The Catholic Review informs and inspires since 1833
By George P. Matysek Jr.
It´s really not an exaggeration to say the story of The Catholic Review has been the story of the Catholic Church in America.
From its coverage of the 19th-century Baltimore councils of the American bishops to stories on how the Second Vatican Council would shape liturgical practice in local parishes, Baltimore´s archdiocesan newspaper has been there – informing, forming, inspiring and affirming Catholic Marylanders along the many twists and turns of American Catholicism since 1833.
It hasn´t just been its respected coverage of the “headline issues” that has endeared the paper to its readers. For many, reading stories on their parish´s 100th anniversary picnic or their sodality´s rosary-making club has been just as exciting as reading the Review´s campaign against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, or its calls for justice in Central America in the 1980s.
By giving equal attention to both church hierarchy and laity; current theological trends and popular devotions; the Vatican and Highlandtown, the paper has provided eclectic snapshots of where the church has been and where it is going.
Catholic Mirror takes strong positions
From the beginning, the paper has tried to reflect the concerns of Catholics in Maryland. Appropriately named The Catholic Mirror when it first appeared in its modern form, the paper closely resembled the views of Maryland society, while also remaining loyal to the church. No where was that more obvious than in its coverage of the Civil War.
Like Maryland itself, The Catholic Mirror seemed divided over the controversies raised by the War Between the States. On the eve of sectional discord, the paper pleaded for the preservation of the union and spoke out against expeditions into Central America to open up new slave territories.
By the time battles got underway, however, the paper seemed to sympathize with the South. After the election of Abraham Lincoln, the paper´s editors asserted they would rather see the union dissolved than have the president destroy southern states´ rights.
According to Thomas W. Spalding in his book, The Premier See: A History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 1789-1994, the paper even began publishing “spirited exchanges” with the pro-Union Pittsburgh Catholic and Cincinnati Catholic Telegraph.
Ultimately, the Mirror´s southern sympathies got its publishers in trouble. Michael J. Kelly and John B. Piet were twice arrested for printing works of a “treasonable character.” On the second occasion they were imprisoned in Fort McHenry.
After the war ended, the Mirror took on a tone of reconciliation. Especially after President Lincoln was assassinated, it called for the healing of the country´s wounds. Yet, its southern allegiances still showed through.
In 1865, when some northerners were pressing for harsher treatment of the defeated South, The Catholic Mirror published an article, “Magnanimity,” in which it pleaded for tolerance.
“In that bitterest of strifes, a civil struggle, we now know only too well from our own experience how madly the passions of man are aroused to deeds of blood and crime …” the editors opined.
Over the course of the closing decades of the century, as the ranks of Catholics swelled with waves of immigrants flowing into the archdiocese, the little paper gave spirited defenses of Catholicism against nativist attacks. Not only did the Mirror advocate religious tolerance, it called for support of Catholic missions to “Negroes” and Indians, and carried pleas for charity to the poor and defenseless.
By the end of the century, however, the paper seemed lackluster in comparison to its more vigorous earlier days. Since The Catholic Mirror was edited by the laity for most of its existence, it became a prime target for those who preferred to see Catholic media outlets firmly in the hands of priests. So it was that in 1908 The Catholic Mirror died with a promise from Cardinal James Gibbons to soon publish a new paper in which the clergy would be more involved.
New paper emerges
The new paper promised by Cardinal Gibbons did not hit Baltimore´s streets until five and a half years after the demise of The Catholic Mirror. Renamed the Baltimore Catholic Review and edited by Father Cornelius F. Thomas, the revamped paper was similar to its predecessor – except for the fact that it enjoyed more support from the cardinal.
In the style of the day, real news was reserved for the inside pages of the weekly under titles like “General News of the Church.” The front pages carried feature stories, reports from Rome or texts of the pope´s speeches. News of the growth of the church in Baltimore was everywhere: from new parishes and missions being founded in the city and in far-flung counties to new Catholic societies and school clubs emerging in service of the church.
When a law was proposed in 1914 to allow the unscheduled inspection of convents, the Review pounced on the law´s proponents, dismissing them as “moral polecats” and “addle-headed bigots.” In the decades that followed, the Review took stands in support of “loyalty in the Great War,” against Prohibition, against the Mexican Revolution, against the fight for artificial birth control and against “woman´s emancipation.” At first advocating isolationism when World War I broke out, the paper eventually supported the war effort and denounced what it called “German militarism.”
In one of its early battles of the 1920s, The Catholic Review took on the Ku Klux Klan. At the time, the KKK was regularly denouncing the Catholic Church and raising fears about “diabolical Jesuits” and “popish” plots against America. The Review devoted its front pages and editorials to the activities of the Klan, keeping readers informed and opposing Klan terror.
