THE labor priest, embodied in Karl Malden’s depiction of Father Pete Barry in On The Waterfront, appears to be a relic of a different time—even as Pope Francis pushes the Church toward a mission of anticapitalist evangelization. But with the seeming revival of militancy and solidarity within the labor movement, we should work toward a similar revival within the Catholic Church.
It is peculiar that the Catholic Church’s active participation in the American labor movement is declining as the global Church deepens its commitment to the exploited and oppressed. The broader trend toward secularization of American society and declining religiosity and church attendance does not readily explain the disconnect between the institutional Church and the day-to-day experiences of much of the laity. Even as working conditions decline and inequality sharpens, homilies often offer little of substance to address the experiences of working-class parishioners, even with ample material upon which to draw.
And the material is ample, even without the recent additions offered by Pope Francis. Although “Catholic social teaching” is a relatively recent phenomenon relative to the expanse of the Church’s history, it has existed in some form for nearly a century and a half, emerging concurrently with the rise of global industrial capitalism. Social teaching represents the Church’s struggle to refine its preaching of the Gospel alongside the development of an increasingly globalized society.
In fits and starts, a surprisingly radical body of thought has developed, one which, if applied with fidelity to the sweep of American society, finds the entire fabric of our nation sorely wanting. But understanding what to do with this teaching—especially the tensions between social teaching and emancipatory movements of the working class—is far from straightforward. This requires a historical understanding of the development of Catholic social teaching—and its less than progressive origins.
What one finds is at times disquieting, accentuating the role the Church has played in actively suppressing class struggle. The reality is that the social teaching of the Church played, for much of its early history, a largely reactionary role in the struggle for worker’s rights. But by understanding that early history, and the ways in which teaching changed for the better, we can chart something better. Through this understanding, we can locate a path forward: one that finds common purpose between workers’ struggle, and the message of the Gospels.
The Social Question
The Catholic Church has a long history of active intervention in the so-called “social question”—the question of how to navigate class relations and political tensions generated by the rise of modern industrial capitalism. Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum inaugurated the corpus of what became known as Catholic social teaching—an element of Catholic doctrine less distinctly defined in the pre-industrial era. With Rerum Novarum, the Church was no longer able to deny that, in modern society, as Marx observed, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”
Rerum Novarum was not a progressive document. Rather, it bluntly acknowledged an unavoidable reality:
“That the spirit of revolutionary change, which has long been disturbing the nations of the world, should have passed beyond the sphere of politics and made its influence felt in the cognate sphere of practical economics is not surprising. The elements of the conflict now raging are unmistakable, in the vast expansion of industrial pursuits and the marvellous discoveries of science; in the changed relations between masters and workmen; in the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses; the increased self reliance and closer mutual combination of the working classes; as also, finally, in the prevailing moral degeneracy.”
Like Marxists, the Church viewed capitalism as a ruthlessly destructive force, sweeping away the remnants of feudalism and divine right and replacing them with mass immiseration of the urban proletariat and the concentration of vast wealth and power in the hands of a few. The divine right of kings and aristocratic paternalism had been replaced by the naked power of capital and markets.
But unlike Marxists, who viewed capitalism as a necessary transitional step toward socialism, the Church viewed the destruction of pre-capitalist society with nothing short of horror. The speed with which the rise of industrial capitalism erased the old seemed as traumatic and threatening as the French Revolution—an ever-present specter haunting the Church’s approach to modernity. The task of social teaching was to reestablish Church social authority and secure a place for the universal Church in a capitalist world in which Mammon, not God, temporarily ruled.
Regardless of its intentions, Rerum Novarum did something new: it pulled Catholicism out of the romantic fog of feudal aristocracy and directly injected Catholicism into the dominant social questions of capitalist society. Unlike Catholic arch-reactionaries like Joseph de Maistre who pined for the days of Church authority prior to the French Revolution, the Church marginally—and unwillingly—accommodated itself to the reality of the actually-existing capitalist world. Although many of the solutions offered by Catholic reformers were seemingly anachronistic, such as the flirtation with “guild socialism,” the Church was more broadly forced to confront the reality that industrial capitalism as a social structure and economic system would have to be the scaffolding upon which a different order was built.
