By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published February 28, 2013
Today marks the end of Catholic Press Month, which is traditionally celebrated in February. I say “celebrated,” rather than observed, or designated, because the Catholic press deserves celebration. In its myriad of forms, from diocesan newspapers to international news organizations; from academic journals to one of the last bastions of thoughtful print discourse in the digital age, the Catholic press is as universal, and diverse, as the Church itself. While offering news, opinion, insight, discourse and even a means of evangelization, the Catholic press also fosters a sense of Catholic identity that is crucial in our hectic world.
My own introduction to the Catholic press actually has its roots in the anti-Catholic press, the twisted place from which much great Catholic journalism actually derives.
I grew up a suburban pioneer in metro Atlanta. Though the place of my childhood is now swallowed up by the sprawl destined to engulf us all, when I was a boy the place was actually quite rural. Cows grazed on all four corners of an intersection marked only by a sign that said crossroads. There was only one large road, which was quaintly known as the four-lane. There were ponds meant for fishing rather than the centerpieces of subdivisions, and country stores that served those unwilling to drive ten miles to a supermarket. The postal route was still RFD; bootleg liquor represented the only serious criminal activity, and soccer was still exotic. There was no international presence until the Southeast Asian refugees began arriving at the end of the Vietnam War. There were no African-Americans in this area unless they lived on land they had share-cropped for generations. And there were almost no Catholics.
When I was a child, there was only one Catholic family in our neighborhood. The oldest daughter was named Mary, the children wore uniforms to their different school, and the boys ruined countless pick-up football games when they had to go to confession and Mass on Saturday afternoons. We all adored them. There were four of them—two girls, two boys—so they had at least one of every toy, game or record ever made. We practically lived in their basement!
Not everyone liked them, though.
Appalled that a Catholic family actually lived in this utopian exurban outpost, the last vestiges of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups—still very much a part of rural Georgia life in the early 1970s—frequently targeted the houses in our small subdivision with anti-Catholic literature.
I have a vivid, and sickening, memory of going down the driveway one afternoon to pick up our afternoon newspaper. This, of course, is the time when The Atlanta Constitution came in the mornings, and the Journal, which “covered Dixie like the dew,” was delivered later in the day. On this particular afternoon, the newspaper had not yet come, but something else had. At the end of the driveway, tossed there anonymously, lay a bundle of comic books wrapped like a tube in a rubber band.
They were, I discovered, hate magazines. In comic book form, they depicted horrible atrocities between evil looking priests and sinister nuns. Some panels depicted church basements, stockpiled with weapons. Other illustrations featured tunnels, leading from churches to torture chambers. And the printed introductions to each cartoon story railed about idolatry, violation of scripture, and allegiance to foreign powers.
All of this was grotesque and absurd, and my parents deposited the tracts in the garbage.
But for quite a while, the comic books, and magazines, and other hateful pamphlets continued to appear at the end of the driveway.
Though the distribution of these publications finally stopped, I never forgot them. I think I was most impressed by the fact that there really were hateful people in the world so consumed by their bigotry and ignorance that they would defame the deepest beliefs of a group of people. Those publications, like so much propaganda, actually had the opposite effect. Rather than making me hate Catholics too, they made me empathetic and interested in what Catholics really believed, and as I grew older I maintained my interest in Catholicism, which eventually developed into the conversion I experienced in my early adulthood.
In 1912, disgusted by the same kind of anti-Catholic literature that repulsed me, an Indiana priest established the parish bulletin that would grow into Our Sunday Visitor, now part of one of the largest Catholic publishing ventures in the world.
In 1924, lay Catholics seeking a venue to protect and preserve their own vision and identity established the magazine Commonweal, which for almost 100 years has offered an intelligent and often dissenting voice on matters pertaining to the Church and social and political issues.
In 1933, determined to give common people struggling through the Great Depression a sense of hope and dignity, Dorothy Day established The Catholic Worker newspaper. It sold for only a penny, as it still does today.
