By McBrien, Richard P.
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 32, No. 4
Back in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, there was a breed of Catholic clergy in the United States known as "labor priests." They functioned as chaplains to labor unions, encouraged and supported the organizing efforts of a largely Catholic work force, served on state and national boards of arbitration and mediation and ran so-called labor schools to teach Catholic workers and union leaders their rights under the civil law as well as in the official teaching of their church, transmitted principally through the social encyclicals.
By the 1960s and '70s, the focus had shifted away from the declining heavy industries of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states, the so-called "rust belt," to the plight of the migrant workers in California and the American Southwest under a charismatic leader named Cesar Chavez.
These labor priests, replaced today by a different breed, included such figures as Msgr. Charles Owen Rice of Pittsburgh, Msgr. John Monaghan of New York, Bishop Francis Haas of Grand Rapids, Mich. (originally a priest of Milwaukee), Jesuit Frs. Louis Toomey of New Orleans, Philip Carey of New York, William Smith of Jersey City, N.J., Leo Brown of St. Louis, and Mortimer Gavin of Boston. Others were Frs. Raymond Clancy of Detroit, Eugene Boyle of San Francisco, an early supporter of Chavez, and John Corridan of New York, the priest depicted in the Marlon Brando film "On the Waterfront." And we can't forget Msgr. John A Ryan, Fr. Raymond McGowan and Msgr. George Higgins -- all of the old National Catholic Welfare Conference in Washington.
I should be remiss if I did not single out a fellow diocesan, Joseph Donnelly, the late auxiliary bishop of Hartford, Conn., who served for many years as of the state board of mediation in Connecticut and then as chairman of the U.S. Catholic bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Farm Labor during the time of the grape boycott.
Msgr. Higgins, however, remains today the most persistent and eloquent voice for justice in the American workplace, including Catholic hospitals. Ever since my days as a seminarian (a considerable number of years ago), I have regarded George Higgins as an exemplary priest. I know him today to be also among the wisest and best-informed.
In his book, Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a "Labor Priest," published by Paulist Press in 1993, Higgins expressed his concern that the Catholic church 'stands in danger of losing forever its tradition of cooperation with organized labor."
Whether the danger is real or not, it is unmistakably clear that the category of Catholic clergy once known as labor priests' has practically disappeared from the national scene. …