Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Working Catholic: Esau and Jacob by Bill Droel

Political scientist Sheldon Wolin (1922-2015), who died in October, fought against a dominant approach in social science that constructs abstract models to then be used in devising and evaluating public policy. Instead, Wolin turned to the history of specific societies. From them he derived lessons that apply to modern situations.

In a well-known essay, Wolin looks at the saga of twins Esau and Jacob, as revealed in Genesis (See 25:19-34; 27:1-49). He then explores the difference between an individual who lacks context and a relational person who is rooted in family and community traditions. The older twin Esau, you remember, sells his birthright to Jacob. Their father Isaac is then tricked into bestowing the ancestral blessing on Jacob the younger brother.

A birthright, Wolin explains, is a unique and irreplaceable inherited collective identity. A birthright is an honor, but it implies commitment. It denies that solitary individuals are thrown into the world and allowed to make unencumbered choices. Instead, the birthright (which is one’s package of family and community traditions) bestows on its recipient all the treasures of the ancestors, but includes the obligations as well. Yet Esau and now many people in the United States, Wolin feels, would say the disappearance of familial obligation, especially obligation to the elderly, is not “a loss but a relief.”

Wolin calls this wholesale embrace of unencumbered individualism the contract theory of society. It replaces thick stories of familial honor and obligation with an assessment about the near-term additions or subtractions to an individual’s interest. Little regard, explains Wolin, is given to the meaning of the inherited situation. Nor do individuals consider “the possibility that [because of this or that choice] I could be better off but that we [will] not.” The contract theory rests on shaky premises, he writes.

The part of the Esau and Jacob story that many of us miss is that Jacob’s little coup d’├ętat was a disaster for both him and his brother. They feared and fought one another most of their lifetime. Only at the conclusion of Genesis does Jacob imperfectly attempt to end a pattern of isolation, resentment, retaliation and more isolation.

In popular contract theory, individuals are autonomous and society starts afresh each morning. But in reality, Wolin continues, there is never a single moment when all individuals “have no prior history” related to economic class, religion, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, geography, and more. The contract theory “is deeply anti-historical.” It posits “a memory-less person without a birthright.” The contract theory is really “collective amnesia.”

Our goal as North Americans is not to be enslaved by the past. The democratic idea that we are allowed to rise above the education and economic level of family or class is an advance in God’s plan. But the price for our ragged individualism is high. Far too many have become unattached from a collective story. The large number of isolated and resource-impoverished seniors is but one example of our lost sense of ancestral gratitude. A contract society, as it turns out, is not dynamic. Today’s society is populated by free roaming individuals making so-called free choices, yet ours is a static society— economically and especially spiritually. Individuals presume they are choosing, but they are not participating. Without the power of collective memory, says Wolin, true participation, which is “originating or initiating cooperative action with others,” becomes a rarity, not the norm.

The challenge is to draw upon the best values of our parents, grandparents, and other heroes in the faith as we create and fashion what Genesis calls Eden: literally, “a home out of the earth.

Droel is the author of Monday Eucharist (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $8)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Working Catholic: First U.S. Saint by Bill Droel

She is the first U.S. citizen to be an official saint. But it almost didn’t happen.

Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, MSC (1850-1917) and half a dozen others from the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart arrived in New York Harbor in March 1889, following a difficult Atlantic Ocean crossing. Italian priests serving in New York, the story goes, sent disturbing reports back to Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini (1839-1905) of northern Italy. The U.S. church, largely populated by Irish-Americans, treats Italian immigrants as second rate, those reports said. With the blessing of Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) Cabrini was thus dispatched to remedy the situation. Church officials in New York promised her a house, a school and an orphanage.

Upon arrival, Cabrini met with New York’s Bishop Michael Corrigan (1839-1902) only to learn no preparations were made for her. Paul Moses recounts the scene in his illuminating study, An Unlikely Union: the Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (New York University Press, 2015). “I see no better solution to this question, Mother, than that you and your sisters return to Italy,” Corrigan said. “No, not that, your Excellency,” Cabrini replied. “I am here by order of the Holy See and here I must stay.” Keep in mind that until the 1978 administration of Pope John Paul II (1920-2005), the Holy See was an Italian-run operation.

Corrigan, Moses explains, was not against the pastoral care of Italian immigrants; he even spoke a little Italian. Corrigan and his Irish-American clergy simply thought the new arrivals were a problem. They did not want to lose the loyalty (and donations) of the slightly better established Irish-Americans who were reluctant to share with the Italians.

The half-hearted pastoral outreach in the U.S. church consequently reinforced the Italians’ preference for household piety and popular devotions; expressions of faith not dependent on approval of a local pastor. This popular religiosity only spun the wheel round again. The Irish-American parish leaders faulted the Italian immigrants for low Mass attendance, low financial giving, deficient knowledge of doctrine and susceptibility to evangelical Protestant outreach.

Cabrini, whose feast is celebrated each November, wasted no time on discouragement. She moved forward, not only in New York but across the country, including here in Chicago where she died. In total Cabrini founded 67 schools, orphanages and hospitals. Her Missionary Sisters, who are now headquartered in Radnor, Pennsylvania, continue to serve in those types of institutions plus in social service agencies, legal clinics, prisons and more.

The tension during Cabrini’s time between established parishes and new immigrants is similar in some respects to the situation with arrivals from Mexico—though that wave of immigration, contrary to a stereotype, plateaued a decade or more ago.

Mutual respect between Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans came about as the new arrivals developed leaders within the neighborhood, the parish and the workplace. The Italians acquired confidence and public skills, but not necessarily inside church settings. Local precincts, unions, schools and civic institutions valued their contributions. The other dynamic, as Moses charmingly shows, was intermarriage. Respect occurs organically as an Irish-American wife enjoys the conviviality of an all-afternoon dinner at her in-laws, while her Italian-American husband gives-and-takes at the rambunctious family gathering of his Irish in-laws.

