Issues that matter: U.S. Catholic through the years

By Father Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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In 1961 Robert E. Burns, the executive editor of the Voice of St. Jude, told a group of editors at the Catholic Press Association Convention in Vancouver that "the Catholic press has suffered too long at the hands of well-meaning but untrained and unskilled practitioners."

He called for attractive layout, meeting the readers' needs, and "teaser titles" to pull the reader in.

The Voice of St. Jude--which two years later would morph into U.S. Catholic and thereby complete its transformation from a "devotional magazine"--was already on that track. And as the magazine has negotiated to adjust course for each new generation, the goal of reaching out to both practicing and disaffected Catholics--has held it steady.

Fifty years ago, at age 25, the Voice was 52 pages and cost 35 cents; its layout echoed that of Life and of Jubilee, a daring and beautiful journal founded in 1953 that emphasized photojournalism and intellectual challenge. In its last few years as the Voice and after it became U.S. Catholic, the magazine dealt with day-to-day itches and larger pains that vexed average Catholics: pornography, financial aid to Catholic schools, evolution, racial justice, the morality of nuclear war, and why girls, "out of respect for Our Lord," must wear hats.

A 1961 series of the Voice deals with professional men who may not be Catholics but are still "responsible" models for the readers: political cartoonist Bill Mauldin, Chicago Daily News foreign correspondent George Weller, and film director Stanley Kramer. Profiles introduce us to Romano Guardini, H. A. Reinhold, Karl Rahner, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

The turning point

Today American Catholics remember 1968 as a turning point in history: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and Pope Paul VI's birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae, which effectively alienated a great part of the generation. For U.S. Catholic 1967 and 1968 were strong years.

In December 1967 the magazine, in a blazing three-page editorial, became one of the first Catholic publications to declare: "The war in Vietnam is immoral."

In the same issue, Father Gerard S. Sloyan praises the new Dutch Catechism, which summarized the church's teaching at the end of Vatican II, as the "compendium of Catholic faith worthy of our time." It quotes scripture rather than Vatican documents and concludes that both the pope's and the council's silence on family planning is a sign that the Catechism's teaching that "people must remain free in the matter" had been accepted.

In June 1968 an exhaustive 14-page special report on the "current status on birth control" reaches the same conclusion. When in the following month Humanae Vitae contradicts them, the editors republish an interview with Karl Rahner from the German news magazine Der Spiegel, in which, with lots of circumlocutions and spins, Rahner still says the woman's conscience is to be respected.

A cultural revolution

The transition from the 1960s to the '70s was marked by a change in the cover design, from photographs to multicolored typographical displays shouting the hot topics of the month and "teaser" questions like "Pesticides: Who are we killing?" There are arguments for women priests, instructions on how to use the new rite of penance, and suggestions that we abolish the Mass obligation, Mother's Day, and Santa Claus.

Executive Editor Robert E. Burns, who signs his column R.E.B., laments that the American bishops behave like a men's club, allow a handful to dominate their meetings, and are afraid to lead. Then he publishes articles on the new generation of bishop leaders--Detroit's John Dearden, Chicago's Joseph Bernardin, and Newark's Peter Gerety, who at this writing is 98 and the last one of the group still making the rounds.

The 1973 profile of 45-year-old theologian Joseph Ratzinger offers few clues to the man who will emerge at the turn of the century, except his fear that some theologians have overstepped their bounds in criticizing the structures of the church and his feeling that the liturgy has become "too preoccupied with social involvement."

In contrast to the "company men" American bishops, Robert Johnson in 1978 profiles another model in "Third-World bishops: Blood, sweat, and fear," a tour of bishops who risk their lives to stand up for human rights in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Where church leaders were once in league with rich land owners and the military, they have been moved by both the mandates of Vatican II, the Latin American bishops' 1971 meeting in Medellín, Colombia, and the 1971 Synod of Bishops, which focused on justice as vital to evangelization.

Because two interviews with Father Eugene A. LaVerdiere, S.S.S. on scripture and Jesus' early life were so popular, the editors bring him back in April 1977 for "Christ Has Died, Christ Has Risen, So?" with a cover depicting just the arm of a cross with a big nail sticking in it. He tells us what we seldom hear in church, that the resurrection of Jesus is not a restoration to a former state of life but a transformation into a new way of being, which is unrelated to space and time. Some priest readers were upset and accused LaVerdiere of breaking with the church.

In the public mind, and deep in the consciousness of today's older generation of Catholics, a strict sexual moral code seems to have been the "brand" that distinguished Catholics from their fellow citizens; but as the impact of the sexual revolution swept through the culture, Catholic families needed help to apply their religious principles to daily life.

