The Wanderer at 140....
JOSEPH MATT: EDITOR
IS DESERVING OF STUDY
by Paul Likoudis
tenth in a series
In the inaugural edition of the English-language The Wanderer, January 8, 1931, Joseph Matt, then mid-way through his 65 year tenure as publisher and editor of this newspaper, wrote: “One would needs have to write the history of the past sixty years of the Catholic Church in the Northwest to do full justice to the important part The Wanderer has played.”
As one of his successors, I would say that Joseph Matt is a worthy subject for any doctoral student studying the history of the Church in the United States in the first two thirds of the 20th century, for he was at the hub of every worthy development and a fearless journalist in the service of the Church.
Indeed, as Fr. John Kulas observed in his history, Der Wanderer of St. Paul: The First Decade, 1867-1877 (Peter Lang, 1996), one of Der Wanderer’s greatest achievements through its promotion of the German cultural heritage, especially art, music, literature, poetry, its celebration of family life, its promotion of solidarity, Catholic social action and social charity, was that German Catholics never developed a “ghetto mentality.”
Joseph Matt (1877-1966), who stepped into the editorship of the German-language Der Wanderer in June 1899, was a man of prodigious energy and talent. Having emigrated from Kirrweiler, Germany at the age of 17, and settling in Buffalo, N.Y., then a booming city with a thriving German-Catholic population, he attended the Jesuits’ Canisius College on a scholarship, and set out on his journalistic career, working at German-Catholic dailies in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, where he was noticed by Der Wanderer’s editor Hugo Klapproth.
In a tribute to his grandfather, Michael Matt, editor of The Remnant wrote:
“His hard-hitting style drew the attention of Hugo Klapproth, the editor of Der Wanderer in St. Paul, Minnesota. When invited by Mr. Klapproth in 1897 to join his staff, he gladly accepted, journeyed to St. Paul and began his long career as a Catholic journalist and editor. After 65 years in harness as editor of the weekly magazine (one of the longest in U.S. history), he was honored by the Catholic Press Association as the Catholic Editor Emeritus in America.
“During these 65 years Joseph Matt dealt with many issues of import, not only in the Church but also in politics and the world at large. Because he spoke six languages fluently, his coverage of world news was an exceptionally well-informed and sought after feature of Der Wanderer. During the Great Depression and then on through the years of World War II and on into the Vietnam era, no Catholic journalists provided readers and historians alike with a more complete
historical record than Joseph Matt and his team of writers....
“He continued Der Wanderer’s strong stand against the Americanism heresy, and, very early on, saw the dangers of Hitler and National Socialism in Germany. So outspoken was he against Nazism and what he called ‘its reckless “Fuehrer”,’ that by the late 1930s Der Wanderer became one of the first publications outside Germany to be forbidden in the Hitler Reich and in countries occupied later on – an action which, due to the large number of subscribers in Germany at
that time, almost brought about the demise of the paper....
“Joseph Matt’s denunciation of both Nazism and Communism from the perspective of a Catholic historian and American editor was so powerful, in fact, that Der Wanderer brought down the wrath of both the Nazis and the Soviets at the same time. In the January 16,1964 issue of The Wanderer, Joseph Matt explained how it had been during the war. He wrote:
“‘Then, too, the rise of Hitlerism in Germany and the responsibility of keeping our readers in Germany and Austria as well as in America informed of the dangers inherent in this radical movement and its reckless ‘Fuehrer’ was a further reason to keep our German publications intact for the time being. Hitler and his cohorts were only too well aware of the unyielding opposition of The Wanderer, and, in point of fact, ours was one of the first publications outside Germany to be forbidden in the Hitler Reich and in countries occupied later on. We had at that time about three thousand readers of our annual Wanderer-Kalender [almanac which Joseph Matt had
founded in 1902].
