Cause of Cancer

The Working Catholic: Cancer
by Bill Droel

When the diagnosis is cancer, our singular focus is properly on treatment—surgery, radiation, chemo, immunotherapy, blocking therapy and more. The bulk of cancer research is directed toward improving these treatments and finding others. Prior to a cancer diagnosis most people do not often think about cancer and we rarely think about the cause of cancer.

Dr. Samuel Epstein died here in Chicago in March at age 91. He was long affiliated with the School of Public Health at University of Illinois. His controversial 1978 book, The Politics of Cancer, was prophetic. “Most cancer is environmental in origin and is therefore preventable,” he wrote back in those days. However, we as a society have made political tradeoffs that tolerate cancer-causing agents in our air, soil, food and beverages. We as a society make these trades for the sake of industrial jobs, less expensive groceries, faster travel, cheaper energy and more.
“Cancer has distinct, identifiable causes,” Epstein wrote. It is not just one more disease associated with aging. Cancer is the only major disease on the increase, he continued. Yet, when attention is brought to cancer, we seem to accept its inevitability. Epstein furnishes two common sentences: “Everything causes cancer, so why bother?” and “You’ve got to go somehow, so it might just as well be cancer.”

Decisions about cancer tradeoffs are made by way of our country’s default moral system. It can be called utilitarian calculus or cost-benefit analysis. It claims that by adding and subtracting projected benefits and suspected harm we are able to determine “the greatest good for the maximum number of people.” This system has several faults, of course. Decisions about industrial pollution, product safety, acceptable soil contamination, modes of transportation and the like are made in Congress, in government agencies, in city halls, in corporate board rooms and in research labs. Yes, science labs make political trades. “Many so-called scientific decisions are in fact economic considerations,” as Epstein wrote.
Various interests lobby and/or fund these remote decision-making entities. The lobbyists expect that their particular interest will be favored. The cancer decisions are not voted upon. Even if they were, the losers (those who are not within “the maximum number”) have to—more or less—accept what others say is “acceptable risk of cancer.”
We as a modern society use the utilitarian method because we no longer believe in objective truth. Reality is mostly my opinion and my feelings plus my loyalty to my crowd, my identity group. This is why it is frustratingly useless to bring facts to bear on a topic. We are all caught in a swirl of what White House advisor Kellyanne Conway tells us are alternative facts.

Without some objective morality, our best attack against cancer is the environmental movement. Every part of acting green directly or eventually levels a punch at cancer.
Start in the kitchen and the alley. Don’t believe the detractors of recycling. It is energy efficient and the recycled items get to the proper fabricators, as Brian Clark Howard details in Chicago Tribune (4/23/18). In Chicago’s alleys the garbage cans are either blue or black. (This is Chicago’s second attempt at a recycling program.) The rules for what goes in which colored-can are a little confusing—at least to your columnist. But, as with all moral behavior, don’t be paralyzed by scrupulosity. Sorting does not have to be perfect in order to make our world green, Howard explains.
Of course, individual action is not sufficient. Only political power can change the big decisions that give cancer permission to invade. But again, the counter-attack can start in small groups. It can be a discussion group, provided its participants move into action—sooner rather than later. The group can popularize some language about the topic. For example, we all have to speak plainly about the cancer lobby. The phrase sounds startling at first because no one goes on a talk show and says, “I’m in favor of cancer.” Yet many powerful entities (tobacco companies, for example) blithely offer excuses for cancerous agents.
A subsequent column will furnish examples of small groups agitating for a green society. Send along your own examples to the address below.

Droel is an editor for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629). NCL distributes Pope Francis’ green encyclical, Care for Our Common Home ($8.50).

Political Calling

The Working Catholic: Vocation of Politics
by Bill Droel

Can electoral politics be a vocation; a person’s response to God’s call? By one opinion, the answer is decidedly no. Political office, this opinion points out, is a place for illicit sex, ostentation, financial corruption, self-serving ideology and general boorishness. As for those politicians who invoke God’s name, their policy positions hypocritically oppose God’s revealed positions: care for the poor, proper labor relations, compassion for widows and orphans, respect for each life and more.

