WCP: Water from a Rock: Joe Biden and Working-Class Catholicism

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The U.S. faces a number of daunting problems, including divisions that threaten American democracy, COVID, and climate change. As Joseph A. McCartin writes in this week’s Working-Class Perspectives (new window), solving these problems rests to a large extent on three institutions whose futures also hang in the balance: the embattled Biden administration, the weakened U.S. labor movement, and the deeply divided American Catholic church. 

Much hangs in the balance in these difficult days.  The survival of our fragile, still relatively young multiracial democracy is menaced by a tsunami of disinformation and increasingly aggressive white supremacists who are abetted by allies in media and politics.  The health, lives, and livelihoods of tens of millions are threatened by pandemic and the accumulated costs of months of denial, delay, and incompetent government.  And, despite the COVID-induced economic slowdown, 2020 turned out to be the second warmest year on record, pushing us further toward the point of no return that will melt polar icecaps, raise and warm the seas, and unleash incalculable devastation, especially on the world’s poorest.

Which way the scales tilt on those big existential problems will depend greatly on the intertwined fates of three institutions whose futures also hang in the balance at this moment: the embattled Biden administration, the weakened U.S. labor movement, and the deeply divided American Catholic church. 

While Joe Biden won a significant electoral victory, he governs on a razor’s edge, lacking enough unity in his party to expunge that relic of Jim Crow, the filibuster, and pass programs whose scope and ambition are up to the challenges we face.  Contra the misguided New York Times editorial board, we should applaud Biden’s spate of executive orders, even if some should have gone further.  Students of working-class history know that every significant piece of legislation liberating workers was preceded by an executive action. The Emancipation Proclamation presaged the Civil War Amendments to the Constitution; the presidentially constituted National War Labor Board’s promise of “industrial democracy” during World War I laid the groundwork for the 1935 Wagner Act; FDR’s Executive Order 8802 desegregating war industries during World War II paved the way for Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  But while executive action can lead to change, lasting victories require laws and political coalitions strong enough to enforce them.  Biden’s coalition is not yet united enough to pass the laws, let alone enforce them.  Yet failing to enact the change we need in this moment would undermine what is left of people’s faith in the ability of democratic government to solve problems.

The fate of the labor movement, too, hangs in the balance.  It played a crucial role in Biden’s election.  Yet it enters his presidency weakened by years of atrophying membership, with the courts more firmly titled against it than at any time since before the New Deal.  Any hope for revival rests on the appointment of pro-union cabinet members like Secretary of Labor designate Marty Walsh, the first former union leader named to that post in nearly half a century. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would finally replace a 74-year-old law that simply no longer protects workers.  But even if Democrats muster the courage to discard the filibuster, their ability to get 51 votes for the PRO Act remains uncertain.  Yet should labor miss this window, it might not survive long enough as a significant institutional force to get another chance at labor law reform. 

Then there is the U.S. Catholic Church.  As E.J. Dionne recently observed, in an earlier era, American Catholic officialdom would have proudly embraced a president who not only identifies as Catholic, as John F. Kennedy did, but who publicly embraces his faith and finds obvious joy, comfort, and meaning from it.  Bishops would have thrilled to see a president draw so clearly on his spirituality to console and lead.  No doubt, many Catholics are proud to see a coreligionist espousing his faith in a way they identify with, but this is apparently not the view of most U.S. Catholic bishops today.  Even as Biden delivered his inaugural address, the leader of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, José H. Gomez, issued a statement criticizing his stances, especially on abortion.  While prominent church leaders who are more closely aligned with Pope Francis, such as Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago, pushed back on that statement as ill-considered, they do not constitute the majority of the conference, most of whom were appointed by Francis’s predecessors.  But Biden’s problem isn’t confined to the bishops.  The internet is awash with homilies by right-wing priests who preached that voting for Biden was a sin, and prominent Catholic intellectuals attack the Biden Administration because, as Princeton philosopher Robert P. George puts it, the administration “won’t say the word ABORTION. . . . They say ‘reproductive health’ but not ABORTION. They say ‘the right to choose’ but won’t say ABORTION.”  Catholicism has always been a house that contained many mansions—it was not for nothing that James Joyce once wrote that “catholic means ‘here comes everybody’”—but rarely has the U.S. church been a house as divided as it is at present.  

Biden framed his campaign as a “struggle for the soul of America.”  To a greater extent than he might have anticipated, though, the fate of both the multi-racial liberal democracy his administration is attempting to bolster and the labor movement that stands in alliance with him might depend on the struggle for the soul of this divided American Catholicism.  Given the history of the U.S. labor movement or the American liberal tradition, we should not be surprised by this, for their fates have long been deeply intertwined with Catholicism. 

America was indeed exceptional in some ways.  One was that the U.S. boasted the largest church-going Catholic working-class of any nation.  As such, Catholics played an outsized role in shaping American labor history. Terence Powderly, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Philip Murray, Cesar Chavez, George Meany, John Sweeney, Rich Trumka, Mary Kay Henry—all of these and many more emerged from Catholic homes to help build and lead America’s unions.  Historically, labor activists tended to embrace ecumenism more than church leaders or theologians. They had to learn how to build a unified movement in a multi-religious workplaces and unions.  They lived  out ideas of ecumenism that would be validated decades later by Vatican II documents like Unitatis redintegratio or Nostra aetate, which pursued Catholic unity with Protestants and Jews.  Labor activists also anticipated their church’s eventual embrace of pluralistic democracy.  They did not need the great Jesuit John Courtney Murray’s 1960 classic treatise, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition to understand that pluralism not only “implies disagreement and dissension within the community. But it also implies a community within which there must be agreement and consensus.”  They had been striving for decades to build such unity from diversity and dissension. 

The Catholic presence in the American working class shaped both the labor movement that Biden frequently extols and the liberal tradition that shaped the world that produced him.  To be sure, the Catholic presence also served as a counterweight to the development of a more radical labor movement, as Marc Karson and others have argued.  But working-class Catholics understood how important the institutions of government, church, and union were to their ability to pursue happiness.  Their instinctive institutionalism—despite its significant blind spots or distortions on issues of racial or gender equality—fostered a logic of solidarity and inclusion that bolstered both the labor movement and pluralistic liberalism in a culture otherwise steeped in individualism and anti-statism.    

It is this inheritance of American Catholicism that now fights for survival alongside multiracial democracy and the labor movement.  Even though Joe Biden’s critics might currently hold the upper hand in the struggle to define what it means to be Catholic, it is Biden who is in many ways a more authentic product of the American Catholic tradition of the past century and a half.  He and his supporters should take comfort in knowing how often in the past working-class Catholics anticipated where their church needed to be on social and political issues and helped lead it to that place.  Whether they are able to do that again may help decide the fate of the Biden presidency, the labor movement, and much more.

Biden loves to quote a line from Seamus Heaney that summons “a longed-for tidal wave of justice” that can make “hope and history rhyme.  But in this moment maybe we don’t need a tidal wave. “Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it,” G-d told Moses as he led his people through the desert.  Moses lifted his staff and did as he was told, and from the rock flowed enough water for the people to drink.  We’ve now spent 40 years in this desert, Joe.  The time has come for you to lift your staff high!  Those who long for hope and history to rhyme, whether they be Catholic or not, religious or not, those who thirst for justice for workers and the poor, those who seek to preserve and deepen our fragile, inclusive, pluralistic democracy, and those who want to save our ailing planet are dying to drink from this living water.  Strike, Joe! Strike!

Joseph A. McCartin is Professor of History and Executive Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor at Georgetown University.