“‘This loss was, of course, a severe blow to a small business. Nevertheless, even to this day the lie is occasionally circulated that The Wanderer is a ‘Nazi paper.’ Several years ago a big radio
advertiser [the actor, Orson Welles] had to pay damages for circulating the same lie when we took our case to court. Shortly afterwards, the official Communist Russian organ, Pravda, tried to prevail on our Government to suppress The Wanderer because of its intransigent anti-Communist position, and this, in fact, seems to indicate the chief source of the continuing propaganda against our paper.’”
In 1926, Pope Pius XI recognized Matt’s service to the Church by naming him a Knight of St. Gregory. In 1956, the German government honored him with its Bundesverdienstkreuz, the Federal Meritorious Cross, for his opposition to the Third Reich. He was active in numerous organizations, apostolates and movements.
He was a leader of the Central Verein and the Catholic Aide Society. He was not only a leading actor and fund-raiser for building St. Agnes Church in St. Paul, but was a very close collaborator with Fr. Virgil Michel, OSB, at St. John’s Abbey, in promoting the Liturgical Movement and Catholic social action. His stature in the Catholic community was such that he was asked by North Dakota’s Bishop Aloisius J. Muench to serve on the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and the commission that produced the Manifesto on Rural Life, published August 15, 1939.
WHY THE NAZIS
HATED THE WANDERER
With 3,000 readers in Nazi Germany, Joseph Matt was constantly kept informed of the Nazi Party’s attacks on the Catholic Church, and his newspaper could reliably inform its American readers of Hitler’s campaign against the Church, which intensified in early 1937 after Hitler closed all the Catholic schools in Bavaria (Pope Benedict XVI would have been 10 at the time), and Pope Pius XI responded to the militant paganism of the Third Reich with the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Heart, March 21, 1937).
As Hitler’s anti-Jewish decrees increasingly barred Jews from public life, his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, ratchet-upped his campaign vilifying the Catholic Church, portraying it as a menace to society, a propaganda pitch used with some frequency, it now appears.
The Nazis war on the Catholic Church in Germany reached white hot intensity in April 1937, after Chicago’s George William Cardinal Mundelein delivered a well-covered speech denouncing Hitler and his Third Reich for its ongoing “monk trials,” designed to portray Catholic priests and brothers as homosexual pederasts to justify the closing of all Catholic schools and forcing Catholic school children into “non-confessional” schools.
Before 500 Catholic prelates and priests assembled for the quarterly diocesan conference at Quigley Preparatory Seminary on May 18, 1937, Cardinal Mundelein excoriated the Nazi Government:
“The fight is to take the [2,000,000 German] children away from us. ... Perhaps you will ask how it is that a nation of 60,000,000 people, intelligent people, will submit in fear and servitude to an alien, an Austrian paperhanger, and a poor one at that, I am told. . . . During and after the World War the German Government complained bitterly of the propaganda aimed at it by the Allies concerning atrocities perpetrated by German troops. Now the present German Government is making use of this same kind of propaganda against the Catholic Church and is giving out
through its crooked Minister of Propaganda stories of wholesale immorality in religious institutions in comparison to which the War time propaganda is almost like bedtime stories for children.”
That speech threw Goebbels into a fit of anger, and he responded with a public address to 20,000 National Socialists at a public rally at Berlin’s Deutschland Hall. The New York Times reported, under the headline, “Goebbels Lashes Catholic Church on Morals Issues,” May 29, 1937:
“Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, replied tonight before 20,000 shouting National Socialists in Deutschland Hall to the recent anti-Nazi speech by Cardinal Mundelein, Archbishop of Chicago, in the most scathing public attack on the Christian confessions delivered to date by any member of the government.
“Most of the attack was directed against the Catholic Church. Dealing with its responsibility for the immorality trials of monks and lay brothers, Dr. Goebbels issued a challenge to Catholicism and Protestantism that neither can overlook or misunderstand....
“He trembled with rage as he spoke of reports of religious persecution in Germany appearing in the foreign press, while the crowd drowned his voice in shouts of ‘Traitors!’ ‘Out with them!’ and ‘Hang them!’....”
Goebbels spoke for two hours, ranting that clerical immorality was causing “hair-raising moral chaos” in the country.