Days after a recent primary election in Illinois, Lumen Christi Institute (www.lumenchristi.org) hosted a forum in Chicago’s Loop on “The Dignity of Politics.” In its promotional material Lumen Christi, a Catholic group, said that “politics is held in low repute today” and that political activity breeds contempt for the law and public policy.
James Stoner of Louisiana State University, at Lumen Christi’s invitation, shared his own list of negatives with the forum’s participants. Among his obvious examples: the corruption of some office holders deters citizens from electoral politics, including from voting; plus the prevalence of rigid ideology within the major political parties discourages those who might consider political involvement as a vehicle for change.
The Lumen Christi forum—like the daily activity of governance—was conducted in secular language. Perhaps a subsequent forum could ask a panel of elected officials to share how their Catholicism informs their daily work; how within their given environments they incrementally advance justice and peace; how and where they find support when they feel their profession is drifting from the common good.
A panel of Illinois officials at the forum tried to balance Stoner’s negative list. Mary Jane Theis, an Illinois Supreme Court Justice, reminded the participants that politics is a limited activity. While governance must be conducted honorably, its normal business is not a take-no-prisoners moral crusade. Justice is always approximate. The improvements of today must be improved upon tomorrow.
Dan Cronin, a county board chairperson, agreed. Constructive political service doesn’t have the time for moral grandstanding, he said. “Compromise is the way to accomplish good things; it is a virtue.” A conscientious official, said Cronin, must go to work each day with the humble attitude that yesterday was “not quite good enough.” For example, he said, politicians must do more tomorrow to alleviate today’s poverty in Illinois.
Larry Sufferdin, a county board member and a panelist at the Lumen Christi event, spoke of the positives. The corrupt officials dominate the news, but overall “the integrity of politics is good today,” he said.

Some Christian denominations stress people’s sinfulness. Christian sectarians go even further and judge an entire culture to be evil. Withdraw from the world, they preach. Catholicism, by contrast, is world-affirming and therefore accents the goodness of people and their institutions. Catholicism acknowledges that people are flawed by sin and that their institutions can drift away from original aspirations and from the plan of God. But normally the Catholic strategy—grounded in the dogma of Incarnation–is to start with positives and then coax people and institutions toward improvement.
If our world resembles the plan of God, it is because Christians and others respond to the call that is issued to each of us. Politicians need places and occasions in which to reflect on their vocation. Politicians need the solidarity of colleagues—from whatever political party, whatever religious background, or whatever humanistic impulse.
Politicians and other workers who want to live their calling might here-and-there find weekend worship to be a useful resource. They might get some spiritual cues from official Church sources. Unfortunately, the credibility of Catholic bishops and their staff is at low tide these days. More likely, modern workers would find critique and support in independent lay-centered groups, including Lumen Christi. Best yet are those support groups that politicians and other workers form among themselves. For example, a small support group of lawyers that meets regularly or a business executives group that discusses mutual concerns and perhaps adopts a project for the common good.
Most of the time, most workers and most parents and most students go about their daily routine individually without the benefit of a support group. In the modern age, everyone it seems is a solo-practitioner. A true vocation, however, has two parts: A person’s unique gifts plus the objective needs of a community. Without the challenges and support that come from one’s circle of friends and colleagues, a full vocation is unlikely.

Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work for National Center for Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Right to Work

The Working Catholic: Right to Work
by Bill Droel

The pastoral teaching of Catholic bishops in our country has “consistently supported the right of workers to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining,” wrote Anthony Picarello Jr. to the Supreme Court this past January. Picarello is the bishops’ general counsel in Washington, D.C.
Bishop John Carroll (1735-1815) became the first U.S. Catholic bishop in 1789, following a stateside election. (That is another story.) From that day until now, no U.S. bishop has ever compromised our Catholic doctrine by supporting a so-called right to work measure—neither for public sector nor private sector workers. Quite the opposite to expressing support, explains Picarello, bishops have “been very inimical to right to work laws.”

Why does Catholic doctrine support the right of workers to organize and specifically why does it oppose right to work measures? Those measures, Picarello continues, represent a “general concept of freedom that [is] too absolute and extreme.”
Put it this way: A Catholic cannot be a libertarian. Freedom is precious. In Catholicism freedom means freedom to exchange views with others, freedom to associate with others, freedom to worship with others without coercion, freedom to participate in electoral campaigns, freedom to engage with lobby organizations, freedom to join block clubs, hobby clubs, community organizations, professional associations and, to our topic, labor unions. In libertarian terms—an awful philosophy that is infecting our beautiful society—freedom means freedom from; it means doing one’s thing, freedom from an encumbered lifestyle, freedom from obligations in order to be left alone, freedom from social responsibility except as an individual option but not letting society hinder one’s acquisition or accumulation of money or pleasure. The libertarian picture results in ragged individuals on one end and big companies and/or big government on the other end. The Catholic picture has a multiplicity of people’s groups in between those extremes.
An open shop at a union company or right to work measures undermine solidarity, threaten social cohesion and ultimately and surely are unhealthy— physically and spiritually—for the person. (Doctrine does not change merely because many U.S. Catholics, including those who identify as libertarians, do not always adhere to one or another matter of Catholic doctrine.)

