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Still the Church of the Workingman

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Mark Gordon - published on 08/31/14

The bishops have once again reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on the dignity of work.

On this Labor Day, the Catholic bishops of the United States have once again reaffirmed the universal Church’s teaching on the dignity of work and the rights of workers, and called for economic and social reforms that will make that teaching a concrete reality in lives of millions.

Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, was the author of this year’s Labor Day statement. In it, he said that “Labor Day gives us the chance to see how work in America matches up to the lofty ideals of our Catholic tradition.” Although some American workers had found a respite in the slowly recovering national economy, “Digging a little deeper, however, reveals enduring hardship for millions of workers and their families.”

Archbishop Wenski points out that the poverty rate is still high, the economy is not producing enough quality jobs, there are two unemployed workers for every available job, and millions more part-time workers who would rather be working full-time.

But the bishop’s major concern is young people. “The unemployment rate for young adults in America, at over 13 percent, is more than double the national average (6.2 percent),” he writes. “For those fortunate enough to have jobs, many pay poorly.”

The statement goes on to link poor employment prospects among young people to the tumbling marriage rate in the United States. “Among young adults, the decline in marriage has been steeper [than the general population], at 40 percent,” the archbishop writes. “Although not the only reason, many young adults, because they are unable to find decent work, are delaying marriage and starting a family.”

The archbishop also invokes the Catholic tradition of strong support for organized labor. “At their best,” he writes, “labor unions and institutions like them embody solidarity and subsidiarity while advancing the common good. They help workers ‘not only have more, but above all be more… [and] realize their humanity more fully in every respect’ (Laborem Exercens, No. 20). Yes, unions and worker associations are imperfect, as are all human institutions. But the right of workers to freely associate is supported by Church teaching in order to protect workers and move them—especially younger ones, through mentoring and apprenticeships—into decent jobs with just wages.”

Since the late 19th Century, the Catholic Church in the United States has been a staunch advocate for labor unions, especially in the industrial sector. Conscious that the waves of Catholic, working class immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and elsewhere needed the Church to be their voice, generations of American priests and bishops worked closely with labor leaders to roll back exploitative practices and bring some measure of justice to the lives and labor of working people.

They were informed by Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum,” the founding document of modern Catholic Social Teaching, and exemplified by so-called “labor priests” like Monsignor Jack Ryan,Fr. John Hayes, Msgr. George Higgins, and the Jesuits Philip Carey and John “Pete” Corridan, made famous by Karl Malden’s portrayal of him in “On the Waterfront.”

These priests and the countless Catholic laymen and women inspired by them helped to organize steel workers, longshoremen, miners, auto and farm workers, and every other trade. They acted as the conscience of labor, fighting corruption within unions themselves and, perhaps most importantly, checking the radicalism that always threatened to infect the movement. That the United States never gave birth to a credible Communist movement among the working classes is largely due to the counter-influence of the Catholic Church, its social teaching, and the “labor priests.”

But in recent decades the strong bond between the Church and the labor movement has waned. This estrangement has taken place for many reasons. Perhaps most notable is the fact that the Democratic Party, long the political home of working class Catholics, has in recent decades enthusiastically embraced so-called “abortion rights,” often with the acquiescence of the labor movement.  This, in turn, led many Catholics to embrace the Republican Party, with its antipathy toward labor and preferential option for business.

Another important element in the deterioration of Church-labor relations has been the decline of unions themselves. Union membership in the United States reached its peak in 1955, when around 35% of all American workers belonged to a union. Today, only 12% of American workers are unionized, and among private sector workers that figure is seven percent. The average union member today is more likely to be a teacher, fireman or some other professional public employee than a trucker, pipefitter, line assembly worker or stevedore.

Finally, the demographic make-up of the Catholic Church has changed, as well. Once largely made up of immigrants – at least in and around major cities—the American Church today is overwhelmingly native born and hyphenated (as in Italian-American, rather than Italian). Once bursting at the seams with the working classes, today the Church is solidly middle class and suburban.

Which is not to say that there aren’t labor problems today, or that those problems don’t carry important implications for the Catholic Church in America. Numerous recent studies have shown that the working and less educated classes, which account for tens of millions of Americans, are abandoning the Church altogether. These are the folks who work at Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, or as certified nursing assistants and landscapers. They are often as exploited and underpaid as industrial workers were in 1925, but they aren’t crowding our pews and communion lines. If they were, perhaps the Church would be more vigorously coming to their aid when they strike for higher wages or fight for the right to organize.

Then there are today’s new immigrants, especially those of Hispanic origin, of whom 19 million are here legally and an estimated 11 million are undocumented. Like European immigrants before them, Hispanic-Americans are largely working class. Their median household income is $39,000, compared to $57,000 for whites and $51,000 overall.  

But Hispanic identification with the Catholic Church is in free fall, tumbling from 67% just four years ago to 55% today. Fully one in four Hispanics in America is a former Catholic, and new arrivals show a particular susceptibility to the charms of Protestant sects that take an active interest in their lives, including their labor conditions. It is conceivable, even likely, that in the near future Hispanic Catholics will be a minority in their own community.

Perhaps the Church could staunch this flow by reviving the strategy it developed following the great waves of European immigration a century ago: find and field a dedicated cadre of labor priests, well-versed in Catholic Social Teaching, to stand with the new immigrants in their struggle for dignity and justice.

Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.

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