When the Klan was organizing support for a bill in Oregon that would have forced all children to attend public schools, the Review wrote a searing article in which it condemned bill supporters as “the ignorant and the bigoted, headed by a group of professional demagogues who hoped to obtain power, money or political influence by playing on the passions of the multitude.”
Catholic Review challenges The Sun
The righteous wrath of the Review wasn´t limited to national issues. Always eager to defend the faith, the scrappy paper used its pages to counter what it perceived as local attacks on the church.
In one of its most memorable clashes, the paper joined Archbishop Michael Joseph Curley in demanding an apology from the Baltimore Sun for what the archbishop contended was an anti-Catholic slur published in a 1934 article.
One of the Sun´s correspondents had compared the zeal of Adolph Hitler to that of St. Ignatius Loyola. When the Sun refused to apologize for the slight, The Catholic Review took the issue to the people.
The Review´s articles chastising the Sun are reported to have caused 50,000 cancellations to Baltimore´s well-known daily, while the Review´s own circulation soared so much that it began publishing two times a week for a while. Ultimately, the Sun´s master of the barb, H.L. Mencken, was brought in to negotiate a statement from the Sun that finally satisfied Archbishop Curley and convinced the Review´s editors to take the heat off the Sun.
Communism and obscenity addressed
Through the years of the Second World War, The Catholic Review promoted an active patriotism. It viewed the struggles against Nazism and fascism as righteous, valiant and completely American. Much of that vigor for the “American way” carried over into the early 1950s, when the Review became an advocate for important conservative causes.
Chief among these was its crusade against Communism. Articles with titles like “Communists are slick in deceiving youth” were common, with the Review constantly warning of the dangers the “Red Menace” posed to the country. Closely linked to the paper´s anti-Communist drives was its opposition to obscenity.
The Review was a staunch supporter of the Maryland State Board of Motion Picture Censors, which had the authority to ban “obscene” movies from being shown in the state. It also spoke out against obscene books and magazines, saying they could lead to the moral decay of the country.
1960s bring new outlook
By the 1960s, the paper began taking on a more liberal viewpoint consistent with the trends in the Church at large.
A disclaimer that appeared throughout the 1960s gives some indication of the controversy the Review would generate in that tumultuous decade: “Editorial comments represent a Catholic opinion;” it read, “not necessarily the Catholic opinion on timely subjects.”
The Catholic Review saw much to be excited about in the Second Vatican Council. Led by Father Joseph X. Gallagher, the Review seemed particularly interested in the ecumenical movement encouraged by the church fathers. Other articles appeared in support of liturgical changes such as the use of English in the Mass.
Almost every issue of the Vatican years blared what must have been stunning headlines to Catholics of the day, covering such sensitive issues as artificial birth control, music in the liturgy and Mary´s role in the church.
The paper took strong stands against racism, even going so far as to publish a controversial 1966 “open letter” to George P. Mahoney, a Catholic candidate for governor who tried to court the anti-integration vote. In the letter, written by Father Gallagher, the Review said the election of Mahoney “would mean a victory for forces which are hostile to everything honorable which being Catholic, American, Democrat and Irish should mean.”
Many credit that letter for swinging the election in favor of Mahoney´s opponent, Republican Spiro Agnew. But the contention it raised, coupled with some articles published questioning the Vietnam War and the American bishops silence on the war, led to the resignation of Father Gallagher, who apparently was in conflict with Cardinal Lawrence Shehan over how the Review should cover issues of the day.
By the 1970s, much of the controversy the Review had generated had died down. In those years, perhaps the greatest contribution the Review made to the local church was keeping the faithful informed about what the changes brought on by Vatican II would mean at the parish level. Articles appeared showing readers how they could receive Communion in the hand, what the sign of peace was all about and other practical consequences of the council.
The paper itself was in financial trouble, however, and by the time associate publisher and editor Daniel Medinger took charge in 1986, The Catholic Review was in deep debt with declining readership and advertising. Not until the mid-1980s did the paper balance its books, return to the black and regain its readership and advertising losses.
With a renewed financial picture came a renewed energy. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, the paper built a reputation as one of the best Catholic newspapers in the U.S. and Canada. Winning numerous journalism awards from the Catholic Press Association, it stood in quality on the same level as Catholic papers in bigger cities like New York and Philadelphia.
Today, The Catholic Review is the centerpiece of a Catholic communications company called the Cathedral Foundation. Other enterprises include publishing the weekly English edition of L´Osservatore Romano in the United States and Canada; Cathedral Foundation Press, a growing book publisher and Catholic Printing Services, a full-service printer.