The Catholic press in the UK
Part one – History of the UK Catholic press
Although the Catholic popular press in England did not emerge until after the Restoration of the hierarchy in 1850, several Catholic publications did exist prior to this date, but these were mainly occasional pamphlets. Following the toleration acts of the early 19th century, and in particular the agitation over emancipation, the first efforts were made to create a regular Catholic publication.
The pioneering venture was the Orthodox Journal and Catholic Monthly Intelligencer, which was launched in July 1813 by William Eusebius Andrews, a Catholic editor and author based in London. Despite considerable financial support from Bishop Milner, he was obliged to suspend publication in 1820 due to a lack of funds and a frustratingly small readership.
Over the subsequent two decades, emancipation, the growth of Catholic education and the controversies aroused by the Tractarian movement generated a broader interest in Catholic affairs, and renewed attempts were made to establish a Catholic periodical.
The first regular Catholic publication was the Dublin Review, establish in 1836 by Cardinal Wiseman and Daniel O’Connell . Both had been impressed by the success of the Ed-inburgh Catholic Magazine , and Wiseman thought that ‘Dublin’ was an appropriate Catholic equivalent, though the publication was edited and produced in London.
Thriving on the intellectual reputation of its founders, and the fact that it was aimed at ‘educated’ Catholics and potential converts, the Dublin Review quickly became popular amongst Catholic and Anglican clergy, and its editorials exerted a considerable influence on the Oxford Movement.
In its turn the Oxford Movement inspired a number of Catholic literary and theological publishing ventures, including Dolman’s Magazine, a high class literary monthly produced by a London Catholic publisher by the name of Charles Dolman who had previously printed several important works on the writings of Lingard and Husenbeth.
It was on the 16th May 1840 that the first English Catholic newspaper arrived, when Frederick Lucas launched the first edition of The Tablet. Lucas was a Catholic of evangelical outlook who regarded his work as founder and editor a Catholic paper as a religious vo-cation, and the publication itself as an essential aid to mission at a time when few in the Catholic Church had realised the importance of the emerging mass media.
Constant and irreconcilable differences of opinion between the obsessive but unrealistic Lucas and nervous financial backers eventually brought about a crisis in 1848, especially when Lucas – who was very active in Irish republican politics – moved The Tablet offices to Dublin. It was only failing health that wrenched the paper from him, and new proprie-tors brought it back to London. Lucas died in October 1855, and subsequent editors – lacking both the enthusiasm and obsessive eccentricity of their predecessor – reduced The Tablet to a mere record for news, rather than the influential journal of opinion that it had been under Lucas.
The early editions of The Tablet cost sixpence, though this was soon reduced to five pence when newspaper stamp duty was abolished. Nonetheless this was well beyond the pockets of ordinary Catholics, and there was great discussion in the Church during this period about the need for a cheap Catholic newspaper to provide an antidote to the ‘penny dreadfuls’, as the emerging Protestant and secular papers were described by Catholics.
In 1846 a Mr. Bradley founded a Catholic publication called The Lamp, which among many other things supplied Catholic news, reported Cardinal Wiseman’s lectures in full and gave extracts from other important Catholic pronouncements. Like all Catholic pub-lications of the period, it struggled to survive, and at one stage Bradley was even editing the paper from his room in the debtor’s prison in York.
Another pioneer of the Catholic press was The Rambler, which first appeared on New Year’s Day 1848, priced sixpence, and promoting itself as a high class literary and arts review publication. Newman briefly edited two issues (May and July) in 1859, after which Lord Acton returned from Europe to take up the reins.
The abolition of newspaper taxes, and radical improvements in newspaper production processes in the middle years of the 19th century finally created the opportunity for the creation of a regular, inexpensive Catholic newspaper, and an urgent plea to a group of influential Catholic businessmen from Cardinal Wiseman was to provide the first Catholic penny newspaper, The Universe.
A committee was quickly established to oversee the project and, after a considerable amount of acrimonious debate about the content, theology and political outlook of the publication, the first issue was eventually published on the 8th December 1860, priced one penny. At first it was agreed that the paper should be strictly non-political, but this re-striction was quickly dropped when it was realised that the inclusion of political pieces was essential to increase circulation, a move which saw most of the staff resign.
Denis Lane, A London printer and devout Catholic with roots in Co. Cork, stepped in to rescue the paper, and ran it for many years as a Catholic publication with overt sympathies for the Liberal party and the cause of Irish nationalism. A link with the Catholic hierarchy was maintained through the employment of a succession of high profile theological advisors to the editor, including Cardinal Manning, whose commitment to social justice and the working classes struck an immediate chord with the predominantly Irish working class readership of The Universe .
Whilst The Universe was enjoying a rapidly expanding readership in London and the Home Counties, efforts were also being made to launch a Catholic penny newspaper in the Catholic heartlands of the north west of England. The earliest attempts at a northern Catholic newspaper were The Catholic Vindicator and the Catholic Citizen , but these failed fairly quickly due to lack of capital.
