Wednesday Jun 26

SOCIAL POLICY BOOK REVIEW ONE IN CHRIST: Chicago Catholics and the Quest for Interracial Justice. (Oxford University Press, 2018) — By Karen Johnson: Racial Justice Comes to the Catholic Church in Chicago

Several scholars in recent months have drawn attention to “the longer and wider civil rights movement.” That is, they want us to remember that the civil rights era did not spontaneously appear in Montgomery, Alabama beginning in December 1955. Nor is civil rights synonymous with Rosa Parks (1913-2005), who courageously refused to give up her seat on a bus that month; nor with Rev. Martin L. King Jr. (1929-1968). Karen Johnson of Wheaton College is one of those scholars. Her account of civil rights activity goes back to the early 1930s. Her setting is not in the South but in Chicago, Illinois. Her examples, perhaps surprisingly, are Catholic organizations.

Johnson’s thorough account is “primarily a story about laypeople” who in addition to highlighting aspects of Catholic doctrine also challenged the notions that priests are above laypeople, that urban Catholicism is only intra-parish ministries and that Catholics acting as Catholics should keep their efforts separate from Protestants and Jews.

One In Christ is eight more-or-less chronological chapters plus 49 pages of valuable footnotes. Arthur Falls (1901-2000), a pioneering black physician involved with Federated Colored Catholics and then with Catholic Worker movement, is prominent in the first four chapters and appears throughout the book. The fifth and sixth chapters feature Friendship House with Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985), Ellen Tarry (1906-2008) and Ann Harrigan Makletzoff (1910-1984); the seventh and eighth feature the Catholic Interracial Council with John McDermott (1926-1996) among others. Msgr. Dan Cantwell (1915-1996) and Ed Marciniak (1917-2004) appear in nearly all the chapters. Saul Alinsky (1909-1972), an honorary Chicago Catholic, and beginning in 1954 Alinsky’s colleague Msgr. Jack Egan (1916-2001) appear in the book. As Johnson writes, many urban Catholics opposed interracial justice, particularly when it meant integrated neighborhoods. Though Chicago’s bishops looked favorably on Alinsky and Egan, the bishops were always wary of alienating white parishioners.

The Catholic Chancery in Chicago had a planning office, called Archdiocesan Conservation Committee. Cantwell, among others, said the word conservation
betrayed the committee’s true purpose. The committee, writes Johnson, could be taken for “a front for white neighborhood protection associations enforcing segregation.” Egan was appointed ACC director in 1958, determined to turn the committee in a proper direction. He described his task as preparing “people so that neighborhoods could be integrated.”

Egan and Alinsky set about establishing organizations for neighborhood stability; groups that would tackle the real causes of urban problems (slumlords, discriminatory mortgage lenders and more) instead of the usual anti-black scapegoating. Chicago bishops encouraged local pastors to fund and support these
efforts. Alinsky organizers were dispatched to staff each one; for example, Tom Gaudette (1923-1998) to North West Community Organization or Ed Chambers (1930-2015) to Organization of Southwest Communities. Meanwhile Alinsky added a distracting concept to the already difficult task. He presented public testimony on racial quotas. To prevent re-segregation (a noble goal), a neighborhood would somehow not change after it had welcomed a specific percentage of blacks. These Alinsky/Egan community organizations did some good, Johnson concludes. But they “proved unable to stop racial turnover.”

Efforts by other Chicago Catholics likewise yielded imperfect results. Ten years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Cantwell and his Interracial Council leaders
successfully integrated Catholic hospitals and played a role in integrating several Catholic schools. Cantwell’s campaign to support a developer interested in affordable housing for a Chicago suburb did not immediately succeed. His effort though led to a two-day clergy conference where Cardinal Albert Meyer (1903-1965) commanded his priests “to remove from the church on the local scene any possible taint of racial discrimination.”

To various degrees all the Chicago Catholic efforts were successful in a way, Johnson concludes. They “helped enlarge America’s moral imagination.” They showed that racial justice is more than a political matter; it is a matter of faith. Further, the Chicago Catholics—years before Vatican II (1962-1965)—taught others that individual salvation and personal transformation are not enough. They communicated, in words and more so by way of example, that full-time Christians must seek “the common good by reforming the institutions shaping the public sphere.”

A contagious esprit surrounded these dedicated Catholics. They nourished one another—black and white--in several institutional spaces, Johnson emphasizes. They all knew that liturgical grace was essential to their efforts and that a liturgy of the world continued out the church door as each of them did their part in the Mystical Body of Christ.

Johnson includes enough detail to dispel any suggestion of hyper-romanticism. These people were street savvy. They knew how to agitate and at the right moment what to compromise. They avoided getting personally bent out of shape even as they necessarily engaged in sharp disagreements over strategy: How to include Chicago’s bishop—if at all. Whether or not to include anti-poverty measures in efforts against racism. Whether or not to maneuver inside the Democratic Party, which in Chicago was the Daley Machine. Are discussion groups a waste of time? Can Catholics be militant?

Remarkably, most of these Catholic civil rights leaders remained Catholic their entire lives. It is remarkable because, as Johnson details, more than one bishop and some influential pastors reinforced racial distinctions. For example, Falls once told me that the segregation that hurt him the most was on Saturday afternoons when he went to confession. Blacks had to stand in one line and wait until each person in the white line had received absolution. Who had the greater sin to confess, he asked?

Johnson writes a comprehensible story. This is an achievement because all her subjects died before she began. She thus scoured multiple libraries for newspapers, magazine articles, minutes of meetings and more. Johnson, by the way, is not Catholic. Yet the book flawlessly covers Chancery politics and points of theology.

A powerful 2% of young Catholics are once again interested in the social question; in race relations, in living wage campaigns, in the dignity of all life, in socially
responsible business, in green technology, in mental health delivery, in criminal justice reform and immigration topics. One In Christ is an inspiring account of visionary Catholics who navigated the push-and-pull of public life, and had some fun along the way.

Droel from Chicago’s southwest side is involved with several non-profit groups, including National Center for the Laity where he is the long-time editor of the Initiatives newsletter and the author of several books, including Church, Chicago-Style.

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