The Catholic doctrine on labor relations, derived from our dogma of the Trinity and from Scripture’s revelation about God’s plan for work, has 12 or 20 corollaries, but here are its main points:
1.) Workers decide for or against a union with no paternal or maternal interference from managers. Workers likewise can later decertify a union that displeases them. No specific company is obliged under Catholicism to have a union nor does our doctrine endorse or oppose any particular fit between a particular company and a particular union. The workers decide.
2.) People flourish best–again physically and spiritually—in a vibrant civil society, not under oppressive government (totalitarianism) and not in atomistic arrangements (libertarianism). A vibrant civil society must have some labor unions with honest collective bargaining.

Picarello referenced three Chicagoans in his written testimony to the Supreme Court: Cardinal Blasé Cupich, our current archbishop, Bishop Bernard Sheil (1888-1969), a former auxiliary, and Msgr. George Higgins (1916-2002), a long-serving advisor to Church officials and union leaders. This column gives Higgins the last word, by way of a quotation from Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945) of St. Paul. Higgins thought this early 1930s quote well summarized the matter.
“Effective labor unions are still by far the most powerful force in society for the protection of laborer’s rights and the improvement of [their] condition. No amount of employer benevolence, no diffusion of a sympathetic attitude on the part of the public, no piece of beneficial legislation, can adequately supply for the lack of organization among workers themselves.”

Droel’s publications on labor doctrine include Catholic Administrators and Labor Unions plus Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Work, available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $8.50 prepaid for both).

Public Housing

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

St. Frances Cabrini, MSC (1850-1917), the first U.S. citizen to be canonized, is the patron of immigrants. William Green (1873-1952) was for 28 years president of American Federation of Labor (before the merger with CIO). A notorious public housing project in Chicago was named for these two.
Ben Austen takes us inside that housing project in High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing (Harper Collins, 2018). The project started in 1943 with several row houses in an area once called Lower North Side, and previously called Little Italy. In 1958 the high-rises appeared; first 15, then eight more, then others—three were 19 stories, and then others up to 23 stories. Eventually the project came down; demolition completed in 2011.
Originally, Cabrini-Green, like other public housing, was meant to temporarily assist working families; to provide a way station between unemployment and upward mobility. It was also an effort to address slum conditions in the area and to create jobs in construction and administration. Cabrini-Green, a case study in unintended consequences of social policy, failed all three of its original goals.
Austen intersperses the chronology with the stories of select residents. He follows Dolores Wilson, a longtime resident who remains attached to her family and neighbors. There is Kelvin Cannon who, despite potential, soon affiliates with a gang and is convicted of crime. Willie J.R. Fleming likewise shows potential; moves away from Cabrini-Green; yet returns to its danger. He eventually displays organizing creativity, but neither he nor his followers have enough sustaining discipline and power. Annie Ricks comes to Cabrini-Green following a fire in her home. She makes a stand there for the sake of her eight children.
Austen refrains from moralizing. He is also light on analysis; certainly implying the wrongness of some decisions, but not targeting villains. Austen thus challenges readers to draw their own conclusions. His policy narrative is complex enough and his characters are complicated enough that fair-minded readers must put stereotypes aside. Yet, from the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 followed by riots in Chicago and elsewhere, it is obvious that Austen’s book and Cabrini-Green itself will not have a “happily ever after” conclusion.
Are there any heroes in Austen’s book? No super-heroes. But some Cabrini-Green residents manage as best they can, by participating in improvement efforts and especially by keeping their children in school and in some cases finding better opportunity for their families. High-Risers also mentions “friends of Cabrini-Green,” who exhibit constancy in assisting families and young adults there. For example, Brother Bill Tomes (and his handful of disciples) provide a small measure of good example to young people. Marion Stamps, who once lived in Cabrini-Green, is a savvy advocate. She is such a fixture that she can with credibility call-out gang members and politicians alike. The leaders at Holy Family Lutheran Church and at other churches never tire of providing services to residents and eventually, with LaSalle St. Church and others, develop alternative housing. Austen names two police officers who excel in dealing with young people at Cabrini-Green. Jesse White, who is still Illinois Secretary of State, assists many Cabrini-Green residents over the years. His Tumblers group, designed for Cabrini-Green youngsters, still performs at many parades and other events.
Austen includes Ed Marciniak (1918-2004) in his bibliography. Marciniak was involved in race relations and with public housing for decades. As early as 1951 he warned the housing authority not to build high-rises in the Lower North Side/Cabrini-Green area. Over the years Marciniak started a tutoring program for Cabrini-Green students, raised money for scholarships there and served on numerous committees and a few federal judicial panels dealing with Cabrini-Green.

