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Inside NCR

Tough times for priests, and for an NCR icon

A letter from John T. Noonan Jr. of Berkeley, Calif., states he is struck by NCR’s “sedulous reporting of the misdeeds of the clergy and notably by your April 16 item on a priest charged with soliciting.” Noonan, who is a federal judge and whose book, Contraception, caused a stir in the 1960s, goes on, “It is hard to avoid the impression of anticlericalism.”

We try to let letters to the editor stand on their own feet in their own section, except sometimes to clarify. Yet, occasionally issues are raised that call for further comment. The Noonan letter touches such a sore spot.

Ever since people first raised their eyes to heaven, whether in fear or adulation, in culture after culture a priesthood has emerged, women sometimes but usually men, go-betweens, to pay homage or intercede. They were always special people, holy, set apart. The world put the divine in their hands. The Catholic priesthood is perhaps the most organized expression ever of this intermediary status between earth and heaven.

Priests have been a glory of Catholicism. There has been, down the centuries, and there is this very day, an army of priests who lived and live lives of great sacrifice and sanctity and generosity. The best of this goes mostly unnoticed.

There also have been, and there still are, unworthy priests, and to try to hide them would be futile as well as hypocritical.

These are difficult times for good priests -- and perhaps for bad ones as well. Many priests left in the turmoil and frequent disillusionment in the wake of Vatican II. An identity problem ensued. There are widespread reports of scandals. And less sensational reports of a new breed of more conservative priests, of gay priests, of careerism and elitism.

There are many such stereotypes the good priest has to cope with and various clouds under which he must live and minister. There is the sheer lack of priests, which is bound to give pause to those who labored so selflessly through the heat of the day. There is the matter of women priests, which seems the most obvious solution on earth to several problems but over which our hierarchy has tied itself into a historical knot from which it can’t easily extricate itself.

Some say we at NCR cover the clerical, hierarchical church too much, others not enough. We try to cover the news, uncover the meaning. We publish stories in praise of priests and their achievements all the time. We review their books, their movies, their journeys, their spiritual adventures. We could not fake the admiration we have for good priests doing exciting and newsworthy things.

We would not be an authentic newspaper if we looked away from news that is scandalous or problematic. Sweeping embarrassment under the carpet has never served the church well.

“Do you report every journalist accused of some sexual offense?” asks the Noonan letter. We hope we would if our newspaper were about journalism, but it happens to be about the Catholic church, warts and all.

“We are a group of five retired Vincentian priests, and we thoroughly enjoy NCR,” writes Fr. Bernard Degan from New Orleans. Between them the five have served the church for 250 years. Their five lives of just hanging in there are already a heroic testimony.

No soft touches, the Vincentians have reservations about NCR: “We would prefer that your journal downplay some of the foibles of the Catholic clergy and stress the positive aspects of priestly ministry in the United States and other parts of the world. All of us are octogenarians, and we like what we see in the church today (for the most part). After all these years of priestly ministry, we love to see the zeal of others who are trying to promote those issues that will promote the spiritual welfare of the kingdom of God.”

Their very optimism is a paean to the church and to humanity. May we all go so gracefully down that old road toward kingdom come.

We’re sorry to tell you that one of NCR’s most popular and insightful writers is ill. Tim Unsworth went to the hospital in March. He was found to be suffering from cancer. He underwent many hours of surgery April 13. A fist-sized tumor was removed. Unsworth the warrior came through in fine style. The doctors are confident they have conquered the problem but will shortly apply chemotherapy “just in case,” as his wife Jean expressed it.

An infection sent Tim back briefly to the hospital, but he planned to be home in early May. Whether spoken or written, Unsworth’s is a voice that cannot long be kept quiet. His column in this issue was written before his hospital sojourn. We’re prepared to give him a short rest, but after that we expect him back on the job with his inimitable panache.

Please spare a thought and a prayer for Tim. Friends and readers may contact the Unsworths at unsworth@megsinet.net or by regular mail at 3150 North Sheridan Road, Chicago, IL 60657.

Americans are famous for taking their food for granted -- food is what’s in the food store. This is very convenient but has disadvantages. In our Feb. 12 issue Kathryn Casa wrote “Food for thought” on the implications of our divorce from the earth that gives us sustenance. This week’s sequel takes the topic a practical step forward, to community supported farms.

The following organizations maintain lists of community supported farms in their areas. Another way to find a CSA (it means community supported agriculture) is on the Internet, since many farms have Web sites: Keyword CSA and your geographic location.

For sources nationwide:

Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association: 415-561-7797; 800-516-7797.


The Community Alliance with Family Farmers: 530-756-8518; e-mail: csawest@caff.org Web site: www.justfood.org

Northeastern United States:

The Center for Sustainable Living: 717-264-4141.

New York City:

Just Food: 212-677-1602; Web site: www.justfood.org

Northeastern New York state:

Northeast Organic Farming Association: 315-365-2299.


Madison Area CSA Coalition: 608-226-0300.

Harmony Valley Farm, Viroqua, WI: 608-483-2143; e-mail: harmony@mwt.net

Iowa Network for Community Agriculture: 515-495-6367; e-mail: libland@kalnet.com

Kansas City Food Circle: Hot line number: 816-374-5899. (The group has a directory of organic producers and subscription farms, and the hot line offers information on CSAs and what’s available at local farmers’ markets.)

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999