Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Working Catholic: Advent, Part II by Bill Droel

Contemporaries Karl Marx (1818-1883), Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) and Charles Dickens (1812-1870) were concerned about the social question: Why in an industrial economy that promises upward mobility is there so much misery?
By the mid-1800s prosperity was arriving for “factory and mill and transportation interests,” writes Les Standiford in his intriguing biography of Dickens, The Man Who Invented Christmas (Crown, 2008). In addition to business owners, “a growing number of managerial workers were beginning to enjoy the relative ease of a middle class. But most of those who made the factories run were laborers, and they and their families lived in squalor.”  
In his early 20s Engels was in Manchester, working and researching. Appalled by child labor, pollution and slum housing there, he began writing about the evils of capitalism. Standiford says that Manchester in 1843 set the stage for Engels. Had he “come of age in some more pleasant surroundings such as London, The Communist Manifesto might not have been written the way it was.”
Dickens gave a talk in Manchester in fall 1843. He too was appalled. He returned to London and in a fury wrote his anti-capitalist manifesto, A Christmas Carol. Dickens “had no use for revolt or violence as suggested by supporters of Mark and Engels,” Standiford writes. His novels are about the working poor, but they dwell on character not on macro-economics. The stories hinge on the tension between bad people and bad institutions, on one hand, and the possibility of redemption on the other.
The good guys (the poor) in Dickens’ stories are complex. He does not romanticize them. Poverty in itself does not make a person noble or worthy of pity. A poor person might drink, carouse, cheat and make bad decisions at times. Dickens’ premise, however, is that being poor is not a sin; the system is at fault.
The holy season of Advent is designed to convey this lesson: Charity is not romantic; it is a duty. Poor individuals are often not charming. They do, however, deserve help with no heavy moral judgment attached. 
St. Luke wrote an inspired story about the social question (poverty). Like A Christmas Carol, it is popular at this time of year. The creator of the whole universe, the story goes, comes to visit his created planet. His holy family cannot get a room at Trump Tower and so they go to a barn. The creator is greeted there by poor shepherds. He eventually spends his life among the poor, all of whom St. Luke says have defects in their character but are open to redemption.   
These weeks are the best time to read St. Luke (his first two chapters) and also Dickens’ tale. Get a decorative copy of A Christmas Carol from Acta (www.actapublications.com). Acta’s chief executive Grinch sits all day near the building’s front window, looking forlornly down Clark St., waiting until April 9, 2018 when he can take his seat in Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs (92-70 in 2017). Meanwhile, the joyous elves in Acta’s cramped warehouse can for $14.95 get A Christmas Carol into your mailbox, as quickly as any mega-supplier.
Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


Emperor St.Constantine and his mother, St.Helen.
"In This Sign You Will Conquer"

   Heraclitus said that you can’t step into the same river twice – change is constant.

  Why the concern about the changes in the identity of the Roman Catholic Church?

The Catholic Church is constantly and dramatically changing. This has happened throughout its history and the changes have been controversial.  The current controversy is how the church’s members identify and function as Catholics.

    Here are some examples of this constant and dramatic change.  Christianity began as a Jewish sect in resistance to Roman Imperialism - then became an anti-Jewish religion that supported imperialism.  Roman Christianity appeared with the takeover by the Emperor Constantine and changed from monotheism to monotheism that tries to explain why three gods are really one God.  (One of the gods was human as well as divine.) Violence under imperialism is and was considered a legitimate path to peace. The Reformation of the 16th century challenged the theology of belief. The interpretation of basic teaching of Christianity – the kerygma -  has always been in flux, in constant change.

    N.C.R. writer Sean Winter looks at the 1967 Land o’Lakes convention of Catholic Universities as a cause of the current Roman Catholic identity crisis. (“Catholic Identity lost?” N.C.R. Nov. 17 -30, 2017)  The convention attempted to separate Roman Catholic Universities from Vatican control thus freeing theologians to discuss the topic of evolution, and with time, the morality of birth control, abortion, women’s rights including the right to ordination, and LGBTQ rights.    

   Sean Winter quotes the Vatican II document Guadium et Spes:

If by the authority of earthly affairs is meant the gradual discovery, exploitation and ordering of laws and values of matter and society; then the demand for autonomy is perfectly in order:  it is at once the claim of modern man and the desire of the creator.

   In other words it is reasonable not to condemn what you don’t understand.  The Vatican responded in 1990 with an apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, to regain control of the universities.  Because of pressure from Milwaukee’s Archbishop, Jerome Listecki, Marquette University was not allowed to hire a gay woman as Dean of the school of Liberal Arts.  

   But the core of the present identity controversy is Vatican II, 1962 – 65.

