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May 27, 2004 6:03 pm


Roman Catholicism and Organized Labor ...



In our discussion of religion and the secular Left, Jonathan Dresner and I referred to the attitude of American Catholicism toward organized labor. Our colleague, Ken Heineman, is the author of A Catholic New Deal: Religion and Reform in Depression Pittsburgh and knows more about that subject than either of us do. So I asked Ken to enlighten us. He has grown shy about posting at Cliopatria, however, and replied in an e-mail, as follows:
The American Catholic Church (or Leo XIII and Pius XIII) were not anti-union. Leo XIII in The Condition of Labor (1891) approved of labor organization and Pius XI reaffirmed Leo's encyclical in After 40 Years (on social reconstruction). The American bishops of the industrial heartland embraced the CIO in the 1930s while those in Boston and New York were hostile. However, the labor organizing action is in the Midwest and Western Pennsylvania and Upstate New York, not in the old urban East Coast core. (Baltimore priests, though, also embraced the CIO.) Pro-labor diocese's: Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Detroit (after Coughlin was shut up by a new bishop), Toledo, Cleveland, Amarillo, Baltimore, and San Francisco. I have made the argument--and it has not been disproved to date--that the steel workers' union, the Catholic Church, and the New Deal Democratic Party formed an"industrial trinity" in 1930s Pittsburgh. The executive council of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (the predecessor of the bishops' conference) was stacked with pro-CIO bishops from the heartland: Boyle (Pittsburgh), Alter (Toledo), Schrembs (Cleveland), Duffy (Buffalo), and others. They wrote pastoral letters defending the CIO, denouncing both predatory capitalism and atheistic communism as the bastard twins of the secular Enlightenment. I have contended, and do believe, that the Catholic church was to the steel workers what the black church was to the southern civil rights movement. There is some literature published on this topic which is cited in, A Catholic New Deal: Religion and Reform in Depression Pittsburgh (Penn State Press, 1999).

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Ralph E. Luker - 5/28/2004

Thanks for this information. And, thanks too, for the sort of condescending confirmation of my awkward rephrasing of Karl Loewith in your comments over at B & W.


john cornelius halasz - 5/28/2004

Saul Alinsky's Back-of-the-Yards community organizing project in Chicago during the 30's, which coincided and took-off with the CIO meatpackers strike, was partially sponsored by the RC diocese of Chicago, under the patronage of the progressive Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago Sheehan and the assistance of a Monsignor Egan. Monsignor Egan was later forced out when Cardinal Cody took over the diocese in the late 50's, but there is now a study center named after him at DePaul University in Chicago.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/28/2004

Nothing about Father Groppi was typical.


Oscar Chamberlain - 5/28/2004

One of my students is working on a capstone paper concerning a Milwaukee priest and the civil rights movement. The priest was tremendously active. I know that in at least one case his superiors denied his attempt to use a church building as a "freedom school" during a boycott. But I do not know yet if that was typical or exceptional. I hope she finds some answers.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/28/2004

Well, I think it is true that in places where it is established, the Catholic Church has tended to live in tension with radical traditions which threaten established orders of things.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/28/2004

I wonder where my impression that the church was hostile to labor came from? Europe? Latin America? Or perhaps I'm just wrong; it happens.

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