Remembering Joe Cunneen

Thanks to historian David O'Brien for sending us this reflection on the life of Joe Cunneen, who passed away in July:

Joe Cunneen passed away July 29 at the age of 89. For almost fifty years, from his family's famously crowded basement, with his wife Sally and his friend Bill Birmingham, Joe produced the remarkable scholarly journal Cross Currents. After graduating from Holy Cross in 1942 Joe joined the war in Europe, then persuaded the Army to let him spend the time before embarking for home in Paris. He returned to France as soon and as often as he could. Excited by the post-war Catholic intellectual renewal, he got Cross Currents started and for the rest of his long life he devoted his enormous energy and rich imagination to American Catholic intellectual and cultural life. He and Sally knew that there were a lot of intelligent lay Catholics out there, some in but most outside Catholic academic institutions. They invited them into the world-wide flowering of Catholicism, first in the reflective assessment after World War II, then during the exiting explosions of Vatican II, then amid the awakening of fresh ideas and practices across the post-conciliar and post-colonial global church.


In 1981 Holy Cross and Assumption College celebrated thirty years of Cross Currents with such Catholic luminaries and Cunneen friends as Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Berry, John McKenzie and Michael Harrington. Joe and his Holy Cross classmate Jamaican poet John Figueroa told Harrington, by then America's leading socialist, that he was indeed still a Catholic, whatever he might say to the contrary.

When no Catholic institution volunteered to take responsibility for Cross Currents the Cunneens turned the journal, which had always published important Protestant and Jewish writers, over to the inter-faith Association for Religion and the Intellectual Life. But Joe never retired. He loved movies and for twenty years poured his heart into reviewing films for the National Catholic Reporter. He wrote a fine book on French film maker Robert Bresson and translated and promoted the writing of Jean Sulivan.

The Cunneens received many awards for their service to the American Catholic community; in many ways they embodied the much desired "dialogue of faith and culture" that Pope John Paul II claimed was at the heart of the Catholic Church. They experienced that engagement with brilliant friends across the globe and they wanted all Catholic to do the same. More than most of us, Joe took it for granted that lay Catholics shared responsibility for the life and work of the church and that all in the church shared responsibility with others for the common culture in the making everywhere. Some Catholics were and remain uncertain that deep personal religious commitment can be combined with genuine solidarity: the Cunneens, and many of the scholars, artists and film makers they told us about, proved by their lives that it could indeed be done. Perhaps it was Joe's Jesuit education, and Jesuit friends, who helped him find something of God in all things--and all people.

Cross Currents, like Commonweal and the Catholic Worker movement, was a lay project. Joe's Catholic work and witness exemplified lay autonomy, lay initiative, lay responsibility. Catholics shared responsibility for their church and their world, so they had to act on that responsibility whatever the powers that be might think. If there is a reflection at Joe Cunneen's passing it is not only about sad memories of a lost era, forgotten networks of interesting religious women and men, and a once Catholic journal that connected thoughtful Catholics. Instead it might be a fresh awakening to the idea that our own lives and works as modern, responsible American Catholics can make a difference, for everybody.

David O'Brien


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ed gleason
5 years 8 months ago
Cunneen et al are passing away ;
Before it's too late..
"Now is the time for all good lay people to come to the aid of the FAITH'
At the national gathering a sign to be posted; no single issue Catholics need apply
Lena Smolon
5 years 8 months ago
I met Joe Cunneen when we were both ''lost'' arriving at the PaxChristi Good Friday Way of the Cross.  What a great man...he was 84 that year, and walked the entire route, sometimes ahead of me- 25 years his junior. 
We've lost a tremendous Catholic voice.  R.I.P. Joe.


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