Forging a National Voice

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is an assembly of hierarchy of the United States Catholic Church organized to exercise select pastoral functions on behalf of Catholics of the United States.

The roots of the USCCB stretch back to the early twentieth century. When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, the country's archbishops realized they possessed no organizational framework through which they could organize the activities of American Catholics, many of whom were new arrivals to the United States. As a result, a group of prominent Catholic clergy met in August 1917 and established the National Catholic War Council at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington D.C. One hundred and fifteen delegates from 68 dioceses and 27 religious societies selected the Paulist editor of the Catholic World, Father John J. Burke, to head the organization that would eventually become the official body of the nation's bishops. The American hierarchy soon realized that this wartime organization might serve the nation's Catholics in peacetime as well. Hence the creation in 1919 of the National Catholic Welfare Council ("Council" was changed to "Conference" in 1922), or NCWC, which involved itself at the federal, state, and local levels of Catholic activity regarding legislation, education, publicity, and social action. Success in providing leadership for the growth and development of the Catholic Church in the United States induced hierarchies in many countries to replicate the NCWC's organization and methods. This structure served the American church until 1966, when the NCWC was reorganized into the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and its working secretariat the United States Catholic Conference (USCC). A further reorganization and a name change in 2001 resulted in the current title: the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

 

The 1919 Bishops' Program for Social Reconstruction

In February of 1919, the National Catholic War Council issued a "Program for Social Reconstruction," a blueprint for the future overhauling of America's politics, society and economy. The program called for government insurance for the sick, unemployed and aged; labor's participation in industrial management; public housing; unions' right to organize, and a "living wage" for all workers. Some observers were shocked by this "seeming radicalism" from a church that had long seemed so conservative on social and economic issues. Upton Sinclair declared it nothing less than a "Catholic Miracle." The Program's provisions, however, were rooted in a strain of Catholic social thought that stretched back to Leo XIII's encyclical, Rerum Novarum, issued in 1891. Many of them had also been enacted on the state level or bruited about by an eclectic mix of progressive reformers for more than two decades.

In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American life was transformed by economic changes that prompted some Americans to seek government intervention in the economy to redress new imbalances or protect the increasingly vulnerable poor. Reformers, usually called "progressives," but a diverse mix of settlement house workers, journalist muckrakers, urban Democratic politicians, labor leaders, corporate executives, and middle-class professionals, helped enact such legislation. That legislation included workman's compensation laws (enacted in Maryland in 1902, for example); limits on hours for women (Oregon in 1903); widow's pensions (Illinois in 1911); and minimum wage laws (Massachusetts in 1912). In the 1910s this crusade for social legislation not only spread through more states, but became part of the national political agenda. In 1912 the newly founded Progressive party committed itself to legislation for minimum wage laws, limits on child labor, and social insurance. In succeeding years Woodrow Wilson's Democratic administration helped push through legislation favorable to unions and a constitutional amendment prohibiting child labor. Government activism accelerated during World War I with the creation of the War Industries Board and the War Labor Board. During the war, the federal government even constructed homes for war workers thus launching the first federally-financed public housing program.

Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum seemed to open up many possibilities for Catholic support of this kind of government intervention in the economy or for the backing of workers' organizing. During the 1880s and 1890s, however, few of the church's spokesmen in America seemed to read it that way. Most American Catholic clerical interpretations of the encyclical and Catholic social thought generally focused on the need to combat socialism.

Father John A. Ryan was a notable exception to to the church's general silence or conservatism on social issues. Raised in a home influenced by populist politics and radical Irish nationalism, Ryan set about early in his career as a scholar and professor to define a Catholic social thought that drew on Rerum Novarum to justify government intervention in the economy. In 1906, he published his dissertation, A Living Wage, promoting minimum wage legislation, and in succeeding years he became a nationally known advocate of this and other reforms.

Efforts to move the Catholic Church in America to address economic or social problems were also hampered because the church had no national mechanism for consistent, concerted action or discussion of issues. In 1905, mainstream Protestant churches organized on the national level across denominational lines in the Federal Council of Churches. American bishops met only very occasionally to discuss common problems in plenary councils. In 1901, lay and clerical Catholics founded the American Federation of Catholic Societies, but this organization never spoke for the bishops and was troubled by conflicts within and criticism from without.

World War I had a dramatic effect on the Catholic Church in America. At meetings in 1917, church leaders created the National Catholic War Council to help encourage and direct Catholic participation in the war effort. In April of 1918, the Council created a Committee on Reconstruction to consider a Catholic vision of the future of postwar America. The Committee met throughout the fall of 1918 to develop such a vision, but by then it was working under considerable pressure. Several organizations and groups, labor unions, business federations, political parties, reform associations and other churches, both at home and abroad, had already produced their own visions of postwar reconstruction or were working on them as the committee sat. The war had also ended in November, more quickly than most Americans had expected. The committee's secretary, Rev. John O'Grady, turned to Father John A. Ryan to write a Catholic program. Ryan had surveyed several proposals for reconstruction made by other groups and had been working on a draft of a speech on the subject.  He initially turned O'Grady down, though he eventually agreed and wrote out a draft based on his earlier work. Peter J. Muldoon, Bishop of Rockford, Illinois and Chairman of the Administrative Committee of the War Council, approved Ryan's draft, while noting that it lacked practical suggestions to local parish groups about how to implement the reforms it promoted. In February of 1919, the Bishop's program for Social Reconstruction was issued to the public through a carefully planned public relations campaign.

The Program received a mixed reception both within the Church and outside it. The National Catholic War Council was a voluntary organization with no canonical status. Its ability to speak authoritatively was thus questioned. Many bishops threw their support behind the Program, but some, like Bishop William Turner of Buffalo, and more notably, William Henry O'Connell of Boston, opposed it. O'Connell believed some aspects of the plan smacked too much of socialism. Response outside the Church was also divided: labor organizations backing it, for example, and business groups criticizing it.

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