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.
In January 2013, Kansas City’s current bishop, Robert Finn, echoed Bishop Helmsing from almost five decades earlier, when he again publicly asked NCR to remove “Catholic” from its masthead. Finn implied, along the way, that the paper had run afoul of all of the city’s bishops since Helmsing. Thomas C. Fox, National Catholic Reporter’s publisher, pointed out in a dignified reply that this was not true. He noted that the newspaper had enjoyed cordial relations with other Kansas City bishops, among them Finn’s predecessor, Raymond Boland, who had blessed NCR’s office and spoken at the paper’s 40th-anniversary celebration.
And Fox added interesting context that Finn had managed to omit: Just a few months earlier, the National Catholic Reporter had run an editorial calling for Finn’s resignation. This was just after the bishop had been found guilty in Jackson County criminal court, for failing to report suspected child abuse by a priest who liked lewd photos of little girls.
The editorial was not subtle. It pointed to Finn’s weak apology in the matter and to the bishop’s abysmal management. “The chancery offices are in disarray, diocesan personnel feel abandoned, and the clergy are either angry or dumbfounded,” it said. “From the very first day of his tenure in this diocese, Finn has been a source of division and divisiveness. He does have supporters, but he has never won even a grudging respect from the majority of active Catholics.”
Fox knew all that from his paper’s own reporting, in an 8,600-word piece about Finn’s rough reign that ran in 2006, written by Dennis Coday, who is now the paper’s editor. My father’s brand of journalism lives on. The word Catholic remains on the masthead, right next to Reporter.