The Working Catholic: Holy Capitalist

by Bill Droel

A small number of Catholics more or less believes that capitalism is evil. On the other extreme an even smaller number of neoconservative Catholics believes that humanistic capitalism is God’s preferred system.
Most Catholics implicitly take a micro-position, confining judgment to particular cases. Thus these Catholics might see holiness in the work of a hospice nurse or a special-education teacher. These Catholics, if they thought about it, also see goodness in some small business owners, but probably not in a big-time financier.

John Raskob (1879-1950) was “an architect of the capitalist system,” his biographer David Farber details. He was also a serious Catholic.
Raskob was involved with many tycoons of his time. His name, however, is lost to popular history, Faber writes, because he “never ran a major corporation. He never invented a noteworthy product.” Rather, Raskob was passionate about credit markets and leveraged financing. He was fluent in asset valuation, bond divestures, real estate markets, stocks and the like. He put together the deal that made DuPont Company a major business. He then did something similar for General Motors. Yet, according to Faber, “Raskob was driven not by greed or avarice or by the desire for adulation and power.” He disliked awards and avoided recognition. For example, Raskob financed a skyscraper in Manhattan. It is not called Raskob Tower, but rather The Empire State Building. “He was the anti-Trump of his time,” says Faber.

The title of Raskob’s biography is taken from one of his slogans, Everybody Ought To Be Rich (Oxford University Press, 2013). Though the slogan can be misinterpreted, he meant that the economy’s wealth should be open to more people, including hourly workers. Raskob believed that, given the appropriate instruments, the market can help stabilize families. It was Raskob, for example, who created the consumer credit that is taken for granted today. William Durant (1861-1947) had a small company called General Motors. Raskob got involved with it, envisioning competition with Ford Motor. His innovation was car-buying on the installment plan with GM and other entities floating the credit. Likewise, all of today’s 401K plans have a Raskob lineage.

Raskob was generous toward Catholic causes, both stateside and through the Vatican. It is no surprise that Raskob eschewed public recognition for his donations.
Raskob tried to donate in ways that would yield more predictable income for Catholic institutions. For example, he instituted the first endowment fund for a diocese. Hundreds of Catholic institutions today use Raskob’s plan. He also pioneered the separate incorporation of auxiliaries to Catholic institutions, which is also common now. He popularized the idea of matching-grant fundraising drives.
Raskob’s most significant contribution to internal Church operations was his insistence that lay people should assume responsibilities for which their character and training is better suited than those trained primarily in theology, Faber writes. He fought to give laypeople a greater role inside the church and to a degree his life reflected the role of the layperson in the world.

One more area of Raskob’s life is worth mentioning and retains relevance. Day-to-day he was not affected by prevalent and overt anti-Catholicism and by hostility toward immigrants. Raskob hung out with the elite and had an upper-class lifestyle. But he was opposed to the second-class treatment given to immigrants. He saw right through Prohibition; that it was disguised anti-Catholicism.
At some point Raskob met Al Smith (1873-1944) through a club. When it came time for Smith to launch his 1928 presidential campaign, he chose Raskob as campaign manager and chair of the Democratic National Committee. All of Smith’s advisors opposed the choice. First, the advisors knew that Raskob had no prior political experience. Second, the advisors were sure that the opposing campaign, already using Smith’s Catholicism against him, would claim that Catholics are taking over the government. (Today, the Ku Klux Klan is associated with racial bigotry. But the Klan began as a mostly anti-Catholic movement. True to their hatred, the Klan vilified Smith as a “papist puppet.”)

Some time ago, I participated in a conference for Catholic leaders. One of the presenters made a startling announcement: “I find no spiritual nourishment in the United States. I am moving to England.”
I was baffled as to why she would pick England as a spiritual oasis. But more importantly, I was disturbed that a Catholic would give a wholesale condemnation to our society. Obviously, our culture has serious defects. But isn’t it better for a Christian to start with society’s achievements and to faithfully engage the ebb-and-flow of daily life?
Raskob was not perfect. He could be judgmental toward others. He made some poor business decisions. And there are huge structural downsides to the capitalist system. Raskob is simply one U.S. Catholic who lived his spirituality in the context of finance.

