When Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, an arch-conservative Catholic to replace a liberal Jew, many commentators focused on the nominee’s religion as an indicator of her political leanings. She is the sixth Catholic to join the nine justices. Now that Joseph R. Biden has been elected as only the second Catholic president of the United States, it’s clear that both Catholics and public perceptions of them have come a long way. When John F. Kennedy ran for president, Protestant preachers thundered that the nation would be subservient to Rome if he were elected. This time, conservatives barely mentioned his religion, and liberals weren’t looking to Rome for Coney Barrett’s influences.
In Rome, Francis I, the first Latin American pope, has been busy trying to keep together a church that almost 60 years ago sought to remake itself for modern times only to be derailed by arch conservatives and a pedophilia scandal. Today, few in the United States look to the church for liberal thought.
It’s a big switch. Catholics had been speaking out for the rights of workers since the industrial revolution and Rerum novarum (1891), the Church’s labor encyclical. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin launched The Catholic Worker in 1933 after 15 years of picketing for various causes and writing for socialist publications, including The Masses, The Liberator, and The Call.
Michael Harrington, one of DSA’s founders, was influenced by Day and was a well-known Catholic activist before turning to focus on socialism. The Catholic Worker’s contemplative, social justice, and Jesuit influences, were far-reaching, as was the influence of the sisters who taught so many Catholics about all of this and ministered directly and freely to so many in need. Social justice committees were common on parish and diocesan levels, and lay leadership and involvement were widespread.
In Latin America, the influence of liberation theologians who focused on the poor spread northward and had an effect on Catholic activists who helped refugees from the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In those countries and in Guatemala, priests and lay leaders paid with their lives for challenging existing power structures.
Meanwhile, Catholics, who had long been considered immigrant “others” by the Protestants in power, were gaining their own power. Although Catholicism is a communitarian religion, Catholics in the United States increasingly absorbed the individualistic ethos of their new country.
The growing power and strength of the Right in the United States brought the anti-abortion movement, but in the 1980s, U.S. bishops remained strong and vocal leaders for “Economic Justice for All,” as a 1986 pastoral letter proclaimed.. Joseph Cardinal Bernadin in Chicago wrote an influential treatise on the “seamless garment” of life. Basically, it states that being pro-life means that one should also be in favor of social programs that support healthy functioning and against the death penalty. Bernadin saw issues of poverty, incarceration, immigration, and health care as intertwined. Later, the anti-abortion movement distanced itself from this ethic and became even more extreme, fearing that such a broad approach would dilute the emphasis on abortion alone. Nevertheless, war, peace, guns, education, healthcare, poverty, and inequality, not to mention the death penalty, are decisive life issues to many Catholics in the hierarchy and in the pews.
Many U.S. Catholics were driven from the Church due to the divide between real life, in which parishioners expected to participate in the life of the church, and the conservatism of Rome’s appointees to the clerical hierarchy. While increasing immigration from Latin America kept membership up, the greater lay involvement of evangelical Christian churches has drawn many away, both here and in Latin America.
Many pastors, entirely dependent on bishop and diocese—feudal fiefdoms virtually invisible outside the church—discontinued parish councils or made them advisory only. Bishops found they could climb as cardinals or in Vatican administration by being arch-right. Diocesan-wide synods of thousands of lay people ended, and LGBTQ teachers and youth directors were fired. Many bishops constructed luxurious mansions funded by private benefactors.
The pedophilia crisis and ensuing cover-up caused the institutional church to circle the wagons instead of confronting the pain caused to so many. Even as lawsuits bankrupted many dioceses, there was little official acknowledgment of rot. Unexpectedly, though, Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy, the first pope to do so in 600 years.
His successor, who took the name of a man who had renounced worldliness to help the poor, has welcomed back the socialist wing of the church. Although Pope Francis is traditional in many ways and has done little to change women’s position in the church, he has repeatedly called out capitalism for its harm and indifference to people and life. His encyclicals also raise “the universal destination of goods,” which means that the goods of creation are destined for humankind as a whole.
The universal right to use the goods of the earth is based on the principle of the universal destination of goods. Each person must have access to the level of well-being necessary for his full development. The right to the common use of goods is the “first principle of the whole ethical and social order (Laborem exercens, 19)” and “the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine (Sollicitudo rei socialis, 42).” (Compendium, 172)
Along the way to assimilation, Catholics’ longstanding alignment with the poor, workers, and all who are marginalized has become less visible. Those who can still bear to attend church hear less about such core values, the universal destination of goods and the rights of all, and especially workers, immigrants, and the most marginalized.
Nevertheless, it seems impossible to fully take the communitarianism out of Catholicism. Many new members of DSA come from Catholic backgrounds, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and many have found their way to the organization’s Religion and Socialism Working Group. Members of the Catholic Worker movement continue to offer a strong witness of hospitality and courageous action on the frontlines of defense of immigrants and action on homelessness and climate change. Whether they claim the label or not, Catholics, are leading advocates wherever work for the common good is found. It may be winter in the Catholic Church in the United States, but the roots are still alive, and there are hopes for a socialist spring.