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:

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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.

Kerry Weber

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Cremin
7 years 6 months ago
The New York times reports news, and this lastest round of horrors coming from the Catholic Church is indeed newsworthy. That enemies of the Church-many of whom can be found on the secular Left-are also enjoying this miserable nightmare isn't really a surprise. The Church has enemies, but I find it difficult to drum up any sympathy when the heirarchy has handed these enemies the cudgel that it is now being bludgeoned with.

Once again, it is a season of misery for those of us who are Catholic. I am coming to the reluctant conclusion that Catholicism is my cross to bear, but it is a cross that I am not going to inflict on my children.

Perhaps we should consider applying some of the principles of liberation theology our own dangerous, self-absorbed heirarchies. Forget about petty dictators in bananna republics! We need to deal with our own corrupt power structures.
Michael Cremin
7 years 6 months ago
I end result, I am certain, will be less money available to do the many, many good works of our faith, as well as fewer people wanting to associate themselves with Catholicism. This is as tragic as it is predictable.

The people in charge, David-the managers and leaders-continue to show a pattern of sublime disregard for reality. The 'little people-nuns and brothers and priests and the laity-are, once again, suffering for the decisions made by fools. The bishops, the 'princes of the church,' continue to act in such a way that allows those who detest our faith to work to destroy it.

Nothing has changed. Our beloved shepherds have learned nothing. One wonders if the Devil himself doesn't have a claw in this whole situation, because there could not be a more perfect storm, and at a more desperate time, for the poor and helpless of the world.

I have great faith in God, David, and in His Son, Jesus. I have faith in my fellow Catholics in the pews, and in the good priests whom I am lucky enough to know. For the Church as an institution, though? Not so much. Not anymore. I live in Boston. We have seen this before. It ends ugly, my friend. And it is all so avoidable.

(in the spirit of the article we are discussing, I hope my remarks are temperate. I don't mean to aim any hostility at you)
jean quinn
7 years 6 months ago
The New York Times has unfairly and with bias, slammed the Catholic Church for many years.  Where are ALL the stories that should appear on the front page about all the sexual abuse of students in the public school system all over America?  Where are the child molestation stories about other religious denominations in the USA and around the world?  Where is the acknowledgement this is a homosexual problem?  After all, the NY Times has been guilty for years of promoting radical homosexual agendas and gay lifestyles.   
It is time for the NY Times to admit to their fraudulent reporting and "confess their sins." 
Michael Cremin
7 years 6 months ago
Where are all the stories about public school principals and superintendents moving child-molesting teachers from school to school? (Hint: there aren't any).
Now we see the Pope's name on a letter, worrying more about "the good of the Universal Church" instead of helpless children. But you're right, ndmom: it's all a conspiracy. Nothing to see here.
7 years 6 months ago
Michael - "hint": do your research!  Since the NY Times is in New York, let's start with that state...molesters have indeed been moved around...they have routinely been defended by teachers unions and they have been given other jobs within the NY public school system, earning collectively millions of dollars - some of them were found out 15-20 years ago and are still getting paid!  Another exercise for you would be to do an honest comparison of public school child molestation stories by the NY Times, compared to the number they have done on the Catholic Church.  And if you really cared about the truth, you could even count the number of total words given to each...then you could move on to California and every other state in the Union...another "hint":  Lutherans, Presbyterians, Boy Scouts, the U.N....
Michael Cremin
7 years 6 months ago
ND Mom, I have no doubt that there are examples of adults in all sorts of organizations-schools, camps, YMCA, after school programs, private schools, public schools-who have done terrible things to children. What I am not seeing is the systematic defense of the criminals by these organizations. Have there been teachers protected by their unions? I am certain. Have there been hundreds of cases? I am not seeing that data. Is there someplace you know of that lists all of this info. that you are talking about?
Likewise-and I admit that this is a bit harder to quantify-there is something particularly awful about these crimes being committed by priests, and defended by bishops. Perhaps it is because I am a part of the organization that is, yet again, being recognized for its failure to punish criminals that I am having such a strong reaction to it.
God bless you, NDMom. This is a hard time for all of us.
 

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