For years, the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) has been weighted with articles by and in support of dissenting opinion. For instance, if a reader was curious to know – from an insider’s perspective – what transpired at the 2012 Call to Action annual conference, he could read Sharon Abercrombie’s “One woman's takeaway from the Call to Action conference.”[i]
This is a long-standing position. Over a decade ago, one could learn learn about Call to Action’s plans for self-replication in a series of NCR articles that promised “to dip ever so slightly into the discussion about the next generation of Catholics.” One began: “For thousands of Catholics the renewal organization Call to Action represents the future of the Catholic Church, keeping alive hope for some imminent institutional reform even as the Vatican continues to crack down on innovation.”[ii]
The illustration that accompanied the article showed a cartoon tree, labeled “Call to Action,” growing through the roof of a parish church and splitting the building in two. Patricia Lefevere wrote:
“While old-time members have battled for more than two decades to remain in the church [sic] even as they tried to alter it, some are discovering that their children are not interested in the church they have struggled so hard to change. For some younger Catholics, the issues their parents keep fighting for are not particularly pressing; for other, an alternative church has already begun to grow amid discontent and impatience with the institution; and for still others, attachment to the church comes in dedication to its social justice tradition with little concern about ecclesiology or doctrines their elders find divisive.”
Current issues support the Baltimore pastor who used his homily to incite rebellion and defy Church teaching about same-sex unions.[iii] They offer theories about the Church’s hard line against women’s ordination not always being the case,[iv] and they resist the “Roman Inquisition.”[v] Past issues lamented those who were disciplined for dissent[vi] and encouraged others to do likewise,[vii] while giving voice to such notable dissenters as Rosemary Radford Ruether,[viii] Diana Hayes,[ix] Charles Curran,[x] and Kate Childs Grahm.[xi]
Orthodox-leaning bishops decried the paper’s self-identification with the Church as calculating and misleading. Four years after its founding in 1964, NCR was excoriated by Bishop Charles H. Helmsing of Kansas City - St. Joseph (Missouri) Diocese, where NCR makes its home. The bishop wrote that the Church “finds itself increasingly more frustrated in its teaching of the ideals of our Lord by the type of reporting, editorializing and ridicule that have become the week-after-week fare of the National Catholic Reporter.”
Private attempts at correction were followed by public reprimand for NCR’s “policy of crusading against the Church’s teachings on the transmission of human life, and against the Gospel values of sacred virginity and dedicated celibacy as taught by the Church.” The bishop went so far as to say, “It is difficult to see how well instructed writers who deliberately deny and ridicule dogmas of our Catholic faith can possibly escape the guilt of the crime defined in Canon 1325 on heresy, and how they can escape the penalties of automatic excommunication entailed thereby.” [xii]
Those were strong words by Bishop Helmsing, who wanted the paper, at the very least, to drop the term “Catholic” from its masthead. Among other things, the bishop cited an article by Rosemary Ruether that challenged the perpetual virginity of Mary, a column by Daniel Callahan that gave “lengthy space to a blasphemous and heretical attack on the Vicar of Christ,” and NCR’s general policies on birth control and celibacy. The communication was sent around the country, to make known “the poisonous character of this publication.”
However, NCR’s Board of Directors unanimously “declined” to remove the term “Catholic” from the paper’s title and simply ignored the bishop’s condemnation, continuing in rebellion as they had begun.
Recent commentary by Bishop Robert W. Finn, the present bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City/St.Joseph, reveals how little has changed. He writes about being “deluged with emails and other correspondence from Catholics concerned about the editorial stances of the Reporter: officially condemning Church teaching on the ordination of women, insistent undermining of Church teaching on artificial contraception and sexual morality in general, lionizing dissident theologies while rejecting established Magisterial teaching, and a litany of other issues.”[xiii] NCR has been no more interested in complying with Bishop’s Finn’s request that it conduct itself “as a Catholic media outlet in accord with the expectations of Church law” than it was Bishop Helmsing’s requests.
Stalin’s (possibly mythological) quip about “how many divisions does the Pope have,” meaning that the Church has, in worldly terms, little by way of “teeth” backing her pronouncements, would seem to apply here. Except, there’s that uncomfortable closing remark at the end of Bishop’s Finn’s column: “I find that my ability to influence the National Catholic Reporter toward fidelity to the Church seems limited to the supernatural level.” That “supernatural level” has trumped dissenters in the past.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block is also the editor of Los Pequenos newspaper, which is based in New Mexico.