Working Catholic: Fashion Statement by Bill Droel

Some philosophical and religious traditions look askance at fashion. Eastern religions, for example, focus on the transitory nature of the material world. They advise us not to get infatuated with appliances, jewelry or one’s wardrobe. Gnostic philosophy, which has at junctures influenced Roman Catholicism and other expressions of Christianity, says appearances are a deceptive illusion. Some strains in evangelical Christianity are unimpressed with art because only a direct relationship with God is important.

Being an Irish-American Catholic, I carry around an analogical imagination. That is, in my tribe God is mediated through the world’s beauty and order, particularly through God’s primary analogue, other people. Nature, artifacts, responsive institutions, plus architecture, music, film, novels and even fashion can dispose me to God’s grace.

This column won’t at first ring true to anyone who knows me because nearly my entire wardrobe is off-the-rack from outlet stores. Nonetheless, I take notice of a student or neighbor who has style, a look, or flair—maybe an unusual hat, a colorful scarf, or a sport coat that seems to match the personality. These touches, at times, briefly reflect the divine to me. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, a character says, “The world is saved by beauty, if at all.” That seems right to me.

Catholicism is in favor of fashion, though with an urgent caution. There is no place for the exploitation of designers and models, including on the so-called reality TV shows. Similarly, the sweatshop conditions in the apparel industry must give way to international labor standards.

Bill Cunningham (1929-2016), the longtime fashion reporter for New York Times, brought his Catholic faith to bear in his work, though implicitly. Cunningham himself was no fashion plate. He usually wore a blue jacket with large pockets. Into his 80s, Cunningham peddled a bicycle around Manhattan. He never owned a TV; he didn’t go to movies. Yet society types and models were pleased whenever Cunningham drifted into a party or a show. Cunningham never sampled the hors d’oeuvres nor even took a soda at any of the galas. “I just try to play a straight game, and in New York that’s almost impossible to be honest and straight,” he once said.

Upon return to New York from his service in the Korean War Cunningham took newspaper writing assignments about fashion. He added a $35 camera to his reporter’s notebook. By the late 1970s he was full-time and soon developed a popular “On the Street” column.
His idea was that fashion is not just patterns and material in a studio. I went to “the shows and the streets to see how people interpreted what designers hoped they would buy,” he once said. He found out that ordinary New Yorkers in their own way create or influence fashion. Cunningham came to believe that fashion is all around. He spent many hours on the streets looking for a stylish accessory or a unique outfit. On the street, he said, “you find the answers you don’t see at the fashion shows… My whole thing is to be invisible. You get more natural pictures that way, too.”

Fashionable does not mean expensive. It is about a person’s confidence and their consciousness of the world around them. We are saved by beauty.
Cunningham’s humble lifestyle attuned him to the beauty of all God’s creation. One of Pope Francis’ major themes is the priority of experience over ideology or abstractions. Cunningham once explained his approach to work in words that echo that theme: “I never go out with a preconceived idea. I let the street speak to me.” Seek beauty and it will find you.

Trivia contest: Who was the world’s first fashion designer? Hint: Genesis 3:21.

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

Dorothy Day, Servant of God and Worker Justice

(courtesy of Jeffry Korgen)

I used to think the word “worker” in “Catholic Worker Movement” referred to the Works of Mercy accomplished by its members. But a new encounter with the thought of Dorothy Day, Servant of God, and Peter Maurin, through staffing the Archdiocese of New York’s canonization Inquiry into her life, taught me that the Movement has a historic, multi-layered relationship with low-wage workers and their struggles.

Dorothy_Day_1934The Catholic Worker emerged in the 1930’s against a backdrop of worker movements. The Catholic Worker name itself is a play on the communist Daily Worker newspaper. Like Pope Leo XIII, Dorothy Day believed the Church needed to offer an alternative to workers caught between accepting exploitation in the workplace and adopting atheistic communism. Day lifted up the Gospel and Church teaching against the abuses of the times, but in 1949, she targeted the Church itself.

In January of that year, the Archdiocese of New York rejected gravediggers’ demands for a significant pay increase and a five-day workweek. A bitter strike ensued. Cardinal Spellman called the gravediggers’ union communist-dominated and brought in seminarians (!) as scabs to bury the dead. Dorothy Day spoke out in favor of a living wage for the gravediggers and penned editorials in support of the strikers. She wrote Cardinal Spellman personally, and asked him to “meet their demands; be their servant as Christ was the servant of his disciples, washing their feet.”

