Reading the Signs of the Times

This month we have links to two articles from the United States:

Bishop McElroy: US Catholics, politically homeless, face hard choices (National Catholic Reporter)

The church is losing touch with working-class Catholics (America Magazine)

We have chosen the two because they provide insights into two important aspects of contemporary Catholicism: the need for the Church to be a Church of the poor and the obligation to work for a society that protects and supports the most marginal among us.

The first article is on the U.S. elections, following on from our links last month to articles on how Catholics should view the two candidates. With the prospect that within the next week the Supreme Court will have the number of “conservatives” to overturn Roe v Wade, which has been the objective driving some Catholics to vote for Trump in preference to Biden, we might wonder if there is any remaining reason for them to vote for Trump.

The second article is concerned with a longer-term issue of some importance: the growing disconnection between working class Catholics and the Catholic Church in the U.S. The trends are also evident in Australia and require substantial research and discussion.

Cardijn’s life and work

The focus of Joseph Cardijn’s life’s work was the living and the working conditions of workers. Great masses were suffering from poverty and were alienated from the Church which, Cardijn believed, offered the promise and opportunity of lifting them out of social degradation and spiritual desolation. Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 was written in recognition of the kinds of problems that later drove Cardijn to become a major reformer of both Church and State. The Pope’s concerns were particularly important because in many respects the Church had become identified with prevailing economic interests.

Australia did not suffer so much from the perils of the factory systems, but its workers suffered in a range of industries, as the industrial disputation of the 1890s showed. But Australia was not Europe. In Australia the Catholic Church was intimately connected with the working class. Why? The answer was clear: the membership of the Catholic Church was largely working class Irish. The same was true in other predominantly Protestant societies where the Irish emigrated. It was most evident in the United States.

In the past century and more the families of the economic and political emigres from Ireland have diversified to such an extent that the differences in the economic and social circumstances of Catholics and non-Catholics have largely disappeared in these societies.

These changes have been occurred within the lifetimes of some of us. The past connection between the Catholic Church and the working class is illustrated in a piece of information presented by Greg Crafter in his paper at the Social Ministry Conference in November 2019.

“As a young person I often attended 7am weekday Mass in my parish and at the beginning of Mass communion would be given to a group of twenty or thirty men dressed for work in the factories and wharves of Port Adelaide. They would then hurry off to work. I knew many of those men as in our parish. I met them at discussion groups on the encyclicals of that time. They were keenly interested in the Catholic Social Teaching.”

It prompted me to recall the same kind of practice when I was an altar boy at 7.00 am weekday masses in the 1950s. No doubt, it was a practice that extended throughout the parishes of Australia, evidence of a close connection between the Church and working people and, as Greg suggests, a firm basis for social advocacy. We are now in very different circumstances.

The mainstreaming of Catholics

This mainstreaming of Catholics has negative ramifications for the way in which the Church acts in practice, notwithstanding its social doctrine. The inconsistency between what the Church teaches and what its institutions do is vividly illustrated in the United States where millions of Latino Catholics, many of them undocumented, are not treated, supported and protected by the Church as a whole in the same way as the Irish (along with other migrants from Catholic nations) once were. While much has been done for Latinos by many Catholic institutions, you cannot help feeling that if the Catholic Church had treated, supported and protected the Irish in the same limited way, the Catholic Church in the U.S. would have lost its connection with many Irish families and be a very different and weaker Church.

Developing trends

Australian Catholics, like others Australians, should be taking a close interest in what is happening in the United States because we can see some trends that will develop in Australia and trends that we must avoid coming to Australia. For example, the politicisation of the judiciary in the very threatening to democracy and it will have some impact on public discussion regarding the two Australian High Court appointments due later this year.

For the Church, we see in both countries that there is distancing of many Catholics from a life that would provide them with a personal understanding and appreciation of marginalisation and economic deprivation.

But it is worse than that. Vested economic interests, with deep pockets and an ideology contrary to Catholic social doctrine, have penetrated many institutions within U.S. Catholicism. The money has not just come from wealthy Catholics, but from wealthy donors who are not Catholics. It is not just the penetration of an ideology, but the penetration of politics into the Church in a way once seen in fascist countries with significant Catholic populations and, before them, under the Catholic monarchies of Europe. We thought those days were behind us. In the past many U.S. Catholics would have been comfortable with an effective takeover of the Democratic party (as did happen in some places), but now we have the threat of an effective Republican takeover of many Catholic institutions.

The Church and partisan politics

The Church should be very wary of entering into partisan politics. Our guidance on these matters can be found in passage from Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in May 2007:

“This political task is not the immediate competence of the Church. Respect for a healthy secularity—including the pluralism of political opinions—is essential in the Christian tradition. If the Church were to start transforming herself into a directly political subject, she would do less, not more, for the poor and for justice, because she would lose her independence and her moral authority, identifying herself with a single political path and with debatable partisan positions. The Church is the advocate of justice and of the poor, precisely because she does not identify with politicians nor with partisan interests. Only by remaining independent can she teach the great criteria and inalienable values, guide consciences and offer a life choice that goes beyond the political sphere. To form consciences, to be the advocate of justice and truth, to educate in individual and political virtues: that is the fundamental vocation of the Church in this area. And lay Catholics must be aware of their responsibilities in public life; they must be present in the formation of the necessary consensus and in opposition to injustice.”