The editors take risks to help readers deal rationally with sexual morality, particularly homosexuality. Most daring is long-time U.S. Catholic columnist Father Henry Fehren's 1972 pastoral response to Pope Paul VI's teaching that every sexual act must be open to conception. "Homosexual love," he says, "can be as noble, beautiful, and holy as heterosexual love or the love of friends or between members of a family."

As the 1970s close, R.E.B. laments the failure of the biennial Synod of Bishops in Rome to come to grips with the reality of the birth control situation. Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco bravely stood up at the beginning, told the assembly that "nearly 80 percent of Catholic women use contraceptives while only 29 percent of American priests are reported to believe that contraception is intrinsically immoral," but then the group clammed up. Its final statement blames birth control for euthanasia, abortion, divorce, and "almost everything but psoriasis and stopped-up drains in the home," says R.E.B.

One of U.S. Catholic's qualities during these turbulent years is its ability, based on its editorial policy of presenting all sides of an argument, to stay ahead of public opinion. It did this in three ways: It interviewed respected progressive theologians; in Sounding Board it could float a controversial idea on sex, abortion, liturgy, and so forth as "one opinion" and watch the feathers fly as readers responded; and it could stick its neck out in an editorial, but it did this rarely. At America and Commonweal, the editorial was the voice of the publication, but reading U.S. Catholic, we get a sense that the people of God are raising a collective voice.

Into the 1980s

U.S. Catholic covers not only issues but also culture. A series on American Catholics categorizes them as rural, conservatives, blacks, Hispanics, social justice advocates, and suburbanites. It notes the emergence of American Catholic novelists: Edwin O'Conner, J. F. Powers, Mary Gordon, and John Gregory Dunne.

Paging through the years I have chafed at the many captionless photos. But the magazine also has a track record of outstanding photo stories-especially by award-winning photographers Ed Lettau, Paul Conklin, and Martin Lueders.

In the October 1984 issue, for example, a full-page shot by Conklin for "Religious communities, putting their lives in order" works brilliantly. An elderly nun in a work apron at the end of a convent's Gothic corridor scrubs the marble floors with a long mop. There's a big bucket in the foreground, another at her feet, and a crucified Jesus hangs on the wall behind her.

Ordained in 1967, I began teaching at Fordham in 1969 and joined those fellow Jesuits who had stopped wearing the Roman collar in the classroom. I have worn it since only for special occasions like fundraisers and wakes. In a 1983 Sounding Board column Dan Herr and 63 percent of the readers say I'm wrong.

Tim Unsworth, in a January 1989 Sounding Board, proposes canceling the creed at Sunday Mass. The Nicene Creed has become like the Pledge of Allegiance, he says. It is a too-long booster shot, a bulwark against heresies long dead. Only 25 percent of the readers claimed to be aware of the meaning of the words when they recite it.

Providing a forum for ordinary Catholics to give their two cents in response to such Sounding Board articles has been one of the hallmarks of U.S. Catholic. For more than 40 years now, the magazine has used often provocative opinion pieces to poll its readers on everything from supporting Cesar Chavez' grape boycott to kids misbehaving at Mass and from building low-income housing in the suburbs to ordaining women. Sounding Boards are often fun.

But perhaps the more long-lasting impact comes from the interviews with theologians, including Joseph Martos on the sacraments, Richard McCormick on matters of life and death, and scripture scholar Raymond Brown on Jesus.

Martos teaches us that, except for baptism and the Eucharist, there is no evidence that Jesus instituted sacraments and that in the 16th century the Council of Trent decided that there were then and always had been seven.

Richard McCormick, S.J. suggests that since a fertilized ovum takes seven to nine days to implant, one need not treat it the same as an established pregnancy. Indeed at least half of the fertilized ova never implant. Therefore in "cases of urgency like rape and so on," the ovum can be disposed of "during the first eight days." But it wouldn't follow that there is "open season" on the ovum during that period, he says: One could still be against morning-after pills or IUDs, which prevent implantation, "because they're not just contraception-they're something more."

What is unique about Christianity? Ray Brown says: "I may be wrong, but I don't think that Jews are ever asked to love Moses, or Muslims asked to love Mohammed. But Jesus is not just someone to be believed in. He is personally present to the believer; I love him and he loves me.

