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...