Underlying conditions remain

The world that Cardijn was born into has gone, but the underlying conditions remain. The injustices of the factory systems in the late nineteenth century are being seen in the gig economies of the early twenty-first century. In between those times the once prevailing economic ideology of the capitalist economies was turned around to some extent and many practical solutions were found to alleviate the exploitation of working people. But optimism formed in those years has now gone.

The pandemic has meant that we have to address these underlying conditions with more urgency in a context where increasingly the amount of work (as an employee or otherwise ) that is needed to maintain and grow our economies will be less than that which is needed to maintain full employment. So, proposals like the Universal Basic Income have attracted some interest.

Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti has demonstrated that Catholic social teaching continues to make a relevant contribution to contemporary social issues, well beyond the “worker question” that was the focus of Rerum Novarum. Contemporary Catholic social teaching covers a wide range of “social questions”, but work and the living standards of working families remain at its core.

World of work and worker protection

Perhaps the most compelling passage on the necessity for the Church to be engaged in the world of work and the protection of workers is in a passage by St John Paul II in his 1981 encyclical to mark the 80th anniversary of Rerum Novarum:

“In order to achieve social justice in the various parts of the world, in the various countries, and in the relationships between them, there is a need for ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers. This solidarity must be present whenever it is called for by the social degrading of the subject of work, by exploitation of the workers, and by the growing areas of poverty and even hunger.

“The Church is firmly committed to this cause, for she considers it her mission, her service, a proof of her fidelity to Christ, so that she can truly be the ‘Church of the poor.’ And the ‘poor’ appear under various forms; they appear in various places and at various times; in many cases they appear as a result of the violation of the dignity of human work: either because the opportunities for human work are limited as a result of the scourge of unemployment, or because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family.’ (Laborem Exercens, 8.)

Lessons for the Plenary Council

How is the Church to demonstrate its fidelity to Christ through its work for the poor when it is at risk of being dependent on funds from those with very different priorities?

Developments in the U.S. provide a lesson to us as we ponder the issues of Church governance and lay participation in our deliberations for the Plenary Council. In the U.S. increasing lay participation in the Church has brought increased influence of moneyed interests. Institutes, professorships, conferences, seminars, publishing and many other activities of faith formation and social engagement rely on money, money which is often in very short supply in Catholic institutions that take the call to support the poor and marginalised seriously.

Yet these potentially faith-forming and socially reforming institutions and activities are likely to be increasingly dependent upon support from wealthy individuals and institutes. And their direction will be set by the values of the donors. Of course, this is in addition to the influence they may have on bishops, many of whom need to secure funding for important institutional and social projects.

Responding to these pressures will be a challenge and a top priority for the Church. It must be, and be seen to be, the “Church of the poor”. If the Plenary Council is to be successful it will have to achieve a number of goals about mission, structure, governance and social engagement.

A top priority in social engagement should be promotion of the Catholic social ministry through the establishment and support of bodies that articulate, promote and lobby for reforms that protect and promote the interests of the marginalised and vulnerable, so that the Church can truly identify with “the least of these” (Mt 25:40). This will have to be done with less funds than the cause deserves. It is true that we do not have the same level of risk as the Church in the U.S. has, but we must be alive that risk and do more with less.

But the Church can do more with fewer financial resources if a high priority is placed on faith formation through social engagement. We need a strong commitment to this kind of lay formation and to the lay apostolate, but we do not have it.

The lack of commitment to the lay apostolate and lay formation was highlighted by the Australian Cardijn Institute in its submission to the Plenary Council:

“Astonishingly, in the decades since Vatican II, however, the Australian Church appears to have largely lost sight of this specifically lay vocation of lay people to transform the world.


While it is true that many dioceses have social justice councils and that many Church organisations do great work in the charitable and social welfare fields, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the Church has lost its Vatican II focus on the importance of the role of lay people in transforming the world, beginning from the everyday circumstances of their lives at work, in the home and the local community.


ACI therefore calls on the Australian Plenary Council to shift the focus from an inward-looking Church-centred concern with ministry to an outward-looking world-centred approach based on the lay apostolate as understood and embodied in the documents of Vatican II.”

The board of the Institute will be lodging a further submission to the Plenary Council, with emphasis on the lay apostolate as envisaged by Vatican II and the need for the Church to establish and support a program of lay formation that promotes social engagement and social transformation.  We will have more on this in the November newsletter.  The board would welcome any comments in the meantime.

Brian Lawrence

President, Australian Cardijn Institute