   The cold war threatened world annihilation.  Pope John XXIII responded by calling for an ecumenical council - a world council.  Peace through justice was the theme.  The opening message of the Council was released on October 20th 1962, two days before the Cuban missile crisis.  The statement was addressed to all humanity.  It emphasized the urgency of peace through social justice. John XXIII issued two relevant encyclicals - one on Social Justice, Mater et Magistra 1961, and one on Peace – Pacem in Terris 1963.

    Vatican II recognized the Laity as a crucial force in the church. Dialogue was prioritized among various Christian denominations, non – Christians, and atheists (read communists) to present a unified front to promote peace.  But almost immediately in 1968 the windows were shut, mold formed, and the unreasonable was once again declared as reasonable.  For example, birth control validated as moral by a papal commission of the Laity was pronounced as immoral by Paul VI with his encyclical Humanae Vitae. Here is where we find the core of the changes that is causing the identity crisis for Catholics.  The Laity is in disagreement with the official church yet the Laity is said to be inspired by the Holy Spirit in the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
   Within the Laity and the hierarchy there are disagreements each with a preferential dogma supported as they interpret scripture and tradition.  

   Because of the current U.S. administration, the threat of nuclear war is again on the horizon, and the anxiety of the 50’s has returned.  Pope Francis has demanded the elimination of nuclear weapons.  Teaching the early Christian Gospel of Peace through justice and non–violence, as opposed to the Roman Imperial Gospel of Peace through military victory, (NIKA) is crucial.  The Gospel of Peace is a worthwhile identity mark for the faith community and the Catholic Church. A strain of Catholic theology has emphasized realism and reason. Such theology as a Catholic identity could help refine and explain the ancient kerygma of resistance and non-violence as a path to peace.  

Prince of Peace, born in a stable

   The Christmas story and the angel’s revelation to the shepherds, “fear not … peace to those of good will,” is not historical, simply a cherished myth, but it is relevant today and points to truth.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Working Catholic: Christmas So Soon?

       The grocery store was more congested than usual this morning because Christmas has taken over two aisles—miniature lights, extension cords, wreaths, decorative boxes, greeting cards and wrapping paper. Plus there are several gift displays at the front and back of several aisles—trays of chestnuts/hazelnuts/pecans and holiday sausage plus winter ale, which I bought for Thanksgiving and which I’ll get more of later. My regular grocery cashier, who is also a floor manager, mentioned that she spent her first hour in a Christmas meeting: How to adequately staff for these next weeks, how many turkeys to order, etc. I had to also stop quickly at the drug store where the same items are prominent. (Yes, my drug store sells festive beer.) There is a radio station in Chicago that from November 3rd exclusively plays Christmas music until 11:59 P.M. on Christmas Eve.

Who started all this? Who invented Christmas?

One correct answer is Our Blessed Mother Mary. Another answer might be St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), who is credited with inventing, or at least popularizing, the Christmas Pageant. But Christmas in the sense of shopping, office parties, mounds of presents and the like is less than 175-years old.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was into a major writer’s block in 1843. His last three stories were duds and he was in debt. Walking the streets of Manchester that fall, Dickens thought about children and Christmas. Back home in London he wrote A Christmas Carol in a fury. The publisher didn’t like it. Dickens decided to pay for the publishing, thus increasing his debt. Of course, it took off and many editions and adaptations followed. The 1992 Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite.

Dickens didn’t exactly invent Christmas. But Dickens “played a major role in transforming a celebration dating back to pre-Christian times, revitalizing forgotten customs and introducing new ones that now define the holiday,” writes Les Standiford in The Man Who Invented Christmas (Crown, 2011). Dickens “complimented the glorification of the nativity of Christ with a specific set of practices derived from Christ’s example: charity and compassion in the form of educational opportunity, humane working conditions and a decent life for all.” Dickens’ influence links “the birth of a holy savior into a human family to the glorification and defense of the family unit itself.”

Obviously, the themes of Christmas associated with the original Bethlehem setting, with St. Francis’ pageant and with A Christmas Carol can be lost in the frenzy of shopping. It is silly, however, for Christians to wage a culture war on behalf of our holy season. For example, no one needs the permission of President Donald Trump to greet anyone in friendship by saying “Merry Christmas.” Instead of grousing about commercialism, why not use the weeks of Advent to implement Christmas themes in the neighborhood, in the workplace and in one’s family? In particular, why not—as many people already do—use these days to fight poverty, even with small gestures? Pope Francis declares November 19, 2017 as World Day for the Poor. Each of us can make an anti-poverty resolution on that day, and evaluate our effort on January 6, 2018, the Epiphany.