In 1950, newlyweds Joseph and Sally Cunneen founded one of the most remarkable religious publications yet envisioned. The Cunneen’s CrossCurrents published the work of some of the greatest theologians of the 20th century and made that work relevant to the lives of ordinary people in the United States. CrossCurrents published Karl Rahner, Romano Guardini, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Hans Kung.
In Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1956 these names would have otherwise been completely unknown, but Flannery O’Connor read CrossCurrents, and through her reading of the theologians she encountered there she introduced them and over a hundred other writers and books to her own corner of the Church by writing reviews for the Georgia diocesan publications The Bulletin and The Southern Cross. This work meant a great deal to O’Connor, who in addition to being a brilliant artist was also a gifted apologist. Of her work for The Bulletin, in particular, O’Connor acknowledged how much she had benefitted from writing the short, yet insightful reviews, “I’ve gotten more out of that than I’ve given.”
In 1964, the year O’Connor died, and when the Second Vatican Council was well underway, the National Catholic Reporter was founded as an independent newspaper dedicated to bring standards of professional secular journalism to its coverage of Church events. Its influence has given even the smallest of local Catholic papers credibility and validity.
All of the publications I’ve mentioned owe a debt to the venerable Jesuit publication America, which was first published under that title in 1909. In an era when the Church, particularly in this country, is often sadly divided, America remains a balanced, moderate voice that appeals to a wide audience. Yet its mission, like all the publications I’ve mentioned, ultimately compels Catholics to seriously consider their identity and their responsibilities to the larger Church and the world.
The Catholic press, like the Church with which it is either directly or indirectly affiliated, has many aims, but its highest calling might be its role in attracting people to Catholicism.
One example for me is this very newspaper, The Georgia Bulletin, which I used to borrow—er, steal—from a friend’s mother’s kitchen. I secretly harbored a desire to come into the Church, but I was not yet a Catholic, so I found it difficult to get copies of the newspaper. Well, now the poor woman knows what happened to all her copies of The Georgia Bulletin; they helped lead me into the Church. Mysterious ways, indeed!
Likewise important to me was the work of Cardinal John Patrick Foley, who for 25 years broadcast the Christmas Midnight Mass from the Vatican to viewers in the United States. I watched that broadcast when I was preparing to become a Catholic 20 years ago; I’ve watched it every Christmas Eve since, and I still miss Cardinal Foley’s voice—its clear, precise certainty revealing all the mystery and splendor of Christmas in Rome.
So, I write myself for the Catholic press because like O’Connor I hope to give back to it some measure of what it has given me.
And I read the Catholic press, though the often overwhelming sheer volume of it—from the massive website of the Catholic News Service to the small pleasures of the little online journal Dappled Things—is as enormous as the Church itself. Think of all there is, from television networks to radio programs to websites, and yet still, if I’m lucky, I can steal an hour or so now and then to curl up with Magnificat, or Commonweal, or a past volume of The Merton Annual, and I’m comforted, provoked, challenged and happy to be Catholic in the vast uncertainty of our information age.
Cardinal Foley often said that he watched CNN every morning before he said his prayers; the network, he said, let him know what he needed to pray about.
I often feel the same. When the story first broke about Pope Benedict’s resignation, I followed it initially in a secular, online publication, which I happened to be reading at the time. The comments made by readers were appalling. The anti-Catholicism I first witnessed in my boyhood is very much with us, I’m afraid. The vitriol and ignorance expressed by so many readers were as vile as the hateful comic books I encountered as a child.
So I went elsewhere. I went to the Catholic press.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the great novelist William Faulkner affirmed the dignity of the soul and the writer’s obligation to nurture that soul. The work of the writer, Faulkner said, represented “one of the props, the pillars” to help the soul “endure and prevail.” And surely, that is also the work, and the gift, of our Catholic press.