Forgotten History

The Catholic Church in the United States is no longer a working-class church. The majority of its traditional, white parishioners have moved up the social scale. Initially brutalized by religious intolerance, fierce social condescension, and seemingly inflexible economic barriers, they benefited more than almost any other social group from the American economic takeoff after World War II. Their belief in the American Dream seemed to have paid off, in large part because of the efforts made by Catholic social activists in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. Many of these individuals wrote regularly for Commonweal and similar publications. Today, American workers’ hopes for a continually improving future have fallen prey to rising debt, joblessness, and an ever-increasing disparity in the nation’s economic distribution.

Kimball Baker, a non-Catholic retired editor and writer who worked for years with the Voice of America and the U.S. Department of Labor, has produced a fascinating, informative, jargon-free book about those Catholics, lay and clerical, who were involved in the twentieth-century social-action movement. In dealing with ten of its more important but in the main less-well-known spokesmen, and in laying out four “social-action vignettes,” Baker chronicles a movement that was Catholic in origin but “ecumenical in nature.” Like the movement itself, he is not overly concerned with the issue of race. Instead, he deals with the challenges most workers faced in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, and with those “labor activists” who, at considerable personal cost, insisted, in the words of the late Fr. Edward Boyle, “on the dignity of all workers...respect in the workplace...a living wage,” and saw “collective action, such as unionism, as entirely appropriate.”

This book, Baker points out, is “not academics” but “primarily a work of advocacy.” It is also not the popular history he intended to write. It is too dense and demands too much knowledge and concentration on the part of the reader. (While the author provides a two-page table of abbreviations, their use in the text is excessive and annoying.) Each chapter deals with one individual, such as Fr. Philip Carey, SJ, director of the Xavier Labor School in Manhattan from 1940 to 1989. But Baker’s treatment is far more extensive. He looks, for example, at the founding of the labor school, its activities, achievements, and its eventual demise. But he also writes about one of Carey’s more active assistants, Fr. John Corridan, SJ, immortalized by Karl Malden in On the Waterfront as the brave New York priest battling waterfront corruption and gangsterism.

Baker pulls no punches in dealing with Corridan’s shortcomings, however, or in chronicling the failed efforts of his other subjects. The book is well-sourced but manages not to show its age—it was undertaken long before the date of publication, and includes many candid interviews by Baker with parties now long dead. For example, in 1995 he spoke with veteran militant lay activists Bert Donlin and Ed Marciniak. Baker makes good use of the interviews. Among other subjects, Donlin spoke knowingly of the Detroit clashes in which the Communists and the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU) battled for control of the United Automobile Workers.

Baker’s treatment of ACTU is interesting, thoughtful, and in the context of his book somewhat controversial. He properly points out that from the “beginnings of the Catholic social-action movement, affirming social justice and opposing communism were linked priorities.” There was a quality of anticommunism in the church’s social teaching and its application, from Rerum novarum (1891) on, and often Catholic trade unionists did not see eye to eye with their less religious allies. In 1940, for example, ACTU and the more liberal members of the American Newspaper Guild attempted to wrest the union’s presidency from control by the Communists. ACTU activists and their mostly Jewish allies decided to unite behind a Protestant reporter. The correspondence that took place in support of this candidate (most letters from ACTU people were signed “Yours in Christ,” while those of their non-Catholic allies usually end “Fraternally”) gives us some idea of the gulf between the two groups and why neither chose to support a fellow coreligionist.

Even though Baker is not explicitly anti-Communist, his book records how in many instances Catholic social action devolved from a fight for workers’ rights into a kind of reflexive anticommunism. A number of chapters deal with “battling the flare-ups of union communism.” While Msgr. Charles Owen Rice (1908–2005), the famed labor priest who fought Communists in Pittsburgh’s unions, later apologized in the journal Labor History for some of his harsh tactics, he never expressed regret for resisting Communist attempts to gain union control. Still, this book makes clear that Catholic social activists had an agenda that went far beyond mere anticommunism. As former AFL-CIO President Tom Donahue puts it, “the identification of the American church of those years [was] with working people,” and he adds that while this book tells the stories of ten outstanding Catholic leaders, “in their tales are interwoven the contributions to workers’ justice of many, many more activists.”

As in most comprehensive histories, not every detail is right. In 1937, Republic Steel viciously and successfully led the fight against the CIO drive to organize the Little Steel companies. But it was not “the last holdout,” for it was actively joined by other equally recalcitrant antiunion companies like Bethlehem Steel and Inland Steel. And Fr. John Cronin was a militant conservative who worked with individuals like Richard Nixon, but he was also a strong proponent of improved race relations who successfully lobbied for pastoral letters supporting that position.

For anyone interested in the Catholic social-action movement of the mid-twentieth century, “Go to the Worker” is a must read. It adds to other studies like Kenneth J. Heineman’s A Catholic New Deal (1999) and James T. Fisher’s more recent On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York (2009).

Baker has written a fascinating, insightful book. Unfortunately, in an age of rampant social injustice, it ends on a melancholy note. In his final pages, Baker quotes the perceptive liberal Catholic social activist Msgr. George G. Higgins, who asked plaintively in his own important 1993 book Organized Labor and the Church: “Will the Catholic Church, my church, reclaim its heritage of support for the organization of working people?”  And Higgins’s own response? “I am afraid I cannot say for sure.”

 


Related: Paul O'Donnell reviews James T. Fisher's On the Irish Waterfront

Published in the 2011-02-25 issue: 

Daniel J. Leab, professor of history at Seton Hall University, is a former editor of the journal Labor History and is the current editor of American Communist History.

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