The strike was settled two months later, after an appeal from the gravediggers’ wives, a change in union representation, and a fractional increase in the archdiocesan offer. The six-day work week stayed. But Dorothy Day had made a point that the Church as an employer is not exempt from its own teaching—an argument which still arises, on the one hand to castigate Catholic universities for miserly payment of adjuncts, on the other to congratulate Society of St. Vincent de Paul stores for making a new commitment to pay a living wage.

But the Catholic Worker commitment to low wage workers goes farther than simply supporting unions. Dorothy Day, influenced by Peter Maurin, went a step further—advocating for worker owned businesses and farm cooperatives through an economic philosophy called distributism. Distributism salutes capitalism by insisting that its enormous ability to create wealth go to work to enrich the lives of ordinary people—not just the rich—through worker-owned enterprises.

As the Church sorts through questions of Dorothy Day’s sanctity, we would all do well to embrace the holiness of her many efforts on behalf of and with low-wage workers.


Jeffry Korgen is assisting the Archdiocese of New York prepare evidence for the cause of Day’s canonization. He can be reached at [email protected].

For more information about efforts to canonize Dorothy Day, visit the Dorothy Day Guild website

Farmworkers, NY Catholic Conference Campaign for Better Labor Conditions


Photo Courtesy of Rural and Migrant Ministry

In 1935, the US Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), guaranteeing workers the right to organize in unions and bargain collectively. Like an online terms and conditions statement, though, it had a lot of exclusions hidden in the fine print, and the NLRA denied its protections to the nation’s farmworkers. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA), which established the federal minimum wage and overtime laws, did the same.

Church leaders in New York are joining farmworkers and other union activists to press for changes. Farmworkers marched from Long Island to Albany to petition the legislature for action. There they were joined by Albany’s Bishop Edward Scharfenberger and Catholic social justice advocates in a rally outside the state legislature calling for passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. The NY Catholic Conference says:

The New York State Catholic Conference supports the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, and strongly urges enactment of this legislation. Farmworkers are excluded from many of the laws that establish worker protections, including overtime pay, employer contributions to the unemployment and workers’ compensation funds, and public health protections including sanitation and housing standards.  In addition to ending these exclusions, this bill would require that farmworkers be given a 24-hour day of rest in every calendar week which, whenever possible, would coincide with the laborer’s traditional day for religious worship.

Cork Celebrates Mother Jones

Festival recalls native daughter who became legendary American labor activist

Mother_jones_5-1-29 LOC

Back on the ould sod, Cork is once again staking her claim to famous mineworker advocate Mary Harris, aka “Mother Jones.” Americans know her social justice crusader as the dressmaker-turned-agitator who organized colorful demonstrations by the wives of striking miners, with the authorities labeling her “the most dangerous woman in America” and “the grandmother of all agitators.” It’s said that she retorted, “I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators.” (Indeed, she died in 1930 at the age of 100.)

Jones is honored in her hometown in an annual festival. New to me: when Jones was six, Cork famously hosted another American labor hero. In 1845, abolitionist leader (and escaped slave) Frederick Douglass spent the better part of a month in Cork campaigning against the slave trade. For more information, visit the Cork Mother Jones Festival website.

Nearly two years after union vote, Sacred Heart doctors still seeking first contract

pnwhma logoDoctors losing patience

In 2014, Oregon’s Sacred Heart Medical Center floated plans to outsource the jobs of “hospitalists” – staff MDs who oversee treatment of hospital patients. The doctors, alarmed at the proposal and concerned that untenable patient loads would follow, organized and voted 30-3 in favor of forming a union. The AFT-affiliated Sacred Heart group is not the only union-represented unit of medical doctors in the United States, though they may well be the only such group at a Catholic hospital. Their story came to national attention with “Doctors Unionize to Resist the Medical Machine,” an account by Noam Schriber in the New York Times.

First contracts often take some time to develop, but after nearly two years the doctors are losing patience. Modern Healthcare reports that they are planning a one-day informational picket to press for quicker progress.

Notre Dame de Namur recognizes union rights of tenured faculty

seiu 1021 faculty

Courtesy SEIU 1021

While a few Catholic colleges are, sadly, scanning US labor law for opportunities to prevent adjuncts from organizing, Notre Dame de Namur is taking a step in the opposite direction: scanning the law for opportunities to implement Catholic social teaching on the rights of labor. Ever since NLRB v. Yeshiva in 1980, the law has generally held that tenured university faculty are “management” and not under National Labor Relations Act jurisdiction. This doesn’t actually mean that they can’t form unions and bargain, but it does give university administrators a green light if they choose the path of union busting. But when the tenured faculty at Notre Dame de Namur sought to join SEIU 1021, the administration didn’t look for a way to thwart them but a way to recognize their right to organize. Faculty voted 35-6 to join the union, and according to Inside Higher Education the university is evaluating its governance structure to ensure it is compatible with the NLRA.

