A Catholic Editor, and Much More  

Some thoughts, if I may, on the recent passing of a fellow Catholic diocesan newspaper editor.  

Don Zirkel, who died Jan. 23 at age 95, worked at the venerable Brooklyn Tablet (the first, and now last surviving, diocesan publication in our NYC-Long Island area) for 37 years—17 of them, from 1968-1985, as its editor.

But as Newsday’s Bart Jones detailed in a terrific obituary piece, Don Zirkel was more than a Catholic journalist.

While not infrequently challenging its governance and precepts, his was a lifetime of service to the Church, from his days as a high school seminarian; to his time as a corporal and assistant Army chaplain serving stateside during the Korean war; and, from 1979 on, as an ordained deacon.

He was an activist, especially in retirement, not only advocating for the social causes he believed in so strongly, but also immersing himself in service to others, volunteering in soup kitchens and in missions to Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

And he was a devoted family man, who with his late wife Marie had nine children.  

I believe I only met Don once, when, in retirement in the 1990s, he joined us as a panelist on one of our Catholic Forum television shows on the diocesan Telecare channel, where we gathered Catholic journalists for lively discussions of religious, cultural, and public policy issues.

In many ways we differed in outlook.

As editor of his diocesan newspaper, Bart Jones pointed out, Don Zirkel “used his perch to challenge people, right up to the pope.” He advocated for women priests, and “allowed for dissent on the church’s teaching on birth control.”

I, too, during a later, different era, tried to use my editorship of The Long Island Catholic to challenge people. But I also felt a diocesan newspaper was a teaching instrument for the Church, that should be clear and faithful in articulating, explaining, and defending her teachings and practices.

He editorialized against right-to-lifers as “politically naïve” for their opposition, back in the 1970s, to the gubernatorial candidacy of then-Rep. Hugh Carey, a kind of “favorite son” of the Brooklyn Diocese.

In the late 2000s, I criticized social justice Catholics for attacking Rep. Paul Ryan as anti-poor over conservative economic proposals that he contended were the most effective approach to lifting people out of poverty.         

As an activist, Don focused on peace and justice issues. My activism, both before and after my time at The Long Island Catholic, has been primarily in the pro-life cause.

But whatever our differences, I found Don Zirkel, in our limited interactions, to be always thoughtful, respectful, and civil in tone—qualities glaringly lacking in today’s public discourse.

During my time as editor, he occasionally sent a letter to the editor—tweaking us at times, over editorials like one on Memorial Day that he felt gave insufficient emphasis to the need for peace advocacy, and one differing with what we argued were dangers to the elderly and terminally ill posed by provisions in Obamacare.

But he also took the time to write when he liked something in the paper, once commending us for giving consistent attention to the voices and activities of lay Catholics throughout the diocese. Coming from such a distinguished veteran of Catholic journalism, I appreciated both his well thought out criticisms and his encouragements.

Finally, Bart Jones reminded us of the incident back in 2008, when Don Zirkel found himself under arrest for entering the Smith Haven Mall wearing a T-Shirt with an anti-Iraq War message. Following a peace rally outside the mall, he and his wife had gone in for a cup of coffee. Told to leave or turn his shirt inside out, Don refused—and was carted off to jail.

Eventually the charges were dropped; but we should all be profoundly grateful—whatever our views on the subject of his protest—for his courage, and his willingness, at age 80, to spend several hours in jail to uphold his—and our—First Amendment freedom of speech.

That has particular resonance right now, amid revelations that following last January’s March for Life in our nation’s capital, two government agencies prohibited groups of pro-lifers from wearing buttons or clothing with pro-life messages inside their buildings. The National Archives ordered a group of pro-lifers to remove or cover up their messages, while the Smithsonian ejected 12 students and their chaperones of Our Lady of the Rosary School in Greenville, South Carolina for wearing wool caps that read simply, “Rosary pro-life.”

In both cases—after the American Center for Law and Justice got involved—the federal institutes apologized, and acknowledged that the actions taken against the pro-lifers were in violation of their normal policy.

Don Zirkel clearly understood that freedom of speech goes hand in hand with freedom of religion, also protected by the First Amendment. He spent his entire life exercising both, and defending his right to do so, as he sought to promote justice and peace as he understood them to be taught by his Catholic faith.

Whatever our differences, this Catholic is grateful for his witness and his courage.

