He was 65 at the time, still sharp and witty. He described how his own father died when he was five, and how his mother then sent him and his older brother, Jim, to boarding school while she trained as a beautician. She finally set up her own beauty shop, but the Depression killed it, and possibly her too. She died in 1936, when my father was 14. More than one family offered to adopt the orphaned brothers, and the choice fell to the pastor in Gesu parish, Detroit. He opted for a family with financial resources but without a desire to bring more children into their home. And so, my father continued a life in institutions—more boarding school; then the seminary (he thought he might become a priest, until he reconsidered celibacy); then the Army Air Corps, where he learned that he was not cut out to be a pilot (landing trouble). Along the way, he got a strong Catholic-school education.
He once told me that life is 95 percent luck, and as luck would have it, he got discharged from the Army in Denver and landed a job there with the National Catholic Register—a vast, centralized journalism factory that produced local Catholic newspapers on an economy of scale. As he told Occhiogrosso, copy would arrive from places like Wheeling or Fresno or Cincinnati, to be edited, typeset, laid out, printed, and mailed. While he was beginning to become an editor, his education continued, too—Register employees were required to take grammar classes, plus theology. Another bonus: He met my mother on the copy desk.
Whether they were a good match is a large question, but my parents did share influences and a spiritual fervor mixed with a social/political fire. Long story short: They married and, together with several colleagues, started a daily newspaper with a progressive Christian perspective, a sort of precursor to the NCR. They wound up in Kansas City (where they had located a favorable bishop), on the ragged southeastern edge of town, in an abandoned three-story stone farmhouse that they got cheap, and where I would grow up. The first issue of the newspaper, The Sun Herald, was printed on October 10, 1950, and mailed (or teletyped) to subscribers, of which there were never enough. The paper folded in less than seven months.
My father scrambled—he sold brooms and drove a taxi before landing a teaching job—until 1957, when he became the editor of Kansas City’s diocesan paper, The Register, soon to be decoupled from the chain and become the Catholic Reporter. As luck would have it again, the church at the time was starting to crank open its big medieval windows, which, in the papacies of John XXIII and Paul VI, would manifest itself in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and lively doctrinal controversies. There was a lot of news, and the Catholic Reporter crew wanted to perform on the national stage. Kansas City’s next bishop, Charles Helmsing, gave the idea his blessing and support. The editors rounded up a few hundred contributors in Kansas City and hired an Associated Press reporter named Bob Olmstead. I remember my father marveling at how the man just called people up and they told him things.
Bishop Helmsing, my father told Occhiogrosso, had “agreed to more than he thought he was agreeing to. He said that he agreed to our being independent, but he added, “Of course, you will accept my guidance.” What he meant by that was that if he didn’t like it, we wouldn’t print it, and what we meant was that we’d listen and then decide, because we were independent and we were set up corporately that way.”
In a few years, perhaps inevitably, they would clash. NCR’s orientation was mostly liberal, politically and theologically, but that was not the problem. The paper was reporting and commenting on debates within the church that some thought should stay behind church walls, on such subjects as birth control, celibacy, the males-only priesthood, Mary’s perpetual virginity, and Pope Paul VI’s re-statement of Catholic belief, which NCR called a “creed for yesteryear” in an editorial. The last straw may have been an essay by the philosopher Daniel Callahan calling for a reconsideration of papal authority, titled “How to Get the Papal Monkey off the Catholic Back.” Helmsing publicly condemned the paper as “poisonous” and asked the editors to remove the word “Catholic” from the masthead.