For a booster shot of the Christmas theme, read again A Christmas Carol. There is a decorative edition with an introduction from pastoral theologian John Shea available at Acta (4848 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60640; $14.95)

Droel edits a newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)
by Bill Droel for Catholic Labor Network (www.catholiclabor.org)

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

Saturday, November 18, 2017


An important event on our School of Americas schedule this year was a memorial service for Fr. Jerry Zawada, O.F.M.  Jerry was the strongest advocate for peace I ever met.  He said that he lost count of the number of times he was arrested for peace protests after the 150th time.  I was thinking of Jerry as we protested at the border wall in Nogales, AZ - Mexico and participated in workshops that raised our political and faith consciousness.


   Nogales is now the site of the demonstration to close the S.O.A.  The reason for the change from Fort Benning is:

 …”to join alongside allied groups to denounce militarized U.S. foreign policy as a principal root cause of migration, as well as the devastating impact U.S. security and immigration policy has on refugees, asylum seekers and immigrant families, across all borders.” (S.O.A. program, P.1)

   Just before we left for Nogales I received an alumni fundraiser P.R. magazine from the Dominican high school I attended in Oak Park, Illinois.  I was shocked.  The glossy red, white and blue cover featured photos of Fenwick H.S graduates who had served in the military over the years in the many wars since the school’s founding in 1929.  A headline on the cover proudly stated – “Fighting Friars Defend Our Fenwick Shield and The American Flag.”   What!   War is not a high school football game; war is hell itself.  A lamentation for the dead, wounded – those with P.T.S.D. would be appropriate not a glorification of mechanized slaughter.  Veterans marched for peace in Nogales.

    Our pilgrimage to the wall in Nogales included a stop in Tucson to visit a “streamline court” where immigrants are deported in bunches ignoring “due process” and appeal for asylum.  We also protested at a privatized detention center for immigrants located in the desert near Tucson.

  From the hill overlooking the U.S. Nogales and the Mexican Nogales you could see the valley, the river and a steel polled wall separating the communities of similar people and a common landscape.  Psalm 82 came to mind.  “Rise God, dispense justice throughout the world, since no nation is excluded from your ownership.”

  Besides praying and protesting at the wall we attended workshops.  One of them was about working with Trump’s restructuring of NAFTA.  In my opinion, moving from neo-liberalism to neo-mercantilism still maintains workers in slave-like conditions.  Workers on both sides of the wall must be guaranteed the right to organize unions and to be protected by enforceable laws.    

   The protest to close the SOA has a long history.  The School of the Americas (S.O.A.) is in Fort Benning, GA.  It is where Latin American soldiers are trained to enforce, sometimes by torture, U.S. control in the Americas.  Friar Jim Barnett, O.P. was one of the early supporters of Maryknoll Roy Bourgeois, the founder and leader of the protests for 27 years.    

   From Nogales we headed again to Tucson for a memorial service for Franciscan Jerry Zawada who died in Milwaukee last summer.  Fr. Jerry served three six-month prison sentences for protesting at S.O.A. demonstrations in Fr. Benning, Georgia.  He spent two months in prison for protesting torture training at Fort Huachuca near Nogales.

   When Jerry was a pastor at St. Michael’s in Milwaukee he accompanied me to the picket line at the 1987 Patrick Cudahy strike.  We delivered donations of food to the strikers and marched in the picket line.  The program for Jerry’s memorial service had a union bug.

   Jerry Zawada preached the Gospel by his everyday life.  Peace through justice and non-violence was the basic Gospel teaching  of the early Christians as opposed to the Gospel of Rome - Pax Romana – peace through military might.  Thanks Jerry for reminding us.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Working Catholic: Health Care by Bill Droel

