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.
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.