Justice in an Unjust World – Catholics and Social Issues in the 20th century

Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs? He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me. And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. Matthew 25: 44-46

The beginning of the 20th century saw a new Catholic interest in “social problems” such as unfair wages, homelessness, unemployment. I believe that there are two constant approaches towards social issues which characterize the Catholic approach to social issues in the 20th century. First was a preferential option for the poor. A foundation of Catholic social teaching, it was always the beginning and the end of Catholic approaches to social issues. The second is a tendency to criticize the unjust structures it sees around it. The Catholic Church would be inherently political by attempting to bring justice to the unjust world surrounding it.

In his chapter on the social question. John McGreevy discusses the development of Rerum Novarum which laid out the Catholic Church’s vision of economic development. Priests of that era were not afraid to wade into political waters For example, Father John A. Ryan (1865-1944) who was a professor at the Catholic University of America strongly advocated for a living wage for men and moderating hours for women and children. He put these ideas into a document released by the USCCB for reconstruction after World War I. In other words, Father Ryan attempted to place his economic ideas into policy by espousing them in a formal capacity. These ideas might have seen controversial to some politicians, but Father Ryan was attempting to right an injustice he saw in the world. These policies also were meant for the poor of society. These policy ideas would be for the working class and assist them in living a more comfortable meaningful life. Father Ryan was working within the Catholic framework of working for the poor.

Father John A. Ryan

John A. Ryan’s work had lasting political impact. Harold Meyerson writes in is article “God and the New Deal” that “Ryan’s labor Catholicism probably claimed the allegiance of several million adherents during the New Deal years.” The people who read and believed in Ryan’s work were the people who supported Roosevelt’s social programs. Once again one finds the work of Catholics being political. By influencing supporters of the New Deal, Father Ryan’s work was affecting the political history and policies of America. These programs also were meant to provide a safety net for less fortunate sections of America which sits in line with Catholic ideas of supporting the poor.

Catholic social programs also had to compete against other institutions. For example, Catholics in Chicago formed the Catholic Youth Organization in response to the YMCA and the Guardian Angel Mission in response to social settlement houses like Hull House. These struggles are outlined in James Gillbert’s article “Two Cities/Two Chicagos”. While not political in the sense that these organizations were lobbying local political authorities, they were political in that they were challenging the traditional religious establishment. These various organizations had to combat the bias and fears of the local Protestant and secular institutions. While Catholics had to combat other organizations , they never forgot their foundation; the poor. They were still able to fight and work for the dejected in Chicago.

A Nun with Children working for Catholic Charities

“The Social Question” does not only include labor issues, but also includes problems of racial discrimination. In his article “Resistance in the Urban North”, Arnold Hirsch documents the history of African Americans moving into the Chicago neighborhood of South Deering in the 50’s and 60’s. Families such as the Howards faced daily discrimination and violence by their white neighbors. The Catholic response to such racial discrimination has two responses. On the parish level, Catholic Churches invited African American Catholics to mass. Hirsch’s article uses the example of Saint Kevin’s Catholic Church in Chicago. While these invitations sometimes ended in violence against African Americans attending mass, such as those who attended St. Kevin’s, I believe that one can read these invitations as a Catholic attempt to right an injustice. There were also Catholic attempts to fight discrimination on the institutional level such as the Catholic Interracial Council which saw integration of Catholic Churches as essential to destroy racial bias in America. These two approaches were political in that they challenged local governments and communities to recognize the human dignity of African Americans in community. While many  communities were not willing to accept African Americans, these Catholic communities challenged these ignorant ideas. The Catholic crusade against racial intolerance also placed those suffering the most in society first. The Catholic Church took the side of those who were spit on and attacked by white America. They were following the central tenant of Catholic social teaching; care for those who are rejected from society.

Members of the Catholic Interracial Council pose together for a photo

Catholic concern for social justice issues extends to the modern day. Searching through Loyola University Chicago’s Women and Social Justice archive, I found a letter written by the project director and associate director of Chicago’s 8th Day Center for Justice on a survey of homelessness in Chicago. The 8th Day Center was a center that advocated for a variety of issues ranging from women’s issues to homelessness. It is still in operation in some capacities today, but it was slated to close in the summer of 2018. The letter from June 1982, continues the two characteristics of Catholic approaches to social issues outlined above. The letter shows a concern for the poor by describing in detail the struggles that those experiencing homelessness go through. The authors describe society’s forgotten as finding shelter in abandoned cars and searching for food in dumpsters. The authors bring special attention to that these people are rejected by society. The two directors are also not afraid to enter the political realm. They criticize the local government for not having enough shelters and focusing on the new poor. In the eyes of the authors, the focus on the new poor leaves the long term homeless forgotten. The directors take the step to criticize national politics by targeting Ronald Reagan’s economic policies. They write “In the grim supply-side practice of trickle down compassion, precious little now trickles down to the crassly labeled. ‘deserving poor.’ The street people get less”. One can understand their statement as a direct attack on the mainstream economic outlook of the era.

In sum, the Catholic Church in America has not been afraid to become political and fight for those deemed as outsiders by society. From Father Ryan’s economic policies to the Eight Day Center’s commentary on Reaganomics, the Catholic Church has sought to work towards justice.

Good Friday walk.jpg
A recent photo of the 8th Day Center marching for justice


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