Notre Dame vs. The New York Times: An Unexpected Dialogue
A recent dialogue between Bill Keller, the executive editor for The New York Times, and Scott Appleby, history professor at the University of Notre Dame, started out on the wrong foot. Their exchange began with comments made by Appleby made during an interview for On Point, a program aired on NPR stations and hosted by Tom Ashbrook. Appleby lamented the Times' coverage of the abuse scandal and the Catholic Church in general and claimed that, in a 2002 op-ed, Keller compared Pope John Paul II to Hitler and Stalin. When Keller learned of Appleby's comment, he wrote to Ashbrook and called the statement a "slanderous bit of nonsense"—rightly so, as the column said no such thing.
As might be expected, Appleby wrote back, but in an admittedly unexpected way:
Some may hope that my suggestion, offered on Monday’s On Point program to host Tom Ashbrook, that you want to “take the Church down” might lead the two of us into an entertaining round of accusations and rebuttals. I must disappoint them. I was inaccurate in my characterization of your 2002 column comparing the Church under Pope John Paul II to the Soviet regime under Leonid Brezhnev. You compared John Paul II to Brezhnev, not to Stalin, and the mention of Hitler came in an altogether different context. I sincerely apologize. I have a responsibility to get the facts right, and I failed in this instance. I hope you will accept my apology.
Later in his letter, Appleby called himself a "fan" of the Times, reiterated his apology, and offered pointed yet polite suggestions for the ways in which he believed the paper could improve its coverage of the Catholic Church:
Could you run, for example, a story on the profound de-moralization of the clergy and religious, the vast majority of whom are tainted unfairly by the sins and crimes of some of their colleagues and some of their leaders? ...What about the voices of tens of millions of disheartened but still faithful American Catholics who do not equate or reduce their Catholicism to the follies and crimes of sinful men, even ordained sinful men.
Keller's reply was equally gracious:
I do understand that there is much more to the Catholic Church than a scandalous minority of predatory priests. Although it is human nature to remember hurts, many of those who feel the church to be under attack have overlooked or forgotten a great deal of Times coverage that spans the range of Catholic life and experience. Laurie Goodstein, whose excellent work on the current crisis has come under fire from some vociferous defenders of the church, has written much of that coverage.
Keller named several uplifting stories run by the Times (although he described a recently profiled nun at Xavier University as a coach rather than an academic adviser for the team, as the article states) and acknowledged the hurt many Catholics, priests included, have felt as the sexual abuse scandal has been exposed over the past years. He also defended his editorial judgement:
...But by definition news tends to be what is out of the ordinary. The sexual abuse allegations — and the new information emerging about how they were handled — are news because they are shockingly out of the ordinary. The story has been driven not by outsiders hostile to the church, but mostly by horrified Catholics looking for reassurance and accountability.
It’s interesting that you suggest we consider the demoralization of priests. My wife returned from mass last Sunday moved by the pastor’s Easter sermon, in which he described how shaken he has been by the latest round of scandal. The next day I asked our national desk to look into the impact of the crisis on the morale of priests. I’m happy to be able to identify a little patch of common ground between us.
Now I don't think that these letters are the start of a beautiful friendship between Keller and Appleby. Still, at a time when shouting matches between pundits are all-too-often mistaken for debates, it's encouraging to see an exchange in which wrongs are admitted and hurts are acknowledged on both sides and in which two men with differing opinions can respectfully agreed to disagree, yet still find some common ground.
In addition, I take some comfort in Keller's concise and accurate definition of news as it relates to the Catholic Church. No one can deny that members of the Catholic Church have committed and allowed some terrible acts (sexual abuse and the Inquisition come to mind). But even in these dark moments, many more members of the church—clergy, women religious, and laypeople included—have continued working as a force for good and a ever-present voice for the poor.
I hope that it is never "out of the ordinary" for Christians to show this kind of extraordinary love. Service and compassion should be part of all that we do, because it is what we are called to do, not because it's good PR. And if some of the more positive stories—in Appleby's words, "the enormous good done by the Church for this nation, the extensive social services provided for decades and still today, the thousands of caring and compassionate priests and religious who continue to devote their lives to the service of God and their fellow human beings"—aren't always newsworthy, perhaps that's actually a good sign. If Catholics don't make the headlines because such behavior has become ordinary and expected from us, maybe that means we're doing something right.