Larry Keogh, a fellow teacher at our community college, began each semester by telling his students: “Life is not fair.” He used various techniques and examples to make this point.  To master his course (social science) our students needed this maxim, Keogh believed. They likewise needed it to navigate their careers and their personal lives.
Atul Gawande is a surgeon in Boston and author of best-selling Being Mortal (Picador, 2014). He recently interviewed a couple in his Ohio hometown. The 47-year old wife had health problems since high school graduation. She had a medical discharge from the Army because of fatigue. Doctors were not getting at her precise ailment. They prescribed opioids for her joint pain. She became addicted and had to start withdrawal treatment. Then her liver began to fail. Finally, doctors at the famous Cleveland Clinic named the problem and found effective medication. This woman, Gawande reports, “got her life back.” Meanwhile her husband fell and was out of his job as an electrical technician for six months.
The couple has “amazing insurance,” says the wife. Maybe so, writes Gawande in The New Yorker (10/2/17). But their policy has “a $6,000 deductible and hefty co-pays and premiums.” During their setback, the annual health care costs to the family reached $15,000. They did not tell their extended family that they had to file for bankruptcy; which brings us to the curious part of this story.
  Bankruptcy is “a personal failure,” says the husband, even though medical costs caused the bankruptcy. “Everybody should contribute for the treatment they receive,” the husband says. His wife is ambivalent about the Affordable Care Act, but she does not think adequate health insurance is a human right. “I work really hard,” the wife says. “I deserve a little more than the guy who sits around.” For this couple, any articulation of a right is accompanied by unwanted government regulation and allocation. They are also convinced that many people cheat the government. They have anecdotal “evidence.”
This couple’s “feelings are widely shared,” says Gawande. Many people in our country are uncomfortable with human rights talk. They are adverse to government programs. And in a defining characteristic of their thinking, these people make a distinction between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor.
Modernity teaches that hard work leads to success; failure is at least partially related to a personal defect. For example, John Calvin (1509-1564), one of modernity’s influential leaders, wrote in a typical Scripture commentary: “Adversity is a sign of God’s absence; prosperity of his presence.” This thinking is deep in our culture. TV talk show hosts, preachers, self-help writers, political candidates, technology entrepreneurs, sports stars, education gurus and more, all tell us that we are responsible for the outcome of our lives. Life is what we make of it, or don’t make of it. Some people might experience an unfortunate, temporary setback. They deserve help. But others create their own misery. They do not deserve help.
It is common in a bar, a barbershop, a neighborhood restaurant, a church club, a family gathering to hear in so many words: “Being charitable is important to me but I don’t owe assistance to anyone. Some people need a handout, but my taxes should not go into assistance programs.”
Is health insurance a corollary to the right to life? That is, something that is unalienable and not hinged to one’s social status or lifestyle. Or is health insurance a privilege, something that some people deserve more than others?  That is, health insurance is not unalienable and is only begrudgingly extended to the careless. Is life fair?

Droel’s booklet, What Is Social Justice?, is available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Working Catholic: Shop Talk by Bill Droel

Lousy writing is intentional, insists George Orwell (1903-1950). Shoddy writers may not be aware of their bad intentions. But our writing “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish,” he continues. And “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

I was a teacher at a community college for nearly 33 years. I tried to help students be better writers by presenting Orwell’s virtues and vices of writing. I would then ask students to correct phrases and sentences contained in memos from administrators. I did not save those memos for a subsequent semester. Plenty of new ones regularly arrived in my faculty mailbox.

Here are some tips. Keep in mind that we write poorly because at some level we don’t want to communicate. Though also keep in mind that acquiring a discipline for clear writing improves our virtues and decreases our vices.

Be concise. It comes from self-confidence and its regular use will increase confidence. Conversely, verbosity is related to insecurity. One discipline for conciseness is to chop off all false limbs like to the effect that or in order that or to serve the purpose of.

Eliminate jargon. In a medical setting, for example, get rid of all the buzz words and most of the acronyms. Jargon is pretentious. Simple nouns and verbs are related to humility and the desire to connect.

Avoid clichés. The virtue here is originality or creativity. The vice is laziness.

There is a sports program on cable TV during which the hosts replay an interview with an athlete beside their “cliché counter.” The other evening a baseball player used 11 clichés within 65 seconds.

A terrific example comes from the 1980’s movie Bull Durham. “It's time to work on your interviews,” says veteran player Crash Davis to the younger Nuke LaLoosh. “You're gonna have to learn your clichés. You're gonna have to study them, you're gonna have to know them. They're your friends. Write this down: We gotta play it one day at a time."

Got to play... it's pretty boring,” says Nuke. “Course it's boring, that's the point. Write it down,” commands Davis.

One more tip for now: Use the active voice. This is the virtue of responsibility. The passive voice betrays a writer’s cowardice. For example, a workplace memo says: “It has been decided…” In other words, the memo writer wants to hide responsibility for the decision.

What pertains to writing is also true of speaking. Jeff Haden, author of The Motivation Myth (Penguin, 2018), keeps a list of executive nonsense phrases. For example, his boss constantly used the phrase “You need to square the circle.” Haden did not alter his behavior because he didn’t “know what this is supposed to mean.” The boss, we can assume, didn’t either. Thus both the employee and the boss stuck to behavior as usual.

Also on Haden’s list: “We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift.” To Haden this means: We “have no idea what the hell is going on.” I recently participated in a church meeting where the chairperson said: “It is of paramount importance that a significant step in contextualized hermeneutic be taken.” I got up for more coffee.

“We need to focus on adding value,” is another on Haden’s list. This too means nothing. If anything at the company is not adding value, a deep question arises: Why the hell are we doing it?
One more example of nonsense: “It is what it is.” To Haden this means “I’m too lazy to make it different.”

