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Issue Date:  June 17, 2005

From the Editor's Desk

Broadening the conversation
We’re on our every-other-week summer schedule, designed to give us a bit of a break and allow staff to take vacations. The concept works to a point. We do get to take vacations, but the news doesn’t keep our schedule. So we’ve got a full plate this issue, including a new special section, Ecology (see story).

First, a few words about awards. It is, of course, a pleasure to receive them. NCR has had a particularly good run of fortune in recent years at the Catholic Press Association, and the good fortune continued this year (see story). Our gratitude to the association and the journalism judges for giving such serious consideration to our material.

A hundred years from now, however, I don’t think the history of Catholic journalism in this era is going to rest on awards. I think, instead, the real story will be the evidence of the significant discussions reflected in the pages of Catholic publications. Historians will find, to their advantage and that of the church, that great diversity existed in the world of Catholic publishing at the start of the 21st century -- a diversity that reflects not only the depth and contours of divisions within the community but also the complexity of the community and the issues it faces.

Having spent a few days recently with other members of the Catholic Press Association, I am convinced that while differences among publications are clear and sometimes striking, the thread of similarity that winds through the various visions and analyses of the church today is a deep desire to do what is best for the Catholic community.

That is why the forced resignation of Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese from America magazine, an issue extensively covered and commented upon in our May 20 issue, was so tragic. For the story went well beyond the individual; it affects all of Catholic publishing and how it is perceived and how many who make up that group do their work. If historians find evidence of the broad discussion, they probably will also detect evidence of a growing chill.

Many in the Catholic journalism community are already fearful -- understandably so -- for they work under pressures that I would find debilitating. They often work with scarce resources and with a constant eye on what a bishop might say about an interview or a columnist or a story that deals with controversial matter. When you’re paying a mortgage and trying to keep kids in food and clothing, the fact that the bishop signs your paycheck is no small issue.

The Reese ouster merely confirms for many that there is reason to be more fearful than ever. If unnamed bishops from the United States can cause the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome to force the removal of the editor of a respected Jesuit journal, then there’s little protection for the editor of a diocesan newspaper.

Some bishops may be feeling good that such fear keeps people in line and provides a check on what might be said about such abuse of power as is evident in the Reese case. But history shows fear to be a deficient tool for organizing a community. It works only in the short run, until everyone is tired of being scared.

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If one needs to make a case for independent reporting in the church, the pieces by Washington writer Joe Feuerherd are strong evidence (see story). When a financial giant like Goldman Sachs declares that it has a “new financial paradigm for the church in the United States,” we all ought to be scrambling to get the details. In this case, Feuerherd, as he does so well, digs beyond the news releases and official statements to flesh out the fine points of a complex financial tale. He reveals the information the community should have so it can judge what it thinks of this new and innovative way of financing church debt and future church building projects. Should it become the new financial model for the church in the United States?

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In this 40th anniversary year for the paper, I have often referred to what I consider a founding document, Planks for a Platform, that appeared in the first issue of NCR. That document included the line: “Our orientation, then, is toward reporting the news, toward enterprise and relevance, toward dialogue with practically everybody.”

Robert Royal

When we report on issues, our news columns regularly reflect views from across the liberal-to-conservative spectrum. On our opinion pages, however, we’ve not been as good at providing alternative views. We hope to change that with the introduction this issue of a column, “The Lion’s Den,” by conservative scholar and writer Robert Royal (see story). Opinion editor Margot Patterson has been looking for some months for a conservative Catholic writer to engage in the conversation in what we call “the back of the book,” and she thinks she’s found that writer in Royal, president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington. His books include: 1492 And All That: Political Manipulations of History and The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History. As his first column certainly shows, Royal joins the conversation with wit, intelligence and engaging prose.

Some weeks ago, our editorial on Fr. Tom Reese concluded that the action against him “was not an act to defend truth, for truth was never in danger in the pages of America. This was an act fearful that the truth cannot withstand the challenges that come its way.”

If we want the church to tolerate such challenges, to broaden the conversation -- as we so often urge on that same page -- it is only reasonable that we do the same. So we’ve invited Royal to join the mix, to challenge our orthodoxies a bit and, as he writes, “share some thoughts and see how we get on together.”

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Finally, another word of thanks for your continuing response to my earlier request to help us find new readers. People are still calling in and asking for anywhere from two to 40 of the promotional packets to help introduce others to NCR. The prize for the week, however, goes to Sr. Mary McNellis of the Sisters of Loretto in Kansas City, Mo. She told us, “I go to church and neighborhood meetings many times during a week” and wants to spread the information among some of those groups. She is 95 -- and she does, really, seem to be everywhere.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, June 17, 2005

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