Esau and Jacob

Political scientist Sheldon Wolin (1922-2015), who died in October, fought against a dominant approach in social science that constructs abstract models to then be used in devising and evaluating public policy. Instead, Wolin turned to the history of specific societies. From them, he derived lessons that apply to modern situations.

In a well-known essay, Wolin looks at the saga of twins Esau and Jacob, as revealed in Genesis (See 25:19-34; 27:1-49). He then explores the difference between an individual who lacks context and a relational person who is rooted in family and community traditions. The older twin Esau, you remember, sells his birthright to Jacob. Their father Isaac is then tricked into bestowing the ancestral blessing on Jacob the younger brother.

A birthright, Wolin explains, is a unique and irreplaceable inherited collective identity. A birthright is an honor, but it implies commitment. It denies that solitary individuals are thrown into the world and allowed to make unencumbered choices. Instead, the birthright (which is one’s package of family and community traditions) bestows on its recipient all the treasures of the ancestors but includes the obligations as well. Yet Esau and now many people in the United States, Wolin feels, would say the disappearance of familial obligation, especially obligation to the elderly, is not “a loss but a relief.”

Wolin calls this wholesale embrace of unencumbered individualism the contract theory of society. It replaces thick stories of familial honor and obligation with an assessment about the near-term additions or subtractions to an individual’s interest. Little regard, explains Wolin, is given to the meaningof the inherited situation. Nor do individuals consider “the possibility that [because of this or that choice] I could be better off but that we [will] not.” The contract theory rests on shaky premises, he writes.

The part of the Esau and Jacob story that many of us miss is that Jacob’s little coup d’état was a disaster for both him and his brother. They feared and fought one another most of their lifetime. Only at the conclusion of Genesis does Jacob imperfectly attempt to end a pattern of isolation, resentment, retaliation and more isolation.

In popular contract theory, individuals are autonomous and society starts afresh each morning. But in reality, Wolin continues, there is never a single moment when all individuals “have no prior history” related to economic class, religion, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, geography, and more. The contract theory “is deeply anti-historical.” It posits “a memory-less person without a birthright.” The contract theory is really “collective amnesia.”

Our goal as North Americans is not to be enslaved by the past. The democratic idea that we are allowed to rise above the education and economic level of family or class is an advance in God’s plan. But the price for our ragged individualism is high. Far too many have become unattached from a collective story. A large number of isolated and resource-impoverished seniors is but one example of our lost sense of ancestral gratitude. A contract society, as it turns out, is not dynamic. Today’s society is populated by free-roaming individuals making so-called free choices, yet ours is a static society— economically and especially spiritually. Individuals presume they are choosing, but they are not participating. Without the power of collective memory, says Wolin, true participation, which is “originating or initiating cooperative action with others,” becomes a rarity, not the norm.

The challenge is to draw upon the best values of our parents, grandparents, and other heroes in the faith as we create and fashion what Genesis calls Eden:literally, “a home out of the earth.”

Droel is the author of Monday Eucharist (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $8)

First U.S. Saint

She is the first U.S. citizen to be an official saint. But it almost didn’t happen.

Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, MSC (1850-1917) and half a dozen others from the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart arrived in New York Harbor in March 1889, following a difficult Atlantic Ocean crossing. Italian priests serving in New York, the story goes, sent disturbing reports back to Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini (1839-1905) of northern Italy. The U.S. church, largely populated by Irish-Americans, treats Italian immigrants as second rate, those reports said. With the blessing of Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) Cabrini was thus dispatched to remedy the situation. Church officials in New York promised her a house, a school and an orphanage.

Upon arrival, Cabrini met with New York’s Bishop Michael Corrigan (1839-1902) only to learn no preparations were made for her. Paul Moses recounts the scene in his illuminating study, An Unlikely Union: the Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (New York University Press, 2015). “I see no better solution to this question, Mother, than that you and your sisters return to Italy,” Corrigan said. “No, not that, your Excellency,” Cabrini replied. “I am here by order of the Holy See and here I must stay.” Keep in mind that until the 1978 administration of Pope John Paul II (1920-2005), the Holy See was an Italian-run operation.