Because the Church’s intervention was new, and because it was largely beyond the concern of many ecclesiastical authorities, clergy were given some license to interpret and apply Rerum Novarum as they saw fit. In some cases, this was done in a progressive fashion. Clergy, especially those with largely working-class parishioners, began to intervene in support of unions and social reform and against predatory capital. Between the promulgation of Rerum Novarum and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the Catholic priest John A. Ryan wrote extensively on labor unions, the necessity of living wages, and distribution of wealth in capitalist society. In the midst of the 1902 anthracite strikes in Pennsylvania, Ryan wrote “it is becoming more and more evident that only by [striking] can the weaker laborers, the great army of the unskilled, obtain adequate protection.”
He was not alone. As was typically the case in Ireland, clergy wrote with sympathetic disapproval of socialism, while saving their primary ardor for the critique of capital. Rev. Lambert McKenna, S.J.’s pamphlet, The Church and Labour—initially published in 1914—bluntly observed that “the wealthy few now rule the world,” continuing that “Capitalism, using the work of the labouring classes, has vastly increased the wealth of the world; yet it strives to prevent these labouring classes from benefiting by this increase.”
While socialism may be misguided, it was, so they thought, an understandable response to the actually-existing horrors caused by industrial exploitation and slum conditions. Writing on the 1913 Dublin Lockout, which wracked most of Dublin in a city-wide labor dispute, McKenna observed:
“Now, that the poor classes should be discontented is not astonishing. Their discontent is well-founded. Their desire of change is legitimate and praiseworthy. Society is sick to death. She must be cured. But her disease is not more dangerous than the remedies which men—on the one side selfish and unfeeling, on the other side desperate, envious, and vengeful—propose to apply.”
Like all clerical writings, McKenna’s tract was approved by ecclesiastical censors, giving it the official weight of the Church—albeit a Church that did not, as a whole, excite itself over the question of class conflict. For a brief period, writers like Ryan and McKenna, although not approving of socialism, were given the freedom by Rerum Novarum to train their fire largely on the social devastation caused by industrial capitalism. But that freedom would not last.
A more progressive period for Catholic social teaching ended with the Mexican Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution, as the Church became increasingly alarmed at revolutionary politics and potential anticlericalism.
In Ireland, ecclesiastical censors clamped down on socially progressive (and even occasionally socialist) clergy, denying them approval to write on even purely economic issues. Fr. Paul Coffey, a respected instructor at the seminary at Maynooth, complained to the Irish Bishops in 1929 of a decade-long pattern of censorship. Even tracts solely on economics, such as The Financing of Industry, were suppressed—not because of their theology, but because they were considered “economically novel, unfamiliar, if not even startling and incredible.”
Quadragesimo Anno, promulgated by Pope Pius XI on the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, closed the door on a period of more progressive Catholic social teaching and firmly established the Church as a bulwark against communism. The encyclical condemned the “cruelty and inhumanity” of communism, observing that “how much an enemy and how openly hostile it is to Holy Church and to God Himself is, alas, too well proved by facts and fully known to all.” Although some room was left for the remnants of socialist parties tied to the social democratic tradition of the Second International, communism was decried as anti-God, inhumane, and the enemy of the Church.
More importantly, Quadragesimo Anno was accompanied by active organization among the laity, including within trade unions, and a sharp increase in anticommunist militancy and pro-fascist sentiment during the Spanish Civil War. The rise of Catholic Action provided fuel for a reactionary turn in interwar Europe, with more extreme examples—like Action Française, one of the far-Right “leagues” ultimately condemned by the Papacy—explicitly advocating for Catholic integralism and a return to the French monarchy. Prominent clergy like Fr. Charles Coughlin in the United States fused reactionary interpretations of Catholic social teaching with virulent anticommunism and anti-Semitism.