It’s been a good couple of months for adjunct and contingent faculty organizing in Catholic Higher Education, with a growing number of universities appreciating that honoring the rights of labor is part of our Catholic identity, not a threat to it. In May and June, contingent faculty at Holy Names University (Oakland CA) and St. Louis University (MO) have voted union yes; ballots will be counted June 17 at St. Martin’s University (Lacey WA).

Archbishop Cupich, Chicago Archdiocese lead on paid parental leave

parental_leave_chart1 center for American progress

Chicago Archbishop leads the way on parental leave; will America follow suit? (Figure: Center for American Progress)

It’s good when our pastors preach the sanctity of life, the rights of workers and the priority of the family from the pulpit; it’s great when they demonstrate these values in their role as employers. In May, the Chicago Archdiocese drew national notice with an announcement that its 7,000 employees will be entitled to 3 months of paid parental leave on the birth of a child. The Chicago Tribune reported… Read more

Urban Decline

The Working Catholic: Urban Decline?
by Bill Droel

It wasn’t so traumatic here when in the 1980s Los Angeles overtook Chicago, until then the Second City, in population. Last month, however, demographers caused a stir in Chicago; predicting that soon Houston will be the Third City, while Chicago will drop to number four. Ouch.
The city of Chicago lost about 2,890 residents between 2014 and 2015. Our entire metro region lost an estimated 6,263 residents in the same time period. Meanwhile, Houston had the second-largest increase, gaining 40,032 residents.
Many people are not aware that the black migration to our city is long over. In fact, blacks in a steady stream have moved from here to Atlanta, Birmingham and elsewhere in the South over the past several years. Nor are Mexican-American arrivals offsetting any exodus from Chicago. Actually, the plateau for migration from Mexico to Chicago was reached in about 2005.

In itself, Chicago’s modest population decline is neither here nor there. It is worrisome, however, when tied to several perceptions: That violent crime gravely affects public health; that public schools are incapable of adequately educating young people; that our police prejudicially administer the law; that the Catholic church is abandoning the neighborhoods with which it was once synonymous; that our mayor is more interested in Obi-Wan Kenobi and R2-D2 than he is in working-class families; that our governor wants to destroy charitable groups; that the Democratic Machine does not deliver services but only enriches a few well-healed families; and that business is fleeing our city and state.
Are these perceptions accurate? Are there countertrends to those trumpeted by the prophets of doom?

Mike Gecan of the Industrial Areas Foundation ( spoke last month to leaders of Chicago’s Episcopal Community Services. The IAF was founded in Chicago in 1940, but now has headquarters in the District of Columbia. Gecan drew attention to similarities and differences between the New York City of the late 1970s and 1980s and Chicago today.
New York then and Chicago, both then and now, are “crippled by federally subsidized suburbanization and by the loss of their manufacturing base,” Gecan began. Both cities “saw decades of white flight… Both regions overspent when times seemed good–pouring millions and even billions into service programs, wages, and benefits and showering tax breaks and other subsidies on corporations and insiders.” Charitable agencies in both places became “dependent on what seemed like an unending flow of public money,” he continued. “Both had deep-seated cultures of corruption in their political spheres–New York mostly at the state level, Chicago and Illinois at many levels.” Finally, “both resorted to gimmicks and one-offs to plug holes.” Things like “sports venues, tourist attractions, sales of public assets, and more.” (The Working Catholic will develop this point in a subsequent blog.)

Gecan began “the differences” portion of his talk by recalling a famous October 1975 N.Y. Daily News headline: President Gerald “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” New York was at its low point with only one lifeline left: a federal bailout. When it didn’t materialize, Gecan said, new leadership emerged from all three sectors–private, public and third or civic sector. “A union leader named Victor Gotbaum (of ASFCME), an investment banker named Felix Rohatyn, young professionals like Donna Shalala and Peter Goldmark, a governor named Hugh Carey, and many more moved to the center. Union pension funds were put at risk to shore up the credit rating of the city. A Financial Control Board was put in place to strictly monitor city finances for ten years… Accountability and painful belt-tightening were imposed on the financial life of the city. Groups in the third sector realized that, going forward, they could no longer rely so heavily on public support and figured out new ways to staff and address programs. A fierce public transit advocate named Marcy Benstock led an effort to block a proposed West Side Highway… A start-up affordable housing finance group named CPC began renovating apartments in Washington Heights and Inwood. And our [Industrial Area’s group] EBC announced its intention to build 5,000 new affordable Nehemiah homes in East Brooklyn.” With emphasis Gecan told the audience: No one asked a politician or a newspaper editor or a financial mogul for permission.

