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The Press: Commonweal & Woe

3 minute read

The Commonweal, politically liberal Catholic weekly, last week was in deep trouble. The magazine told all in its lead article under the headline: OPERATION SURVIVAL. Commonweal’s “continuance is in jeopardy,” confessed the editors. For the first time in its 27 years, the magazine’s fate hinged on a circulation drive. Another 4,500 subscribers added to its 12,000 might save Commonweal, they hoped.

Like most magazines of opinion, blunt-speaking Commonweal has always had hard sledding. For three years (1943-45), it managed to break even. But it has never been nearer folding than now—not even in 1938 when, unlike most Catholic journals, it refused to support Franco and thus lost almost a fourth of its readers.

One Small Voice. Commonweal, which looks like (but usually disagrees with) the pink-eyed Nation, is still generally unfriendly to Franco. Its “progressive opinion” has stirred up many a furor among Catholics. A strong voice of the anti-Communist left, Commonweal is pro-union and consumer cooperatives, and anti-bigotry. It used to whiplash Detroit’s ranting Father Coughlin, and blamed Boston’s Catholic Irish for the long, grubby reign of Mayor James Michael Curley. When gravediggers at a New York Catholic cemetery struck last year for higher wages, and Cardinal Spellman personally led the strikebreakers, Commonweal sided with the workers. When Catholics succeeded in banning Roberto Rossellini’s movie, The Miracle, Commonweal’s scolding movie reviewer wrote that “The end result . . . has been a semi-ecclesiastical McCarthyism.”

Says Commonweal Editor Edward Skillin: “We believe the point of view we have in social and political matters is much nearer and truer to the Catholic social ideals—one which more fully expresses the Catholic view of the world—than that of some of the more conservative Catholic publications.”

Wings Without Angels. Commonweal’s point of view (which makes such conservative Catholic publications as the Brooklyn Tablet hopping mad) is presented each week by a triumvirate of devout but underpaid editors, aided by outside articles on politics, philosophy and the arts (for about a cent a word) from such contributors as Catholics Thomas Merton, Evelyn Waugh, Sean O’Faolain, non-Catholics Franz Werfel, Dorothy Thompson, Anglican W. H. Auden. The editors can print whatever they like because they have no publishing angel, no official ties with the Church.

But the price of this freedom comes high. With printing costs rising, Commonweal was going into the red at the rate of about $1,000 a month. Editor Skillin, 47, hopes that the circulation drive will solve the problem.

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