One of his pieces, parsing some barbed words from the pope about Jews and Jesus, is included in the book. John Leo has a scathing piece about the presentation to the American church of a useless gift from the pope—his tiara. A Gary Wills column eviscerates a folk hero of the Catholic left, Daniel Berrigan—specifically Berrigan’s open letter asking for a pardon for a condemned South African terrorist named John Harris, whom Berrigan lauds because he “stands with the victims of apartheid.” Harris’s moral fervor, Wills points out, had spurred him to plant a time bomb at a Johannesburg train station that killed a 77-year-old woman and crippled a 12-year-old girl. There is a November 1966 first-person piece about the education of a Franciscan nun—Sister Mathias, who became active in Chicago’s race-fired housing battles. The headline: “What Are You Doing Talking to That Nigger?”
No story was bigger for the Reporter than Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s treatise on birth control. The church had traditionally held that “artificial” contraception was a sin; that sex was for making babies, and to remove that function was against natural law. Many Catholics, it can be said with certainty, thought this was bogus. Pope John XXIII put together a commission to study the issue, made up of lay experts and married couples as well as clergy, which Paul VI inherited. The commission, in turn, produced a series of secret reports for the pope and his advisers, with the majority recommending change. In 1965, several of those reports were leaked to France’s Le Monde and America’s National Catholic Reporter. My father told Occhiogrosso that he was at his desk for 36 hours straight working on that story.
Then, in 1968, Pope Paul overrode his own commission and maintained the traditional church instruction that birth control is forbidden. The result, as the Reporter put it: “instant polarization.” It its editorial, NCR soberly argued that the birth control issue “poses a serious question, and the encyclical does not give a serious answer.” In the end, the newspaper pointed out, the debate was not about sex, but about authority.
In its first five years, the National Catholic Reporter’s circulation rocketed from zero to 100,000 readers. In the early 1970s, though, it began to lose steam, falling to 60,000. The paper’s publisher argued that it had become too antagonistic and had alienated readers. My father had a different analysis, pointing to the historical moment. Many Catholic and other religious journals were losing circulation at the time. Vatican II had created hopes that were being deflated. Good priests and nuns were falling like leaves, and a lot of Catholics were leaving the building. “Ultimately, it was not a papal warning or a threat of excommunication that drove me out,” he told Occhiogrosso, “but a good old-fashioned power struggle. Circulation was falling, and our publisher, Donald Thorman, blamed it on me. Some of his criticism may have had some merit—I was tired and I was distracted by personal issues.”
Those issues were his disintegrating marriage and an affair with a younger woman. I remember having the sense then, early in the 1970s, that large chunks of the earth were collapsing around our family. We were aware of my father’s job difficulties, of course. (My brother and I spoke idly of stealing the publisher’s decadent color television—who needs color on a TV?—in retribution.) At the same time, our neighborhood was changing; a drive-by shooting a few blocks from our house took the life of a boy my brother knew well, right on the porch of his house. On the news, too, the world seemed to be blowing up.
Our family certainly was. My father was fired. And then he left.
He moved to New York, where he wrote and edited for Christianity & Crisis, a Protestant journal that closed in 1993, and then for Commonweal, the Catholic journal of ideas. He fooled around with a book idea that didn’t happen. He adopted another daughter. He made a life. But he had no talent for not running a newspaper.