February 13, 2013

Remembering Jubilee Magazine


With the surprising news that the Pope is stepping down this week, there’s a lot of speculation about the future of the institutional Catholic hierarchy.

All the talk about opportunities for a “breath of fresh air” in a radically changing church reminded me of Jubilee, a widely-acclaimed Catholic literary  magazine published between 1953 and 1967, just before the Second Vatican Council. It was founded by Ed Rice, and co-edited by Robert Lax and Thomas Merton with the mission to “produce a Catholic literary magazine that would act as a forum for addressing issues confronting the contemporary church.”

Jubilee featured beautiful black-and-white photography, poetry, artwork, essays, journalism, and spiritual writing. An issue might feature a political essay on topics like “The Church and Cold War,” or profiles, including one about Dan Berrigan visiting Cornell.

Rice met Lax and Merton while they were all students at Columbia working for the college humor magazine called The Jester. The three were known on campus as literary innovators and spiritual iconoclasts who forged a lifelong friendship that culminated in Jubilee, which was published until a year before Merton’s death (he died from being electrocuted by a fan in Thailand in 1968). Robert Giroux, who went on be a partner and chairman at FSG, remembered them as “the three musketeers … good pals, highly sophisticated, with good senses of humor and very artistic.”

The source and mission of Jubilee’s cooperative and worker-owned financial plan was inspired by papal encyclicals, as outlined in the June 1957 issue of the magazine:

The Jubilee financial plan, which amounts to a form of consumers’ cooperative, was worked out after a study of the two great papal social encyclicals, Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII) and Quadragesimo Anno (Pius XI), which state quite clearly that a business is something entrusted by God to the hands of its management and should work for the good of all. This concept shaped the editors’ belief that Jubilee’s sometime profits should go to the people who helped to make it successful—the charter subscribers (and also the long-time staff members).

According to the book Merton and Friends: a Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice, the three didn’t always agree with the church, but were able to express a Catholic spiritual perspective on literature, the arts, and contemporary issues though the magazine.

Despite their loyalty to the church, the three often disagreed with its positions, grumbled about its tolerance for mediocrity in art, architecture, music, and intellectual life and its comfortableness with American materialism and military power. And each in his own way engaged in a spiritual search that extended beyond Christianity to the great religions of the East.

Jubilee took its name from the Latin of the Psalm, “Jubilate Deo, omnis terra” (Sing joyfully to God, all the earth).




Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.