When a shy little man in tinted eyeglasses walked onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square and bestowed his first wave as Pope Francis, journalists around the world began frantically web-surfing.
All but one.
John Allen Jr. had already written an expansive profile of the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the humble Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio. While the rest of the journalistic pack was focused on the Italian Cardinal Scola, the Brazilian Cardinal Scherer, and the Canadian Cardinal Ouellet, the Vatican expert for the National Catholic Reporter recalled the man who finished second in the balloting the last time a pope was chosen:
The general consensus is that Bergoglio was indeed the “runner-up” last time around. He appealed to conservatives in the College of Cardinals as a man who had held the line against liberalizing currents among the Jesuits, and to moderates as a symbol of the church’s commitment to the developing world.
The fact that Allen, virtually alone, gave props in advance to the eventual pope was a vindication of his own hard-won expertise in covering one of the world’s most opaque bureaucracies. It was also marked a red-letter day for one of the most interesting, and unusual, newspapers in America.
The National Catholic Reporter is a global powerhouse headquartered in a red-brick building in urban Kansas City, Missouri. It was founded in 1964 by veteran religion reporter Robert Hoyt, who believed that the largest church in the world should be covered by an independent newspaper. In the early days, the Kansas City diocese provided free office space to the fledgling endeavor.
That didn’t last long. Ablaze with the modernizing spirit that was lit by the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, the NCR was soon reporting aggressively on rotten timber in the universal church, and editorializing on issues like birth control and priestly celibacy. It’s first big scoop came in 1967, when the newspaper got its hands on reports from the secret commission set up by Pope Paul VI to examine the church’s doctrine on contraception. Translated from Latin, the documents showed that the papal commission was in favor of modernizing the church’s position; instead, the Pope reaffirmed the ancient teachings against artificial birth control. The subject has split Catholics ever since.
The following year, the bishop of the Kansas City diocese, Charles Herman Helmsing, issued a formal denunciation of the NCR, and asserted darkly that the reporters and editors were almost certainly guilty of offenses that could lead to excommunication. But the newspaper sailed on bravely. Internal squabbles drove Hoyt away, but he and his successors at the top of the NCR shared a knack for finding talent. An early hire as managing editor was Jim Andrews, who left to co-found the newspaper syndication group that gave the world “Doonesbury,” “Calvin and Hobbes,” “The Far Side,” and other classic comic strips and columns. Writers for the NCR have included such superstars of liberal religious journalism as Garry Wills, Martin Marty, and Thomas Reese.
But while the newspaper pushed to the left—founder Hoyt left to become the press agent for the radical priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan—the Catholic Church tacked to the right, at least in theological terms. Many of the dedicated NCR readers of the 1970s and 1980s drifted away from the church. From a peak of 100,000 subscribers in the dawn light of Vatican II, the newspaper has settled back to about 33,000 subscribers on six continents.
Those readers who remain include the very conservative cardinals who turn to the NCR for honest and informed reporting—no matter how they feel about its editorial page. Under longtime editor (then publisher) Thomas Fox, the newspaper became a source of news that even the most conservative Catholic might peek at when facts were scarce and news mattered.
In recent years, no one on the staff has shed more light on dark Vatican corners than John Allen, a Catholic from the Kansas plains whose “maddening” objectivity (in the words of one religion blogger) has made him trustworthy among church leaders on both ends of the liberal-conservative spectrum.
Allen came by his objectivity the hard way, he has said. Hired by the NCR in 1997, his first book was a bitter portrait of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—the future Pope Benedict XVI. When it was published in 2000, supporters of the conservative Ratzinger complained about the obvious bias … and upon reflection, Allen decided they were right. He determined to play fair with all sides in his future work. Soon enough, he was the go-to man at the Vatican (in the words of veteran religion writer Kenneth Woodward): “the journalist other reporters—and not a few cardinals—look to for the inside story.”
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And so it was that Wednesday happened, and the frantic pack of Vatican newshounds went Googling for the dope on the new man, Pope Francis. They found John Allen’s work, and not much else. Allen’s word-sketch of Bergoglio, published online shortly before the voting, covered both the high points and the low points of the new pontiff’s career.
Compared with the glibness of the Vatican media crush, Allen’s scoop resounded across the Internet. For one brief moment, we were reminded that genuine knowledge matters, while Tweets fade.