Nowhere in the New York Times in 1990, writes Peter Steinfels in his last Beliefs column today, “was there a regular treatment of religion for readers with a special interest in the topic, as there was, obviously, for business and sports, but also for science, art, architecture and many other subjects."
“Beliefs," he hoped, "would be a column that no more had to insert a phrase identifying the Apostles’ Creed, Gnosticism or Ramadan in a sentence than art or music critics had to insert capsule definitions of Romanticism or Expressionism.”
His “regular treatment” was required reading for any serious student of religion for the last 20 years. For me, what made the column so valuable was not that it was written by an eminent Catholic writer but that it was by an eminent writer with catholic tastes. You never knew if Mr. Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal magazine, would turn his wide-ranging intellect to the latest papal encyclical, a scholarly new book on Buddhism, the “new atheism,” a little known painter or novelist, the Stations of the Cross, prison libraries or, even as the title of one recent column had it, “Scandinavian nonbelievers.” With Mr. Steinfels, you also got the idea that, unlike some who report on religion, he had not only read more about the topic than he could possibly fit into the article, or more than you, but also much more than you ever would!
One relatively recent article stands out for me. A few days after the presidential election last November, Mr. Steinfels was analyzing, with his usual acuity, the involvement of the U.S. Catholic bishops in the last presidential election. Gallons of ink had been spilled over the topic, and some reporters never seemed to be able to understand fully the complicated interplay between: the Vatican, the U.S. bishops, the U.S. bishops conference, Catholic social teaching, the Catholic opposition to abortion, the Catholic position on other important life issues, the role of the "informed conscience," and so on. That Saturday I was driving with a Jesuit friend to a meeting. Reading Mr. Steinfels column I was so taken by the summary of the way that many Catholics had "received" the statements of their bishops, that I read it aloud:
Catholics are not supposed to be single-issue voters, but, by the way, abortion is the only issue that counts. The bishops do not intend to tell Catholics how to vote; but, by the way, a vote for Senator Obama puts your salvation at risk. Catholics are to form their consciences and make prudential judgments about complex matters of good and evil — just so long as they come to the same conclusions as the bishops.
"That's it!" shouted my friend.
Mr. Steinfels says at the end of his column that “time will tell” what he does in the future. Along with his wife, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, also a former Commonweal editor in chief, he co-directs Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture, the provider of invaluable public lectures and forums on religious life.
Certainly Mr. Steinfels’s future will involve some writing. Here’s hoping that time tells him to do a lot of it.