For the last 20 years of Marciniak’s life, I was honored to be his assistant. We spent many hours walking the rim of Chicago’s Loop, often including the area in and around Cabrini-Green. We talked with lots of people—sometimes by appointment, sometimes informally. Here, out of a list of about 20 conclusions, are three in abbreviated form.

1.) The government does a reasonably good job delivering assistance that is not means-tested, specifically Social Security and Medicare. In all other programs the delivery of social services needs to be mediated by smaller, closer institutions. Housing assistance requires partnerships of non-profit entities like churches and community development corporations along with government, plus community-minded, for-profit entrepreneurs, construction companies and management teams. A sufficient number of local institutions need to relate to those in assisted housing—good schools, stores, social service, youth agencies and more.

2.) There has to be a certain quantity of well-managed assisted housing in a target area so that families are not dumped into an otherwise downward scene. At the same time there has to be a limit on assisted housing units in a target area so that the new residents do not inundate the area with poverty. Again, the target area has to have as many local institutions as possible.

3.) Poverty, we also concluded, is not simply about income. An older type of poverty assumed upwardly mobility was possible because a sufficient number of factory jobs in assembly or manufacturing were available. That is no longer the case, as Austen repeatedly mentions. The new poverty includes lack of useful social connections, a lack of proficiency in the requirements of the knowledge-sectors, a loss of marriage and family life as a buffer in one’s daily struggle and more. To impose the expectations of the old immigrant story onto the new urban (and more recently suburban) poverty only leads to blaming people when supposed remedies fail. On the other hand, urban pessimists are wrong to presume that the new poverty is an unbeatable inter-generational sentence and that therefore “those people” deserve to fend for themselves without any assistance.

Marciniak’s book on Cabrini-Green is Reclaiming the Inner City (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5.50). Droel edits NCL’s print newsletter on faith and work.

Union Reform

The Working Catholic: Union Reform
by Bill Droel

Subsidiarity is a Catholic social principle that celebrates the multiplicity of small institutions that buffer a person from the mega-forces of big business and big government; institutions like the family, the parish, an ethnic club or the precinct. Brian Dijkema, writing in National Affairs (Winter/18), correctly and refreshingly includes labor unions among those mediating institutions that help families navigate in our wider society and global economy. I say “refreshingly” because in recent times several social policy thinkers who acknowledge the crucial role of civil society are cool toward unions. They are pro-family, pro-church and pro-soccer league, but they don’t want the countervailing efforts of unions.
Dijkema, who is with Cardus (www.cardus.ca), a Christian think tank in Hamilton, is aware that the “social institutions that define a rich human life” are in decline, leaving us with a more-or-less random collection of “atomized individuals.” Dijkema thus offers general suggestions for the renewal of local institutions, which in this essay he applies to unions.
Organized labor should embrace the Catholic principle of subsidiarity and its companion, the principle of solidarity. Dijkema does not mean that union leaders should be Catholics. He means that Catholic tradition (and other religious traditions) has resources that can help unions attract and retain a younger generation. Dijkema seems to assume that today’s churches are carriers of these social resources—an assumption those of us involved with parish life question at times. In any case, he is correct that unions and churches can be mutually beneficial. If that is, they approach each other with clarity; not merely in a utilitarian way to get more people at a union rally or to sell more tables at a church banquet.

Dijkema details a contrast between the dominant approach of unions today and an approach that uses solidarity and subsidiarity. In the dominant approach, unions pour money into electoral campaigns. Instead they need to use money and energy “to recapture the imagination of local communities.” In the dominant approach union leaders think power comes through elected officials whereas power can emerge from deliberate encounters between and among grass-roots leaders. Unions, Dijkema says, turn too eagerly to government entities to set wages (a national minimum wage or a local living wage) instead of fighting for a union’s proper function of collective bargaining. Many of today’s unions, Dijkema charges, want “a big play” in the arena of government and/or corporate partnership, a win that will give the union new life. But short cuts don’t last. Unions, like churches, cannot grow “without the requisite work of building the many small, social relationships that act as the strongest binding agents for voluntary associations.” That requisite work means hundreds of one-to-one conversations among a mix of like-minded people, precisely the dynamic of subsidiarity and solidarity.

