Fr. Bliven in 1850
Fr. Bliven in 1850

He joined the Catholic Sentinel when Pius XII was in the Vatican and Ike was in the White House. Father Edmond Bliven could have served admirably in either place.

The priest whose booming laugh could send the pens rolling off our desks remained a friend of the newspaper and a contributor for more than 50 years. He was the oldest Sentinelian at the time of his death in 2019.

His learned and direct editorials were a favorite of many Oregon Catholics starting in 1958.

“We were still in the counter-Reformation years,” Father Bliven once said of his start at the Sentinel. A layman, Gorman Hogan, had been named new editor, but there was little trust of laity when it came to the paper’s opinion pages, which called for theological knowhow. Father Bliven, an intellectual prodigy, was put in charge at age 33.

A north Salem native, he formed local Catholic opinion at a time of massive changes in the church.

Father Bliven said the Sentinel from 1958 to 1968 sought intelligent coverage and commentary, not strident advocacy. Oregonians, he explained, were suspicious of zealots, whether conservative or liberal. 

The culture wars that followed “Humanae Vitae” and Roe v. Wade changed that approach to some extent. The church had to defend its core teachings and take strong stands. That shifted the tone of the Sentinel.

Father Bliven told one interviewer in 1994 that the archbishops never interfered with his editorials and points of view. But in a conversation six months before his death, the priest relayed an exception to the rule.

In the early 1960s he had a blow-up with Archbishop Edward Howard, who had been leading the archdiocese since 1926. Father Bliven had written an editorial sympathetic to women religious who wanted to branch out from teaching and enter other ministries. Archbishop Howard, a champion of Catholic education, was not amused and called the young priest into his office. Everyone knew that if the vein on the archbishop’s forehead were standing out, there was trouble. On this day, the vessel was a good half inch in protuberance.

“He gave me hell,” Father Bliven said. “Anyone in the whole building could hear what was going on.”

A priest friend had advised the young editor simply to listen and nod as the archbishop raged. But he could not help himself and stood up for the nuns.   

“That just made him madder,” Father Bliven said. “When I came out of Howard’s office, everybody had their heads under their desks.”

Father Bliven survived and was widely trusted. Msgr. Thomas Tobin, a leading priest of the archdiocese at the time of the Second Vatican Council, took part in the great gathering in Rome. He snuck Father Bliven into the sessions and the priest sent dispatches to the Sentinel.

More than 50 years later, as he sat in the living room of a nursing facility, Father Bliven was most concerned with the old controversy over artificial birth control. That was a debate illustrative of the church after Vatican II, Father Bliven said.

“People wondered,” he concluded, “what could change in church teaching and what could not. That is still the question we Catholics ask every day.”