In his first column as editor of the National Catholic Reporter, former television executive and journalist Joe Ferullo explained that the Roman Catholic Church is at a crossroads, torn between two radically different visions for its future.
In early December, Ferullo explained that a series of synods, or listening sessions, held in parishes around the world led by Pope Francis had revealed a hunger among believers for a church that is more welcoming and accommodating of its LGBTQ members Opportunities for women to take on leadership positions.
And yet in November the US Conference of Catholic Bishops had elected Conservatives to almost all key leadership positions – including the group’s new president, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who has served as archbishop for military service since 2008. Experts who follow the church saw the election results as a clear rejection by US bishops of Pope Francis’ more inclusive vision.
“Which way will the church go in the coming generations? Does it widen the tent and stretch out, or circle the wagons and approach it?” Ferullo wrote. “It is impossible to know by the end of 2024 where this path will lead – but these next two years could easily prove to be the most crucial since Vatican II.”
As editor of the 59-year-old National Catholic Reporter, where liberal voices have long ruled, Ferullo will have a front seat in the unfolding historical drama that could impact the church for years to come. And maybe that explains why a guy comfortably retired after three years might decide to take on the fear and thrill of running the scrappy and beloved Catholic news organization.
“I thought about teaching,” he said. “But it’s not that much fun.”
He also believes that the future of the Catholic Church should be of interest not just to Catholics, but to anyone following American politics.
“Despite the fact that the church is shrinking in numbers in this country, it still has great influence,” he said. “If you’re angry with Dobbs, then you’re angry with the group of Catholics who helped push this forward, including all these conservative Catholic Supreme Court justices,” he said, referring to the court process that upheld constitutional law annulled for abortion.
Ferullo, 65, is warm and wiry with dark graying hair. During an interview in a Le Pain Quotidien, just a short drive from his Studio City home, he described himself as a lifelong practicing Catholic.
He grew up in the late 1960s in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, New York, where his family belonged to a congregation fully supportive of the reforms of Vatican II. Latin masses were replaced by folk masses, which inspired him to learn to play the guitar. The nuns at his parish school shed their traditional ways, and his sixth-grade math teacher, Sister Maryann, occasionally taught the class songs by Simon & Garfunkel instead of long divisions.
“It was a very cool time, especially as a kid,” he said. “And that has kept me Catholic even as things around me became more secular.”
But around 2008 he was growing furious with the church. Catholic bishops attacked Obamacare for reporting on contraceptives, calling it a religious freedom issue. At the same time, the Vatican began Investigations against American nuns out of concern not to behave Catholic enough. And although the church had recently begun to deal with its devastating sex abuse scandal, he was frustrated and disappointed that it had taken so long.
“It felt like the whole church was like, ‘You know that Vatican II thing that we tried in the ’60s? Let’s all forget that,'” he said. “I felt completely different.”
A few years earlier, Ferullo left his job as a producer on Dateline to become Executive Vice President of Syndicated and Daytime Programs at CBS, where he wrote shows like Judge Judy, Entertainment Tonight, Dr. Phil and the Rachael Ray show.” He was also busy raising his two daughters in Studio City with his wife, Sylvia Lopez, a longtime news anchor for KCAL 9. Nonetheless, he took the time to write a story about his personal experiences of II life. He called it “When Vatican II came to the Bronx.”
The next step was finding someone to publish it.
“Secular media understandably doesn’t care enough, and a lot of traditional Catholic media, run by archdioceses or religious orders, probably wouldn’t touch it,” he said. Then he happened to meet Joe Feuerherd, then editor of the National Catholic Reporter, at a networking brunch hosted by LA-based Catholics in Media Assn. and told him about the play.
“He said, ‘That sounds like us,’ and they published it‘ said Ferullo. “It really meant a lot to me.”
Ferullo continued to write occasionally for NCR and eventually joined the board in 2018. When his predecessor Bill Mitchell announced his retirement in May, Ferullo threw his hat in the ring to become the next publisher.
“There’s just something about the place that gets into your blood and into your heart,” he said. “Progressive, social justice-oriented Catholicism doesn’t get much attention today thanks to some bishops. The fact that [NCR] still waving that flag and making great reports about it is very attractive.”
The National Catholic Reporter was founded in 1964 by Robert Hoyt, a journalist who had worked primarily for diocesan newspapers and wanted to bring the rigors of secular journalism to the Catholic world. “If the mayor of a city owns his only newspaper, his citizens will not know what they need and deserve to know about their affairs,” he said say.
Headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, it was originally published as a weekly newspaper and its circulation grew from 11,000 to 100,000 in just a few years. The first major breakthrough came in April 1967 when it was announced that Pope Paul VI. had rejected a commission’s proposal to revise the Church’s doctrine on birth control. It was also the first publication to report on the clergy sex abuse crisis and episcopal cover-up beginning in the 1980s, many years before the Boston Globe published its own investigation.
Today, NCR averages about 1 million unique visitors per month on its website and still publishes a printed newspaper that is mailed every two weeks. In addition to coverage of the Vatican and bishops, coverage areas include immigration, the environment, and the influence of wealthy conservative Catholics on American politics.
“There are few Catholic media outlets that have better covered the church with so much intelligence, independence and depth,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and an author who has contributed articles to the publication over the years. “It really is an indispensable source of hard-hitting reporting and informed commentary.”
One of Ferullo’s goals as editor is to increase the newspaper’s coverage of Latino Catholics, who make up 40% of all US Catholics. He also wants to expand coverage of Catholicism in the American West, where LA is home to the nation’s largest diocese.
“The Catholic Church has very strong roots in the Midwest and East Coast, and we’ve got that covered,” said Heidi Schlumpf, NCR’s editor-in-chief since 2020. “But where the Catholic Church is growing is in the West and Southwest. We know we need to cover these areas better.”
The National Catholic Reporter has never had a full-time reporter in California and just recently hired its first West Coast-based reporter in Portland, Ore.
“Part of my selling was you need someone in LA,” Ferullo said. “It’s the largest archdiocese in the country and there are many progressive Catholics here. Not being in touch with what is happening on the West Coast is not right.”
As the outlet’s first LA-based publisher, Ferullo has sought out local freelancers, particularly those who speak Spanish, have reached out to local Catholic universities to learn more about their social justice efforts, and attempted to spread the word about the outlet new readers and readers spread supporters. (As with PBS, NCR’s content is freely available and funded by individual donations.)
Currently the publication is on solid financial footing, but many of its current supporters are elderly people who have been reading it since the days of Vatican II 60 years ago. To survive, she must find a new audience among younger Catholics.
While Pope Francis has encouraged progressive Catholics, his inclusive vision has also divided the Church, nowhere more so than in the US, where LA Archbishop José Gomez has led the push, President Biden, Nancy Pelosi and other Catholic politicians who support him, the saint Communion to refuse abortion rights. The Pope has indicated that he disapproves of this practice, telling reporters that “Communion is not a price for perfection.”
Ferullo says the future of the church could affect the future of NCR as well. If the Pope is successful in motivating younger progressive Catholics, he believes NCR will survive for many years to come. If the more conservative faction wins, however, he’s not so sure.
“Maybe you have another generation of disappointed, progressive Catholics who just give up,” he said.