The Lancashire Free Press and Catholic News, which was launched on 1st October 1859, enjoyed greater success but it too ran into serious financial trouble, and was barely sur-viving when a well-known Catholic priest Father James Nugent of Liverpool bought it, and renamed it the Catholic Times.
Father Nugent had established a care home for young boys in Liverpool and he used both his premises and his boys to produce and distribute the paper, which in turn provided value income for his charity work. A London edition was produced and in 1879 a Christmas supplement called The Catholic Fireside proved so popular that it was continued as a monthly penny magazine, and in 1893 was made weekly.
The other Catholic publication of note launched this period was The Catholic Herald, a London-based broadsheet that quickly established a small but vigorous readership amongst dissenting Catholic intellectuals. The paper was founded by Charles Diamond, a member of the Irish Parliamentary party and aspiring publisher. In 1884 Diamond started The Irish Tribune in Newcastle-on-Tyne and shortly afterwards purchased two ailing Catholic newspapers, the Glasgow-based Observer and the Preston-based Catholic News (which he later sold to Nugent). These titles became the basis of The Catholic Herald .
Numerous other Catholic periodicals were also launched during the second half of the 19th century, but the only significant survivals beyond the turn of the century were The Universe, The Tablet, The Catholic Herald, and The Catholic Times.
Part Two – theology and hierarchy relations
The mood among Catholic publications in the second half of the 19th century was typical of the outlook of the English Catholic Church itself following the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850. Bullish rhetoric and a determination to represent what was seen as the hitherto silent but oppressed Catholic population led most Catholic newspapers to launch into the marketplace with ambitiously bold assertions of their aims and intentions.
The Catholic Times
The editor of the Lancashire Free Press, Stephen Meaney, declared in his launch issue of 1st October 1859 that his paper “will honestly and fearlessly vindicate Catholic interests at home and abroad; all questions of local and general importance shall be discussed on the broadest grounds, and with calmness and forbearance to those who may dissent from its views – the triumph of its principles shall be sought to be obtained only by appealing to the understanding, the reason, and the moral feelings of its readers.”
His leading article, Our First Words, also makes passing mention of the bitterness and intolerance of certain sections of the non-Catholic public in Liverpool.
As well as carrying a wide range of domestic and national news, foreign items of Catholic interest also featured prominently – the Papal-Italian question was at this time a major one for Catholic journalists, and Italian revolutionaries and secret societies were then the pre-occupation of Catholics everywhere.
The last issue of the Lancashire Free Press and Catholic News filed with the British Mu-seum is that of the 7th of April 1860, but the journal continued, for subscribers only, until the business was sold, and renamed the Northern Press.
The first leader of the Northern Press pulled no punches in explaining why its predecessor had failed. The change of title was dictated by the need of avoiding responsibility for the debts incurred by Stephen Meaney, it argued. The leader writer then goes on to upbraid Catholics for their apathy, and would-be Catholic newspaper proprietors for adventuring with insufficient capital, with the result that “every attempt at establishing a Catholic newspaper in Liverpool and the North had failed”.
“The Lancashire Free Press gave the greatest signs of promise, for it bore upon it the stamp of newspaper experience; it started with a large advertising connection, and it aimed to win public support, but it had no solid ground to rest its hopes upon,” says the leader writer.
“From the first its commercial position was unsound, and was built upon a sandy founda-tion. Want of money crippled its independence of thought and action, so that it was never openly recognised and supported by the body it sought to represent. It was starved for want of capital, and its financial difficulties and final failure have become a scandal.
“The Catholic body do not altogether come out of the transaction with clean hands. If their wants or public spirit and united action have left an opening for every rash spectacular and self-constituted representative, they have no one to blame but themselves. The Lancashire Free Press is no more … The Northern Press this day enters upon its career, and takes its stand as the organ of the Catholic Body in the North of England.”
However, in a ‘Note to the Readers’ on the 29th December 1860 The Northern Press sug-gests that the political affinities of the Lancashire Free Press to Liberal politics may have been the real reason for its demise: “This has been the standard of our line of action, feeling assured that Catholic interests are best promoted by ties. To enter into a permanent alliance and to become the advocate of any party, would involve the mixing-up of party-tactics, which would, sooner or later, necessitate the sacrifices of our best and highest interests to serve that party. Whig and Tory alike are the enemies of Catholicity.”
In December 1860 the circulation was given as 9,550 copies; on Friday the 15th of De-cember 1893, 73,000 copies of the Catholic Times and Catholic Opinion (as it was then called) were sold. These figures not only reveal the enormous growth of the paper’s cir-culation and influence, but the significance of the hand of Monsignor Nugent, who shortly before his death in 1905 was able to write in his own newspaper: “The Catholic Times, known and respected in every country whose language is English, is, as it has been for 45 years, one of the most valuable auxiliaries of the Church, one of the most powerful forces working for the preservation and increase of the Faith in Great Britain.”