The point here is not simply to bash administrators or the boss. All of us can improve writing and speaking. We thereby improve our character and—believe it or not—make our company, our college, our hospital, our community group and even our sports team more efficient. Responsible workers grow in an environment of clear writing and clear speaking. Good use of language reinforces clear thinking which informs efficient behavior.


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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


N.F.L. players are criticized as unpatriotic because they take the knee for the National Anthem; Trump spokesperson Sara Huckabee Sanders says it is inappropriate to question the veracity of a four star Marine general even though the video tape proves he lied.  Who is our God?

Psalm 82:  God stands in the divine assembly, among the gods she dispenses justice.
Let the weak and the orphan have justice, be fair to the wretched and destitute:

But ignorant and senseless the gods carry on blindly,
undermining the very basis of earthly society.  

The god of U.S. capitalism does not consider all to be equal.  This has been the divide in the U.S. since the beginning.  A civil war and Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg did not settle the issue.  For example, health care is not a 'right to life' issue, but a privilege of those who pay.  Football players taking a knee for the National Anthem could have promoted dialogue – Do Black lives matter?  The discussion quickly shifted to – Why do the players refuse to respect the god of capitalism that pays their salary?  

We honor the soldiers who died, but not the General who lied.  The 'General' represents the 'god of war.'  Our God is the God of justice and mercy.

Psalm 82:  Rise, God, dispense justice throughout the world, since no nation is excluded from your ownership.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Working Catholic: Theology of Work by Bill Droel

Death is the penalty we pay for Eve and Adam’s disobedience. How do we know? Because that is what our religion teacher said. Also, it is mentioned now and then in sermons. It is, however, fake news. Take a look at Genesis 3:4. Who explains things to Eve? It is the Prince of Lies who links mortality with Eden’s special fruit tree. In Genesis 2:18 God names a relationship between the fruit tree and death, but God never promises immortality to the residents of Paradise/Eden. This whole business about the fruit tree, by the way, is something Eve heard about second-hand.

 Well then, work is the penalty for Eve and Adam’s disobedience. Again, fake news. Look at Genesis 2:15. Adam is already working, even before the snake incident.  And after that episode, in Genesis 3:21, God too is working; this time as a clothier.

Admittedly there is a strong note in Catholic tradition that regards work as a penance for original sin or maybe a necessary evil or possibly a negative prod to make people pray and obey. During the Middle Ages some monks gave work a positive spin, but only as a backdrop to contemplation and other prayer. And Martin Luther (1483-1546) certainly knocked against the idea that ordinary work is beneath those so-called higher-ups, those round-the-clock spiritual types. Yet with some exceptions, work was not regarded as integral to the spiritual life, at least until recent times.

Not to overlook the French worker-priest movement and the writing of Fr. Marie Dominique Chenu, OP (1895-1990), it can be said that a decisive turn toward a Catholic theology of work took place in Poland. It was Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (1901-1981) who heaved aside erroneous interpretations of Genesis. “God set Adam and Eve down in paradise and commanded them to dress it and to keep it,” he pastorally writes in a 1946 book, Duch Pracy Ludzkiej. “Work is therefore the duty of people from the first day of life. It is not the result of original sin. It is not a punishment for disobedience.”

In hundreds of talks and sermons, in poems and in his writings, most thoroughly in his 1981 On Human Work, Saint John Paul II (1920-2005) develops a spirituality of work which he considers normative; its basics “should be a heritage shared by all.” It is through work, John Paul II says, that we are co-creators with God, participating in God’s plan for a renewed world, a new Eden.  Further, says John Paul II, our work is participation in Christ’s on-going redemption. This elevation of human work is not heresy, unless you are willing to say that our faithfully departed pontiff is a fake saint.

Just when a theology of work enters the Catholic mainstream, some people are echoing the Prince of Lies: Work only brings death. Today, asserts James Livingston in No More Work (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), “most of our labor has…little, diminishing or no value in the labor market.” Work does not contribute to “self-respect, self-discovery and social mobility,” Livingston continues. So, knock off the romanticism, take off the rosy glasses, and put away any spiritual spin. “Work means economic impoverishment not moral possibility.”

Well yes, romanticism has to go. After their disobedience Adam and Eve were told that work is entangled with toil. The Pharaoh’s hardness of heart caused work to be miserable for his slaves. So too, disregard for the innate dignity of each worker pervades some companies today. Those formerly enslaved in Egypt wandered in a desert without meaning. They lost their solidarity; their connections. So too, many workers now ask: “Is God in our midst or not?”

