A native of Chicago, Illinois, and a lifelong Roman Catholic, Steinfels earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University and joined the staff of the journal Commonweal in 1964. He served as a visiting professor at Notre Dame in 1994–95 and then as visiting professor at Georgetown University from 1997 to 2001. From 1990 to 2010, he wrote a column called "Beliefs" for the religion section of The New York Times.
He has also been a professor at Fordham University and co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture. Steinfels has written several books, including The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America's Politics (ISBN 0-671-41384-8) and A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (ISBN 0-684-83663-7).
He is married to Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a writer and former editor of Commonweal. They have two children, Gabrielle Steinfels and John Melville Steinfels.
- Interview with PBS's Bob Abernethy
- A film clip The Open Mind – An Update on Terminal Illness ... and a Doctor Aided Suicide (1991) is available at the Internet Archive