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

Who is Linna Eleanor Bresette?

Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact

CUA Archives

I didn’t know either until a few days ago. Our friends at the Catholic University of America Libraries have put together a fascinating profile of this early twentieth century labor activist who worked as a factory inspector in her home state before joining the Bishops’ Social Action Department. CUA archivist William Shepherd writes:

Linna Eleanor Bresette (1882-1960) was a teacher and pioneering social justice advocate in her native Kansas for nearly a decade before serving for thirty years as the field secretary of the Social Action Department (SAD) of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). It was with the SAD that she worked with legendary labor priests John A. Ryan, Raymond McGowan, and George G. Higgins as a tireless field worker on behalf of the working poor regardless of race or gender…

Visit the CUA Archivists’ Nook to read the whole story!

Roundup of Labor Day 2016

How did those of us who weren’t voting in a union representation election celebrate Labor Day? Well, I joined the Labor and Income Inequality team at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Arlington VA – they organized a special Mass with AFL-CIO President Emeritus Thomas Donahue serving as a lector. Later I read John Gehring’s thoughtful essay “A Catholic-Labor Revival?”  in CommonwealFr. Anthony Shonis (a CLN member) gave the keynote speech at the Owensboro, KY Central Labor Council. Ed Langlois wrote up a fine history of labor activity in the Archdiocese of Portland, OR in the Catholic Sentinel. (Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the diocese hosts one of the nation’s largest concentrations of unionized Catholic hospitals!)

Did you do anything interesting to put your faith in action this Labor Day? Tell us!

NJ, CA Catholic Conferences take action for worker justice

In each U.S. state, the Bishops have established Catholic Conference exists to coordinate faith-based advocacy at the state level. The conferences are not partisan organizations that endorse candidates, but issue-oriented groups that testify to our Catholic values in the public policy arena. This year has witnessed an important effort by the NJ Catholic Conference to support a minimum wage increase in the Garden State and the California Catholic Conference backing legislation extending overtime protections to farmworkers.


Farmworkers Lobby for Overtime Bill ( UFW)

The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay premium wages for work beyond 40 hours per week – but many people don’t realize that the Act excludes some categories of workers, including agricultural workers. In California, the AFL-CIO and the California Catholic Conference have backed a determined effort to change that. It met with success this September when erstwhile Jesuit seminarian Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation making farmworkers eligible for overtime pay.

Meanwhile, in the Garden State, the New Jersey Catholic Conference joined with the NJ AFL-CIO and several state labor unions to bring the fight for $15 to the floor of the NJ State Legislature in Trenton. “We must always remember Pope Francis’ wisdom on the importance of the worker as he reminds us that labor is “not a mere commodity,” but has “its own inherent dignity and worth,” said Bishop Sullivan of Camden. NJ Catholic Conference representative James King brought the message to Trenton, testifying

On behalf of the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey, I ask the Senate Labor Committee to release Senate Bill 15 favorably. S15 would incrementally increase New Jersey’s minimum wage from $8.38 per hour to $15.00 per hour over four years while maintaining an annual increase based on the Cost of Living Index. Catholic Social Teaching supports workers’ rights for a just wage…. We realize that increasing the minimum wage will not eliminate poverty. However, Senate Bill 15 would  be an important step towards helping the working poor and providing the opportunity for them to enjoy a greater sense of self -worth and dignity.

Sadly, the bill was vetoed by Governor Chris Christie. Backers promise that the issue will return in 2017.

