National Conference of Catholic Bishops Statement on Farm Labor

Bishop Patricio Flores

Bishop Patricio Flores of El Paso with unidentified nuns at picket line in the Coachella Valley. The UFW flag can be seen in the background.

Courtesy of ACUA

From nearly the beginning of the grape strike in 1965, Cesar Chavez and other leaders had sought the support of the Catholic Church in their struggle. The approval of the Church was important due to many of the workers being Catholics, as well as Chavez’ own strong Catholic faith. The only issue, according to historian Marco Prouty, was that many of the growers also claimed to be Catholics, pitting two groups of Catholics against each other. Numerous priests were found assisting workers and strikers, often holding mass on picket lines. Some faced pressure from their local churches, due to pressure on the churches from Catholic growers, to stop such assistance. “Whereas growers …. stuffed the Church’s coffers, Catholic farmworkers …. filled the pews,” wrote Prouty.[1]

The bishops of the U.S. Church would officially break their silence what was happening in California in 1968, but perhaps not in the exact way Chavez and the UFW had hoped. In November, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its Statement on Farm Labor, which asked Congress to pass legislation to include farmworkers under the National Labor Relations Act, include them under minimum wage laws, and include them in national unemployment insurance. “In calling for legal protection of the rights of farmworkers, we, the bishops of the United States, do so in this same spirit and with sympathetic awareness of the problems faced by the growers and, more specifically, by family farmers,” the statement concludes.

National Conference of Catholic Bishop's Statement on Farm Labor

NCCB Statement on Farm Labor
Courtesy of ACUA

While a needed endorsement for legal assistance to the UFW, the statement was more notable for what it did not include: a statement of approval for the grape strike and boycott.

 

Questions

1. How did the bishops show empathy for the farmworker? For the small farmer?

2. Why did the Church remain neutral?

3. Why did the bishops take the side of the workers later?

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