Dijkema makes some worthwhile suggestions. For example, he thinks unions would benefit from articulating a philosophy or theology of work. Such a project would also, I would add, benefit churches as they seek to attract and retain young families.
However, Dijkema’s either-or tone detracts from his message. Why should a union choose between a national campaign on wages and proposals to “address the challenges faced by young families”? Why, as Dijkema implies, is every campaign that involves government a distraction? If unions and other fair-minded groups do not oppose the misnamed right to work laws, for example, there will only be fewer intermediate groups and more atomized individuals. What if unions did not participate in Fight for $15 campaigns? What mechanism would there then be for teaching young adults about immigration, labor history and more?

Dijkema concludes with a quotation from Pope Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Ratzinger) on a pure remnant church. Dijkema then proposes “a smaller, simpler and less socially prominent labor movement.” Whatever Benedict XVI’s context, sectarian Catholicism is a contradiction in terms. Advocating for a small church is Catholic heresy. A baptized Catholic, for example, cannot casually become non-Catholic. The entrance doors are wide open, especially during Lent. Given the state of unions in the U.S., it is hard to understand how a smaller labor movement would in any way make for a richer society.

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

Ethical Workers

The Working Catholic: Workplace Behavior
by Bill Droel

In response to recent disclosures of predatory behavior in several workplaces, human resource departments around the country are redistributing employee handbooks. Likewise, managers are everywhere huddling with employees to review proper deportment.
Rule books and company policies are important. They represent an advance over the arbitrary decisions of a boss, even a benevolent boss. Rule books provide a basis for equal treatment. They are often written after some employee input, either through a personnel committee or a union and thus these personnel policies carry a degree of assumed consent. It is, admittedly, difficult to deal with specific personnel incidents like persistent tardiness, suspicions of addiction, internet surfing, gossiping and harassment. Likewise, written company policies add a layer of procedural wrangling or maybe nitpicking to each incident. Nonetheless, those policies benefit the company, its brand, its managers, its lawyers, its insurance policy and importantly, its employees. To operate any business today on a case-by-case basis is asking for additional trouble.
Let’s be clear, however. To have a refined and fully-accepted employee handbook is not the same as having an ethical workforce and ethical managers. A rule book cannot dispose workers to see the sacred on the job; it cannot help a worker imagine her job as a vocation. A rule book does not establish decorum or, to use an old word, reverence in the office. It is incapable of fostering compassion. And please be aware, a rule book cannot give any manager or any employee his or her dignity.

Workers, writes James Drane in Becoming a Good Doctor (Rowman Littlefield, 1988; $16.95), “shape the ethical narrative of their lives by the ways they do ordinary things over and over.” His book is directed to medical schools and hospital administrators, but as Drane says, its argument relates to all occupations and professions. “The whole medical ethics enterprise has been conceived in terms of logic, principles, patient rights and procedures,” he notes. Medical ethics, like other topics in medicine, is taught by using case studies. The result is “an abstract, analytical style.” This approach for doctors, nurses, technicians and many other workers results in licensing requirements, continuing education requirements, renewals, charting, written policies, patient consent forms, information-sharing regulations and lots more. All of this is necessary, perhaps.
This dominant approach to education for and delivery of health care does not consider the worker’s personal virtue or character, Drane continues. “Attention to a young doctor’s personal traits or character is out of place” in medical education or in hiring. The dominant approach assumes that personal character—the product of doing ordinary things well, over and over—has no place. Putting character outside the bounds of hiring criteria and evaluation, Drane contends, contributes to the disease of agnosia. That is, health care workers might lose the ability to see the face of the person being treated or to respectfully appreciate the people they work with. A hospital, to continue the medical example, might have a doctor or a nurse who has completely memorized the procedural handbook. That doctor or nurse might be nearly compulsive about observing all the required dos-and-don’ts. None of this, however, guarantees that such a doctor or nurse is any good; that such a doctor or nurse treats patients and families holistically or respects the inherent dignity of each colleague.