The reactionary turn of the Church explicitly influenced the labor movement. In the Irish Free State, anticommunist sentiment and the influence of Catholic social teaching led to raids on unions that donated to the Spanish republican government and campaigns against “red” unions. In the United States, Catholic trade unionists in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) waged internal warfare against communist labor leaders, while the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU) actively fought for control of communist-led unions. In another egregious instance, James Carey, a former President of the United Electrical Workers (UE), led the union’s right wing—heavily influenced by ACTU—out of the union to form the rival International Union of Electrical Workers, which promptly began raiding UE’s shops.
The decades following Quadragesimo Anno show that Catholic social teaching’s development had disastrous results for the Left, and especially for organized labor—above all the internecine anticommunist purges in the Congress of Industrial Organizations following the conclusion of the Second World War. In the United States, organized labor and the Catholic Church were among the two dominant forces in heavily immigrant, working-class communities, especially among later wave immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Allied toward reactionary ends, they left no room for “anti-God” radicals and “reds.”
Turning Toward God
The liberalization of theology and the Church, and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, did more than breathe life into the institutional Church; they breathed life into the hopes of a more progressive body of social teaching.
Important changes in Catholic social teaching—such as those in Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, both promulgated by John XXIII—changed direction in ways both subtle and radical. The Church affirmed the right to independent trade unions, and slowly shifted emphasis away from the iron “right to private property,” to justifying property only when it made provision for the common good. Populorum Progressio, promulgated by Pope Paul VI, further condemned colonialism and the exploitation of the global South. This new opening provided—unintentionally—fertile ground for the development of liberation theology, especially in Latin America, and for a leftward turn among even nominally “establishment” clergy like Archbishop Óscar Romero.
The most important development in Catholic social teaching, and the foundation of a more radical politics of faith and labor, is the development of the concept of a “preferential option for the poor.” The preferential option was first fully articulated by Pedro Arrupe—a Jesuit who was present in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped by the United States—in a letter sent to Latin American Jesuits in 1968 and was further developed by Gustavo Gutierrez. Arrupe developed the obligations entailed by the preferential option in a 1972 letter:
“In the Church’s preaching of the Gospel message of justice and liberation, a denunciation of existing injustices is necessarily implied. What we are concerned with here is not this implicit denunciation, but the explicit, direct denunciation of an injustice and those responsible for it.
This kind of denunciation is sometimes necessary. There are evident injustices in the face of which the Church cannot remain silent, cannot take up a neutral posture. For in some parts of the world today, to be silent, to be neutral, is in effect, even if not in intention, to be on the side of the rich and powerful against the poor and oppressed.”
The preferential option for the poor injected, for the first time, a class consciousness into Catholic teaching, one that decisively took sides with the oppressed. In this tradition, carefully balancing the interests of capital and labor was left behind, and Catholic teaching was placed firmly on the side of the exploited. As the concept was developed, it became increasingly clear God is not found among the Wall Street bankers: He is found among the factory workers and the day laborers.
The potential created by the preferential option has not easily translated into a more progressive synthesis of labor politics and the Catholic faith in the United States. Following in the footsteps of activists like the Berrigan brothers, progressive Catholics have often focused on the peace movement; the School of the Americas has been a continual target owing to involvement in the murder of missionaries and clergy in Latin America. The institutional Church offers little more. Although the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops nominally opposes anti-worker measures (such as “right-to-work”), ecclesiastical officials and clergy are rarely found on picket lines. Bishops will quickly denounce Catholic politicians and withhold the sacraments for any measure of support for reproductive rights, but will happily bless those who brutalize workers.
Given this, it is hardly a surprise that Catholic workers are rarely guided to find easy resonance between their faith and their unionism. Many Catholic workers—especially those victimized by clergy long-held above accountability—have scant reason to trust the Church. Why would they? Catholic employers, from hospitals to colleges and universities, are as guilty of egregious violations of labor rights as any other employer, even while vocally touting the very Catholic values that equate assaults on workers’ rights with assaults on human dignity. In reality, Catholic employers have even led the charge against workers’ rights, ripping through the scant protections offered by American labor law. The gap between Catholic teaching and the lived faith of Catholic institutions is vast and reveals that much of the Church as an institution places the “practicalities” of the temporal above the spiritual.
