Catholic New Times bows out after 30 years

  • November 20, 2006
TORONTO - The Catholic New Times, Toronto's herald of left-leaning Catholicism, will cap off 30 years by publishing it's last issue on Nov. 16.

Ever spiralling mailing costs and a dwindling base of subscribers doomed the little publication which rose to challenge The Catholic Register in 1976. The final press run will be just 4,200 copies for an issue dated Nov. 29. A little more than a decade ago, subscriptions peaked at over 12,000.

"The New Times had a very important role to play. I don't think that need for a progressive voice within the Canadian Catholic Church is gone," said editor and publisher Diane Bisson.

Bisson predicts the paper and the community of writers, artists and activists behind it will rise again in some other form, possibly as a web site.

"It's important to understand that it is the paper that's coming to closure," she said. "If we profess the paschal mystery, by definition Christians believe that when something dies then there is the possibility for rebirth."

The Catholic New Times was born one afternoon in the student lounge of the University of St. Michael's College when Romero House founder Mary Jo Leddy, a graduate student at the time, ran into a frustrated Jesuit Father Jim Webb. Webb was working with the Interchurch Coalition on Corporate Responsibility in the mid-1970s. At a shareholders meeting where the coalition had been trying to pass a motion in favour of sanctions against South Africa one of the corporate directors had responded by waving a copy of The Catholic Register  and claiming that the Catholic newspaper had endorsed apartheid.

Webb told Leddy about the incident.

"We all just looked at one another and said, that's not the official teaching of the Catholic Church, for sure," recalled Leddy. "That was the impetus to begin the conversation."

(A careful search of Register back issues uncovered no editorial on apartheid, either for or against. However, a column by then editor Larry Henderson on May 8, 1976, praised South African president P.W. Botha's slow and gradual approach to eliminating apartheid at a time when church leaders in South Africa were calling for an immediate end to the system of two-tier citizenship and government-sponsored racism.)

Over the years the paper trumpeted the social justice teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In the 1980s and '90s the paper championed liberation theology in Latin America and feminist theology at home. It reported on the liberation theology-inspired revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and encouraged Canadian Catholics to welcome the refugees from the wars those countries fought with U.S.-financed forces.

The paper also came out in favour of ordaining women in its later years. It also championed the cause of homosexual activists who disagreed with church teaching that opposed homosexual sex. Such views put it at odds with official Catholic teaching and drew criticism from many mainstream Catholics. It was even banned in at least one diocese in Ontario.

The New Times always relied on the support of nuns, brothers and religious priests and teachers who worked for the paper for free or very low wages, and generously supported it with donations and subscriptions. As the religious communities grew older and dwindled, the paper lost an important source of support, said Leddy. In the end, it relied on union donations as well as its other support.

Leddy also blames an excessively negative tone for the paper's decline.

"It got whiny, I think, at a certain point," she said. "It's one thing to criticize, but it's much more important to be talking about the alternatives, and what's viable, what's energizing.

"One thing I feel good about is that I think the concern for social justice has really been accepted as a mainstream concern," said Leddy. "And it's certainly reflected, for example, in The Catholic Register."

The end of The New Times is not a judgment on Vatican II inspired activism, said Michael Higgins, a former New Times books editor and current president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.

"It's a mistake to assume there's a loss of interest in a prophetic voice, or there's a loss of interest in social justice issues, or that Catholic issues have become marginal."

An absence of professional journalists and an increasingly narrow focus drove readers away, according to Higgins.

"In the end, what is the most telling sign?" he asked. "Are people reading you? If your circulation, if your subscribers, have melted away you can't blame the institutional church. You can't blame the government. You can't blame Canada Post."

Since 1990 the Catholic press in Canada has lost the Jesuit journal Compass, the quarterly Grail and the Canadian Catholic Review.

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