Labor Priests at their side, Boulder Station casino workers win union

For workers at the Boulder Station Casino & Hotel in Las Vegas, Labor Day 2016 will always have a special meaning: after years of struggle, they won their union. By a margin of 2-1 the workers voted to join the Hotel and Restaurant workers’ union. And right by their side were their Bishop and a mission of Labor Priests organized by Fr. Clete Kiley, Director of Immigration Policy for their parent union, UNITEHERE. Fr. Bob Bonnott described their pastoral visit to the union hall:

I was privileged to attend the pastoral visit of Bishop Pepe to the workers in the Culinary Workers Union Hall. More than 200 workers gathered. They shared their stories –– their backgrounds, their work experiences, their labor with only two raises totaling 60 cents over six years, their lack of a contract, of benefits and of any pension after decades of work. Bishop Pepe listened. As he introduced Bishop Pepe, Deacon O’Callahan shared his own experience with labor and unions, starting with Cesar Chavez. Bishop Pepe then discarded his prepared text and spoke movingly from his heart. He shared his own immigrant story, concluding that “Catholic teaching affirms your dignity as persons and workers and supports your rights. The Church is with you and I am with you.” His words provoked tears and cheers from the workers, many if not most of whom are Catholic… Labor Day has always meant something to me, but never as much as it has this year. I invite my brother priests to consider becoming ‘labor priests’ themselves, and as well, ‘capital priests.’ We must help both workers and owners know Catholic Social Teaching.

To read Father Bob’s complete account, CLICK HERE

The Working Catholic: Heavenly Institutions

by Bill Droel

Once upon a time there was an elderly monk “who wove a basket one day; the next day he unwove it,” Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ (1904-1967) relates. “The basket itself did not matter; but the weaving and unweaving of it served as a means of spending an interval.” Only the soul was of value, the monk believed. For everything else, “what did it matter” whether a person wove baskets or constructed skyscrapers or composed symphonies?
This story, found in Murray’s classic We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Sheed & Ward, 1960), illustrates one tendency among Christians. To greater or lesser degree some Christians think that the earthly city is not their home and that everything we build will suddenly vanish. Heaven for them “is radically discontinuous with history, the arena of human effort and achievement,” Murray writes.

The other tendency, Murray details, is premised on the belief that “grace perfects nature,” that grace builds upon nature but does not destroy it. The dogma of Incarnation means that God’s kingdom begins on earth as it is in heaven. The earth is not “destined for an eternal dust-heap… Human effort remains real and really valuable.”
Of course, this world-affirming tendency can be taken too far. In the United States it is indeed taken too far. Some Christians, through a misinterpretation of Protestant theology, think that individual economic achievement is a sign of God’s favor. And even more mistakenly, many people who might call themselves Christian act as if grace is irrelevant; that material achievement is all that there is.

What is heaven like? The close friends of Jesus do not immediately recognize him in the post-resurrection appearances. That is because they are startled and because they have no prior experience through which to process resurrection. But something else is confusing. Jesus does not have his usual countenance. He is not identical to how he formerly was. This resurrection is decidedly not resuscitation. Yet, the New Testament insists on a bodily resurrection. Over and over, the early church fought against Gnostic heresies that said resurrection involves only the spirit, not the corruptible body.
Our own resurrection means a new body in Christ. There might be an initial moment of shock, but our resurrected body will be recognizable. That is, heaven is different from earthly life but is in continuity with it. Granted, the specifics about heaven are unknown. Those specifics do not need to be known. However, God has revealed something about creation, starting in Genesis, and has revealed something about redemption, including the Bethlehem event and Jesus’ carpentry job and many more earthly comings and goings. It is solid thinking then to conclude that our workaday efforts matter in God’s plan. The divine process is inextricable to our job, our care for family and home, our attention to the neighborhood and to our civic involvements.

I speculate that our institutions are heaven-bound. This is not heresy and in fact it is fully compatible with Catholic theology. I don’t expect to visit the motor vehicle department in heaven or to deal with the Internal Revenue Service. But in some sense the best aspirations contained in what we have created will be in heaven. Why would there be no sociability in heaven? No social peace or safety? No cooperation? No symphonies? No families? Our institutions here and now should, in my opinion, reflect as best as possible, the divine intention implanted in all of creation. Our institutions, though in need of daily reform, are heaven-infused and heaven-destined… in some sense.