Yet work, with all the blemishes of sin, is good and in itself capable of contributing to the spiritual life. Thanks to some well-grounded thinkers, a Catholic theology has been sketched. It remains for more theologians in dialogue with loads of workers (executives, janitors, lab technicians, civic leaders, retail clerks, food processors, homemakers, solar panel installers, computer scientists, engineers, students and more) to flesh out a full pastoral theology that pertains to what 99% of Catholics do most of the time. Without a theology for and by workers, Christianity—hate to say it—is more fake news.

Droel is the editor of John Paul II’s Gospel of Work (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Working Catholic: World Series by Bill Droel

Back in March 2017 I picked the Dodgers in our usually friendly betting pool. I have admired the team, dating from the era that Roger Kahn describes in The Boys of Summer (Harper Collins, 1971). I wasn’t around to experience the debut of Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) in April 1947. In time, however, I followed Robinson and his teammates. (Full disclosure: the Dodgers were never my absolute favorite team, nor are they now.) 

42, Brian Helgeland’s inspiring 2013 movie about Robinson and the Dodger’s president and general manager Branch Rickey (1881-1965) downplays the role of Christian faith in the integration of Major League Baseball. That’s the opinion of Eric Metaxas, the author of Martin Luther (Penguin, 2017) and other biographies. It is also the opinion of Carl Erskine, a Dodger right-hander from 1948 to 1959. 

42 Faith: the Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story by Ed Henry (Thomas Nelson, 2017) brings Robinson’s and Rickey’s Christian faith to the center of the drama. Both men were evangelicals who prayed the Scripture. Both men kept holy the Lord’s Day; Rickey by not working on Sunday, first as a player and then as an executive. And, both men took Christianity beyond the strictly private realm and applied their faith to their workday lives.

Henry writes about each man’s doubts. Would Robinson hit and field at the major league level? Would the Dodger players and staff unify behind him? Would Robinson stay calm in the face of taunting? Would the owners of other teams tolerate integration? At a moment of serious doubt, Henry reveals, Rickey drew upon his faith. All the preliminaries for signing Robinson were accomplished, Henry continues. Just then, Rickey had an anguished “dark night of the soul.” His reading of Scripture did not calm him. And so, he walked a short distance from his office to Plymouth Church. There with visible hesitation he “sought spiritual guidance” with Rev. L Wendell Fifield (1891-1964). Rickey, as history knows, then decided to act.

 Don’t get the wrong impression. Yes, Christianity was a major motive behind the integration of baseball, as it was during the subsequent Civil Rights era. But keep in mind that everyone does everything for mixed motives. Robinson wanted to further his athletic achievements and he wanted to use baseball as a means to financially support a family. In principle Rickey favored integration but he also wanted to make money by fielding a winning team.

Jimmy Breslin (1928-2017) features faith in his biography Branch Rickey (Penguin, 2011). But faith had to mix with money to make the April 1947 breakthrough possible. In 1943 the Dodgers were $800,000 in debt to Brooklyn Trust Bank. Rickey needed more money to scout colleges and minor leagues for prospects, including blacks. So Rickey, an evangelical political conservative, went to the bank to meet its president George McLaughlin, a Catholic political liberal. Neither man was into moralizing or into converting individuals. So Rickey consciously avoided the morality of integration at the bank meeting. He simply said the scouting would include black players. “What McLaughlin believes doesn’t matter,” Rickey felt. “How he behaves is what counts.” 

Here is the liberal bank executive’s interesting reply to Rickey: “If you want to do this to get a beat on the other teams and make some money, let’s do it. But if you want to do this for some social change, forget it.” Both the bank executive and the baseball executive were men of faith and both believed that Christianity compelled racial inclusion. But both men were realists who knew that a black (eventually Robinson) was not being scouted to preach integration. He was paid to play baseball excellently and in the process to offer an example to bigots.

It is wrong to say that baseball would not have integrated without the faith of Robinson and Rickey. This notion does not fully appreciate mixed motives. Other executives and players would have integrated the sport. In fact, Bill Veeck (1914-1986), who became a Catholic, was prepared to have black players on the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943—four years ahead of the Dodgers. Owners of other teams blocked Veeck at the time. In July 1947, less than four months after Robinson’s debut, Veeck signed Larry Doby (1923-2003) and thereby integrated his Cleveland Indians.
The faith of Doby, Veeck, Robinson and Rickey, as prudently applied in their workaday settings, is still instructive these weeks and months as professional sports and our entire culture grapple with race relations.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


The news is overwhelming – nuclear war threatened, Texas, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas; if you understand time as programmed, as did St. Paul, Augustine, Hegel and Marx, it is apocalyptic. If you understand time as simply a measure of motion, and events as determined by community choices, contemplation and action are now an imperative.  What do we do about climate change, racism, gun control, income inequality?   

