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Inside NCR

Sometimes, we decide, we’ll keep quiet

We received an interesting letter from John R. Koller of Albuquerque, N.M. We edited it, and it ran in the June 5 NCR.

Koller begins by praising, in a backhand sort of way, our May 8 editorial, “Little good results when the thinkers stop thinking.” He goes on to excoriate the NCR staff: “You are the real creative intellectuals. You are the real thinking theologians. ... Those of us misguided people who loyally accept all of the genuine teachings on faith and morals are merely mentally blind-sheep followers.”

The letter is a full, hard-hitting page, spiced with a bit of sarcasm: “My startling news for you is that dissenters aren’t the only thinkers in our church. I realize that this must come as a great shock to you.”

We get occasional letters expressing similar unpopular (to us) sentiments. Frequently the writers choose to be anonymous, and frequently they use the pre-stamped envelopes of our NCR promotions. Koller is more upright: “I’ve read virtually every issue of the NCR since its inception.” Not only that, “You have many gifted writers and have had many excellent articles throughout the many years.”

Such a reader deserves a response. Especially since he asked for one: “Please publish this letter, and let’s have a spirited dialogue on this.”

He got his wish up to a point. A “spirited dialogue” did indeed follow. Not so much about the arrogance of dissenters, however, or whether we at NCR qualify. Our dialogue was about whether to dialogue with Koller and other letter writers.

Over the years, NCR has, with mild inconsistency, wavered between responding to provocative letters from readers and simply running them. Some cases are clear enough. If the identity of the letter writer is pertinent -- she is CEO of the company she’s defending and hasn’t said so -- we mention this. If a letter writer disputes the facts of an article, we give the author a chance to defend himself. Beyond that, vacillation. Occasionally, unable to restrain ourselves, we have risen to the bait of letters like Koller’s.

And Koller nearly pulled it off. We even prepared an “editors’ response” to his letter, elegantly crafted (naturally!) by John Allen, who gets to play with the letters every week. Then the debate began in earnest. On the one hand, such repartee could be stimulating and entertaining for our readers as well as ourselves; on the other, it unfairly gives us the last word on all such disputations. We concluded that, since we get a fair chance to make our point every week, we should leave the last word to the letter writers except where questions of fact and such apply.

But we salute John R. Koller and thank him warmly for his persistence in reading NCR, even while he occasionally stoutly disagreed with us.

Among others who often stoutly disagree with us are members of Opus Dei. A long letter from William Schmitt, their communications director in New York, takes issue with NCR’s May 15 article on the deaths of three Swiss Guards at the Vatican.

Schmitt’s objection is not to the main gist of the article -- “I have no quarrel with an article that questions outdated investigative procedures in the Vatican” -- but to NCR’s statement that the murdered couple were members of Opus Dei. “They were not,” he categorically continues.

Whether in Rome or the United States, Schmitt then says, all one had to do was call Opus Dei headquarters to get the facts. And, indeed, Opus Dei has, in my opinion, invariably been helpful and courteous to the press.

In a perfect journalistic world, our writer would have made one more phone call -- the one to Opus Dei -- never mind that the Opus Dei connection was widely reported in the Rome press in the days after the killings. And Schmitt admits that even he, “had you called me, might not have been able to say,” but he would quickly have found out, he says, and I believe him.

The matter can’t completely be laid to rest, however, without alluding to a key paragraph in Schmitt’s letter: “I think you should be aware that there is a big difference between someone’s being a member, vocationally committed to being formed in Opus Dei’s spiritual mission in the church, and someone’s simply attending the various spiritual activities Opus Dei freely offers to thousands who are not members.”

The couple, this surely implies, were closely associated with Opus Dei, though not formal members. We’re sorry we got that wrong.

Letters keep pouring in from our readers, high caliber letters. Thanks to everyone who takes the time and trouble. Send them by pigeon if you wish, but if you’re sending them E-mail our new address is letters@natcath.org.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998