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.
I should have probed further, of course (I would have been 11 or 12). I do remember that my father told me later that the subject of the discussion had been federal aid to parochial schools, and I got the sense that Senator Kennedy had been persuasive. I have since wondered how this shard of memory could be accurate: Why would a US senator call some editor from a local weekly in Kansas City? It wasn’t even a national paper yet.
Still, one of Kennedy’s early acts as president would be to put forward a massive aid-to-education bill. It quickly got hung up on a noisy controversy about aid to parochial schools. Kennedy held that such aid was unconstitutional. Catholic forces, and they were powerful, pushed for creative ways around the constitutional challenge, such as funding nonreligious parts of schools (like science labs) or low-cost construction loans. Kennedy declined to compromise, and Catholic anger likely killed the bill, a major defeat.
The ongoing story had been all over the Catholic Reporter—“JFK Wants No Aid to Religious Schools” (February 24, 1961); “Bishops Ask Amendment of Education Proposal” (March 10). But an editorial on the subject—initialed by my father and published March 17—was mild. It took as a starting point an editorial from another prominent Catholic paper, Boston’s The Pilot—agreeing with much of its reasoning but not its conclusion. The Pilot had reasoned that if it did not include aid to parochial schools, the bill should be killed. My father called for “restraint and responsibility,” and said that Catholics should accept the bill and work to amend it when it comes up for renewal. It’s a position that the president might have appreciated, and, possibly, might have pre-emptively influenced.
In 1969, the paper published a book with a selection of features, editorials, and essays—Special to the NCR: the First Five Years of the National Catholic Reporter—and it provides a sense of the publication’s tone and range. The Reporter was big on Catholic-Jewish dialogue, for example, and hired a columnist, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, to write about it.