Commonweal is the oldest independent lay Catholic journal of opinion in the United States. Liberal in temperament - opinionated and engaged, but tolerant in tone - the magazine's editorial strategy was (and continues to be) to reject sectarianism and to relay on reasoned discussion. It has never shrunk, 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.
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 has published such authors as Nicholas Berdyaev, Emmanuel Mounier, Francois Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Hannah Arendt, Luigi Sturzo, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Graham Greene. It has printed the short fiction of Evelyn Waugh and J. F. Powers, the poetry of W. H. Auden, Josephine Jacobsen, Theodore Roethke, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Lowell, Marie Ponsot, and John Updike. Its cultural commentators have included Walter Kerr, Wilfrid Sheed, John Simon, David Denby, and Arlene Croce. There have been illustrations by Jean Charlot, Rita Corbin, Fritz Eichenberg, and Emil Antonucci.
The magazine has an ongoing interest in social-justice issues (John A. Ryan, Dorothy Day, George G. Higgins, A. J. Musge, Michael Harrington), ecumenism (Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Marty, Thomas Hopko, George Lindbeck, Marc Tannenbaum), just-war teaching (J. Bryan Hehir, Thomas Merton, Paul Ramsey), the renewal of the Roman liturgy (Virgel Michel, Robert Hovda, Mark Searle, Rembert Weakland), women's issues (Mary Daly, Abigail McCaarthy, Sidney Callahan, Elizabeth Hohnson), the primacy of conscience (John T. Noonan, Bernard Haring, Charles Curran), and the interchange between Catholicism and liberal democracy ) Jacques Maritain, Eugene McCarthy, Peter Steinfels).
Part of the price for its independence has been the magazine's periodic ostracism from various church and political circles, and its chronic sense of financial precariousness. Commonweal Magazine is operated by Commonweal Foundation, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization. The magazine's annual revenue shortfall has been met through generous donor gifts to support its operating budget and to an endowment fund which was inaugurated in 1994.