second read

In the name of the father

An editor who soared, then flew away
September 3, 2013

Independent NCR rose to 100,000 circulation in its first five years. Foreground, editor Robert Hoyt, holding the paper, and publisher Donald Thorman. In back, Tom Blackburn, James Andrews, Art Winter, and Robert Olmstead. (Courtesy of the National Catholic Reporter)

Here are some of the things and people that my father loved: Gregorian chant, Joe Louis, airplanes, the Detroit Tigers infield of the mid-1930s, Salem cigarettes, Martin Luther King Jr., Latin, and big northern lakes. “That’s not a lake,” he would say, whenever I used the L-word about some muddy little man-made body of water, “that’s a pond.” Once, we drove all night from Missouri to vacation at Torch Lake, in Michigan, where he had experienced some happiness as a boy. I was in the front with him when we arrived, exactly at dawn, the rest of the family slumbering in the back of the wagon, a golden sun fingering across the blue water. He had tears on his face.

Another thing he loved: reporting. He was in awe of how good reporters find things out–interesting and significant things to be shaped into news, analysis, argument. He believed that journalism has a moral center, and that its motor is honest, independent reporting. Doing that reporting–asking questions of strangers–was not his cup of coffee. But he was an editor, and he didn’t have to.

My father’s claim to fame is that, nearly 50 years ago, in the fall of 1964, he and some colleagues set in motion a lively newspaper that covers the Catholic Church and its tidal pull on the world, from an independent and intelligent lay perspective–a paper that changed the rules for covering religion and remains an influential voice.

One of his favorite stories was how that newspaper got its name. In the late 1950s, he was the editor of The Kansas City-St. Joseph Register, the local Catholic weekly, which at the time was yoked to a dreary national chain. This was an era of great ferment in the church–not to mention the world–and he and his staff asked Kansas City’s bishop to let them get ambitious and go independent. It was not easy to speak truth to religious institutional power back then, but the bishop consented, and in his enthusiasm, even came up with a name: Veritas, Latin for Truth. My father hated it. A newspaper that offered church-sanctioned perspectives was pretty much the opposite of what he had in mind. Veritas, he told the bishop in a moment of inspiration, means the same thing as Pravda. We can’t have that.

So the paper got the name my father wanted: Catholic Reporter. In 1964 the local weekly gave birth to a national edition, the National Catholic Reporter, with an emphasis on all three words. My father would run NCR for seven years before they chased him out. It was a heady time for all of us.

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Like a lot of people, I had a complicated relationship with my dad. He was a good father in the early innings but faded later and then quit the game, heading for New York with a new wife, leaving my mother and six young children behind. I was the oldest. My mother regrouped with the three girls, two of them younger than us teenage boys, who grew up more or less like weeds. I remember driving with friends through the city one night in search of one of those machines that take four photos for a dollar. The idea was to document my nose–gloriously broken and bloodied in a (short) bar fight. I recall thinking that this might be the kind of thing that fathers and sons have a little talk about, if a father is available. He wasn’t. We reconnected, but not fully, in his later years, after I chased him down. He died in 2003, at 81.

Still, of course, he’s here. I have been tracking some of his footprints lately, trying to draw a bead on him as an editor and a man. And I wish I could find the slug of lead he gave me as a kid–my name typed out on a Linotype machine, right in front of my awestruck eyes.

There are a handful of books that touch on my father’s career, and I managed not to read any of them until recently. I found them fascinating. The one I enjoyed most is Once a Catholic, published in 1987 by Peter Occhiogrosso. It’s a series of interviews with a range of Catholics–Mary Gordon to Bob Guccione, Jimmy Breslin to Frank Zappa, Christopher Buckley to my dad, Robert G. Hoyt–about how the religion shaped their lives and work. Reading Occhiogrosso’s book on a warm afternoon in my backyard, I could almost hear my father’s tobacco-cured voice.

He was 65 at the time, still sharp and witty. He described how his own father died when he was five, and how his mother then sent him and his older brother, Jim, to boarding school while she trained as a beautician. She finally set up her own beauty shop, but the Depression killed it, and possibly her too. She died in 1936, when my father was 14. More than one family offered to adopt the orphaned brothers, and the choice fell to the pastor in Gesu parish, Detroit. He opted for a family with financial resources but without a desire to bring more children into their home. And so, my father continued a life in institutions–more boarding school; then the seminary (he thought he might become a priest, until he reconsidered celibacy); then the Army Air Corps, where he learned that he was not cut out to be a pilot (landing trouble). Along the way, he got a strong Catholic-school education.

He once told me that life is 95 percent luck, and as luck would have it, he got discharged from the Army in Denver and landed a job there with the National Catholic Register–a vast, centralized journalism factory that produced local Catholic newspapers on an economy of scale. As he told Occhiogrosso, copy would arrive from places like Wheeling or Fresno or Cincinnati, to be edited, typeset, laid out, printed, and mailed. While he was beginning to become an editor, his education continued, too–Register employees were required to take grammar classes, plus theology. Another bonus: He met my mother on the copy desk.

Whether they were a good match is a large question, but my parents did share influences and a spiritual fervor mixed with a social/political fire. Long story short: They married and, together with several colleagues, started a daily newspaper with a progressive Christian perspective, a sort of precursor to the NCR. They wound up in Kansas City (where they had located a favorable bishop), on the ragged southeastern edge of town, in an abandoned three-story stone farmhouse that they got cheap, and where I would grow up. The first issue of the newspaper, The Sun Herald, was printed on October 10, 1950, and mailed (or teletyped) to subscribers, of which there were never enough. The paper folded in less than seven months.

My father scrambled–he sold brooms and drove a taxi before landing a teaching job–until 1957, when he became the editor of Kansas City’s diocesan paper, The Register, soon to be decoupled from the chain and become the Catholic Reporter. As luck would have it again, the church at the time was starting to crank open its big medieval windows, which, in the papacies of John XXIII and Paul VI, would manifest itself in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and lively doctrinal controversies. There was a lot of news, and the Catholic Reporter crew wanted to perform on the national stage. Kansas City’s next bishop, Charles Helmsing, gave the idea his blessing and support. The editors rounded up a few hundred contributors in Kansas City and hired an Associated Press reporter named Bob Olmstead. I remember my father marveling at how the man just called people up and they told him things.

Bishop Helmsing, my father told Occhiogrosso, had “agreed to more than he thought he was agreeing to. He said that he agreed to our being independent, but he added, “Of course, you will accept my guidance.” What he meant by that was that if he didn’t like it, we wouldn’t print it, and what we meant was that we’d listen and then decide, because we were independent and we were set up corporately that way.”

In a few years, perhaps inevitably, they would clash. NCR’s orientation was mostly liberal, politically and theologically, but that was not the problem. The paper was reporting and commenting on debates within the church that some thought should stay behind church walls, on such subjects as birth control, celibacy, the males-only priesthood, Mary’s perpetual virginity, and Pope Paul VI’s re-statement of Catholic belief, which NCR called a “creed for yesteryear” in an editorial. The last straw may have been an essay by the philosopher Daniel Callahan calling for a reconsideration of papal authority, titled “How to Get the Papal Monkey off the Catholic Back.” Helmsing publicly condemned the paper as “poisonous” and asked the editors to remove the word “Catholic” from the masthead.

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.

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.

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.

Mike Hoyt was CJR’s executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia’s Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.