James O’Gara, the former top editor of Commonweal, the lay journal for Roman Catholics, and a force in maintaining an independent editorial voice, has died. He was 85.
O’Gara died Oct. 22 at a retirement community in Catonsville, Md., after a heart attack.
Active in the Catholic Worker movement in his native Chicago, O’Gara spent 32 years at the New York-based Commonweal before retiring in 1984. For most of his tenure, he was chief editor.
Hoping to bring his lay vision to the church, he played a significant role in shaping discussion about the role of modern Catholicism.
Under his editorial direction, Commonweal was a showcase for Catholic intellectuals and activists, including Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Eugene McCarthy, Daniel Berrigan, Graham Greene and Wilfred Sheed.
With its largely academic and church readership, Commonweal never had a massive audience -- it peaked at about 40,000 during the Second Vatican Council meetings in the mid-1960s. The magazine was known for its outspoken editorials on politics and society, and O’Gara, because of his longevity and steady leadership, was a key player in debate over liturgical reform and ecumenical affairs.
He joined the magazine when Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) was using abusive tactics to find alleged Communist Party sympathizers in government and Hollywood.
O’Gara, though anti-Communist, was highly critical of Catholic support for the senator, and his outspokenness led to conflicts with one of Commonweal’s main owners, the conservative Philip Burnham. O’Gara said hints were dropped that continued criticism would be unwelcome.
After discussion among the younger editors, O’Gara went to a stockholders’ meeting to protest further interference with editorial policy. Otherwise, he said, all the editors were prepared to resign.
He helped persuade another owner, Edward Skillin, to buy out the other stockholders and protect the editorial integrity of the magazine. That became increasingly important to the staff, not only during the Second Vatican Council but also during the Vietnam War, when the magazine decided early on to deem it an “unjust war.”
O’Gara and his successor, Peter Steinfels, now a religion columnist at the New York Times, helped make Commonweal a nonprofit corporation in the early 1980s. That helped the journal, which rarely made a profit, accept financial contributions to keep it solvent.
O’Gara grew up in a working-class Irish family. His father was a streetcar driver. He became interested in the Catholic Worker movement in high school. Diverging from many Catholic Workers on the issue of pacifism during World War II, he served in the Army in the South Pacific. Afterward, he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology from Loyola University in Chicago.
After retiring, he was a columnist for a Catholic newspaper near his longtime home in Rockville Centre, N.Y. He moved to Catonsville in 1995.
He is survived by two daughters and two grandchildren.