John Allen was the longtime Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and an author of nine books on Catholic subjects. He is now an associate editor of The Boston Globe and has helped to launch Crux — a Catholic website sponsored by the Globe that focuses on national and internal news and commentary — that went live Sept. 2.
As Pope Francis calls on the faithful to go to the “fringes” and engage alienated Catholics and others who are indifferent or skeptical of the Church’s claims, the Globe’s new initiative, with Allen in the driver’s seat, has drawn the support of Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, as well as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia — Church leaders who are scheduled to appear at Crux launch events in Boston and Rome.
On Sept. 5, Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond spoke with Allen about his plans to develop a Catholic website that doesn’t “carry water for anyone” and his hopes that the “Francis effect” will revitalize public interest in all things Catholic.
Did The Boston Globe come to you with the proposal to launch a Catholic website or did you go to them?
The new owner of The Boston Globe, John Henry [who also owns the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool FC], made the initial approach to me last summer. He has this vision of revitalizing the daily newspaper by making it a constellation of special-interest news. One interest group he thought the Globe could appeal to is the Catholic Church, and someone suggested me.
I was quite happy doing what I was doing, and I assumed my eventual answer would be No.
But the more the newsroom leadership got involved, it became clear it wasn’t just about trying to hire me away. He was trying to leverage the resources of a mainstream news outlet in a way that had never been done before in the States.
The hope was that readers would follow me to this new enterprise. But, over time, Crux will carve out its own brand.
Did Pope Francis help spark the Globe’s interest in launching a Catholic news portal?
Yes. Certainly, the reason why there was strong buy-in at the Globe had to do with the “Francis effect.” The Church is hot right now because of its [perception in the world as having a] "sexy" new leader.
How has Pope Francis changed media coverage of the Vatican and Church affairs?
In the Benedict years, from the point of view of mainstream media, the Vatican was an episodic story, and they would dig into it every once in a while.
Today, the papacy has become an everyday story in the mainstream press. What that means is that, for those of us doing specialized coverage, it becomes even more important to be distinctive and offer a depth and specificity that can’t be matched by people who have not followed this story for a long time.
For example, Francis’ rhetoric on economic issues is being treated [in the mainstream media] as if it is all being said for the first time and that he is some kind of maverick. But the truth is that most of this was said back in 1891, and his statements on the economy have been the least distinctive part [of his pontificate].
[Catholic journalists] have the ability to contextualize the story when many of our colleagues are paying attention for the first time.
Who is Crux’s audience?
I think of the audience in terms of concentric circles. The inner core is the professional Catholic crowd who is intensely interested in Church affairs.
Outside of that is the casual Catholic [circle]. They aren’t getting up at 6am to download Vatican news, but they try to get to Sunday Mass, and they are trying to get help bringing their faith to bear on their lives.
Outside of that is the seeker. The seekers may not be interested in my upcoming 800-word analysis of the Synod [for Marriage and the Family], but they may be interested in features on the ethics of bringing office supplies home from work.
And there are non-Catholics who are interested in the Church — people who might be involved in ecumenical and interfaith work.
Then you have the public-affairs crowd, who believe that if you want to understand Obamacare or the clash of civilization you need to understand what the Church has to say about that.
I also want Crux to be the town square of the Catholic Church, a space where all the voices in the conversation are listened to with respect, but we don’t carry water for anyone.
Where are you living right now? Are you dividing your time between Boston and Rome?
I am not even living part time in Boston. I live in airport departure lounges.
I divide my time between my home in Denver and Rome. That is worth underlining: Crux is not directed at Boston. The audience is national and international. The Globe has a religion reporter, who provides local coverage. You will not be seeing stories on Crux about the fish fry in Boston.
You will undoubtedly, from time to time, be seeing an interview with Cardinal O’Malley [of Boston], who will be speaking at our launch event at Boston College on Sept. 11. But that is because he is a national figure. The same goes for my three-part interview with Cardinal Dolan that Crux is publishing.
We don’t have the official sponsorship of the Boston Archdiocese, but I personally have a good working relationship with Cardinal O’Malley; he has been extremely supportive.
During the first week of its launch, Crux published your interview with Cardinal Dolan. But it also posted a column, written by Crux’s recently hired “spirituality columnist,” Margery Eagan, a former columnist with the Boston Herald, who ridiculed a comment made by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and attacked the “bizarre crackdown” on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which is being investigated by the Vatican.
