Francis Haas, 1889-1953, Bishop of
Grand Rapids who championed the
rights of the working classes
Through the course of the twentieth century the American hierarchy has usually been of two minds regarding social matters. Gibbons and Ireland found their heirs in such liberal prelates as John McNicholas, (1877-1950) Francis Haas (1889-1953), Edward Mooney (1882-1958), Bernard Shiel (1888-1969) and Richard Cushing (1895-1970) to name the more prominent. There were also Monsignors John Ryan (1868-1945), George Higgins (1916-2002), and Geno Baroni (1930-1984). Somewhat behind the scenes and usually not recognized for their support of liberal social reform, should be mentioned Cardinals George Mundelein (1872-1939), Francis Spellman (1889-1967) and Patrick O’Boyle (1896-1987). A key to this list is to not confuse social liberals for theological liberals. Many of these prelates, and the last three in particular, were anything but theological radicals but they were very effective in championing social reform in their day. O'Boyle merits special note for his desegrating the Washington DC Catholic Institutions when he became the City's second Archbishop in 1948.
Corrigan and his party found their heirs as well. Cardinals Glennon of Saint Louis (1862-1948) and McIntyre of Los Angeles (1886-1979) along with Archbishop Thomas Toolen (1886-1976) were notorious opponents of social change in general and racial integration in particular. William O’Connell (1859-1944) and Denis Dougherty (1865-1951) were champions of the old East Coast Establishment that had no room for “ill-bred paddies” like themselves. Ironically, you can even move Spellman from the social progressives (which he was in general) and lump him with Corrigan’s heirs when it came to how he treated Archdiocesan employees who went out on strike—not holding himself to the same standards to which he held others. But don't we all do that.
By and large by the mid-twentieth century the American episcopacy was liberal on labor, cautious on civil rights, and staunchly opposed to the first signs of the sexual-revolution that would strike in the late ‘60’s. In this they reflected the values of their flock which were still for the most part from labor rather than management. When the Civil Rights movement picked up steam in the ‘60’s the Catholic Church was slow to get behind it—embarrassingly slow. When the picture of the Greek Orthodox Primate, the should-be-sainted Archbishop Iakovos, appeared walking alongside Dr. Martin Luther King at Selma in 1965 some Catholic bishops finally woke up and realized that we had better stand with the righteous on that issue or we would be left on the moral low road. As the anti-Vietnam War movement then gathered speed Catholic participation was all the more difficult because most bishops were terrified of the wrath of Francis, Cardinal Spellman, who was not only Archbishop of New York, but Archbishop for the American Military as well and who was not without influence in Rome. His death in December 1967 paved the way for stronger hierarchical leadership in the anti-war movement. Catholics, at least led by the hierarchy, were late in coming to both these causes, but come they did eventually.
The sexual revolution provided the greatest challenge to the leadership of the Church and it merits multiple entries of its own. For this entry let us simply say that the American Bishops have stood consistently with conservative social values, reflecting the universal magisterium of the Church. The early battles were about birth control with the 1968 Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae, but as the decades have passed the sexual revolution has become ever more complex dealing with abortion, in-vitro fertilization, surrogate parenting, homosexual rights, transgender issues, same-sex marriage, genetic engineering and dozens of wrinkles in each of these topics and more. As if that was not complicated enough, the issue of Gender Roles is not confined to matters sexual but has raised serious issues both within the without the Church as the traditional roles assigned to women and to men are not so clearly delineated anymore.
Other challenges have risen as well with end-of-life issues involving nutrition and hydration protocols, brain-death, assisted suicide and a host of incredibly complex questions. The growing international condemnation of the Death Penalty has demanded moral response from Church leadership—a response that is often muted, whispered, actually non-existent. The excesses of American wars ranging from Vietnam down through our various covert and not-so-covert operations in Latin America and beyond to Iraq I and II, Afghanistan, and the war on terror have all cried for moral commentary. Then there are environmental issues that have serious moral aspects and consequences. I am sure that the bishops would love to return to the simple days of supporting the rights of labor but the moral complexity of our society requires serious study and clear teaching. So where is it? and why is it so slow in coming?