I had the privilege of a complete Catholic education in Minnesota, beginning in first grade for twelve years with the Sisters of St. Joseph through grade school and high school and then on to the seminary where I received another eight years, tuition free, of a Catholic education and then, in 1957, right into the priesthood - back in the days when all priests were Democrats. Even when I went to graduate school for a Masters in Social Work, it was in a Catholic setting. Archbishop Lucey of San Antonio had funded a social work education program so that the Church could better serve the poor. It was the first social work masters degree program in Texas and run by the Incarnate Word Sisters. That whole background explains why I am today a proud liberal, a proud Catholic, and a yellow dog Democrat.
So far as I know, back in the 60’s, all the Catholic bishops supported Caesar Chavez, even at the risk of alienating wealthy titans in the agriculture industry, especially in the lucrative vineyards. Cardinal Mahoney went against his own wealthy Italian wine making family in California to march with Cesar Chavez at the same time Dorothy Day was getting arrested along with Cesar. Perhaps you will recall the photo of our Catholic-educated Bobby Kennedy attending a Mass out in the fields with Dorothy and Cesar.
Yet when the Bushes and Ronald Reagan campaigned openly against the social justice teachings of the Church, Catholics voted for them. They should have known better. They were voting against their own identity.
Beginning with deacons and deaconesses in the Acts of the Apostles right up until the Social Security Act in 1935, which established a safety net for the poor, and crafted in great part by St. Paul’s own Monsignor John A. Ryan, the Catholic Church’s stand for the Gospel teachings of Jesus has always been obvious.
From the beginning of Christianity, it was only the Church which founded schools and hospitals and cared for the poor. In the Middle Ages, when European Catholics first confronted Chinese culture, the Chinese were immediately struck by the compassion found in Christianity and were attracted to it. In every age, our saints have been those who cared for the poor and neglected, whether it was St. Peter Claver or St. Martin de Porres working with African slaves or Bridget of Ireland who gave away all her clothes to poor beggars at her door. Catholics were always taught who came first.
Here is how the world saw us in the first century:
There is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as if they were passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland but for them their homeland, where it may be, is a foreign country. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days on earth but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all, but all persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many. They are totally destitute but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do, they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life.
- From A Letter to Diognetus (Nn. 5-6; Funk, 397-401)
If American Catholics had only paid attention to the papal encyclicals and the bishops’ letters on poverty, workers’ rights and peace, then Catholic social teaching would be better known today and no longer described as “our best kept secret.” What a shame! With over 30% of the Congress made up of Catholics and with six out of the nine Supreme Court justices Catholic, we have arrived politically. Just think what the Church could do if its social teachings were known and lived by the laity. Now, sad to say, even the most liberal of Catholic Democrats has to run on improving the lot of “the middle class,” without a word about the really poor. Catholics vote like everybody else, forgetting the common good but remembering their pocketbook.
Yet the work of Christ goes on, quietly now, as if the Church has resigned from politics. Parishes everywhere turn their Confirmation classes loose on social justice projects, even sending them on trips to the Third World. There are the Jesuit Volunteers, mostly graduates of Jesuit colleges, whose motto is “We will ruin your life” (i.e., your life of ease, pleasure, comfort and wealth). There are the execution vigils stubbornly carried out in every diocese in Texas, sometimes as many as three times a week, and almost exclusively made up of Catholics (granted those are mostly nuns). There are prison ministries which never garner any headlines but offer encouragement to thousands of inmates. There are the homeless shelters, the soup kitchens, the drop in centers, and the welcoming of illegal immigrants by such simple things as Catholic parishes in border towns leaving their churches open all night and advertising it in their parish bulletins, providing some good places to hide and sleep. It has always been the case that convents and rectories were known as places to get handouts. Even though there was never any formal study to show Catholics to be more generous than others, just ask any hobo where the best place to go is.
Even though the second largest “denomination” in the country is now “ex-Catholic” and, by and large, progressive, don’t count out us guys who still belong to the largest denomination, the Catholic Church. We still go to Mass on Sunday and we still give a damn.