But if Nugent was adept at mustering the influence of the Catholic Times to propagate his views, and to gather support for his many schemes of social action, he was also not averse to playing politics. In an editorial of the 2nd of November 1872, for instance, he made a blatant pitch for Bishop O’Reilly to succeed Bishop Goss in Liverpool, when popular opinion was greatly in favour of Canon J.H. Fisher, the Vicar General. Whether it was Nugent’s editorial tour-de-force or other considerations, we may never know, but O’Reilly got the job, in February of 1873.
Around this time Father Nugent appointed John Denvir, who hailed from Lecale in County Down, as manager and acting editor of The Catholic Times. Denvir had co-operated with Nugent in his Temperance Crusade in Liverpool and, having taken ‘the pledge’ as a child, was also an ideal secretary for Nugent’s rescue work initiated with the slogan “Save the Boy”. In his autobiography, The Life Story of an Old Rebel, Denvir reveals that the Catholic Times at this period enjoyed mixed fortunes in its relations with the Catholic hierarchy. On the one hand Cardinal Vaughan was an overt supporter , but others – in particular the influential Canon Fisher, Vicar General of the Liverpool Archdiocese, who had been subbed by Nugent – were far less sympathetic.
Denvir was succeeded by P.L. Beazley, who edited the Catholic Times under Mgr. Nugent and his successors for 40 years. Beazley was a shy retiring personality who shunned public functions, but as an editor he was tenacious and controversial, as a consequence of which the Catholic Times wielded considerable political influence. In the great battle for Catholic Education during Birrell’s reign at the Ministry of Education, for instance, Beazley led the opposition to a spectacular and largely unexpected victory over Birrel’s Fourth Bill. As a friend of his commented: “It was generally conceded at the time that if the most powerful Puritan assembly since the days of Cromwell was beaten, and beaten to a frazzle it was, it was by Beazley and the Catholic Times.”
On Thursday, the 29th November 1923, after ‘putting the paper to bed’, Beazley went home and died about midday quite unexpectedly. Evidence of the close and sympathetic relations that he had enjoyed with the Catholic hierarchy was confirmed by a glowing tribute paid to him in an editorial penned just days after his death. With the passing of Beazley a chapter in the long history of the Catholic Times, and of the Catholic press in this country, was closed.
By 1935 the Catholic Times was in serious trouble. The year had ended in a loss of £516, and the total losses on the balance sheet stood at nearly £18,000. However, events in 1936 fell kindly for paper. In April of that year that the Scottish archbishops invited the paper to take a bigger part in Scottish Catholic life, and the joint letter of the Archbishops of St. Andrews and Edinburgh and Glasgow reveals the continued extent of good relations with the hierarchy: “The conduct of the Catholic Times in the past makes us confident that the guarantees which we asked, and which you so readily offered, will be directly fulfilled in spirit and in letter” . The Catholic Times continued into the 1950s, when recurring financial troubles it saw it bought out and merged with The Universe.
Elsewhere another Catholic newspaper was enjoying spectacular success. Founded in October 1860, The Universe rapidly gained a reputation for its uncompromising defence of Catholicism, engaging in some spectacular controversies with The Rock and other leading Protestant publications.
The editorial on the front of its first issue, dated 8th October 1860, declared: “a cheap Catholic newspaper is required – if only to stay the circulation of anti-Catholic weekly newspapers among Catholic families resident in London.”
In rhetoric entirely typical of the Catholicism of the period The Universe went on to pledge that it would: “uphold the dignity and independence of the Church both at home and abroad” and “shall be deaf to no cry of human suffering from whatever quarter it may come” and would be on the side of “the weak and the oppressed in days of trouble”.
More significantly it made clear its intentions to campaign for equality for Catholics: “It shall be our aim to obtain for Catholics the same rights and privileges, whether political or religious, as are enjoyed by our dissenting and infidel fellow subjects.”
The publication expanded significantly during the next two decades, producing London, regional and Home Counties editions, and at one stage even a late Saturday morning edi-tion. Relations between the newspaper and the hierarchy appeared solid, but from the outset The Universe had its critics, as an increasingly confident Catholic community began to form opinions as to what a Catholic newspaper should, and should not contain.
By 1912 it was becoming clear that the criticisms were not only coming from Catholic laity, but from the hierarchy as well. In an extended editorial in its edition of 12th December 1913 the then editor Gregory MacDonald was at pains to point out that: “We are all familiar with the criticism privately circulated among a certain class of both priests and laymen, by no means small in number, who from their superior eminence profess that they never read the Catholic papers, and yet presume to pronounce summary judgment on their quality and contents.”
MacDonald’s lengthy editorial goes on to reveal that he felt his comments were necessary because: “a local contemporary in the north [the Northern Press], which ably fulfils its special and limited function, and which we hope will continue to prosper, has, maladroitly we think, entered the lists of criticism against the organisation and character of the whole Catholic Press of England.”
The pages of the Northern Press from this period reveal that it was actively promoting the suggestion that its competitors, and The Universe in particular, was under the complete control of the hierarchy, who were seeking to manipulate Catholic opinion for their own ends – a charge which Macdonald was at great pains to deny.
