Higgins' Times


George Higgins at The Catholic University of American, 1940-41.

Hillenbrand recommended that the Chicago Archbishop, Samuel Stritch, send Higgins along with several of his classmates to The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. for further studies in 1940.  Higgins studied economics, political science and sociology at the University, capping his work with a doctoral dissertation in 1944, “Voluntarism in Organized Labor in the U.S., 1930-1940.”  Hillenbrand had thought that sending Higgins and the others for further schooling would result in the improvement of the seminary faculty in Chicago, as the young priests returned after their education.  But Higgins liked Washington, D.C.  He was able to meet and study with figures like Monsignor John A. Ryan, who had done pioneering work in articulating a Catholic justification for minimum wage legislation, and was advising members of the Roosevelt administration.  Father Francis Haas, who later became the Bishop of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and served as the Dean of the School of Social Science at the time, “was active in things like labor arbitration, and he was wonderful in the way he’d bring me into things,” says Higgins—he himself would later become involved in labor arbitration in his work with the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and 70s.  Haas introduced Higgins to Father Raymond McGowan, who, with Father Ryan, ran the Department of Social Action of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  One of the original departments of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC), the Department of Social Action was established to promote the social thought of the Roman Catholic Church and to interpret, under the guidance of the bishops, applications of that thought to the complex social questions of the world. It operated primarily as a service department for Catholic lay organizations, the Catholic press, schools, religious, and laity. It also served as a clearinghouse for the dissemination of the most progressive thought in the field of social action. There was a special focus on industrial, international, and interracial relations as well as rural life, social work, and the study of communism. The principal tools in this effort were the papal encyclicals and statements of the American bishops on social and economic matters. Soon after its creation in 1919, the Social Action Department began to sponsor addresses and lectures, publish books and pamphlets, and conduct conferences and institutes.[1]

When Higgins had nearly finished the doctoral program at Catholic University, McGowan asked him to come and work for the Department of Social Action, as Father John Hayes, who had served as an assistant to McGowan had become ill and had to leave Washington.  Though initially Higgins was asked to stay only for the summer, he ended up working for the Bishops’ Conference for 36 years, not leaving until his retirement at age 64 in 1980.  After his “retirement” he continued to serve as a consultant to the Conference’s Department of Social Development and World Peace, and he agreed to lecture for both the School of Social Science and the Department of Theology at CUA until 1994.[2]


[1] Costello, Without Fear or Favor, 9-10; Historical note, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/National Catholic Welfare Conference Records, Department of Social Action finding aid: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/socact.cfm.

[2] Costello, Without Fear or Favor, 10-11.

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