Entering a new century

As U.S. Catholic moves into the 1990s it continues to hammer away at its basic dozen pastoral themes-nourishing spiritual lives, dull sermons, confession, gays and lesbians, passing the faith to younger believers, marriage and divorce, birth control, justice, death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

But it also zeroes in on the bigger issues that dominate the headlines: Sexual abuse reveals a rotten core in the clerical establishment; the first Afghanistan and Iraq wars again put the Christian conscience to the test; abortion grows as a political issue.

The magazine's tradition of the theological interview holds. Notre Dame theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna says the Trinity, which wasn't taught till the fourth century, is key to our understanding God as personal. R. Scott Appleby explains how God is fully present in the communion wafer.

A 1993 cover on the sex abuse controversy depicts a white Roman collar against a black clerical suit and a lollipop-the bait for the victim child. And a striking 1999 cover on Generation X shows the priest's hand placing the host on the tongue of a young woman with a big silver stud protruding from her tongue.

Sex talk becomes bolder. A gay man argues against same-sex marriage. Because his and his partner's sexual relationship could never produce offspring, he says, their sex lives were ultimately empty, leaving "two naked guys, a bed, and four walls." A lesbian reader replies that she and her partner find God in their love-making.

Photo-essays feature the blackened, rugged hands of a coal miner in Wales, a street procession of Hispanic children in Chicago in their first communion garb, and the Bosnian refugee children of Vagoni, who live in abandoned train wagons. The hands of a groundskeeper folding palm leaves in India in Martin Lueders' September 1996 photo story featuring "The Work of Human Hands" in Asia is, by my count, the magazine's first full-color photograph, other than on the cover.

The new look

In May 1999 Executive Editor Tom McGrath introduces the magazine's new design-a "fresh approach" aimed at the younger generation-warns that "change can be jarring," and allows the reader to dissent.

Color is everywhere, including art masterpieces as focal points for meditation and Franklin McMahon's epic drawings of great events. My dissent: The continuing use of cartoon drawings sometimes gives the magazine a Disneyland feel, thus trivializing the mature content.

Yet the marriage of cute and deep pays off in the answer to the child's question, "Can God see me when I go to the bathroom?" The answer: Yes, but God sees you the way your mother sees you when she nursed you and changed your diapers.

In 2001 Heidi Schlumpf tells the stories of five women who want to be priests. In response, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith initiates an inquiry that ends with an agreement that U.S. Catholic reprint the 1994 letter of Pope John Paul II declaring that "the church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women," because, says the pope, Jesus did not include women among his apostles nor did he ordain his mother.

Predictably, this inspired some dialogue. Two typical letters say: "We must always remind ourselves that Jesus could not satisfy the religious authorities of his day," and "I hope you were able to laugh when you received this communication from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith."

The 9/11 trauma

On September 11, 2001 I stood on the roof of the St. Peter's College Jesuit residence and watched the World Trade Center on the other side of the Hudson River crumble in a volcano of smoke. A few weeks later a Frontline PBS documentary asked where God was when this happened. U.S. Catholic's first response is McGrath's November essay, "What do you do with such pain?" He warns that "vengeance becomes more real to some sufferers than the taste of a lover's kiss or the tender breath of a newborn baby."

In an interview with the editors, Lisa Sowle Cahill of Boston College and Father Michael Baxter, C.S.C. of Notre Dame compare the just war and pacifist traditions and raise questions about the morality of our invasion of Afghanistan.

In the June 2002 special issue on the sexual abuse crisis a heartbreaking article includes photos of the abusers posed with their victims, some of whom committed suicide later. A summary article in August 2007 reports that between 1950 and 2006 more than 5,500 priests have been credibly accused and that the final cost for the U.S. church will be $2 billion.

In March 2008 the editors interview eight persons-soldiers, mothers, a chaplain, and an Iraqi refugee-whose faith helped them through the Iraq War. Notre Dame theologian William Cavanaugh takes on torture, which, he says, nearly everyone admits is wrong, but no one can stop the government from doing it.

The October interviews with presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama hold few surprises, but the session with the Washington Post's E. J. Dionne puts the abortion issue in perspective.

Why has U.S. Catholic thrived for so long? Because it keeps its feet in the shifting culture, sometimes jogging to keep up, while keeping its head in the latest scholarship-never fearing where the search for truth might lead.

Last week I had dinner with a young married couple whom I told about U.S. Catholic and suggested they subscribe. It will, I hope, bring them closer to a church from which they have been alienated by rotten homilies and scandals. Above all, especially with the interviews and coverage of the worldwide suffering of the poor, it will convince them that being a Catholic is a rewarding intellectual adventure and a challenge that will test their generosity and love. 

This article appeared in the August 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 8, pages 18-22).

Image: Tom Wright