The Missing Piece: Catholic Faith and the Making of Working-Class Consciousness

AHA Session 121
Labor and Working Class History Association 6
Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Columbia 5 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Leslie W. Tentler, Catholic University of America
Leslie W. Tentler, Catholic University of America

Session Abstract

For several decades now, historians have considered how the constructs of gender, race, and class have changed over time and shaped human experience. Yet until fairly recently most historians—including labor historians—have not taken religion and faith seriously as an equally constitutive element. This panel seeks to correct this oversight by presenting three pieces of original research that examine how Catholicism contributed to the construction of working-class consciousness in the United States during the twentieth century. In so doing, it also provides historical context for more contemporary turns in workers’ consciousness that otherwise might not be fully understood.

 In his paper on Polish-American Catholic workers at Wheeling Steel during the 1930s and 1940s, William Hal Gorby examines how this group of workers became part of the emerging Congress of Industrial Organizations. He argues that one of the reasons why Polish Catholics became such good organizers in this new industrial union was the ground game that they learned in their parishes as they lived their daily faith. Their “elective affinity” for the CIO as members also came from the “subordination of the individual” and “ties of solidarity” that were central to their Catholicism. Gorby’s work reminds us that faith played a key role, alongside ethnic community ties, in developing such working-class consciousness in the New Deal era. Also looking at workers as a group, Matthew Pehl offers a “‘thick description’ of the worldview of urban Catholic cops” during the urban crisis of the late 1960s and 1970s. Pehl argues that it was in the urban crisis setting and through their shared Catholic faith that these police officers created their understanding of themselves as workers. His study shows us how the daily experiences of work and religion in his subjects’ lives formed their class consciousness. Taking a biographical approach, Donna Haverty-Stacke focuses on the evolution of working-class consciousness in the life of Grace Holmes Carlson. Tracing Carlson’s commitment to social justice and her sense of a gospel mandate to involve herself in worldly affairs, Haverty-Stacke examines the impact of Carlson’s lived faith. She explores how Carlson’s experience of Catholicism shaped and transformed her working-class consciousness before, during and after her years in the Socialist Workers Party, often in unexpected ways.

Taken together, Gorby’s, Pehl’s and Haverty-Stacke’s papers provide the missing piece in solving the the historical puzzle of working-class consciousness: that of religion and faith. Chairing and commenting on the panel, Leslie Woodcock Tentler will bring her expertise and reflect on the areas of continuity and difference across the papers. Ideally the panel will foster a discussion with the audience about the role of faith in the formation of political consciousness and workers’ movements in the past and how, with such an informed understanding, we may be better able to address faith’s role in workers’ lives in today’s contentious political climate. We envision the panel attracting scholars interested in questions of class, religion, politics, urban development, and workers’ movements.

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