Several New York church entities “found new money” for affordable housing, the backbone of urban recovery. And, concluded Gecan, Mayor Ed Koch (1924-2013), “even when times were still tight, understood that a city is a physical place that needs major physical improvements to show people that it is moving forward.”

Before departing Chicago, Gecan left us with a question: Will enough new leaders here “have the stamina, the endurance, the physical and emotional and spiritual strength, to start what will undoubtedly be a marathon of rebuilding and renewal?”

Droel serves on the board of National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629. It distributes Gecan’s book: After America’s Midlife Crisis; $6 includes postage.)

The Working Catholic: 125 Years

The Working Catholic: 125 Years  by Bill Droel

As anniversaries go, the 125th of modern Catholic social thought is a non-starter except perhaps in a small circle of specialists. Yet Catholic social thought offers a timely perspective on our society’s clash between what some people call our nanny-state and the libertarian free-for-all favored by others. Catholic social thought also suggests a way out of the paradox presented by a rejection of more taxes coupled with the desire for more services. Further, it has interesting things to say about the environment, wages, eldercare, parental responsibility and lots more.

It was 1891 when Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) issued the first modern social encyclical. It is published in English under several titles; On the Condition of Labor being the most popular. It is also still referenced by its Latin title, Rerum Novarum.
Catholicism says that short of the Garden of Eden, each society should approximate “the kingdom on earth.” That is, given the sin of the world, there is still an opportunity to apply realistic though general social principles to economics, culture and politics—first locally and eventually between countries. These principles are derived from Scripture and from the long reflection of Christians in hundreds and hundreds of settings.
These principles are not doctrinally binding on non-Catholics. They are, however, deliberately framed in civic language so that they can be persuasive in any setting. And, not surprisingly, other religious traditions have the same social principles.
Not all religious traditions, it should be noted, use the same method as Catholicism on social ethics—on, for example, issues related to labor relations, medical intervention, social service delivery and more. The difference in method often goes unappreciated when parties disagree on an issue, or agree for that matter.

There is no definitive list of Catholic principles. Most lists include: the inherent dignity of each life, social justice, subsidiarity, the common good, participation through bona fide labor unions and other mediating structures, and preferential option for the poor. Others are: preferential option for youth, gratuitousness, distributive justice, solidarity, family wage, universal destination of goods and a few more, topping out at, let’s say, 25 principles. The principles overlap and one should not be pulled too far from the others.
Finally and with emphasis, these are general social principles. Their specific application is the job of informed Catholics in concert with like-minded people inside their company, hospital, college, labor local, community group, professional association or legislative hall. Two equally moral parties can disagree once the application comes down to a specific policy.

This important point is why I use the term Catholic social thought, rather than top-down social teaching. While the papal encyclicals, beginning with the 1891 On the Condition of Labor, are the backbone, the full complement of Catholic social thought must include other ecclesial statements, some position papers from Catholic lay groups and the collective reflection of Catholics around the world on their experience. Of course, the social thought of the laity has to be consonant with the encyclicals and all the other pieces. One individual does not act or speak for the church. A prominent member of Congress, for example, says he is informed by Catholic thought and that his policy ideas flow from there. Not so, however, in his case. He is libertarian, even flirting with the extreme ideas of Ayn Rand (1905-1982).

Next up: Pope Leo XIII’s themes.

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

The Catholic Case for Donald Trump?

For the length of the campaign season, Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump has been embroiled in a major fight with workers at his Trump International Hotel and casino in Las Vegas. First he was trying to prevent them from forming a union; now, having failed that, he strives to deny them a good contract. If I were trying to make a Catholic case for Trump’s presidential run, Catholic social teaching on labor and work would probably not be the avenue I’d take. Yet that’s exactly the counterintuitive approach taken by former US Ambassador to the Vatican Francis Rooney in Catholic case for Trump is about jobs and wages. “Catholic thought is in sync with what Trump has brought forward,” argues the Ambassador.  “Perhaps less nuanced than some would like, he has tangibly and succinctly brought forth the urgent need to bring more good jobs back to America and to get wages rising again.”

Count Villanova Theology Professor Gerald Beyer unconvinced. Beyer responded, “Catholic social teaching certainly affirms the need to create jobs, as Rooney contends… However, Catholic social teaching has never affirmed that an “invisible hand” can work its magic through the market economy to promote the well-being of workers and their families.” Reviewing Trump’s record, Beyer concludes, “Catholics should ask themselves if Donald Trump really shares the vision of their tradition — for American workers and their brothers and sisters globally — regardless of their gender, race, immigration status or nationality.”