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

The Working Catholic: A Nostalgic Society

by Bill Droel

After about 35 years of weekly gatherings, the members of my spiritual support group are now all retired. At our age we tend to recall the long gone car companies, the discontinued breweries and the great athletes of yesteryear. However, our group concludes that nostalgia is a temptation, that escapism is a distraction.
What applies to individuals is also true for our society. There is far and away too much energy given to inaccurate comparisons with a so-called golden age. There is unhealthy nostalgia overcoming social groups. It is a disease that short circuits correct analysis of situations and that often advocates counter-productive solutions. It proceeds like this: First, social nostalgia sees the current scene as one of decline. Then it imagines a golden age. Next, it picks out one factor associated with the golden age and campaigns for its restoration. The assumption is that one restored symbol from the past will usher back most of the fonder time.
For example, a faction within a parish decides that Christianity is losing out to secularism. It imagines a golden age. Then the faction picks out the Latin Mass as something that will restore calmness and stability. There is nothing wrong per se when a parish offers an occasional Latin Mass option or has a monthly Marian procession or any number of other old-time devotions. But none of these will inaugurate a golden age, which to be truthful never existed anyway. I was there; it was ok back then, but not golden.

Political leaders are harkening to a golden age, writes Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic (Basic Books, 2016). These leaders—explicitly or subtly—first sow seeds of discontent. They then evoke “recollections of a lost ideal,” of a time before today’s decline. For the Democrats the ideal time was about 1965; for Republicans it was 1981. These leaders then use small pieces of history to suggest a restoration of peace and prosperity. Though presented differently, the narrative comes from both left and right. “Once upon a time,” the story begins. Once upon a time there were plentiful manufacturing jobs, prosperity from mining and steel, domestic security because immigrants were quickly homogenized, international supremacy because our president talked tough, respect for law and order. Oh yes, once upon a time.
Look, says Levin, this so-called golden era “was not the paradise that some now suggest.” Far too much verbiage is given to recovering the strengths of the post-World War II era. Of course we can derive some pertinent ideas from the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the administration of Ronald Reagan. But why focus on “how we can recover the capital we have used up” when the real challenge is “how we can build economic, cultural and social capital in the 21st century”?

In one’s spiritual life it is best not to ruminate about what might have been. Make an act of contrition and then act on the possibilities that await. In our political life it is better to quit dreaming about industries that will never return, about a world that preceded September 11, 2001, about Lake Wobegone’s seemingly wholesome culture. It is better to give thanks for the achievements of today’s society and to creatively act for more improvements.

By the way, I don’t remember any distinctive taste to Carling Black Label or to Falstaff nor do I remember ever riding in a Hudson or Packard. I did see Dick Allen play with the White Sox, after his years with the Phillies. I remember a great hitter who should be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

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

The Working Catholic: Broken Ladders

— by Bill Droel

Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico, grew up in a small Texas town. There were six Mexican-American families on his block and others nearby. One large family “was unique,” writes Ramirez, a member of the Basilian Fathers, in Power from the Margins: the Emergence of the Latino in the Church and in Society (Orbis Books, 2016). How was this family unique? “They gave high priority to school.”

All parents want the best education for their children. But all families are simultaneously nurtured by and restrained by their environment. An environment that has responsive institutions and thick supportive networks makes it easier for a family to be successful, whole and holy. By contrast, an environment with unaccountable institutions in a relational desert requires extraordinary effort to gain success, wholeness and holiness. There has been deterioration in the “family environments” for Puerto Ricans, Dominican-Americans and Mexican-Americans over the past 40-years, says Ramirez. A glaring symptom of this deterioration is a high dropout rate.
Latinos have the highest high school dropout rate; double the black rate. As Ramirez implies, this rate has grown by about 50% during his 40-year timeline. Of those in college, the majority do not attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling. Of those Latinos who begin at a community college over 75% do not earn a bachelor’s degree even within eight years. These attrition rates come at a time when a degree is the primary economic ladder.

