban. "He’s more Irish than I am," she said. His paternal grandfather was German Jewish, while his other three grandparents were Irish Catholics.

Steinfels writes the "Beliefs" column every second Saturday in the New York Times and teaches in the history department at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The couple, who live in Manhattan, have two children: a daughter, 35, who is married and has one child, and a son, 31. "Both are perfectly able to talk about religion and Catholicism if you get them into a conversation, but I don’t know if they have the same mental framework [as her generation]," she said.

O’Brien Steinfels isn’t opposed to a catechism, but doesn’t see that as the solution. "I don’t think that world will ever come back, sociologically or intellectually," she said.

"It is right to think about how do you socialize children and adolescents into this religion. It’s obviously a much more complicated and conscious task; you have to really think about it and work at it.

"And then give them a subscription to Commonweal."

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