Two decades later Relations between The Universe and the Catholic hierarchy appear to have broken down completely, under the strain of Macdonald’s increasingly eccentric editorship. Matters came to a head in July 1914 when Macdonald, a fascist sympathiser who was later to become close personal friend of Adolf Hitler, penned a stridently pro-German editorial just days before Britain entered the First World War. The effect was catastrophic. Circulation halved within weeks, and by 1917 – with the publication in open contempt of its readership, and increasingly isolated from the tacit support of the English Catholic hierarchy –The Universe was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy when a Bir-mingham Catholic businessman, Sir Martin Melvin, bought the ailing publication, pledged its unflinching support for the Catholic hierarchy, and transformed its fortunes.
The Catholic Herald
The origin of the first Catholic Herald goes back to the days of Cardinal Manning, whose consuming preoccupation with the plight of the English working classes , and his many pronouncements on their moral welfare led the social reformer Charles Diamond to de-scribe his new publication, The Catholic Herald, as “the organ of Catholic industrial de-mocracy.” The overt social justice agenda of the Herald was not popular with the English hierarchy. Bishop Casartelli of Salford declared that the ‘so-called Catholic Herald’ was a ‘ many headed hydra’ which had ‘surpassed itself in invective, not only against individual bishops and clergy, but against the very principles of ecclesiastical authority and the rights of the Church’ . Matters reached an all-time low in 1910, when Casartelli proposed a censure motion against the Herald at the bishops’ Low Week meeting.
When Diamond died in 1934 The Catholic Herald and its various regional editions was bought up by a group of influential Catholic laymen who had very different views to Diamond. Their intention was to retain the paper’s title and appearance (rather than launch an entirely new product), but to produce a newspaper who’s outlook was not exclusively focused on Catholic domestic news, but rather reflected the main issues of the day from the Catholic perspective.
The new directors felt that: “there was a real need for such a paper on account of the strong current running in opposition not only to the mission and the claim of the Church but even to the Christian life itself. As long as their religious belief is not openly challenged, Catholics are somewhat inclined to shut their eyes to these tendencies. Many of them, moreover, are accustomed to separate, so to speak, their lives into two compartments, the one closed and almost sectarian, the other indistinguishable from the public, business, or social life of other people.”
It was also felt very strongly that non-Catholics – especially those who might be potential converts – might be: “far more likely to read a ‘journal of opinion’ then a vehicle for spe-cifically Catholic news.” On the belief that Catholics needed to be actively engaging with public affairs, which required an informed knowledge of politics, theology and apologetics, the Herald allowed considerable space for readers’ letters , a practice with the paper continues to promote to this day.
The founder of the Tablet, Frederick Lucas, was a Quaker convert to Catholicism. On his conversion in December 1838 (at the age of 27) he published a pamphlet entitled Reasons for Becoming a Catholic that ran to three editions. His paper carried a wide mix of news, both political and legal as well as religious . Politically, The Tablet’s readers were mostly supportive of the Whigs because they had campaigned for the emancipation of Catholics, even though, when it arrived the Tories were actually in government.
The effects of emancipation on the Catholic community were only gradual and the majority of the Catholic population were reticent about drawing attention to themselves by discussing their faith publicly. Lucas had little time for such niceties, and was determined to create a Catholic publication that was both challenging and controversial. He regularly offended the hierarchy with his criticisms of the way the Church was run . Initially he had supported Wiseman’s appointment as assistant bishop for the whole of Southeast England , but they found that through subsequent visits, that they did not get on.
By 1851 Lucas had moved to Dublin . His attitude to Ireland and the Irish had undergone a profound change. At first he had supported the 1801 Act of Union, but after a visit to Ireland in 1843 he was converted to the cause of Repeal. He became increasingly preoc-cupied with Irish affairs, which in turn began to dominate the pages of his newspaper . Lucas succeeded in becoming Member of Parliament for Meath on the 26 July 1852, and began to devote increasing time to his political career, though he still wrote numerous strident political editorials. Not everyone was impressed by Lucas’s style – the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Clarendon, denounced The Tablet as: “one of the most offen-sive and virulent newspapers in Europe”.
If Lucas could be troublesome and difficult with politicians and bishops, he was none-theless a sincere and determined campaigner for the causes of ordinary Catholics, and especially the Irish clergy, whom he regarded as the only articulate spokesmen for the poor. For some time The Vatican’s Congregation of Propaganda had been expressing its concerns about the involvement of Irish clergy in the movement for repeal of the Act of Union. Matters came to a head in April 1855 when Archbishop Cullen of Dublin issued an edict banning the Irish clergy from attending political meetings. Enraged, Lucas published a letter from cardinal prefect Giacomo Fransoni, supporting priestly interference in politics where religion or charity impelled them to do so, but Cullen was reticent. Undeterred, Lucas secured a written testimonial of support for the Irish clergy from Cardinal Wiseman in London, and promptly departed for Rome to argue his case directly with the pope. He arrived in December 1854 and was welcomed by Pius IX, who asked him to say on in Rome and write an account of the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Poor health forced Lucas to return to England unexpected in May 1855; and he died from his condition on the 22nd October, his work unfinished.