Ramirez profiles a handful of small though suggestive experiments designed to improve the education completion rate for Latinos. Cristo Rey High School Network is sponsored by the Jesuits. There are about 30 of these schools with perhaps 300 students in each. Each student is matched with an employer—someone identified through Jesuit contacts among the order’s alumni and friends. The student is employed at least five days per month at the company or firm. Often a mentor relationship emerges through the employment. There is, as befitting any Jesuit school, rigorous classroom study and homework.
Nativity Miguel Network drew inspiration from the Jesuit experiment. It gained momentum from the De LaSalle Christian Brothers. It has 64 middle schools that require extended hours in the classroom during the week. These schools also have a longer academic schedule. The graduates are monitored/mentored into high school.
Ramirez also mentions the Alliance for Catholic Education at University of Notre Dame. As part of their degree program, some Notre Dame students teach in Catholic schools. A typical placement is in a Latino neighborhood for two years. In addition to their competence, the college students bring the social capital of their friends to the project—not only during the two years, but ideally for the near future.

The notion of social capital is critical. One student alone will not likely move up the ladder. It is only by joining lots of otherwise disparate pieces that Latinos will succeed. Cristo Rey and other promising programs know the importance of getting the entire family into the school picture. After that, success parallels the interest taken by small businesses, community organizations, parishes and more.
Social capital is not automatically accumulated; it cannot be assumed. Deliberate face-to-face encounter is necessary. Thus any intervention or program on behalf of students cannot be only about tutoring for information content. It is about the fourth R: reading, [w]riting, [a]rithmetic and relationships.
Ramirez puts the secret in faith language: Effective school programs must allow people to personally and collectively interpret their own story as “a real occasion of grace” and understand it as a contribution to “the entire church,” the whole people of God.

Footnote: The terms Hispanic and Latino are, in my opinion, political contrivances meant to put several distinct cultures into a single voting block or a concise demographic. I prefer to use a hyphenated-American style. However, in keeping with Ramirez this article uses Latino.

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

Now it can be told: Seattle Adjuncts say union yes

After two years, we have learned that Seattle university adjuncts voted 73-63 to join SEIU 925. Why the delay? The University was unwilling to bargain collectively with its contingent faculty voluntarily, and when the adjuncts turned to the labor board for help, the administration fought the board by invoking freedom of religion. The university, like Duquesne, St. Xavier and a handful of others, is trying to suggest it’s in the same situation as Catholic employers told to provide contraception under the Affordable Care Act – though unlike those employers, the colleges are not being asked to do anything in conflict with their faith.

The NLRB did modify its initial determination in deference to religious freedom issues. At both St. Xavier University and Seattle the NLRB announced that religion and/or theology instructors are not subject to the National Labor Relations Act on First Amendment grounds. It is indeed essential to preserve our freedom of religion, and to a layman this certainly sounds like a reasonable application of the law.  Still, I hope that these and other schools will choose to bargain with religion and theology faculty who want a union – not because of legal sanctions, but just to lead by example and conform with Catholic social teaching.

Major Settlements in Catholic Healthcare

Recent weeks have seen the end of two long-simmering contract disputes in the Catholic hospitals, one on each coast. After a year of tense negotiations, Buffalo’s Catholic Health system reached an agreement with workers at three area hospitals. The two sides stated that the agreement represented a sound basis to deliver quality care and retain good employees, and anticipated more positive labor relations going forward. “We’re proud to have come to an agreement that will promote patient care, offers the wages to retain staff and maintains important healthcare benefits,” said Dennis Trainor, Vice President of Communications Workers of America District 1. “I want to thank the bargaining teams for their extraordinary efforts and commitment to work through the complex issues we face in healthcare and find a positive way forward,” said Joe McDonald, President & CEO of Catholic Health. “We are committed to forging a new relationship with the union, built on mutual goals that reward and recognize our dedicated associates.”

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, in July Providence Health and Services and St. Joseph Health merged to form a huge health care system stretching from Southern California to Alaska: Providence St. Joseph. Providence has long been known for good labor relations and fair treatment of workers; St Joseph, not so much. Which management style will characterize the new system? A positive sign: within weeks of the merger, Providence St. Joseph and the California Nurses Association settled a long-running contract dispute that had embroiled four former St. Joseph hospitals.

Unfortunately, it seems the spirit of teamwork hasn’t reached St. Jude hospital in Fullerton. When nurses there sought to form a union, the hospital hired a “union avoidance” consultant and used heavy-handed tactics to fight the organizing campaign. They are facing unfair labor practice charges before the NLRB for surveillance and intimidation of union supporters.