Grassroots Catholicism – 1968 and Its Legacy


(I will open this post with my favorite Protest Song)

A word that kept coming to my mind during the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage’s programming on the legacy of 1968 was “grassroots”. While I was unable to attend the “Catholicism at the Crossroads” event attended by the other Ramonat Scholars due to a choir performance, I attended the panel on Chicago in 1968, the keynote speaker on time and space in 1968, and the tail end of the panel featuring student activists from 1968 and today. The idea of “grassroots”, personally defined as movements formulated from the bottom up, kept appearing throughout the week’s programming, the readings for the week, and the course in general.

David Farber’s presentation on coalition building in Chicago demonstrated how people were able to unite across differences. Farber described how the Black Panther Fred Hampton was able to unite groups of different backgrounds into a “Rainbow Coalition”. This group demonstrated that Chicago’s ethnic enclaves could unite around common goals. In previous weeks, the Ramonat Scholars have discussed how Catholic Chicago was formed by ethnic enclaves centered around parish communities. While Hampton’s coalition did not constitute Catholics per say, it shows that the communities formed around parishes are able to unite from the bottom.

Peter Pihos’ talk during the same panel on Chicago policing reflects the same grassroots ethos. I learned for the first time that African American police officers organized together against the discrimination that they saw in the department. While Hampton was able to organize the diverse ethnic groups through the city, these officers were able to build a movement from within the police department. One can argue that this echos the tendency for Catholics in similar organizations to unite against oppressive struggles. I think of Catholic members of the working class joining unions to fight for their rights.

The working class in Chicago is a powerful force behind grassroots movements. James R. Barrett recounts in his article “The Blessed Virgin Made Me A Socialist Historian” his experience growing up in working class Catholic Chicago. The parochial organized working class society influenced him to take up his particular take on history. Similar to the Chicago discussed by the panelists mentioned above, Barrett brings alive a Chicago of different backgrounds working to better their lot in life. This occurred at the parish or local level. Once again, the theme of grassroots emerged this week.

Keynote Speaker Julian Bourg

While a lot of the movements of 1968 were started from the bottom, they demonstrated an amazing ability to have international effects. A note that has stuck in my mind from Julian Bourg’s keynote speech was that a member in the crowd at an Irish civil rights rally shouted “don’t forget the Mexicans” in reference to the protests occurring across the globe in Mexico. This interconnectedness of protest movements may be overlooked in our modern hyper connected world, but it is remarkable that movements were able to have an effect across the globe. What does the grassroot becoming international mean for Catholicism? I believe that it meant that Catholics can come together for shared political goals and see the shared impact. One such way Catholics came together at the grassroots level was the Catholic Worker Movement. In his article “The Family. The Gospel, and the Catholic Worker”, Daniel McKanan argues that the Catholic Worker succeed better than most in combining Christian idealism with the family unit. I understand grassroots movements to be organized from the bottom. What is the most preliminary unit of society than the family? Similar to how political movements were able to unite ethnic groups together, movements such  as the Catholic Worker demonstrated that families can also come together. One should not overlook the troubling aspects of the protest movements of 1968. In the Catholic world, the protests of the Berrigan brothers had tendency towards the hyper masculine. Described by Marian Mollin in her article “Communities of Resistance: Women and the Catholic Left of the Late 1960’s, many women felt overshadowed by the men in the Catholic Left. While the protest movements did have its problems, it is important to note its ability to bring people together and go international.

Front Page of the Catholic Worker Newspaper

These protests are not a relic of 1968. The spirit of protest is still alive and well in Modern America. Hearing the testimonies of modern activists, I was struck by how these protest movements do not disappear, but transform. In some ways, the movements have become even more grassroots. Modern activists use social media which allows for participation of people of diverse backgrounds. The digital dimension of protest has allowed for demonstrations to become even more international. The religious dimension of some of the protests is also still alive. From my personal friendship with one of the panelists, I know that his Catholic faith informs a great deal of his activism.

Grassroots. The word means many things to many people, but one can not help but apply it to the protests discussed last week. The grassroots protests were able to unite people from different backgrounds and go international. Some of these protests also had a religious dimension, and are similar to many Christian protests of the contemporary period. 1968 was a year of protest, but that spirit is not dead in 2018.

Jesus breaking a rifle.jpg
Jesus, The Greatest Advocate for Peace

Learn More:

Information on 1968 Symposium


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s