Lucas’s successor was 34 year-old John Wallis, an Anglican convert and trenchant Tory with little or no sympathies for Irish nationalism. Immediately after Lucas’s death Wallis travelled to Dublin, purchased the newspaper, and brought it back to London, taking with him a stinging obituary for the paper from Archbishop Cullen . Relations between Wallis and the English hierarchy were significantly better, and his close relationship with Cardinal Wiseman helped to ensure that the paper remained a semi-official forum for publication of papal documents.
In 1868 Wallis left The Tablet to become secretary of the Catholic Union, and the paper was purchased by Father Herbert Vaughan, a rising Catholic intellectual whose enthusiastic support for papal primacy and infallibility – which were about to be discussed (and ratified) at the First Vatican Council – had attracted widespread attention and comment.
Despite his lack of experience in this field, Vaughan held strong views about The Tablet, and changed its emphasis from a newspaper to an intellectual magazine, even adding the words ‘Weekly Review’ to its title.
The issues produced during this period openly reflect Vaughan’s ultramontainism, and there are numerous references to the “spurious Liberalism” of the Continent, as well as the “great truths’ of Pius IX, and in particular his controversial Syllabus of Errors of 1864, which rejected the belief that the “Roman Pontiff can and ought to reconcile and adjust himself to progress, liberalism, and modern civilisation”.
Vaughan repeatedly gave assurances that there would be freedom of speech in The Tab-let , but he drew the line on criticisms of the doctrine of papal infallibility, which he was convinced would become a Catholic dogma. Other journals, particularly the Weekly Reg-ister, published letters opposing the doctrine, but The Tablet only did so when it was evi-dent that the definition of infallibility of the Pope would was going to be ratified by the First Vatican Council .
When he became Bishop of Salford in 1872 Vaughan found the duties of running The Tablet too onerous, so he passed them over to his assistant George Elliott Ranken. In 1884 the editor of The Tablet became John G. Snead-Cox, “a cousin of Vaughan through his mother” . Snead-Cox held the post for 36 years until 1920.
J.J. Dwyer wrote of his editorship that it “consolidated the position of The Tablet and raised it to the rank of a first-class periodical … Characterised by lucidity, courtesy and dignity. Snead-Cox, by origin an English country gentleman, was naturally and by con-viction a Conservative. The controversies of the period found many Catholics, especially those of Irish origin in sharp opposition to his views . Thus it came to pass that the legend that The Tablet is ‘anti-Irish’, was confirmed and strengthened” .
By the 1930s The Tablet was struggling. Vaughan had passed control of the publication to the Mill Hill Missionaries, who admitted there was nothing left to pay the contributors or the editor. These matters were discussed at a meeting of the trustees on the 8th October 1935, and On the 6th November they wrote to The Tablet’s then Editor Ernest Old-meadow with the news that the paper was insolvent .
The intention was to sell The Tablet to the Catholic bishops in equal shares and then run it as the newspaper of ‘Catholic Action’, but the bishops were very unsympathetic to this proposal. It was decided to offer the paper to Oldmeadow for £900, despite widespread opinions that Oldmeadow was a thoroughly negative influence on The Tablet . If they could not find the money the trustees proposed “to form a group of young Catholics who are interested in literary matters to take over and finance The Tablet”. After several un-suitable potential purchasers approached, Tom Burns, an editor of Longmans Green, made an offer of £500 and this was accepted . After nearly 68 years of clerical ownership, the paper was sold back into lay hands, becoming a fixture of Catholic middle-class house-holds, whilst still remaining true to its radical roots.
Part Three – Profile of The Universe
By the early 1900s the editorial style, underlying theology and readership profile of the surviving Catholic publications had become well defined. The Catholic Times, The Tablet and The Catholic Herald had each established niche readerships and reasonably stable circulations. It fell to The Universe to break new ground, as the publication rapidly became the largest-circulation religious newspaper in the world , setting new standards in Catholic journalism and defining English Catholic aspirations, attitudes and interests. The Universe not only guided the formation of the faith of its growing readership, for whom the paper had become an essential aspect of their daily lives, but it was sufficiently powerful as a result to exert considerable influence over the hierarchy and its intentions.
The newspaper was launched on the 8th October 1860 at the behest of Cardinal Wiseman in an effort to combat the hostility towards the Catholic Church in England. Wiseman, who was only 58 at the time, had been cardinal for 10 years, but was surrounded by dis-appointments and conflicts , and his health was failing badly. The creation of The Uni-verse was one of the few achievements he enjoyed during his final years.
Wiseman was temperamentally conservative, and steeped in Roman traditions and ways. Immense public controversy may have surrounded his arrival in England, but he rapidly acquired an intimate knowledge of actual conditions among Catholics in England, whose numbers were increasing rapidly. The Universe came into being primarily as their voice, dedicating itself to strengthening their sense of mutual confidence and common faith. At the same time it provided a regular platform where anti-Catholic campaigns could be countered by competent and eloquent Catholic commentators.
