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Hangin’ with the Catholics

By June 19, 2015 5 Comments

I was in a place, and taking a part, I never thought I’d see. But I was not alone in my bewilderment. One of the first speakers, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, expressed a like amazement: “If my priest in my boyhood parish had been told that someday I’d be introducing a cardinal, he would have laughed in disbelief.” But Trumka was indeed introducing a cardinal, Donald William Wuerl, archbishop of Washington D.C., and I was indeed sitting there last Monday, in the auditorium of the AFL-CIO’s headquarters, two blocks north of the White House. The huge banner fluttering from the front of the building posed hard questions of the TPP bill sponsored by the occupant of the White House, and the gigantic mosaic covering the front wall of the auditorium trumpeted the dignity of labor and the solid families that union organization would make possible. Half a dozen Roman Catholic bishops were scattered in the audience, among union officials and staff, priests, journalists, and social activists. The ghosts of my father and both grandfathers rose up in alarm: Jim, what are you doing in such a house of horrors? Why, I mentally replied with a small grin on my face, I’m speaking about Abraham Kuyper, of course.

The occasion was a conference on “Erroneous Autonomy: A Conversation on Faith & Solidarity,” co-sponsored by the AFL-CIO and the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. The organizing premise of the meeting was that libertarianism has come to hold the high cards across American society, favored by the Left on various issues of sexuality and by the Right on everything else, most of all in economics—and economics, especially the vision and values behind economics, was the order of the day. The goal was to supply organized labor with a reminder of the religious roots and higher calling of its original passion, and to remind the church of the deep communitarian thrust of the tradition of Catholic social teaching. The panel in which I took part brought in representatives from Jewish, Roman Catholic, neo-Calvinist, and African-American religious communities to discuss the role that solidarity and aspirations for the common good play in their traditions. Turns out, that role is large.

When my turn came, I enjoyed rehearsing before the throng Kuyper’s preferential option for the poor, short patience for laissez-faire capitalism, advocacy of workers councils in all industries, and emphasis across the board—in his theology, social theory, political program, and even philosophy of knowledge—upon the communal, relational, and mutual over against individualism, bare profit motives, and self-seeking. Gotta say I enjoyed giving the crowd some correctives to the Weberian constructions that had been their introduction to Calvinism. But—as so often happens—one of my spontaneous, throw-away lines seemed to register most. The Calvinist emphasis on total depravity, I mused, translated into Kuyper’s keen awareness of the power realities present in and around every situation. “Kuyper knew,” I observed, “that there’s no such thing as a pure free market. Somebody’s always got a thumb on the scale.” The AFL-CIO lawyer who wrapped up the meeting noted that this is exactly what he had been taught at Harvard Business School, with admonitions to be sure that it was the corporation’s thumb that was doing the pushing. “Bankers know this, CEOs know this, politicians know this, heaven knows the working stiff knows this; the only people who seem not to know this are philosophers and economists in their fantasy world of rational actors on neutral playing fields.”

My dad knew this too, so I offered up the counsel’s words as propitiation for my day’s sojourn in the tents of wickedness. But there were two other motifs that would have made him feel a little more at home. For one, during coffee breaks folks were buzzing with gossip about the then-leaked version of Pope Francis’s encyclical on ecology and climate change. Who did the leaking, should it be published, and what does it portend for the balance of power in the church…it was just like coffee-time at Synod, always a favorite with my dad. The consensus was that the papal statement would be a big win for the progressive ranks in the church. Some off-hand references to “cafeteria Catholics,” apropos of Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush, betrayed pleasure at being able to reverse the old conservative charge that progressives are bad Catholics for picking and choosing among papal proclamations. Then too, many voices attested to the interest that Francis has piqued among the Young Nones of recent polling fame. This led on to expressions of hope that a new ethic signaled by the encyclical might herald not just the end of the decrepit culture war in which an expiring generation of leadership has frozen the church but also a renewal of—at least an excitement about—faith on the part of alienated young people. I didn’t know if they were talking about Catholics or evangelicals. But all dads have to like the sentiment. Me too.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


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