Labor Apostle

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

There’s a new edition of Christian Socialism: An Informal History by John Cort (Orbis Books, 2020). Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary provides its introduction. The book generally goes in chronological order from the New Testament onto the Church Fathers (East and West), then St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and St. Thomas More (1478-1535). Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) appears in a chapter about France and Most Rev. William Temple (1881-1944) in one about England. The chapter on Catholic socialism draws upon papal encyclicals, the thoughts of Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945) of St. Paul and on liberation theology.

John Cort (1913-2006), a 1935 Harvard University graduate, served our country as a Peace Corps volunteer in Philippines, as a local director in the Office of Economic Opportunity and as a director of a municipal program. He is best known as founder of Association of Catholic Trade Unionists in February 1937.
In the 1940s the Communist Party controlled 15 major labor unions in the U.S. and had influence within others. Many blue-collar workers at the time were immigrant Catholics. If Catholicism was indifferent to the world of work, Cort reasoned, the door is open to communists to use unions for their ideological purpose. Thus ACTU would encourage Catholic workers to join unions and be active members, Cort said. It assisted with CIO membership drives, battled racketeers and sponsored labor schools where workers learned leadership skills and discussed Catholic social principles. At ACTU’s peak there were 5,500 members in 14 cities. Many ACTU chapters published hard-hitting newspapers.
ACTU was controversial. Some Catholics accused it of cooperating with communism. The greater criticism came from the other end: ACTU was a voting-block within union locals, so fixated on anti-communism that it turned a progressive labor movement hopelessly rightward. Indeed, a few ACTU chapters got so obsessed with communism that they lost ACTU’s original purpose. Cort repeatedly said that the U in ACTU stood for unionists, not unions. He did not advocate Catholic trade unions or Catholic political parties, as sometimes occurred in Europe. Catholics display their faith in public life simply by being good unionists–or in other examples, good politicians, good civil servants, good nurses, good teachers. The workers in ACTU met outside their job site with fellow Catholics for mutual support, spiritual formation and instruction on social doctrine. Communists in the 1930s and 1940s were not socialists or progressive prophets who planted seeds of reform, said Cort. They were Stalinists who denied the spiritual life and who jeopardized national security. ACTU, Cort insisted, “was a progressive organization most of whose leaders and members were dedicated to honest democratic trade unionism.” Thus for Cort non-violence was a non-negotiable religious principle. No exceptions.
Only in the 1970s did Cort publicly call himself a socialist. But he was clear that socialism is not crazy radicalism, not totalitarianism and not communism. For Cort it came from a vision of society based on religious principles, not on Marxism. The vision is sketched in Catholic social encyclicals and develops through the efforts of ordinary Catholics, in cooperation with like-minded colleagues, to improve policies in their workplace and their community. By the way, these encyclicals—from 1891 to 2000—equally critique total systems like communism and unrestricted systems like neoliberal capitalism. Cort gave an example. A 1937 encyclical by Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) was, of course, published in Latin. It is often titled in English as On Atheistic Communism. “I analyzed this encyclical and found that one-quarter of it is devoted to the evils of communism and three-quarters are devoted to the evils of capitalism,” he said. “It might well have been entitled On Atheistic Capitalism.

For those not interested in the history lessons contained in Cort’s Christian Socialism, get a used copy of Cort’s autobiography, Dreadful Conversions (Fordham University Press, 2003). It is terrific spiritual reading.
St. Basil (329-379) gives “the best and shortest summary of Catholic social teaching,” Cort was fond of saying. “The coat that hangs in your closet belongs to the poor.”

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter on faith and work.

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