It became a bond of union among varied and widely scattered Catholic communities . It ensured that in all times of controversy the Catholic case could be clearly stated in an ac-cessible form; and that the needs and the just claims of the growing Catholic population could be asserted with real authority.
The earliest editions of The Universe necessarily reflect the triumphal tones that accom-panied the emergence of the Catholic hierarchy from obscurity: “Hushed is the howl of Protestantism and infidelity, consequent upon the re-establishment of our Catholic hierar-chy in England … Satisfactory it is, indeed, after the storm of scurrilous invective and Protestant abuse, experienced by the Church in 1850-1, to now enjoy a calm – to look around the ‘modern Babylon’ and see the Church flourishing, aye like an everlasting flower, which the more it is trampled on, the brighter it appears.”
Things were not so bright for ordinary Catholics, as The Universe began to discover. As early as June 1861 reports were reaching the paper of the extent to which Catholicism had become proscribed, especially amongst young children . The reports led to an uproar amongst concerned Catholics, and alerted the Catholic bishops to the need to ensure that provision was made to educate young Catholics in their faith. Within days of the first Universe reports appearing, Cardinal Wiseman had moved to establish a Poor School Committee in Westminster to address the crisis, and the entire front page of The Universe of the 15th June 1861 was given over to a pastoral letter in which he makes an urgent (and flamboyant) appeal for funds from the wealthy for Catholic education .
The cause of Catholic education remained at the forefront of The Universe’s editorials throughout the 1860s, and the paper was influential in forming Catholic opinion on this matter. In turn its circulation thrived to the extent that by the mid 1880s it was the largest-selling religious newspaper in the world.
Letters of congratulation from assorted members of the Catholic hierarch provide a clear picture of the their perceptions of the progress made by the paper in the 25 years since its inception. Manning offers the usual ‘ad multos annos’, but is intriguingly lukewarm in his praise: “The Universe has been, so far as I have known, invariably firm and faithful to the Holy See, and both useful and helpful in all our Catholic works and interests.”
Others are more ebullient. Herbert (later Cardinal) Vaughan, Bishop of Salford says: “The Universe can look back on its past life with a conviction that it has steadily served the Church; that week by week it has exposed error and calumny, and that it has constantly brought truth before the mind of a large class of readers, clothed in the tone and language which they best understand and appreciate.” John MacDonald, Bishop of Aberdeen declared: “Its price places it within reach of the poorest of Catholics, whilst the spirit and energy and uncompromising Catholic tone … render it deservedly popular.”
By the time of its golden jubilee edition, on the 9th December 1910, The Universe had in-corporated Catholic Weekly into its title, had increased its number of pages to 20 and car-ried advertisements for prayer books, Christmas cards, crib sets and missals and suggested presents for priests on its front page. Letters to the Editor column were concerned with abolition of capital punishment, a landslip at St Aloysius School, Highgate, and hymns in honour of the Immaculate Conception. The jubilee edition was also significant in that it contained several entire pages given over to retrospectives and letters of congratulation defining the paper’s progress, especially from the Catholic hierarchy.
Cardinal Bourne, like Manning 25 years earlier, congratulates the paper but adds a similar comment about obedience: “I trust that it will in the future ever show forth the same loyalty to the authority of the Catholic Church which has characterised it in the past.”
William Gordon, Bishop of Leeds, echoes his sentiments: “I most heartily approve of your paper. It is thoroughly Catholic, and I should like to see it in every Catholic house in my diocese. I have read The Universe for the last 30 years, and I shall continue to do so as long as it keeps on its present lines.”
That differences of opinion had occurred at The Universe is reflected in the newspaper’s own Jubilee Editorial: “Under three popes and four archbishops, The Universe has tried always to pursue in faithfulness the path of Catholic duty” but it admits that “on many public questions, political and other, in which the principle of liberty has not seemed contrary to the Church’s interests, our editors have from time to time taken up different attitudes: it would be wonderful indeed if the conductors of a paper for fifty years were moulded into a unity of outlook upon all the questions of the day!.”
Frederick William Keating, Bishop of Northampton, in his congratulatory letter, also makes a revealing comment about the Universe’s political balance: “Your present enter-prise of conducting a Catholic organ untied to any political party is doubtless arduous, but cannot fail to commend itself to the Hierarchy. Few of us are without strong political sympathies; yet most Catholics, at one or another crisis, recognise that part loyalty com-mits them to very strange bedfellows. A Catholic centre party in England is a far off ideal. But meanwhile, nothing will hasten so effectively that desirable event as a newspaper which professedly forms its judgements solely in the light of Catholic principles.”