Published by Rick Hinshaw

I have spent the last three decades in primarily Catholic communications work: as a reporter, news editor, columnist, and for eight years editor of The Long Island Catholic; several years as co-host and co-producer of The Catholic Forum program on the diocesan Telecare channel; two stints as Director of Communications for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; and a year as Associate Director for Communications at the New York State Catholic Conference. I also served for three years as Public Information Officer for the late Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon, a staunchly Catholic and active pro-life leader. Over that more than 30-year career, I have gained an ever deeper understanding of and appreciation for the moral and social teachings of our Church. In my various roles I have lent my voice to articulating those teachings and their applicability to the critical issues of our time. That is what I intend to do with this blog. Moreover, at a time when our political and social disagreements seem to have degenerated into constant vitriol, vilification, verbal abuse and intolerance of those who hold differing opinions, I hope that this blog can contribute, in some small way, to a restoration of respectful debate and discussion, where we can defend our beliefs forcefully without demonizing any who disagree with us. As a Catholic commentator, that is what I have always striven to do--remembering that even as we are called to stand firmly in defense of our Church, her teachings, and our right to be heard in the public square, we are also called always to be the face of Christ to the world--most especially to those with whom we disagree.

4 thoughts on “A Catholic Editor, and Much More  

  1. Don was a frequent attendee at Mass and functions at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal church in Wyandanch. His popularity was reflected by his memorial service and the gathering afterward. He was kind enough to make a point of often thanking me for my monthly lector service and lenten readings etc.


    1. Thanks, John, yes, when I first read Bart Jones’ obituary article, I must not have gotten to the very end, and so didn’t realize that that memorial service was still upcoming. I would have liked to attend, but by the time I reread the article while writing this blog, it had already passed. May he rest in peace.


  2. When my father was still alive and living in the Diocese of Brooklyn, during Don Zirkel’s time as editor of the Tablet, he was upset and scandalized by Zirkel’s columns in which he often contradicted long-standing church teachings. After all, this was a Catholic newspaper! Back in those days, however, it began to be rather common-placed for even priests to do the same, with little regard for any disciplinary measures that never seemed to come, at least as far as rank-and-file Catholics ever heard.

    What were the bishops thinking, in that diocese and Rockville Center and probably many others across the country, in allowing the authority of church teaching to be treated like any social issue that was to be modernized and adjusted to a majority rules level because of scientific “advancements” in controlling the natural outcome of using the God-given gift of human sexuality, amongst other things?!

    I was later pleased when I noticed a rather significant change in the openness of church-teaching contradictions in the early years of the 21st century. Unfortunately, this seemed to come after the general public’s outcry against the handling of all the sexual abuse charges against priests regarding minors, some coming years after being committed. Not only was the public horrified at the actions themselves, but at the ways in which they were dealt with on the diocesan level. The Catholic Church was being challenged on a its morality by a general public whose moral code seemed to be seriously weakened over the course of several decades. This was certainly a wake-up call for the church.

    The stories came out of parents going to their pastors with the claims, and bishops being responsible for transfers of these priests, sometimes to other parishes where they would again have regular access to minors, rather than the logical and appropriate response of strict control over the individual or even police action, if necessary. In many cases, parents were not eager to involve police as their first recourse out of respect to their parish, the church and probably to protect their children from further trauma.

    Well, we have all heard that God works in mysterious ways. It is my belief that all of these things have led to a much- needed reform in the church, and its leadership was shamed by its own moral laxity and the errors of its ways. Reflection brought remorse and an openness to a spiritual reawakening. The casual tolerance of dissent was reigned in, and a new respect for the work of the Spirit in church teaching was “born-again!”

    It is generous of you to pay tribute to the memory of Mr. Zirkel, and indeed, he was correct to champion free speech in the public vein, but that freedom should not have been extended to his “pulpit” as editor of a Catholic diocesan newspaper. It appears that his superiors were complicit in this tolerance and their tacit approval was not helpful to the editor’s mindset in regard to some critical church teachings.
    However, it is uplifting to hear of his many charitable efforts even well into his retirement. This man seemed to be very kind of heart, and also importantly, as you pointed out, respectful to his critics.

    May he rest in peace with the Lord.

    Opinion submitted by Eileen Feather of Fort Myers, Fl. (former member, until retirement, of both the Diocese of Brooklyn as well as Rockville Center.)


    1. Thanks so much, Eileen, your thoughts are in line with mine on the use of official Church communication outlets as vehicles for regular dissent from Church teachings. While anyone is free to accept or reject the teachings of the Church, it has been my position that Catholics have a right to know, and understand, what it is they are accepting or rejecting. And so I was determined, as editor, that when people read The Long Island Catholic they should come away not confused about Catholic teaching, but better informed about what the Church teaches and why.

      When last you wrote, I wondered where you are now. I assumed you were no longer on Long Island, glad now to know you were able to retire to Florida. Hope all is well.


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