There’s a reason that human resource departments, executives and others don’t traffic in virtue. Modern business has no binding standard for conduct, except the law. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and others, tried to develop a modern approach to ethics that did not depend on revelation or religion. But, under the weight of too many particulars, the objective rationale behind the modern approach to business and public ethics is easily ignored, even explicitly dismissed. The situation in recent years is worse, as a post-modern approach to public life has gained fashion. It harbors an ironic contempt for objectivity itself.
Kellyanne Conway, a senior Counselor to the President and, by the way, a Catholic, says “There are alternative facts.” This is a stunning example of post-modern relativism. If she is correct, there is no ethics.

U.S. Catholic bishops, to offer a current situation, do not err in restating or re-framing canons pertaining to deviant personnel. They go in the right direction by requiring their employees to judiciously report deviance. But as intelligent bishops should know, even the most comprehensive personnel guidelines will not sufficiently influence an employee who is short on virtue.
Entertainment executives, to mention a second current example, are not wasting time by requiring all employees to read company personnel guidelines. This pertains even to the biggest stars in the industry, maybe especially the stars. But intelligent executives should know that it takes more than a guidebook to have a culture of respect in the studio or the newsroom.
How can virtue be acquired? To be continued…

Successful Social Change

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

Will the buds of social improvement flower? There are promising signs. People are speaking out for respectful behavior in workplaces. Others are adamant about equal treatment under the law. Some desire better attention to mental health and addiction; still others are sensitive to food and product safety. To turn these and other initial bursts of interest into meaningful social change means avoiding pseudo-change; those activities that feel like social change but only approximate genuine politics.

Discussion groups, for example, are not change agents. Consciousness-raising is not politics. Oh yes, our society benefits from book clubs. Roundtable discussion groups that meet over drinks and a topic are important. These and other modes of intellectual sharing assist those who advance the common good.
It sometimes happens, however, that participants in a discussion group assume that they are thereby tackling a social problem. A parish group, for example, forms around shared concern over opioid addiction. They read and discuss Dreamland, a terrific book by Sam Quinones (Bloomsbury, 2016). They subsequently invite the entire congregation to a couple of presentations, including a well-attended one with the local sheriff. The parish group accumulates a referral list for families dealing with addiction. All of this is good, noble and necessary. It is not yet social change. An opening must be found into the pain treatment industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the nursing home industry, the criminal justice system, the social service bureaucracy and the like.
The parish group itself does not have to be a change agent; in fact, it probably should not be. But the group can perhaps find ways that its members can get inside the problem from within their workplace, their college, their professional association or their union. Plus, the small parish group can perhaps coalesce with other church groups in their denomination or across denominational and religious lines and then join even bigger circles of influence.

A key to social change behavior is the understanding that outsiders must get to the inside. This journey requires sophistication and some tradeoffs, including serious attention to core principles.
Here is one example of outsiders getting to the inside. Globalization has many unfortunate side-effects. But globalization by definition is huge and seemingly amorphous. Sweatshops in Bangladesh are a bi-product of globalization. But there’s nothing one can do about them. But wait. Some students have found a clever way to break into the seemingly impenetrable harshness of the global economy. First students at one school and then students at the next school went, as insiders, to their college bookstore. They asked the store manager to name the factory that produces the school’s sweaters, shirts, jackets and the like. They simultaneously pushed the college administrators to require that bookstore vendors have humane labor codes. The students, who communicate with those at other schools through United Students Against Sweatshops (www.usas.org), got their school to sign-on with an apparel monitoring organization, Worker Rights Consortium (www.workersrights.org). Guess what? Some major apparel retailers and clothing brands met with student representatives. The companies now expect their overseas sub-contractors to observe humane working conditions.

Is the problem of sweatshops solved? Not yet. Some apparel lines want to do their own monitoring of the overseas suppliers; the student groups want independent monitoring. So, the students have to get further inside some apparel companies. In doing so, the students have to find an ally (maybe a college trustee) who is connected to the apparel industry. The students also must consider their principles: Is half a loaf acceptable or do we push for three-quarters of a loaf? Is the credibility of the students enough or would a celebrity endorser help? Maybe a bigger presence on social media is the answer? What else is involved in social change? To be continued…

