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.
It stung. My father explained, in print, that NCR was a free and independent newspaper that did not speak for the church but reported on it. And, as he would write later, in an introduction to a collection of NCR articles: “The church needs critics more than it needs press agents.” And in yet another essay in response to the bishop: “This is a newspaper, not a pious journal. It does not pretend to meet all the spiritual needs of its readers; its preoccupations are with issues in the church that can be treated in political terms, and it quite deliberately adopts a vocabulary that cannot be confused with the saccharine and submissive language once considered the mark of Catholic loyalty.”
Among the material I found for this piece is a 24-page pamphlet from 1963 (15 cents at the time) that my father wrote for the Paulist Press, called The Christian in the Modern World. I would not burden anybody with it except that it says something about his core. The essay begins with a reference to a passage from the gospel of St. Matthew, a warning from Jesus as he holds a child in his lap and tells the gathered crowd: “See to it that you do not treat one of these little ones with contempt; I tell you, they have angels of their own in heaven. . . .” The child is nameless, and the point, my father argues, is that he stands for every child, for Everyman. The lesson he draws: Man is worthy of reverence. Res sacra, homo—man is a sacred thing.
The life and teachings of Jesus, my father wrote, “are primary data, inexhaustibly rich, only slowly appreciated, never definitively explained. Instead of detailed directives, we find core ideas, implications, hints,” which, he argues, add up to something that should push us to engage a troubled world. He then moves to another nameless child, one of his own invention—this one an American child of the great black migration to the north, whose father’s factory has been shut, whose mother must resort to welfare, who is shunted into an inferior school, and so forth—in short, treated with contempt, Jesus’s word.
So, the Catholic newspaper my father ran would not be churchy or inward but engaged in the issues of the day. And it would get noticed.
I have a clear memory of my father on the telephone at our home, leaning into the wall, his arm wrapped around his prematurely gray head in an effort to block the noise of the children running, crawling, yammering below. His concentration caught my attention and I later asked him who had called. John F. Kennedy, he said.