Monsignor George G. Higgins, who died on May 1, 2002, at age eighty-six, was a leading public figure in U.S. Catholicism for almost sixty years. Known as "the labor priests’ priest," no one played-or is likely to play again-such a public role for so long.
After finishing a Ph.D. in economics at The Catholic University of America, the young Chicago priest went to work at the Social Action Department (SAD) of the bishops conference in 1944. The SAD had been established in 1919 and was headed by the legendary Monsignor John A. Ryan (d. 1945), assisted and succeeded by Father Raymond A. McGowan (d. 1962). Higgins became director in 1954 (he was not yet forty), and served the bishops conference until 1980.
The SAD was the focal point for explaining and applying Catholic social teaching in the United States in the pre-Vatican II period. Higgins specialized in industrial relations and the role of labor, becoming known as labor’s foremost Catholic supporter. His interests included all areas of social justice: race relations, international affairs, and communism, which he opposed by working to overcome the poverty, discrimination, and social conditions that fueled the Communist cause. Higgins worked ecumenically with Protestants, and he was a pioneer and lifelong promoter of good relationships between Catholics and Jews.
Higgins published the SAD’s Social Action Notes for Priests, which reached thousands of priests and seminarians monthly, and in 1945 began writing "The Yardstick," a syndicated weekly column that ran in Catholic newspapers until last year. It presented Catholic social teaching to the broader public in a clear, succinct style, and discussed pressing issues in both church and society. Higgins was never afraid to take stands on controversial issues. He also wrote for Catholic publications such as Commonweal (from 1944 on) and America. He was truly a public intellectual in the church.
Higgins was a voracious reader, especially in matters dealing with labor, social ethics, the church, and the contemporary American scene. Often he brought to my attention articles and books in my own field. He kept up a huge correspondence, sending well-marked articles and books to various people, and encouraged those he read about in both the Catholic and the secular press who were working for social justice.
Many of his contemporaries, especially his mentor, Monsignor Reynold Hillenbrand, the former rector of Mundelein Seminary in Chicago, could not make the turn with Vatican II. But not George Higgins. He was in Rome for all four sessions of the council as an expert, and loved the experience, especially the evening bull sessions-with many invited guests-that became legendary. Throughout his life, Higgins enjoyed similar late-night sessions with friends and acquaintances, always with a generous supply of Scotch and his "needle." He liked needling people, either to get the discussion going or, when necessary, to deflate an ego.
For the remainder of his life, Higgins fought for church reform in accord with the spirit of Vatican II. Still, the late 1960s in the United States were not easy for him. He supported the war in Vietnam, as did the labor movement in general. He referred to war protesters and others with similar approaches in the church as the new breed who failed to respect the competency of lay people, were too moralizing, and put too much emphasis on the need for the church to take stands on these issues. Until his last breath, Higgins opposed moralizing in any form. While he realized the need for the church to take stands on controversial issues, he also recognized that such stands did not necessarily end disagreement or the need for further discussion. In the post-Vatican II era he fully supported the more active involvement of the U.S. bishops in both domestic and international issues.
In the 1970s, and mostly behind the scenes, Higgins played an important role in support of César Chávez and farm labor workers across the country. His close connections with the church and with union leaders helped galvanize their support for the farm workers.
Higgins retired from the bishops conference in 1980 but remained in Washington as a lecturer at Catholic University, writing and speaking on behalf of social justice, labor, and church reform. He strongly disagreed with the individualistic spirit prevalent in the U.S. ethos, and in the 1980s and 1990s publicly opposed Catholic neoconservatives for that reason. He feared that they and some bishops were so obsessed with abortion that they made alliances with conservative Protestants who opposed Catholic social teaching. Conversely, he strongly supported the efforts of workers in Catholic hospitals throughout the country to organize and form unions.
George Higgins had a quiet, deep spirituality. He was faithful to the breviary, the liturgy, and private prayer and meditation, but would never speak about it publicly. When reading a letter from his bishop to priests about the bishop’s spiritual life, Higgins commented, "He ought to just do it and not tell about it."
Higgins had fewer ego needs than anyone I know. He seldom talked about himself or his accomplishments. An out-of-town priest who spent three hours with him the day before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2000) found out about the award only two days later, while reading the front page of the Washington Post on a flight home.
In his public leadership role in the church for sixty years, George Higgins well illustrated that the Catholic tradition is a living, growing one. This same spirit marked his personal life. When he was forced to give up driving, he arranged for a Washington cab driver to take him where he needed to go. (This must have been the only cab driver ever invited to attend the Medal of Freedom celebration at the White House.) In the last years of George’s life, bad hips interfered with his walking, and three years ago the onset of macular degeneration was a severe blow to his reading. So he turned to using wheelchairs to navigate airports and listened to audio tapes, especially those of an intellectual, academic nature.
It is safe to say there will probably never be another public figure in U.S. Catholicism who exercises a similar role for almost sixty years. Our society and our church have been blessed to have George Higgins these many years, and we his friends have been doubly blessed.