At one point he said, “When, therefore, it is declared in Church circles that the publication of what goes on at these trials endangers the morals of youth, I must point out that it is not the newspapers but the criminal sexual trespasses of the Catholic clergy which is threatening the physical and moral well-being of German youth.
“And I can declare,” he continued, “in the fullest measure to the German people now listening to me that this sex plague must and will be ruthlessly extirpated. And if the Church has proved itself to be too weak for this task, then the State will carry it out!...
“I speak here as a German National Socialist, as the father of a family whose most valuable personal earthly possessions are his four children, whose education he must entrust to public instruction when they reach the proper age.
“As such, I can understand the feelings of those parents who have seen their children – their most precious possession – delivered to bestial and unscrupulous defilers of youth. I believe, too, that I speak in the name of thousands of German parents who think with fear and disgust that their own innocent children might some time be morally and physically corrupted in this way by consciousless seducers.
“For years,” he continued, “the Catholic Church has attacked the Nationalist Socialist State and the National Socialist movement with pastoral letters in which it complains emotionally of the alleged morals of our times.
“Although the attack on the National Socialist regime by Cardinal Mundelein comes from abroad, its instigators, as we well know, are in Germany, and they belong to those circles that are directly involved in the prosecutions.
“What are the plain facts in the case? Germany, like every other civilized State, has inscribed on its penal code laws against sex immorality and juvenile defilement. These laws apply to everyone, including the clergy....
“The situation in Germany is not a case of individual acts,” he continued, “but of a general decadence of morals more shocking than anything in the entire history of humanity....”
On the same page as this report appeared, the New York Times also carried an Associated Press report datelined St. Paul, Minn., headlined, “Seven more U.S. Catholic Prelates Condemn Nazi Regime.”
The report began: “Statements by Catholic Bishops of seven states condemning the Nazi regime in Germany were published here today in The Wanderer, German Catholic newspaper...”
It is not possible for this reporter to determine precisely what the contribution was that Joseph Matt made to the National Catholic Rural Life Conference’s 1939 Manifesto on Rural Life, but one can speculate he gave his full energy to the tasks assigned him to gather information and to work on the editorial committee that produced the final document, under the direction of Bishop Muench.
Every aspect of this document, its 16 chapters in 66 pages, on such topics as, “The Rural Catholic Family,” “Farm Ownership and Land Tenancy,” “Catholic Rural Education,” “Rural Catholic Youth,” “Rural Church Expansion,” “Rural Health,” “Rural Social Charity,” “Rural Credit,” “Rural Taxation,” etc., would have been issues he was intimately familiar with as editor of a national Catholic weekly with a predominantly rural readership.
The 1939 Manifesto remains as timely today as it was when it was published, even if it is not much more needed today, since most of the problems it addressed and solutions it proposed for improving rural life were shunted aside as the nation prepared for and then fought World War II, and never subsequently addressed: such as the flight from the countryside to the cities, rural poverty, industrial-scale farming, land tenancy, the inadequacy of rural health services, etc.
Though nothing in this Manifesto can be directly attributed to Joseph Matt, one can certainly believe he would stand with his close friend Fr. Virgil Michel, OSB, who endorsed the Manifesto’s call for rural cooperatives:
“....[This] movement aims at common cooperative work for all for the sake of a decent livelihood for all; it aims at the maximum distribution of goods among all men. Its attitude towards material goods is the true Christian attitude based on the principles that the goods of this earth are there to serve as instruments for the decent living of men as moral and intellectual personalities, and for the decent living of all men without exception....
“Christian life is the life of a supernatural fellowship in which all the members pray and live in mutual spiritual cooperation. For a right living of the supernatural life, all the members of the fellowship need a sufficiency of material goods as instrumental means; and they need to obtain these with relative ease in order to give time and effort to their moral and spiritual development. For the acquiring of the necessary material goods by all with relative mutual ease, the mutual cooperation of the members of the fellowship is necessary. Hence the members of the Christian fellowship must give one another mutual or cooperative aid also in the economic field,” wrote Fr. Michel in The Cooperative Movement and the Liturgical Movement, 1936.