Advent, Part III

The Working Catholic: Advent Part III
by Bill Droel

Every preacher has a sermon ready for this weekend or next in a folder labeled “Keep Christ in Christmas.” The theme is such a cliché that it is better to leave the folder in a file cabinet, away from the pulpit. Ordinary lay people know how to sufficiently navigate December’s commercialism. And who says that Christ is not in the office parties, the shopping for gifts, the decorating, the baking and all the rest? For those who falter, there’s a how-to book: Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson (Harper Collins).
The entire “Put Christ in Christmas” movement, now championed by President Donald Trump, is misguided. It shows a lack of faith in the Incarnation. The error is an easy one to make. I catch myself on occasion saying something like, “Bring Christ to the Marketplace.” Although I don’t use the phrase “re-Christianize society,” I might nod in agreement when I see it in an essay.
Christ is already in the world and he cannot be removed, no matter how corrupt or indifferent people may be. A Christian is supposed to dispose himself or herself to God’s presence in the world; a lifetime task. Secondly, a Christian is supposed to assist others see the divine presence by making the world better match God’s plan for it.
The late November shampoo of our church carpets, the enhanced December décor of the church, the well-sung Advent hymns, the evocative Advent liturgy that makes use of Isaiah and early parts of the four gospels—all of these nourish us and prepare the way for the glory of Christmas. But the Bethlehem story itself points to the truth that God is most intimately available in the comings-and-goings of ordinary families, among unremarkable workers and especially among the poor.
Yes, the crèche in our home, in front of the church and in many public squares (including here in Chicago) is a visual reminder of God’s Incarnation. But the figurines in those displays are inanimate. The living Christ includes all the retail clerks who stack merchandise and direct shoppers. These workers, please understand, do not have to consciously exude Christianity. Indeed, some are members of other religious traditions; others do not worship at all. Yet, Advent is seeing Christmas in them and then improving their world. For example, don’t shop on Sunday so that workers have Sabbath time.
Restaurant workers mirror Christ. As an Advent discipline, bump up the tip, let’s say to 25% of the bill. The barber, the postal worker, the newspaper delivery person, your bartender.
Christ is the worker who sews the dress shirt that goes into a gift box. That worker is likely overseas and may well labor in a sweatshop. Christ is the worker in a Thailand shrimp house who washes and packages the little fish for the hors d’oeuvre tray at the office party. That worker is probably a slave. As an Advent discipline, only eat shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico or from a U.S. aqua-farm.
Christ is any family that can’t find a room at Mar-a-Lago, or at the Hilton or even at the Route 20 Motel. Christ is anyone who is not welcome at the family table, likely because that person is associated with too much sorrow and discord. During December, many Christians donate food or money for the care of the homeless. Get a closer look at Christ by volunteering at the pantry or shelter.

A few years ago I was in a Milwaukee shopping mall during Advent. Or better to say, my wife was shopping in Milwaukee; I found a bench inside the mall. A Pakistani-American woman and her baby sat down next to me. An older, well-dressed woman approached us and presumably mistaking me for the father said, “You are so lucky. This child is a great hope to us today.” How did she know?
Over 2000 years ago there was another baby. This one conceived out of wedlock to under-employed refugees. This baby’s life was in political danger and the family had to spend time in a foreign country with no green cards. In one sense Jesus did almost nothing that was extraordinary. He simply went about doing the unexpected: showing kindness to strangers, preaching subversively, associating with oddballs. Advent is about looking for the greatest in the unexpected. It is about great hope on a bench at a mall in downtown Milwaukee.

Advent is preparation for Christmas. Christmas is preparation for the day after Christmas.

Advent Lesson

The Working Catholic: Advent, Part II
by Bill Droel

Contemporaries Karl Marx (1818-1883), Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) and Charles Dickens (1812-1870) were concerned about the social question: Why in an industrial economy that promises upward mobility is there so much misery?
By the mid-1800s prosperity was arriving for “factory and mill and transportation interests,” writes Les Standiford in his intriguing biography of Dickens, The Man Who Invented Christmas (Crown, 2008). In addition to business owners, “a growing number of managerial workers were beginning to enjoy the relative ease of a middle class. But most of those who made the factories run were laborers, and they and their families lived in squalor.”
In his early 20s Engels was in Manchester, working and researching. Appalled by child labor, pollution and slum housing there, he began writing about the evils of capitalism. Standiford says that Manchester in 1843 set the stage for Engels. Had he “come of age in some more pleasant surroundings such as London, The Communist Manifesto might not have been written the way it was.”
Dickens gave a talk in Manchester in fall 1843. He too was appalled. He returned to London and in a fury wrote his anti-capitalist manifesto, A Christmas Carol. Dickens “had no use for revolt or violence as suggested by supporters of Mark and Engels,” Standiford writes. His novels are about the working poor, but they dwell on character not on macro-economics. The stories hinge on the tension between bad people and bad institutions, on one hand, and the possibility of redemption on the other.
The good guys (the poor) in Dickens’ stories are complex. He does not romanticize them. Poverty in itself does not make a person noble or worthy of pity. A poor person might drink, carouse, cheat and make bad decisions at times. Dickens’ premise, however, is that being poor is not a sin; the system is at fault.

