The Working Catholic: The Church and American politics
(POSTED: 1/3/13) The Middle Ages are over. So too is that era’s model of Church-to-society influence, often called Christendom or the confessional state. It was a time in Europe of nearly complete fusion between Church and society. The liturgical cycle and the sacraments permeated daily life. Abbots and bishops were directly involved in politics, territorial claims and other public matters, in close collaboration with princes and other figures.
This model of Church-society influence gradually gave way, beginning in about 1500 with the Protestant Reformation and the rise of independent-minded monarchs. Then in the latter 1700s and in the 1800s the democratic revolutions ended Catholicism’s direct influence. Either by law or because of specialization, bishops and other religious no longer enjoyed direct, effective access to most areas of life.
The Church’s commitment to its worldly mission remained strong, but new cultural and political touch points were needed. A transition model emerged in the 1890s. It was called the lay apostolate or sometimes Catholic Action (capital A). Its guiding phrase was “the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy.” According to the model, well-formed laity strategically influence secular spheres, particularly those areas vulnerable to communism — labor unions, political parties, community organizations and more. The Young Christian Worker movement and the Christian Democratic parties in Europe were examples of this model.
This transition model was praised at Vatican II (1962-1965). But that Council also introduced a new mode of influence — without sketching its specifics. A Catholic is empowered to act inside the world’s normal institutions, the Council said. Baptism in itself is the empowering sacrament. Lay initiative is not a chancery or rectory program. Rather than the hierarchy, Vatican II said, it is the Lord who assigns and directs lay people within the ordinary circumstances of the world.
The Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, founded in New York City in 1937, illustrates the tension between the transition model (with laity as clergy adjuncts) and an emerging model suitable to our century. John Cort (1913-2006), the best-known ACTU leader, said its purpose was simply “to get Catholic workers to join unions.” He insisted that the letter U in ACTU stood for unionists, not unions. That is, ACTU — in contrast to the transition model — did not advocate Catholic unions or Catholic political parties. Catholicism influences public life, Cort said, not when Catholics display their religion per se in public. ACTU wanted Catholics to be good union members who happen to meet outside the jobsite for formation and support among fellow Catholics.
In the mid-1940s, however, some ACTU chapters in New York, Pittsburgh, Detroit and elsewhere, reacting to the threat of communism, decided that explicit Catholic blocks within unions or even parallel Catholic unions were the preferred mode of influence.
Some Catholic leaders in Chicago, including Ed Marciniak (1918-2004), felt that Catholics should not regress to an outdated style of influence. Marciniak and others opposed the notion of sanctioned Catholic groups that acted directly on social policy. To that end the Chicagoans in 1943 founded the Catholic Labor Alliance. Note its differences with the parallel groups in Europe and stateside: CLA membership was not a like-to-like group — to use terminology from the lay apostolate. That is, CLA was for union leaders, but also for others involved in labor relations, including lawyers, human resource managers and some government officials. Further, CLA reached beyond Catholics to like-minded Protestants and to Jews.
Ivan Vallier (1927-1974), in Catholicism, Social Control and Modernization (Prentice Hall, 1970), describes a post-Vatican II “cultural pastoral model” of Church influence. The primary agent is now “the Christian-citizen, who integrates his [or her] religious role with that of political and social involvement in . . . a complex society. It is the lay person, not the priest or bishop, who enters into the central areas of society.” The independent lay person, Vallier concludes, is “the chief carrier of the religious system in its relations with society.”
Many bishops and other Church employees in the United States and elsewhere are reluctant to embrace the Vatican II model because, in part, some Catholics dissent from the full range of Catholic social doctrine. By reverting to the Middle Ages, however, the bishops make matters worse. Every time a bishop wades into partisan politics or into micro-socio-economic policy, he renders the Church ineffective and betrays our Catholic identity. The job of lay formation is tedious. It requires excellent preaching plus bold and persistent statement of values from bishops and other Church leaders in the Catholic press, in secular media, in lectures and more. Lay formation most urgently requires that small groups of lay people gather to reflect on their work and daily life. Bishops and other Church employees have a crucial role to play in this. But ultimately lay people, guided by Scripture and doctrine, are responsible for living their baptism effectively in office meetings, union halls, professional associations, legislatures, voting booths, community organizations and anywhere else Christianity can influence society.
Editor’s note: With the presidential election behind us, ChicagoCatholicNews.com asked its columnists to write about whether a Catholic-oriented political party would be worthwhile in the United States.
By Bill Droel, an instructor and campus minister at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. He edits a newsletter on faith and work for the National Center for the Laity (P.O. Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).