Catholics & Social Services

Pope Leo XIII          

The Catholic Church has always had a strong bend towards social justice, particularly after Pope Leo XIII released an encyclical on the social question, Rerum Novarum in 1891 (McGreevy, “The Social Question”). However, for much of American history, including today to a large extent, the focus has been on social justice for white Catholics, specifically white men. While different factions and people within the Catholic Church have advocated and fought for minorities, women, and immigrants, the focus has been on supporting white working-class ethnics in America.

The economic turmoil of the 1930s led to the creation of the New Deal by President Roosevelt. As Roosevelt was popular with the Catholic laity, they “knew that Roosevelt championed their cause as no president before him had”, the Catholic Church generally supported the New Deal (Meyerson, “God and the New Deal”). Although President Roosevelt himself was not Catholic, he appointed many Catholic judges and supported union organizers which at the time largely meant organizing Catholics. Harold Meyerson, author of the article “God and the New Deal”, declared that:

“There was, in fact, a clear religious component to the New Deal. No group was more central to the                               Roosevelt coalition than America’s urban Catholics, whose Church looked favorably on the New Deal’s tilt                   toward the poor but also at times looked askance at the secular federal bureaucracy the New Deal                               erected to help those poor”.

The Church was interested in pushing a Thomist social philosophy agenda, and the number of poor and unemployed dramatically increased during the 1930s following the stock market crash which provided an increase in opportunity to push social programs and expand Catholic influence in that realm. Therefore, when Roosevelt shoved through the New Deal programs, the Catholic Church was a supporter as were many Catholic laypeople due to the common social philosophy. Both recognized a need to assist Americans who had been negatively affected by the economic downfall.

Jane Addams, founder of Hull House

While the majority of the New Deal programs were focused on men going back to work and were organized by men, many women, specifically women religious focused their energies on social issues as well in the early years of the 20th century. Jane Addams was a particularly prolific activist in Chicago who brought popularity to the settlement house movement. The founding of Hull House in 1889 with Ellen Gates Starr began a movement in Chicago that lists accomplishments including cultural events, day care for the children of working mothers, protective legislation for women and children, and the first juvenile court in the nation. While some settlement houses were religiously affiliated, many, such as Hull House, were secular. Addams, however, did graduate from Rockford Female Seminary. Many Catholics were involved in the settlement house movement, and many of the social programs enacted benefited women and were run by women.

In addition to settlement houses, many Catholic women were employed in hospitals, in parochial schools, or in orphanages. A growing number of women also worked with Catholic Charities in various positions, an organization that I was fortunate enough to learn about and tour the facilities of during Open House Chicago. By 1910, “Catholic nuns ran almost all of the four hundred Catholic hospitals extant in the United States” (McGreevy, “The Social Question”). Women were hugely influential in promoting the social welfare and the social justice tenets of the Catholic Church, even though they were left out of the Church hierarchy. Many Catholic hospital systems that were established in the early 1900s continue to treat patients today. Many nuns and lay Catholic women still work in some capacity at these hospitals. To see the extent of Catholic health care systems in the United States, click here.

Another sphere where women organized themselves was in health care. Church Women United joined together women of Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and other religious faiths to improve the health care system. The group is specifically focused on women and children as poverty and poor health outcomes disproportionately fall on them, particularly women of color. This pamphlet was inviting women to attend the Spring Health Care Reform Workshop led by the organization.

Although the Catholic Church stepped in with their own religious programs in an attempt to improve social welfare, a portion of the Catholic population was ignored. Trumbull Park in Chicago provides a strong example of the lack of action on racism by the Chicago government and the Catholic Church. When the Howard’s, a black family, moved into Trumbull Park Homes in 1953, the majority of the white families in the neighborhood rioted. From 1954-1955 there were continuous marches and protests due to the violence in Trumbull Park. The Howard family endured taunts, a police escort around the neighborhood, and demonstrations outside of their home for years. The Howard’s were Catholic and hoped to attend mass in Trumbull Park. By the time that integration was attempted, there were other black families in the neighborhood who were also Catholic, and also interested in attending St. Kevin.

Father McHugh of St. Kevin’s Church and the Catholic Interracial Council were willing to integrate the parish; however, the parish members disagreed. The Howard family, along with other black Catholics who ventured to St. Kevin, experienced intense harassment every time that they appeared at mass. Father McHugh informed the congregation the first time that the Howard’s were going to attend, but the family still faced a heated mob when they exited after service through a side door. Despite the difficulties, Father McHugh continued to push for integration and tolerance within the Catholic Church and within his congregation in Trumbull Park. Black Catholics were allowed to attend mass despite the dangers and “references to Catholic teaching on race relations soon filled the parish bulletin and sermons at Saint Kevin” (Hirsch, “Massive Resistance in the Urban North: Trumbull Park, Chicago, 1953-1966”). Many in the Catholic establishment, whether laypeople or clergy, did little to reduce racial tensions within their communities, integrate black neighbors, or open up their congregations to other races. Although the racial violence in Trumbull Park continued for years, Father McHugh used his influence within his parish to slowly work towards racial justice.

Children of the Chicago Orphan Asylum

Not only were Catholics trying to improve social welfare, but Protestants were also creating their own programs, often in opposition to the Catholic system. By the 1880s Protestants were moving out of the city in large numbers and the urban Catholic population was increasing, thus shifting the demographics in many cities. This caused problems between Protestants and Catholics because “what seemed neutral and secular to Protestants, looked Protestant to many in the Catholic Church” (Gilbert, “Twin Cities/Two Chicago’s”). As a ‘Protestant’ nation, anything Protestant appeared to Catholics to be pushing an agenda and anti-Catholic. However, overall, both sections were more divided than they appeared because they were divided among themselves. Catholics and Protestants were both split by nationality, and so did not receive and did not provide services in equal amounts to all. The continuity throughout history with the competing Catholic and Protestant urban social services is that despite Protestant organization of outreach programs and city missions beginning in the late 19th century, “the Catholic Church still maintained a more extensive and coherent system of social service institutions” (Gilbert, “Twin Cities/Two Chicago’s). The Catholic Church benefited from, and continues to benefit from, a formidable hierarchy that ties all of the parishes together and helps support a strong network of social services. Meanwhile, there are numerous Protestant denominations each with their own leadership and organization who created social services. Therefore, it is logical and to be assumed that Catholic social organizations would be more united than the equivalent Protestant ones.

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