The holy season of Advent is designed to convey this lesson: Charity is not romantic; it is a duty. Poor individuals are often not charming. They do, however, deserve help with no heavy moral judgment attached.
St. Luke wrote an inspired story about the social question (poverty). Like A Christmas Carol, it is popular at this time of year. The creator of the whole universe, the story goes, comes to visit his created planet. His holy family cannot get a room at Trump Tower and so they go to a barn. The creator is greeted there by poor shepherds. He eventually spends his life among the poor, all of whom St. Luke says have defects in their character but are open to redemption.
These weeks are the best time to read St. Luke (his first two chapters) and also Dickens’ tale. Get a decorative copy of A Christmas Carol from Acta (www.actapublications.com). Acta’s chief executive Grinch sits all day near the building’s front window, looking forlornly down Clark St., waiting until April 9, 2018 when he can take his seat in Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs (92-70 in 2017). Meanwhile, the joyous elves in Acta’s cramped warehouse can for $14.95 get A Christmas Carol into your mailbox, as quickly as any mega-supplier.

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

Christmas, So Soon?

The Working Catholic: Christmas So Soon?
by Bill Droel

The grocery store was more congested than usual this morning because Christmas has taken over two aisles—miniature lights, extension cords, wreaths, decorative boxes, greeting cards and wrapping paper. Plus there are several gift displays at the front and back of several aisles—trays of chestnuts/hazelnuts/pecans and holiday sausage plus winter ale, which I bought for Thanksgiving and which I’ll get more of later. My regular grocery cashier, who is also a floor manager, mentioned that she spent her first hour in a Christmas meeting: How to adequately staff for these next weeks, how many turkeys to order, etc. I had to also stop quickly at the drug store where the same items are prominent. (Yes, my drug store sells festive beer.) There is a radio station in Chicago that from November 3rd exclusively plays Christmas music until 11:59 P.M. on Christmas Eve.

Who started all this? Who invented Christmas?
One correct answer is Our Blessed Mother Mary. Another answer might be St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), who is credited with inventing, or at least popularizing, the Christmas Pageant. But Christmas in the sense of shopping, office parties, mounds of presents and the like is less than 175-years old.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was into a major writer’s block in 1843. His last three stories were duds and he was in debt. Walking the streets of Manchester that fall, Dickens thought about children and Christmas. Back home in London he wrote A Christmas Carol in a fury. The publisher didn’t like it. Dickens decided to pay for the publishing, thus increasing his debt. Of course, it took off and many editions and adaptations followed. The 1992 Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite.
Dickens didn’t exactly invent Christmas. But Dickens “played a major role in transforming a celebration dating back to pre-Christian times, revitalizing forgotten customs and introducing new ones that now define the holiday,” writes Les Standiford in The Man Who Invented Christmas (Crown, 2011). Dickens “complimented the glorification of the nativity of Christ with a specific set of practices derived from Christ’s example: charity and compassion in the form of educational opportunity, humane working conditions and a decent life for all.” Dickens’ influence links “the birth of a holy savior into a human family to the glorification and defense of the family unit itself.”

Obviously, the themes of Christmas associated with the original Bethlehem setting, with St. Francis’ pageant and with A Christmas Carol can be lost in the frenzy of shopping. It is silly, however, for Christians to wage a culture war on behalf of our holy season. For example, no one needs the permission of President Donald Trump to greet anyone in friendship by saying “Merry Christmas.”
Instead of grousing about commercialism, why not use the weeks of Advent to implement Christmas themes in the neighborhood, in the workplace and in one’s family? In particular, why not—as many people already do—use these days to fight poverty, even with small gestures? Pope Francis declares November 19, 2017 as World Day for the Poor. Each of us can make an anti-poverty resolution on that day, and evaluate our effort on January 6, 2018, the Epiphany. For a booster shot of the Christmas theme, read again A Christmas Carol. There is a decorative edition with an introduction from pastoral theologian John Shea available at Acta (4848 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60640; $14.95).

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