There are clear reasons for this contradiction: chief among them, the existence of a far larger affluent segment of the laity. Clergy are less commonly from working-class communities, and are simply too far removed from the material realities faced by much of the laity. They lack, in Pope Francis’s parlance, the “smell of the sheep.” Clerical intervention in labor disputes and vocal advocacy for the rights of workers from the pulpit can spook and offend the very parishioners who fund much of the parish’s day-to-day operations. Priests that anger the wrong parishioner can find themselves transferred and moved, depending on the whims of the bishops. The cold reality is that the American Church is far less a Church of the working-class than it once was—a reality that widens the experiential gulf between the Church and many of its faithful.
Where does this leave Catholics and unionists committed both to a militant movement and to a faith which does justice?
The late Richard Trumka is a person to whom we can turn. Trumka was a labor militant and some stripe of leftist (horrifying old guard labor leaders when he invoked Michael Harrington at the 1995 AFL-CIO Convention) who carried a commitment to both a militant movement and a Catholic faith embedded in the liberation of workers. In a 2014 speech, Trumka recounted a time when private company guards chased his father and grandfather into a Catholic Church after a union meeting. The guards gave chase, only to be blocked at the sanctuary by the pastor, Fr. Simko, carrying a crucifix and placing himself between the guards and the fleeing miners.
What united the struggle of those miners, and their pastor? The common thread was the conviction that, as Pope Francis recently wrote in Fratelli tutti, “no one is saved alone,” and that our salvation rests with the solidarity of those who toil. This is a core bedrock of the Catholic faith: that salvation is not through individual faith alone or a solitary personal relationship with God, but is a collective project of solidarity that is found and formed among the marginalized, and which entails concrete political commitments in this world. As Francis continues, the language of solidarity is about the “creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.”
This is something we can build upon: the inherent unity between the labor movement’s commitment to solidarity, and the mutuality at the heart of the Catholic faith. There is a common language, and we must speak it— more importantly, we must organize around it. This is to the benefit both of building a stronger labor movement, and building a Church more attuned to and engaged with the struggle for workers’ rights. Labor must be embedded in the whole experience of the worker, and the Gospel must speak to the shop floor as well as the pews.
But because the Church will often acquiesce to capital, there must be a tension: an orientation of what theologian Charles Curran called faithful dissent. In his account of the circumstances that led to his dismissal from Catholic University of America, Curran outlined the existence not only of the practical possibility of dissent on the part of the faithful, but of the right (and, one could argue, the duty) of the faithful to dissent in situations falling outside of infallible teachings. Dissent is necessary. The course of the interwar Left and the role of Catholic unionists in the vicious internal war in the CIO—and the devastating consequences of that war for the labor movement—show that an uncritical adherence to clerical authority, at the expense of class solidarity, is destructive of building a society oriented to the common good.
And there will certainly be points of tension and friction. The Catholic Church as it exists in America, and the universal Church more broadly, is one that only imperfectly reflects the Church of Christ. We must be unflinching in holding it to account. Fighting capital will challenge a Church and faith still uneasy with the obligations and consequences of a preferential option for the poor. Martyrdom will not lead to a conversion of conscience, and liberation cannot wait for Jeff Bezos to turn to God. A preferential option for the poor demands collective action at a pace set by those who are afflicted, not the comfortable. Finally, many broader leftist commitments—such as reproductive justice, racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights—cannot be sacrificed or sidelined in the struggle to emancipate workers. After all, capitalism produces not just exploited laborers, but laborers who are exploited in gendered, racial, sexualized, and colonized ways. Ignoring this will cheapen what we are called to do in building labor militancy.
Embracing these tensions is crucial. The Church’s teachings and the Gospel have a powerful message of justice and change. Their vision and promise of an alternative, more just social order should be at peace with, rather than antagonistic to, the goals of the labor movement and the Left. We must push the Church, as we push the labor movement, to fulfill that promise.
C.M. Lewis is an editor of the labor publication Strikewave and a union activist in Pennsylvania.