Church, Labor Need to Renew Their Bonds: The Relationship Has Frayed, but Efforts Are Underway to Restore Its Vibrancy

By Winters, Michael Sean | National Catholic Reporter, July 3, 2015 | Go to article overview

Church, Labor Need to Renew Their Bonds: The Relationship Has Frayed, but Efforts Are Underway to Restore Its Vibrancy


Winters, Michael Sean, National Catholic Reporter


In 1884, Archbishop Elzear Taschereau of Quebec procured from the Holy Office at the Vatican a condemnation of the Knights of Labor as a "secret society." In the 19th century, such societies were often hotbeds of anti-clericalism in Europe, and Vatican officials were always suspicious. The decree in Quebec was republished by Bishop James Healy of Portland, Maine.

The rest of the U.S. hierarchy had a problem. The Knights of Labor had been founded in 1869 and its membership was largely Catholic. The grand master workman was a devout Catholic named Terence Powderly, who was also mayor of Scranton, Pa.

Given the harsh union-busting tactics of employers in those days, the Knights had to be a secret organization. Archbishop James Gibbons of Baltimore asked all the archbishops in the U.S. to give their opinion on the condemnation of secret societies at a meeting in October 1886. The archbishops unanimously opposed any condemnation of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Grand Army, a veterans' group. But they were divided on the Knights of Labor, and so the case was referred to Rome.

In January of the next year, both Gibbons and Taschereau were named cardinals. In Rome to get his red hat, on Feb. 20, 1887, Gibbons presented a letter to the Propaganda Fide, which then had jurisdiction over the church in the U.S. He argued forcefully for the rights of workers.

The wheels of the bureaucracy in Rome, then as now, turned slowly, but in the summer of 1888, the Holy Office decreed that the Knights of Labor could be tolerated.

Gibbons' letter also served as a precursor to Pope Leo XIII's groundbreaking encyclical on social justice issues, Rerum Novarum, in 1891. Leo affirmed labor's right to organize and the church's commitment to the wellbeing of working-class people.

Thus was born a strong, fraternal relationship between the Catholic church and organized labor in the United States. Nor was the relationship built only on papal teaching. Many union locals had their first meetings in the basement of a Catholic church. Many workers who formed the picket lines during the week also formed the Communion line on Sunday

The church and labor both advocated for public policies like ending child labor and supporting the New Deal. The relationship even reached into the culture, with Karl Malden playing Fr. Barry in "On the Waterfront."

Msgr. George Higgins, a professor at The Catholic University of America, was the chaplain to the AFL-CIO for decades. If a bishop hired non-union labor for a job, he heard about it from Higgins. When the Roe v. Wade decision came out in 1973, organized labor was the only part of the political left that did not take a position.

In recent decades, the relationship between church and labor has frayed, not so much because of any conscious decision, but for a variety of reasons. It was a mistake to let the relationship fray, because some of the problems facing both labor and the church are similar or even the same.

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Both have had trouble recruiting or retaining ethnic, white working-class members. In 1983, 20.1 percent of the workforce was unionized; in 2013, that number had shrunk to 11.3 percent. The decline in the number of people self-identifying as Catholic is well-known, and the numbers would be far worse if it were not for the influx of Latinos.

Both labor and the church have had to focus on internal divisions. Both have had to deal with the collapse of a prevailing infrastructure and adjust to changed circumstances.

In different ways, both have been challenged by the ascendancy of neoliberal economics, which has weakened the sense of community the church needs for vibrancy, and turned work into a commodity, which has weakened the sense of solidarity that is the lifeblood of the union movement. …

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