Unfortunately the judgement of the newspaper appears to have a severe turn for the worst in 1914, when The Universe allegedly ran a pro-German editorial on the eve of the out-break of the First World War. Circulation slumped and by 1917 the paper was in serious financial difficulties and its future hung in the balance, although its July edition of that year it was to devote an entire front page to a commentary on proposals for a daily Catholic paper. Although the editorial recognises that a daily Catholic paper “once securely established would be an immense power for good” the remainder of the text elaborates the reasons why this is an impractical proposition, and calls upon the “Catholic body in England” not to “waste time upon Utopian discussions about the impossible Catholic daily, but to secure a more widespread support for the papers which we possess.”
In its conclusion, the editorial reveals that criticism of the Catholic press has become widespread but adds: that “a Catholic who does not read a Catholic newspaper, but is content to take all his information from the daily press, is left in ignorance of much that is essential that he should know, and is at the mercy of writers who continually present a misleading view of Catholic affairs.”
The change in The Universe’s fortunes came in September 1917, when a Birmingham businessman, Sir (then Mr.) Martin Melvin, bought the ailing publication and, although war-time restrictions prevented and significant increase in circulation, the appointment of Herbert S. Dean as editor, and the complete overhaul of the content and theological outlook of the paper, laid the grounds for its subsequent success.
By the time of its 75th anniversary, with its issue of the 6th December 1935, The Universe was a 48-page broadsheet paper that had changed beyond all recognition . Regular col-umnists like Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton and Ronald Knox were represented and helped to maintain some degree of theological stature, but advertising aimed at the emerging domestic interests of its readers , children’s pages, sports news and fiction with a moral undertone dominated the publication. Only passing mention was made of its 75 years, with a few brief references to past stories of significance.
The following year the Spanish Civil War brought The Universe into direct contact with a conflict involving a specifically Catholic dimension, and the paper wasted no time in re-cruiting reader support to the Franco cause . Reporting of the conflict commenced on the 31st July 1935, when a Universe correspondent, Milford Junior, who was on holiday in Spain with his wife and seven children, filed copy saying that he had toured Barcelona and had been unable to find a Catholic church that had not been burned. “Bodies of nuns were taken out of their graves and burned. Some bodies were exhibited with offensive labels attached to them,” added Mr. Junior.
Reports such as these continued to pre-occupy The Universe throughout 1936 and in Oc-tober the newspaper called on the generosity of its readers to raise sufficient funds to buy urgent medical supplies for Franco’s forces. The response was overwhelming, enabling the paper not only to send a substantial quantity of supplies, but also two brand new field ambulances, duly inscribed “from the readers of The Universe”.
The paper continued to espouse the Franco cause throughout the war, supported by the encouragement and financial generosity of its readers, and fuelled by a stream of pro-nouncements from Rome and the English hierarchy that the shadow of communism was the greatest threat to world peace. However by the early months of 1939 the rise of the Nazi movement had begun to overshadow other considerations, and significantly in the Universe of the 31st March the news that Franco had been victorious in Madrid made the front page, but only as a minor second story to the news that Hitler had suppressed the Jesuit College at St. Blasien in the Black Forest.
Throughout 1939 the paper and its readers were preoccupied with prayers for peace, fol-lowing numerous calls for conciliation from the newly elected pope, Pius XII. Its front page for the 1st September declared: “Day and night the Holy Father, the Papal Secretariat of State and the nuncios in European capitals are working and praying that the threatened world war may be averted.” By special request from The Vatican, the paper published the text of the Pope’s plea to world leaders in full.
By the following week war the tone had darkened significantly, and another special request saw a speech given by Archbishop Downey of Liverpool reproduced in full on the front page in which he laid out clearly for readers the justifications for going to war . The following week, the 15th September, the declaration of war was reported, alongside a special editorial from Bishop Dey, Ordinary to HM Forces, declaring that “Hitlerism is the deadly enemy of the Church of Christ”, this phrase becoming the front page headline.
Unflinching support for the military campaign continued throughout the war years, as The Universe provided moral and pastoral support to its readers, many of whom were either in the armed forces, or were relatives of those fighting.
By the time the atomic bomb had fallen on Hiroshima on the 6th August 1945 both The Universe and its readership appear to have become fully convinced of the justifications for war. In a rushed front page announcement in its edition of the 10th August the paper adopts an uncomfortably judgemental tone beginning: “Four years ago, on Easter Sunday 1941, the Holy Father – a voice crying in the wilderness – warned humanity against the possibility which has now become a reality in the atomic bomb.”
The editor’s triumphal tone could be forgiven on the grounds that The Universe was going to press just as the news about Hiroshima broke, but the following week’s paper is less forgivable, its front page informing readers only that the devastated city of Nagasaki, where the second bomb fell, was “a city of martyrs before its obliteration, where the faith was kept alive for 300 years although there were no priests.” In the subsequent weeks and months The Universe exercised a complete news blackout on the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bombs.
