The Catholic Role


New York Gov. Al Smith and Mrs. Smith
prepare to Vote
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Examining the Catholic church's role in these efforts, historians have seen it as a conservative force. They point to the church's steadfast antagonism to socialism and communism and to the bishops who opposed union strikes and boycotts or government legislation. In 1886, for example, the Archbishop of New York, Michael Corrigan, took a strong public stand against the noted social reformer, Henry George, a candidate for mayor in the municipal election that year. Archbishop Corrigan also disciplined a popular local priest, Father Edward McGlynn, an open backer of George. In the twentieth century the church became one of the most powerful and outspoken opponents of socialism, a belief system to which many unionists were attracted because of its sensitivity to the position of the worker in the economy.

Yet the Catholic reaction was far more diverse than such views imply. Catholic workers made up a substantial proportion of the labor movement at the turn of the century. The head of the Knights of Labor after 1878, Terence Powderly, was Catholic, and most of the 700,000 Knights themselves were Catholic in the 1880s.[i] Catholics were also active in the AF of L leadership, as well as its rank and file. Catholic politicians, moreover, played a vital, if often overlooked, role in the passage of progressive social welfare legislation. In the 1910s, the Democrats, the party of most Catholic immigrants and their children at the time, took over the legislatures and/or governorships in Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio and Illinois. Led by men such as Governor David I. Walsh and legislator Martin Lomasney in Massachusetts or Governor Alfred E. Smith and Assemblyman "Big Tim" Sullivan in New York, these Catholic ethnic politicians pushed through a wide array of social welfare laws-minimum wage, maximum hours, and workmen's compensation laws, for example-in their states. In the process, they began to transform the Progressivism of the early twentieth century into Urban Liberalism, set the stage for the New Deal coalition that would see Franklin Roosevelt into the White House, and created a context for the social and economic programs of the 1930s.

[i] James Hennesey, American Catholics, A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 188.