Poet Margaret Rozga writes: “Time is neither a straight line nor a circle.

It is a series of dots, tempting to connect.” 

November 4, 2008, Though I Haven’t Been to Baghdad, BenuPress, Hopkins, Minnesota, 2012

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Working Catholic: Housing Part III by Bill Droel

 I just returned from St. Paul. In the early 1970s, as part of the War on Poverty, I lived and worked in a St. Paul neighborhood called West Seventh. On this and in previous visits I observe a drastically changed West Seventh. Its anchor, the Xcel Energy Center, opened in September 2000 as the home of the Minnesota Wild. (Lady Gaga performed there just after I left. Too bad she missed me.) There are two hotels, one just opened. Several restaurants and bars line West Seventh, including a brand new brew house. Several medical facilities are there. A short walk down a hill leads to a string of condos on the east bank of the Mississippi River. 

As I walked around West Seventh and around a couple other St. Paul neighborhoods, I thought about Richard Florida, who caused a stir with his Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books [2002]; www.creativeclass.com). A city can recover from its post-industrial slump, Florida says, if it can attract and retain a sufficient number of educated young adults. The way to do so includes universities, trendy neighborhoods, an art scene, sports venues, public transportation, medical and research facilities, skilled jobs and more. Florida uses charts, a global creativity index and examples, including (on the positive front) Austin, Seattle, Boston and more. He implies that any place has the potential to thrive. Thus for a time his book and his talks were popular with regional meetings of mayors, at business conferences, among urban planners and professional associations and even some church organizations.

Now, however, Florida realizes that his prescription has a downside. Yes, “the concentration of talent and economic activity” makes a place thrive, he writes in The New Urban Crisis (Basic Books, 2017). But… think about it logically… those places might perhaps be any place, but cannot be all places. In fact, says Florida (again with demographics, charts and several lists of “star cities”), a concentrated thriving place causes inequality and eventually undermines the wider society, including the trendy place itself. Whereas 15 years ago Florida celebrated one side of the story, he now concentrates on the downside.  

Housing issues are a big symptom of the downside—including wide disparity in real estate prices, lack of affordable housing, differences in municipal services and persistent discrimination. A thriving part of town, Florida convincingly shows, is not merely adjacent to another part of town. Concentrated urban prosperity contributes to “chronic, concentrated urban poverty…which remains the most troubling issue facing our cities.” 

A handful of new books wail against gentrification. (These books will be considered in a subsequent blog.) Florida, who once was an unabashed proponent of gentrification, admits the obvious: Gentrification displaces the elderly and poor; it pushes them into neighborhoods that already have too much poverty. But “direct displacement of people by gentrification is not as big an issue as it is made out to be,” Florida explains. It is only a part of the inequality problem which unfortunately “is driven by the same economic motor that powers growth.”

Some illnesses cannot be tackled wholesale and head on. A change in behavior, however, gets at the illness indirectly. That is, treat the symptom to attack the bigger cause. Within that framework an affordable housing effort undertaken by the community organization in my own Chicago neighborhood, Southwest Organizing (www.swopchicago.org), might be the solution to global inequality. SWOP’s rehab of vacant structures will, of course, assist those families who move into the apartments. With some interplay among other advocacy groups and interested developers, this neighborhood project could be replicated and thereby somewhat offset the downside of the trendy growth that occurs in other Chicago neighborhoods and with more pinball effect the project could have some global implications.

Moralizing is not productive. A revitalized neighborhood is hardly in itself a bad thing. The best future for West Seventh, for all of St. Paul, for my neighborhood and for all of Chicago requires intense interaction among many imperfect institutions—each calling the others back to their original good purpose and each contributing to thick relationships that minimize each institution’s occasional miscues and shortsighted behavior.  

To be continued with more housing examples…

Droel edits a printed newsletter on faith and work for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Friday, September 8, 2017

Labor Day 2017

There is a nobility in human work, but Labor Day and Catholic Social Teaching is more than just recognizing that fact.

Labor Day is a good time to reflect on Catholic - Social Teaching;  a response to  the horrors of the industrial revolution.[1]    Work is no longer the laborare est orare of a Benedictine Monk (to work is to pray);  work is matter of survival for many and for some alienating.   Pope John Paul II recognized this in his Encyclical on work.[2]   He also stated that labor unions are a necessity.

The Labor Day march is a wonderful experience of celebrating the work and accomplishments of organized labor.

Since it is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 fair housing marches led by Father James Groppi, I asked people about Father Groppi as a labor leader.  Groppi studied at the seminary in Milwaukee where Catholic Social Teaching was emphasized.  One time Seminary director, Rev. Francis Haas, was later named Bishop of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He was an advisor on labor relations to President Roosevelt and civil rights advisor to President Harry S. Truman.  Groppi was also associated with the Milwaukee Cardijn Center that sponsored ‘Labor Schools’ based on Catholic Social Teaching.

