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Hoyt’s belated award honors NCR, too


The Catholic Press Association has finally done something it should have done a long time ago: We the members of the association have finally conferred our highest award on Robert G. Hoyt, founding editor of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR).

While Hoyt has not been associated with the NCR for more than a quarter of a century, it was clear that the St. Francis de Sales award, given to him at the CPA meeting in Chicago on May 28 in the presence of his colleagues, was for that newspaper and the effect it has had on Catholic journalism in the United States.

His achievement can and should be recognized by Catholics of all persuasions who care about and are actively engaged in the life of the church.

After Hoyt received his award at the luncheon at the Westin Hotel, a priest came to his table to congratulate him and put Hoyt’s contribution to the Catholic press in a nutshell.

“I’ve been in the Catholic press since 1958,” the priest said. “You made us honest.”

That’s a short but accurate summary of the effect Bob Hoyt’s venture into independent Catholic journalism has had on the Catholic press in America.

Which is not to say that there weren’t honest reporters, editors, newspapers and magazines before Bob Hoyt came on the scene, or that the Catholic press wouldn’t have undergone a transformation anyway, as a result of the Second Vatican Council. Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker colleagues never hesitated to say what was on their minds. There was also Commonweal, and a handful of Catholic newspaper editors and reporters who had transferred from daily newspapers, and who chafed at the irony that they could be more forthright in their secular settings than they could be in the church that put so much emphasis on the truth.

The moment of truth was approaching anyway, what with all the scholarship that had preceded and, in a way, prompted the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII decided that it was time for the church to come out of its defensive shell, to end the era of apologetics and to launch a new wave of positive evangelization. The council itself was an exercise in truth-telling. There was a crucial vote early on in which the bishops decided to write their own documents rather than simply endorsing those prepared by the Vatican officials. With the council, the church did a major, courageous self-study, re-emphasizing the shared responsibility of the world’s bishops for the guidance of the church and the essential role of every member for its mission, among other things.

Prior to the council, theological or doctrinal debates were usually reported defensively, often presenting only the “official” or “correct” response to a challenge, while not fully reporting the challenge itself.

The council changed all that. The general press got interested in the proceedings. The New Yorker published revealing pieces by “Xavier Rynne,” a pseudonym for an official observer at the council, and Catholic newspapers joined in publishing news of the debates at the council. Those debates made it clear that there were sharp differences and also made it possible for Catholic diocesan newspapers to publish theological debates from all sides, demonstrating that the establishment point of view was not the only valid interpretation.

Hoyt recognized the trend and decided the time was ripe for an independent Catholic newspaper. Under his leadership, The Catholic Reporter, newspaper of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese, had already achieved national recognition among Catholic readers. The number of subscriptions from outside the diocese led Hoyt and his colleagues to believe there was a market for a national newspaper with a forthright reporting and editorial stance.

The National Catholic Reporter was launched in the diocesan offices of the diocesan Catholic Reporter in 1964, with the blessing of then-Bishop Charles H. Helmsing. The growing staff of the National Catholic Reporter moved to its present quarters a block and a half away in 1966.

And so, within the larger context of the new atmosphere in the church created by the Second Vatican Council, the NCR helped make it acceptable for more Catholic newspapers to adopt a principled journalistic approach. To be sure, not every diocesan newspaper took advantage of the new possibilities. There are still too many instances of timidity and lack of understanding of the crucial role of the Catholic press in forming and informing an effective Catholic community.

But, and this has been perhaps the most important effect, the news service provided by the U.S. bishops, now called the Catholic News Service (CNS), did undergo a transformation from its pre-council timidity to its current professionalism and objectivity, to the benefit of readers of newspapers that use its services consistently.

That Hoyt and the National Catholic Reporter played an important catalytic role in the transformation of the U.S. Catholic press is a historical fact and a signal achievement that went officially unrecognized by the Catholic Press Association for more than 30 years. The contributions of many members of the CPA to Catholic journalism were recognized in the meantime but, until this year, perhaps the greatest single contribution of the century to the field of Catholic journalism had not received official notice.

Fr. John Reedy, then editor of Ave Maria magazine, was the 1967 recipient of the St. Francis de Sales award. In his acceptance speech he said words to the effect that the St. Francis de Sales award would not have its full significance until the CPA presented it to Robert G. Hoyt. To its belated credit, the CPA has now done that.

Albert de Zutter, editor of The Catholic Key, the newspaper of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese, was one of Bob Hoyt’s colleagues in the early days of NCR. This article is reprinted with permission of the Key.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999