Corrigan, Moses explains, was not against the pastoral care of Italian immigrants; he even spoke a little Italian. Corrigan and his Irish-American clergy simply thought the new arrivals were a problem. They did not want to lose the loyalty (and donations) of the slightly better established Irish-Americans who were reluctant to share with the Italians.

The half-hearted pastoral outreach in the U.S. church consequently reinforced the Italians’ preference for household piety and popular devotions; expressions of faith not dependent on approval of a local pastor. This popular religiosity only spun the wheel round again. The Irish-American parish leaders faulted the Italian immigrants for low Mass attendance, low financial giving, deficient knowledge of doctrine and susceptibility to evangelical Protestant outreach.

Cabrini, whose feast is celebrated each November, wasted no time on discouragement. She moved forward, not only in New York but across the country, including here in Chicago where she died. In total Cabrini founded 67 schools, orphanages and hospitals. Her Missionary Sisters, who are now headquartered in Radnor, Pennsylvania, continue to serve in those types of institutions plus in social service agencies, legal clinics, prisons and more.

The tension during Cabrini’s time between established parishes and new immigrants is similar in some respects to the situation with arrivals from Mexico—though that wave of immigration, contrary to a stereotype, plateaued a decade or more ago.

Mutual respect between Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans came about as the new arrivals developed leaders within the neighborhood, the parish and the workplace. The Italians acquired confidence and public skills, but not necessarily inside church settings. Local precincts, unions, schools and civic institutions valued their contributions. The other dynamic, as Moses charmingly shows, was intermarriage. Respect occurs organically as an Irish-American wife enjoys the conviviality of an all-afternoon dinner at her in-laws, while her Italian-American husband gives-and-takes at the rambunctious family gathering of his Irish in-laws.

There are unique pieces to this century’s Mexican-American story. The schools for leadership—the unions, precincts and parochial schools—are not as strong as in the past. Stable industrial jobs with benefits are few. Family culture has been eroded by the superficiality of the pervasive individualistic culture, fortified by mindless media content. Yet the Mexican-American plot line is the same. The drama may well progress slower than it did for Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans. Be assured there are still Cabrini-like saints among us, people fighting daily for the safety and progress of our immigrants.

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

First U.S. Saint

First U.S. Saint

Droel_picture

by Bill Droel

She is the first U.S. citizen to be an official saint. But it almost didn’t happen.

Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, MSC (1850-1917) and half a dozen others from the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart arrived in New York Harbor in March 1889, following a difficult Atlantic Ocean crossing. Italian priests serving in New York, the story goes, sent disturbing reports back to Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini (1839-1905) of northern Italy. The U.S. church, largely populated by Irish-Americans, treats Italian immigrants as second rate, those reports said. With the blessing of Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) Cabrini was thus dispatched to remedy the situation. Church officials in New York promised her a house, a school and an orphanage.

Upon arrival, Cabrini met with New York’s Bishop Michael Corrigan (1839-1902) only to learn no preparations were made for her. Paul Moses recounts the scene in his illuminating study, An Unlikely Union: the Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (New York University Press, 2015). “I see no better solution to this question, Mother, than that you and your sisters return to Italy,” Corrigan said. “No, not that, your Excellency,” Cabrini replied. “I am here by order of the Holy See and here I must stay.” Keep in mind that until the 1978 administration of Pope John Paul II (1920-2005), the Holy See was an Italian-run operation. Read more

Esau and Jacob

Esau and Jacob

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by Bill Droel

Political scientist Sheldon Wolin (1922-2015), who died in October, fought against a dominant approach in social science that constructs abstract models to then be used in devising and evaluating public policy. Instead, Wolin turned to the history of specific societies. From them, he derived lessons that apply to modern situations.