There are unique pieces to this century’s Mexican-American story. The schools for leadership—the unions, precincts and parochial schools—are not as strong as in the past. Stable industrial jobs with benefits are few. Family culture has been eroded by the superficiality of the pervasive individualistic culture, fortified by mindless media content. Yet the Mexican-American plot line is the same. The drama may well progress slower than it did for Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans. Be assured there are still Cabrini-like saints among us, people fighting daily for the safety and progress of our immigrants.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Working Catholic: NRA Is a Front by Bill Droel

According to a popular opinion, the National Rifle Association is the primary obstacle to gun safety. Progress is possible, if only the NRA would modify its extremism, this opinion says. Even President Barack Obama, speaking in the wake of the Umpqua Community College massacre, implicitly endorsed this opinion of the NRA. He asked responsible gun owners to question the organization.

The Industrial Areas Foundation is not buying this popular analysis. The NRA is merely a front for gun manufacturers, says IAF, a 75-year old network of community organizations founded in Chicago. The real obstacle is seven or so major companies that carelessly market unsafe consumer products. Their corporate behavior contributes to violence on city streets and in schools.

Thus, early on a brisk October morning about 150 leaders made their way by el train, car and bus to Chicago’s McCormick Convention Center. They arrived clutching steaming cups of coffee. They represented churches, synagogues, a mosque and civic institutions affiliated with IAF’s Chicago chapter, United Power for Action and Justice. They stood in a plaza, just outside the hall where the International Association of Chiefs of Police was meeting.

IAF’s strategy is to leverage the purchasing power of the military plus federal and local police forces. About 40% of gun sales are to these public entities. The police, in the IAF strategy, will sign purchasing orders under two conditions.
Condition #1.) Only when a manufacturer improves product safety. It is possible to micro-stamp each gun and each bullet so that in the event of a crime, police can easily trace the weapon. It is also possible to put a recognition chip into a gun so that only its owners can fire the gun. This is similar to a recognition chip used in some autos.

Condition #2.) Only when a manufacturer ends its sales to irresponsible gun shops. Greg Pierce, a longtime IAF leader, told the McCormick Place rally that a preponderance of weapons recovered at Chicago crime scenes are traced to Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale, Illinois.

Over 75 police chiefs and public officials from around the country are on board with this corporate responsibility campaign. A handful joined the rally at McCormick Place, encouraging citizens to continue the pressure. Jersey City, New Jersey, looking to spend about $400,000 on police guns, actually used similar conditions. They received two bids and awarded a contract.

The United Power leaders got to specifics: Gun manufacturers had displays inside the convention hall. Using enlarged photos on sturdy poster board, the rally leaders called out the executives of four companies: Smith & Wesson, Glock, Beretta and Sig Sauer. Those four, it turns out, made many of the guns used in crimes around Chicago.

IAF wants to collaborate with those companies on safety. To get the companies’ attention, IAF wants the support of police departments and of the biggest gun purchaser in our country, Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama.

It is easy to say, “Oh, it won’t work.” That’s the slogan for the apathetic. The IAF leaders in Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee, New York, District of Columbia and elsewhere have a different attitude. “We begin in the world as it really is,” they are apt to say. “We admit our imperfections and those of others. But we fight for improvement, for the world as it could be.” For more information on the safe gun campaign contact IAF (1226 Vermont Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20005;
More on this topic in a future Working Catholic column.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free newsletter on faith and work.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


Fernando Castro Pacheco
Mexican, 1918-2013
Working with Ixtle (Trabajando con ixtle)
from the portfolio Mexican People (Gente Mexicana), 1946
15 ¼ x 17 ½ in.
Gift of anonymous donor
Collection of the Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University

WORK – A CURSE OR A BLESSING?  by Gabriela Dieguez

“Working with Ixtle” is a lithograph from Fernando Castro Pacheco part of the collection “What is Hispanic?” at the Haggerty museum.  The picture was made back in 1946 and tells the story of a woman working vegetable fibers on a loom. This is also the story of many workers from the present that we can meet in Wisconsin. As a social worker I have heard countless stories of life in Mexico, of the hardships that force people to migrate north and their adaptation to new lives in the U.S. 
This pictures talks about the importance of work.  In the picture the spectator can see that the woman is a hard worker.  The land seems barren with no plants even the tree from where her thread hangs has no leaves.  In order to collect the vegetables fibers to make the ixtle this worker has taken countless hours walking and carrying the plants towards her home.  The picture also shows behind a small tent where a woman and a child observe. Making sure the tent provides protection from sun and rain requires maintenance, it is all hard work. It is  possible that the woman on this picture uses the thread to make fabric and her work then can be used to make clothes. 
For most people work provides us with a sense of identity. And this identity is transformed when we migrate.  When I hear stories from migrants I am inspired by their strength and flexibility.  I have met shoemakers that here become factory workers, I have met doctors that here become office cleaners, and I also have met migrants that finish their studies in the U.S and go on to accomplish their dreams.  Work provides people the means to live and sustain their family.  Work is also part of who we are and how we perceive ourselves as part of our community and the way we contribute for the well being of society.  The work we each do is valuable and essential for our countries. Work done with passion and with full awareness of its importance in the functioning of a community, city, and country is work that brings us pride and happiness.

Gabriela Dieguez is from Guatemala; she and her family escaped from her home country during the Reagan sponsored civil wars in Central America. Gabrela is married and a mother of two university students. She is a social worker in Milwaukee at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center.