In the decade immediately following the Second World War the circulation of The Universe continued to rise dramatically, as did membership of the Catholic Church in England generally. A peak was reached with its edition of the 12th October 1959, which ran to an initial print run of 300,000 copies, with an additional 200,000 on a reprint run. Dark clouds were on the horizon however, as the Catholic Church moved towards the controversy and division that was the Second Vatican Council in 1962/3. Within five years of the Council, Catholicism in England was collapsing and the fortunes of The Universe (and indeed all English Catholic publications) went with it. Open rebellion amongst ordinary Catholics on issues such as contraception, the use of vernacular language, and liturgical reforms led to a dramatic decline in Mass attendance, as well as more than 80,000 priests and religious deserting the Catholic Church. By 1965 the circulation of The Universe had plummeted to a mere 150,000 copies, and the publication – which is sold exclusively at the back of parish churches – continued to mirror declining Mass attendance figures, to its present day sale of around 60,000 copies weekly.
Any discussion of the merits or failings of the Catholic press presumes upon a clear defi-nition of what a Catholic publication ought to be. From the time they began to appear, this was clearly a matter of considerable debate and difference of opinion – with no clear consensus between those producing them, those reading them or those who were the subject of their content. Many of the Catholic newspapers launched in the second half of the 19th century seem to have arisen, not through positive intentions at all, but rather as antidotes to the alleged theological failings of preceding titles.
Within 20 years of the first titles appearing, Catholic journalism was clearly trying to define itself as a specific vocation, but conflicts were apparent in the need to balance conventional journalistic instincts against fidelity to the Catholic Church. This tension is evident throughout the subsequent century, and still preoccupies the Church and the Catholic media today.
With the advent of mass communication in the early 1960s the need to define concise pa-rameters for Catholic journalism became critically urgent. Across the many theological issues discussed at the Second Vatican Council, reference was constantly made to the need to harness the mass media as a tool for evangelisation and the dissemination of Catholic doctrines.
In order to address this issue the Council published a Decree that laid down some basic principles for Catholic journalism . However, it was evident that a more comprehensive guide was needed, and a Pontifical Commission was appointed to formulate a Pastoral Instruction, which was eventually released on the 29th January 1971 . This document – which contains and entire section titled ‘The Printed Word’ – remains the central reference point for assessments about the Catholic press , and is a useful guide to assessing the contribution and theological integrity of earlier Catholic periodicals.
The hope of the Vatican Council was that Catholic publications would hold true, not only to the doctrines of the Church, but also to the pastoral intentions of the hierarchy, and that in turn the clergy and laity would reciprocate with an obligation to support the Catholic press, and to encourage the faithful to read Catholic papers . This plea had a particular resonance for England, where such commonality of purpose seems rarely to have existed. With roots and resources drawn from secular journalism, the earliest English Catholic newspapers applied an overtly enquiring and critical analysis to Church affairs, at precisely the time when the newly established hierarchy was seeking to establish individual reputations, doctrinal integrity and – at times – blatant personal agendas and ambitions.
The exception was The Universe, which from the outset established its marketplace on the basis of unquestioning obedience to the English hierarchy, an outlook that predominates the publication to the present day.
Individually, the history of each of the English Catholic newspapers reveals imperfections of style, content and theological purpose, though it must also be remembered that Catholic journalism has never been particularly well remunerated and Catholic publishing companies have never been successful commercial enterprises. As a consequence, any judgement on the effectiveness of Catholic periodicals must first acknowledge the logistical and financial limitations that the titles laboured under.
Although some Catholic editors clearly followed narrow personal and political agendas, some of which were not entirely in tune with Roman Catholic theology, all seem to have edited their publications with integrity and a deep sense of Catholic duty, though this was not always in sympathetic resonance with the thinking of the English clergy.
For its part the English hierarchy saw the value of Catholic newspapers initially as public platforms for their own agendas, to the extent of direct ownership and editorial control, but the precarious financial circumstances of Catholic newspapers made them unattractive liabilities that eventually outweighed their theological value.
Today The Universe, The Tablet, The Catholic Times and The Catholic Herald are all in private hands, with only the occasional token presence at boardroom level from hierarchy insiders, who certainly have no direct influence over editorial policies. Few members of the hierarchy overtly encourage Catholics to read a Catholic newspaper, and the English Catholic press is predominantly cynical in its writings about the English bishops, revealing that – despite the best intentions of the Second Vatican Council – relations between the Catholic press and the English Catholic hierarchy have improved little since such publications began.
If the English Catholic press can be nevertheless credited with a vital contribution in the reporting of Catholic news and issues, it has fared less well in leaving its readers a picture of a Church divided and confused on countless domestic and theological issues, and the English Catholic press must take its measure of responsibility especially for the decline in English Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council.
Ironically, the impasse has been the result of nothing more than poor communication, the very problem for which the Catholic press was supposedly an antidote. Mutual misunder-standings and antagonisms may have produced some entertaining editorial confrontations over the years, but the broader value of English Catholic newspapers to Catholics, and to the aspirations of the English Catholic hierarchy, remains questionable.
Kester Aspden, Fortress Church, Gracewing, Leominster, 2002
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Mary McInally, Edward Ilsley, Archbishop of Birmingham, Burns & Oates, London, 2002
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