In a well-known essay, Wolin looks at the saga of twins Esau and Jacob, as revealed in Genesis (See 25:19-34; 27:1-49). He then explores the difference between an individual who lacks context and a relational person who is rooted in family and community traditions. The older twin Esau, you remember, sells his birthright to Jacob. Their father Isaac is then tricked into bestowing the ancestral blessing on Jacob the younger brother. Read more

NRA Is a Front

NRA Is a Front

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by Bill Droel

According to a popular opinion, the National Rifle Association is the primary obstacle to gun safety. Progress is possible, if only the NRA would modify its extremism, this opinion says. Even President Barack Obama, speaking in the wake of the Umpqua Community College massacre, implicitly endorsed this opinion of the NRA. He asked responsible gun owners to question the organization.

The Industrial Areas Foundation is not buying this popular analysis. The NRA is merely a front for gun manufacturers, says IAF, a 75-year old network of community organizations founded in Chicago. The real obstacle is seven or so major companies that carelessly market unsafe consumer products. Their corporate behavior contributes to violence on city streets and in schools. Read more

Milwaukee Labor School

Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Bill Lange, Milwaukee

Let me follow up on Bill Droel’s very important article on Roman Catholic Labor Schools. I would like to recount Milwaukee’s experience with the Cardijn Center and Labor Schools and propose an expansion to a model, similar to Cardijn, which is already underway.

Milwaukee’s experience with Catholic Labor Schools is related to the Cardijn Center established in 1949 by John Russell Beix – a Milwaukee diocesan priest. The Center was more than a labor center; it promoted the Christian Family Movement (C.F.M.) and was a social and education center for young people from Wisconsin farms looking for work in industrial Milwaukee. An educational emphasis was on the new understanding of Catholic Social Teaching prompted by the encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. The Center was named after a priest, Canon Joseph Cardijn of Belgium who founded the Young Christian Workers Movement. Cardijn insisted that Catholics get involved in every day politics. His method was – observe, judge and act. Cardijn was inspired by Popes Pius X, and XI’s emphasis on Catholic action. Read more

Goodbye Trump

Goodbye Trump

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by Bill Droel

Don Trump is out. Don Quixote is in. Worldly self-regard is out. Regard for others is in. That’s the analysis of this Working Catholic blog no matter what happens in the polls or in state primaries. It’s percolating; though it is not evident to many of the new tycoons, or to so-called celebrities, or to many people in media. It emerged after the collapse of our individualistic marketplace in 2007-2008. It temporarily resides in both the disillusionment and the dreams of many young adults. Soon it will guide young adult behavior—not all of them, but at least the powerful 2% who will, in turn, change the world.

Young adults—in ones and twos and eights—are seeing through the gimmickry culture of corporate Amazon, of the phony success of ragged individualists and the selfish privileges of the media darlings of the moment. Instead, these young adults seek something that Don Trump can never have: credibility.

That’s why young adults are attracted to Pope Francis in whom they sense an alternative worldview. That’s why they get involved with causes like Fight for $15 or Black Lives Matter; why they look for jobs with NGOs or in city schools or among the intellectually disabled and the like. They don’t have all the specifics yet. They are at an ambivalent stage. But many young adults, in whole or in part, increasingly feel that the pursuit of wealth in itself is no longer exciting and worth their total investment.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) wanted his students to make a lifestyle out of their sporadic positive impulses. It happens, he said, as people acquire virtue. To do so requires progress on parallel rails.

On one rail are, in Aristotle’s term, intellectual virtues. They come by way of theatrical productions and by reading literature, history and biography. Try Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1802-1885). Its protagonist, Jean Valjean, is continually misunderstood, loses all his possessions, and is accused of terrible deeds. He is someone Trump might scorn, yet he is heroic.