  After he was married Groppi became a Milwaukee County bus driver and was elected as the president of the Bus Drivers Union (A.T.U. 998) in Milwaukee.  The election was disputed  and was finally decided by a coin flip.  A former colleague remembers him as “having a broader view than concern about soap in the bathrooms.”  He looked to community problems such as school bus drivers working for low pay and the need to organize them.

   Latino leader, Jesus Salas remembers Groppi as an ally of Latino workers in Milwaukee.  As a priest Groppi marched with Salas to the Allan Bradley plant to advocate the hiring of  minority workers.  Groppi was also supportive of the farm worker movement.

   This year the Labor Day celebration began with a ‘Fight for Fifteen’ rally.  Young African American leaders led the podium speeches which advocated for better wages for low paid workers and a union.  A large contingent marched from Voces de la Frontera, the immigrant worker center.  A friend commented that the only way this country has a future based on democracy and justice depends on the activism of African Americans and Latinos.  Father Groppi would have agreed.

[1] Rerum Novarum, 1891
[2] Laborem Exercens, 1981

Friday, September 1, 2017


 Despite objections children were included in Father James Groppi’s struggle for justice. 

In a book of poems by Margaret Rozga, the poem, Jeannie’s Birthday Gift, speaks of children involved in the marches.  (200 Nights and one day, Benu Press, Hopkins, MN)

Jeannie’s Birthday Gift

It was Jeannie’s birthday.  We
Had a big family dinner before
Going to St. Boniface to march.

She put on her new tee shirt, just
a plain White shirt, but what she wanted
Mom said no, better not, but she begged

and begged ‘til Mom gave in.  She
never could wash out the egg that
splattered all over Jeannie’s back.

Jesus and the children

People even brought little children to him, but when the disciples saw this they turned them away.  But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”  Lk. 18, vs. 15-17  

Why go through the organizing, the confrontation of hate and violence for 200 nights, in the hope of getting a fair housing law?

Matthew Desmond, in his award winning book,  Evicted,* writes:

The home is the center of life. (p. 293.) The United States was founded on the noble idea that people have “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Each of these three unalienable --- so essential to the American character that the founders saw them as God-given----requires a stable home. (p .300.)

And so the march to Lincoln Avenue.

*Matthew Desmond, Evicted, Crown Publishers, New York, 2016

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

More Memories of the ’67 racial conflicts in Milwaukee

Comedian and peace activist Dick Gregory died recently and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted him in reference to the ’67 racial conflicts in Milwaukee:

“There is nothing in America that equals what happened here in Milwaukee,” Gregory said at a 2007 event marking the 40th anniversary of the marches.  “When the rest of the country saw what was going on in Milwaukee, it realized that equality was not an Alabama problem, was not a Mississippi problem.  This is an American problem.” MJ.S. 8-21-17,p. 4C

Comments from two current social activists who were students at Marquette:

One remembers the July 30th to August 2nd confrontation when the National Guard was called out and a curfew imposed on Milwaukee.  He was working at Stouffer’s Restaurant and the restaurant had to close , so he and some friends found a bar that was open.  Former Packer great and hall of famer Johnny Blood McNally was holding court.  When asked about Curly Lambeau, McNally responded, “Asshole!”  Six students found refuge at his Wauwatosa family home during the curfew.  The MU student remembers supporting the marches later that month but not participating.  Students cheered the marchers as they started their march across the bridge.

Another remembers protests in 1966 at the whites-only Eagles Club with a membership that included major politicians and judges.  Protesters were met with taunts and Confederate flags.  He said he was more of an observer than a protester on the marches.  He remembers a young man screaming vile epithets at marchers near Kosciusko Park.  “I went and stood in front of the man face to face.  The man stopped his yelling.” The ‘observer’ commented that when people are part of a crowd they feel free to do and say awful things; when confronted individually they are embarrassed.

A question: Is racism still a dominant attitude in our country? Have we made any progress?  Confederate flags, epithets screamed at protesters – the wave of hate even as transmitted by T.V. is difficult to escape.  Maybe we should shift our concerns to the Packers; will they win the Super Bowl?  

Dick Gregory wrote the Forward to Margaret Roszga’s book of poems, 200 Nights and one day.  Gregory quoted a prayer from antiquity, Psalm 23:

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow o death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

He commented,

This is America. That day was America. And I am blessed to have been there with these freedom fighters as victory was fought for and won.”
200 Nights and one day, Benu Press, p. viii, 2009.