One of the most significant achievements of Social Catholicism in the twentieth century is the promotion of organized labor, but this support was a departure from a much more wary position toward unions taken by the church in the nineteenth century. At that time, due in large measure to European groups that sought to undermine the church, the Vatican held a general prohibition against all secret societies, including labor unions. In the United States both the Second (1866) and Third (1884) Plenary Councils of Baltimore reiterated the papal condemnation of secret societies, especially the Masons, but a special cautionary provision was made for labor unions.
The church’s movement toward support of organized labor was prompted by the formation of the Knights of Labor in 1869. Ten years later, Terence Powderly, a Catholic, was made “Grand Master Workman,” a position that brought both conflict and the possibility of amelioration with the church. Many American Catholic workers joined the Knights, which placed them in direct conflict with the Vatican. However, Archbishop (later Cardinal) James Gibbons of Baltimore wrote in defense of the Knights, stating that condemnation of the union would force many to abandon Catholicism, for workers considered their membership in the union to be a right. Two years later, in August 1888, the Vatican agreed with Gibbons’ position so long as the constitution of the Knights was modified to eliminate secretive elements and references to socialism. Three years later Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum, which directly supported the right of workers to organize.
Using Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno as inspiration and starting points, a series of Catholic labor priests evolved throughout the twentieth century. Three of the most nationally prominent “labor priests” of the first half of the twentieth century were Fathers John Ryan, Peter Dietz, and Francis Haas. Ryan distinguished himself as the author of the “Bishop’s Program for Social Reconstruction,” (February 1919) a document that addressed specific social issues that had arisen in the wake of World War I, and as director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, today the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB). While Ryan was more a theorist, Peter Dietz was an organizer and frontline foot soldier for workers. His most significant contribution was his organization in 1909 of the Militia of Christ for Social Service, a Catholic umbrella union affiliated with the AFL. Francis Haas was noted during the Franklin Roosevelt administration for his settlement of major strikes in Milwaukee and his participation on the National Labor Relations Board.
Among its many important ideas, the “Bishops Program for Social Reconstruction” (paragraph 24) states the following: “There is no longer any serious objection urged by impartial persons against the legal minimum wage.” Many of the ideas of Ryan’s program were later enacted as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The similarity in approach is most likely not coincidental.
The second half of the twentieth century also produced numerous labor priests, but the career of Father George Higgins is probably most noteworthy. Higgins was active for close to three generations, using theory as a professor at the Catholic University of America and his weekly syndicated column “The Yardstick” to articulate his views on all sorts of issues pertinent to workers’ rights, organized labor, and associated topics. However, Higgins was also a priest who stood side by side with those who directly fought for organized labor, such as Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers campaign in the 1970s.