Try any novels by Charles Dickens (1812-1870). The heroes, though flawed, are the children and workers that the Scrooges of this world rob of dignity.

Go back a long way and read about St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), using one of the handful of newer biographies that leave off a sugar-coating. Francis was born into privilege, then inwardly he was conflicted and then he spent all his remaining years in downward mobility.

And then there is the other Donald, the total flop who tilts at windmills in the novel by Miguel de Cerantes (1547-1617). If the nearly 1,000-page Don Quixote seems forbidding, try a similar story by Graham Green (1904-1991), Monsignor Quixote. On Don Trump’s TV show, Don Quixote would surely hear, “You’re fired!” But to describe him as a person who doesn’t succeed is, of course, to miss the point. He takes the scenic route to unassailable dignity; he fails big but with a pure heart.

On Aristotle’s other rail are the moral virtues. These, he said, are acquired only through habit. According to Aristotle, it does little good, for example, to participate on Saturday in an anti-hunger walk. The key is to volunteer at a food pantry the following Saturday and then next month to look for a career with an NGO involved with community improvement.
There is a tension between how things are now and how idealists want things to be. To put it all together a young adult needs a friend. Not someone on social media, but someone who, over coffee or beer, will reflect on this tension. Those two friends then need the steady companionship of four or five others—people who want to stay in the tension between how things are and how they could be. These are friends who want to realistically act on behalf of others.

It is not easy because mainstream culture is no longer based on face-to-face solidarity, on neighbor-to-neighbor community. For now the way has to emerge among young adults one adventure to the next, one Sancho Panza and Don Quixote duo at a time, one small group here and another there. No matter. Trump and what he represents are done. You read it here.

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

New Labor Schools

New Labor Schools

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by Bill Droel

Bishop Blasé Cupich received several invitations to speak with union groups after he arrived in Chicago in November 2014. He declined for a time. But after nearly one year Cupich went to Local 130 Plumbers Hall this past September at the request of the Chicago Federation of Labor. There he delivered a 50-minute, pro-union address. The next-day’s newspapers highlighted Cupich’s challenge to what he accurately called “so-called right-to-work laws,” as favored by our Illinois governor and others. “The Church is duty bound to challenge such efforts by raising questions based on longstanding principles,” the bishop said. “Lawmakers and others may see it differently, but history has shown that a society with a healthy, effective and responsible labor movement is a better place than one where other powerful economic interests have their way and the voices and rights of workers are diminished.” Read more

World Series

World Series

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by Bill Droel

Here is Rev. Martin Luther King (1929-1968) writing from jail in Summer 1963. The intended audience is fellow ministers. The topic is church leaders’ opposition to King’s direct advocacy for integration.

“In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and with deep moral concern serve as the channel through which our just grievances could get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed… Read more

When America Hated Catholics

When America Hated Catholics

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In the late 19th century, statesmen feared that Catholic immigrants were less than civilized (and less than white).

By Josh Zeitz

September 23, 2015

In the late nineteenth century, political cartoonist Thomas Nast regularly lambasted Irish Catholic immigrants as drunkards and barbarians unfit for citizenship; signs that read, “No Irish Need Apply,” lined shop windows in Boston and New York and dotted the classified pages in many of the country’s leading papers; statesmen warned about the dangers of admitting Catholics from Southern and Eastern Europe onto American shores, for fear that they were something less than civilized (and less than white). It wasn’t unusual for respectable politicians to wonder aloud whether Catholics could be loyal to their adoptive country and to the Pope.

What a difference a few decades can make. Today, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these Catholic immigrants occupy the halls of Congress, governors’ mansions and state legislatures. One of them currently resides in the Naval Observatory. And when the head of the Catholic Church comes to visit, he will be warmly welcomed and hailed by politicians of all parties and all faiths.

Indeed, America has traveled a long road since the days when many native-born Americans regarded Catholic immigrants as an ideological and racial threat. Read more