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.
A good friend tells me that to be emotionally healthy a person needs to get in touch with his inner rage at hurtful parents. Maybe so, but for me it’s a bit late for that. Perhaps I have buried it too deep to reach, anyway, though if I dwelled on the collateral damage of my father’s exit, I might get closer. All of us paid a price, some more than others. Certainly my mother did. Still, she is the one who learned to build friendships and networks and community, back in Kansas City, and I’d do well to emulate her in times of trouble. I have three children myself, beautiful young adults now, and when I think of all my father missed, I feel more pity than anger. I don’t get it. I never will.
But I am proud to have been influenced by his journalism.
His National Catholic Reporter hums along at age 49. Circulation is almost 36,000, counting Kindle, and the website is alive. This summer the paper won second place for general excellence from the Catholic Press Association, unusual only because it breaks a 13-year streak of first-place awards for the Reporter in that category. It garnered eight other first-place awards this year, and won first, second, and third places for editorials, my dad’s old perch.
Over the years it has done groundbreaking reporting on all things Catholic, good and bad. If you want to understand the Vatican, for example, you need to read its senior correspondent, John L. Allen Jr. It treats its readers with respect. It understands that to actually be of use to a flawed but essential institution that your readers care deeply about, you must keep an arm’s-length distance from it.