Again, we will have all the voices in the conversation covered; and in the future, we will have those defending the Vatican’s investigation. We want to tell the whole story.
With the midterm elections coming up, how will Crux cover political issues that overlap with Catholic news?
I want people to think of Crux as neither left- nor right-wing. It is a place you can go to see what is going on without being told how to think about it. We will have columns strongly arguing both sides, and I will have my eyes on this to make sure it all evens out.
Will there be any operating policy that a particular point of view not be included? We have talked about that, but I don’t think so.
What about the issue of “marriage equality”? Some activists no longer think it is acceptable to oppose it — witness the resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, following disclosures of his donation to Proposition 8. How might that play out for Crux?
We are working on the issue of gay marriage because it came up in the questionnaire [circulated by the Vatican in advance of the synod]. We will be talking to people who believe Church teaching is right and those who think it is wrong. We will do this in a respectful non-inflammatory way, so that, at the end of it, what I want is for you to say, “That was fair, that was comprehensive, and I learned something.”
Why did you get into Catholic journalism in the first place, and can you pinpoint key turning points in your career?
I was in grad school, preparing to be a Bible scholar, and wanted to pay the bills.
A critical turning point for me, before going to Rome as the correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, was a book I did on Cardinal Ratzinger, largely written from my studio apartment in Kansas City, Mo.
The first review of my book was from Father Joe Komonchak, who accused me of “Manichean journalism,” where the cardinal’s critics were the smart guys and others were not.
It was a gut check for me. And I had to ask myself, “Do I want to be the kind of journalist who fuels the polarization or tries to overcome it?”
After that, I tried to understand Ratzinger much better, so I am grateful to Father Joe Komonchak for helping me be a better journalist and for helping me to have a better relationship with a pope I would cover for many years.
What was it like to cover Catholic affairs from Rome?
Going to Rome was transformative. I had grown up in the Midwest thinking — like other Americans — that our experience and priorities must be the world’s experience and priorities.
I also came of age in the immediate post-Vatican II period, when liberal solutions to challenges facing the Church [were] fashionable. I absorbed those biases — like most American Catholics in my generation, of a certain bent.
It took going to Rome, and seeing the world through the eyes of people in the Vatican and dealing with the diversity of the Vatican, before I understood there was much more to the Church.
Crux has already begun posting stories about religious persecution. How did your coverage of that subject lead you to write your 2013 book, The Global War on Christians: Dispatches From the Frontline of Anti-Christian Persecution?
My interest in this goes back to a 2001 trip to Ukraine with John Paul II. It was the day of his final Mass in Ukraine. It was raining, and I was trying to find an umbrella. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a woman on her knees crying her eyes out.
I went over to her afterwards, and she explained that her grandfather had been a Greek-Catholic priest, who had been arrested and sent off to the gulag during the Soviet period. She was crying because she imagined what was in his heart, looking down at John Paul II saying Mass that day.
I grew up in rural Kansas, and my idea of suffering for the faith was eating fish sticks during Lent. I realized then that people had paid in blood for their faith, and that began the journey.
How would you assess media coverage of anti-Christian persecution in Iraq and Syria?
No one wants to celebrate the atrocities in Iraq. But they have raised the profile of anti-Christian persecution and have made it impossible to be in denial.
ISIS has a virulent hatred of Christians, and something has to be done about it. But I worry that the focus has been so intensely on Iraq and the Middle East that it could feed myths about anti-Christian persecution as [being] all about radical Islam.
In other parts of the world, there are old-style police states, and there is Hindu radicalization. Statistically, Christians are more likely to be physically harassed in India than any other country on the planet.
My hope is that the horrors we see in Iraq will mobilize the international community and also be a teaching moment about the variety of threats to Christians — not just Islam.
Looking ahead, what stories are you excited about covering?
Next week, we will launch our countdown to the synod. When the subject is the family, there is no hot-button issue that is not germane.
Francis has significantly overhauled the way the synod works to promote real conversation and elevate its profile. He has made it clear that some big decisions of his papacy will hinge on this.
This will be the first big-time Vatican story that Crux will have the opportunity to cover, and I am excited about the resources we will bring to bear on this.