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Issue Date:  August 12, 2005

The Catholic balance

Editor at large Arthur Jones on honing social conscience -- and the people who helped

Part II
After 30 years with the newspaper, Arthur Jones, NCR's editor at large, is retiring at the end of October, I asked Jones to reflect on his years as an editor here and provide us with some background as to what motivated his switch from being an international correspondent for secular magazine and newspapers to a career in Catholic journalism. I also asked him to sum up his thoughts as he looks at the church today. This is the second of four columns that will run the first issue of each month.
-- Tom Roberts


Fifty years ago the Royal Air Force taught me to fly a glider. The would-be aviator was not merely expected to solo on the first day, but to solo on the first flight. The glider was launched by winch and before you knew it, you were hurtling heavenwards.

You were aware -- because you’d been told but didn’t quite believe it -- that the training glider, a primer, was beautifully balanced and in fact, while it was possible to crash, you’d have to work hard to achieve it.

Being a Catholic is a lot like that. At its best, Catholicism is beautifully balanced, and you’d have to work hard to crash. I do not think the Catholic church today is in balance. Its tilt to the fundamentalist and hyperorthodox right adds spin to the vortex that is the result of Rome’s micromanaging, mistakes and fears. Adding error to ill-design, a faction of U.S. Catholicism is incorporating the worst aspects of American Protestant fundamentalism into its version of Catholicism.

I flew into America in 1958 on a one-year lark two days after John XXIII was elected pope. I had already seen much of Europe (including, as a hitchhiking teenager, still-poor Italy. I decided if there’s reincarnation, I would come back Italian.)

America the beautiful was the architecture at Idlewilde Airport (now JFK), milk in boxes and tea in bags, racism, and the tail end of McCarthyism. Weekdays in ragtag Brooklyn, N.Y., weekends in wealthy Wilton, Conn., or bucolic Warren, N.J.

On schedule I returned to England, but came back in 1960 to wed Margie, met during my sojourn. We raised our three children on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1962-64 I left daily newspapering and joined Hell’s Kitchen-raised Fr. Sal Adamo, child of Sicilian immigrant parents, editor of the Catholic Star Herald of Camden, N.J. Sal was Catholic social justice with a big laugh and large appetite.

Sal was a training ground in this strange other world that I, as a cradle Catholic, belonged to. I realized that to cover the Catholic church required an investigative edge because, while things were always what they appeared, they were rarely what they seemed.

My Catholic social conscience was further honed by people like Fr. Francis Schlooz, a Dutch Salesian working in India who visited America. I drove him from Camden to Idlewilde. We went up Route One past a huge corporate headquarters. When I told him what it was, he burst into tears. All he said was, “With that much grass, and with goats, I could feed 10 families.”

Or Dom Helder Pessoa Câmara, whom I met in 1963. I think he was not yet bishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil. He spoke English as a third language of his own construction, and I spoke no Portuguese. We managed, became friends and met time and again over the years. He later epitomized the courageous Brazilian bishops whose lives were on the line for openly siding with the poor.

Of Dorothy Day little needs to be added by me, except the anecdote she told me of the boiled egg, peeled by one of the guests, his hands caked with filth. The black filthiness transferred from his fingers to the stark whiteness of the egg. And when he was done he left his place and walked over to Dorothy and said he wanted her to have the egg as a little thank you for all she did for people. She said eating that egg was the toughest thing she’d every done.

By 1964, as Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”) took hold, I was delightedly awash in a world of priests and nuns seeking new ways of serving (sometimes through service in other countries), and Catholic lay people eagerly embracing this new moment in the church.

The lay people sensed the sensus fidelium before they understood it, and were heartened. Next, they understood sensus fidelium -- that they not only had a right as conscience-filled Catholics to say when church teaching was not in harmony with the faith, but had a duty to do so. (The 1979 edition of the Modern Catholic Dictionary did not have sensus fidelium as an entry. Symptomatic of the new papacy?)

These same lay Catholics were changing their lives and their perspectives to commit themselves to the work of Jesus’ words, of justice at home and abroad; combating hunger, racism, warmongering, the death penalty. Many of their bishops returning from the early council sessions urged them on, and even more remarkable in comparison to the last quarter-century, often led the way.

The hierarchy in those years presumed there would always be an abundance of seminarians. In Camden there were so many junior priests at St. Joseph’s Pro-Cathedral that the pastor, a man with social pretensions, always trained the youngest priest to act as his wine steward.

I went to Cuba for Sal and The Associated Press -- for Sal, to see what was happening to the church (the seminaries were still open, the church was suffering), and for the AP for the political stuff. I met Castro, interviewed Archbishop Perez Serantes, the bishop who’d gotten Fidel out of Moncada fortress. We became friends -- for I returned to Cuba the following year -- with Msgr. Cesar Zacchi, the papal chargé d’affaires in Havana, who got John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris printed on Castro’s printing presses for countrywide distribution.

Zacchi, like, later, Archbishop Jean Jadot, apostolic delegate in the United States, was denied the red hat when promoted to a cardinalate position. But by then I was without the capacity for surprise at anything mean-spirited or even corrupt the Vatican or individual members of the hierarchy could get up to.

I headed back to England, back to school, back to economic history, and after Oxford returned to secular journalism.

National Catholic Reporter, August 12, 2005

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