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Inside NCR

Filling the blank pages: things yet worth saying

I write this in desperation, having no idea where the next sentence will come from. But it’s the night before press day and I can’t put it off any longer.

Sometimes it’s easy -- ideas and causes come tripping one another. On such easy days, I am readily convinced that my version of reality throbs with significance spiced with wit and that the world is lucky to have me.

Other days, I have no trouble being more humble. When the world is halfway to chaos, why should anyone care from which angle I see it? When every loud-mouth on earth is shouting advice and warnings, why should anyone listen to self-appointed me? I am, I’m afraid, like much of NCR’s staff and most of the world, seesawing between enthusiasm and despair, panic and aspiration, hoping against hope, climbing, like Sisyphus, up that mythic hill with a load that is clearly too heavy for me.

At NCR, we start with blank pages every week, and everyone knows the doubts a blank page can sow in the human head. Is there anything worth saying? Even if there is, what do you know about it? Can’t you for once write it elegantly and with clarity? You may be a different drummer but that doesn’t make you a better one. How dare you be a writer?

You are, you realize on one of your less secure days, a fairly thin, timid voice in the wilderness. Paltry compared to the big boys. And girls. Sadly lacking the endless capacity of the Times or Post or the worldwide clout of ABC et cetera.

What to do, then, with your few meager pages? If the Times and ABC et cetera have not saved the world, or even brought it to their particular point of view, then alas for poor NCR.

So we hold meetings and chew the fat and hustle and scramble and when things are going badly we debate some more and someone might even bring donuts and when the sugar gets into our veins, we are ready to go to work, and life briefly seems more benign. Perhaps something can be done.

We decide to give yet another page or two to the stout Catholics who want to put TV’s “Nothing Sacred,” one of our favorite programs, off the air. Why? For one thing, it will be two less blank pages to worry about. But we have higher aims. We might make a small difference here -- occasionally agitation like ours ignites the shame that then persuades people to do the right thing. Something like that. Though it’s a long shot.

We’ll give Pam Schaeffer another page to tease out the profound skirmish over who owns Catholic property, if property can be said to be Catholic. Considering all the property in this category, there is obviously a lot at stake. It’s not that we have an ax to grind here -- people would be surprised at how frequently we have no ax to grind -- but for Christians everywhere, there is a lot of moola at stake.

We realize that “A Critical Mass” is unfinished business and agree to give it another airing. We had planned not to do another piece on the occasion of Dorothy Day’s centenary, but the Catholic Workers are hard to resist.

We decide to give Gary MacEoin two pages to issue what amounts to a warning about where the November Synod for America seems to be headed. Gary’s not excited about where he thinks it’s headed, and neither are we, and while the folks at the Vatican might think they’re in the best position to know, we respectfully disagree. Heck, we’ll disagree with gusto if we have to because it’s our lives too, and our church, and not to speak out would be to cave in and at least metaphorically lie down and die, and we’re not there yet.

There’s more. More than we have room for. A sad story by Pat Marrin about tragic Kenya. Yet another essay on the future of the papacy -- an eye-opener. Arthur Jones on ecology. Jeannette Batz on the subtle distinctions between the saintly and the nutty. And more, including letters from you the readers. NCR would be worthwhile if it did nothing more than offer you pages for talking to each other.

Yet, with all due respect, your letters won’t fix the cracked world any more than our haphazard articles do. But by writing them, you show you did not yet lie down and die either.

Maybe we should have arranged a different mix for this issue, any issue. More of your favorite writer. Who may well be yourself. Maybe. Maybe we should have been more secular or sacred, more aggressive or conciliatory. Yet we know that no two readers would agree on how we should be. One could go crazy trying to figure out how to make a perfect independent Catholic newsweekly.

Sometimes we say to each other that, even if we don’t redeem the world all by ourselves, NCR will at least have sent out that legendary message in a bottle, to drift, metaphorically, ashore in an unknown country in maybe a thousand years, testifying that this is how a few of us thought back then, however muddy and through a glass darkly.

We’re not so rash as to think this will transform the future any more than the present. But it might nudge someone, if it’s true that miracles do, indeed, happen. In the meantime, we are putting out NCR for ourselves and for you, all of us sort of holding hands and standing on what we think is a stretch of high, dry ground and saying to the world that we’re here, actually alive, at this time, and that we count.

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 1997