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May 1, St. Joseph the Worker: Created when Catholic bishops and America supported the working class

… established in 1955, when workers were vital

As children, we were taught about how St. Joseph, father of Jesus Christ, was a carpenter, a blue collar worker from the lower strata of society. The family never prospered in Nazareth, but he was a hard worker and great role model for his son.

In our small, blue-collar community, he was a great symbol for the working man. As a predominantly-Catholic town in the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up, Joseph was just like the fathers of so many of us as we became young men.

And the Catholic Church, led then by bishops and priests in America who reflected social thought espoused by the church from the time of Jesus, supported that concept.

Then, America changed, and today, the working class is adrift, lacking respect, and yet it cannot understand why.

The feast day

The 1950s were a difficult time. America had just won a war but was now battling against a nefarious system of government that had taken over Eastern Europe and was a threat to human dignity and liberal democracy.

Pope Pius XII stepped in and made clear the support to workers like Joseph around the world,

The year 1955, when Pius XII declared today the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, was not only the height of the Cold War and of Catholic resistance to communism. In the West, it was a time when Keynesianism was establishing solid economic growth and strengthening democracies. Unions not only represented factory workers, but were themselves factories of participatory democracy and social solidarity.

In Europe, postwar Christian democracies were led by Catholics steeped in Catholic social teaching, men like Konrad Adenauer in Germany, Robert Schuman in France and Alcide De Gasperi in Italy. They embraced Keynesian ideas and helped create the European Union.

In America in the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower led a Republican Party that had largely reconciled itself to the New Deal and was unafraid to use government to achieve important societal goals such as the interstate highway system.

Michael Sean Winters, “Struggle against neoliberalism united Catholic Church and organized labor,” National Catholic Reporter, April 29, 2023

At that time, the Catholic Church loved the working class like that of St. Joseph, his wife, Mary, and their son, Jesus.

Today, the American Catholic hierarchy links itself to the 21st Century money changers in the temples instead of the working man.

What happened to the church — and to America?

Two years are instrumental in that change: 1978 and 1980. In 1978, somehow, a pope who could have led the church into happy days was found dead, and a man who looked on human beings as being born as sinners and never repenting took over the church.

While coming from a communistic Poland that had lost its working class, JPII related more to the wealthy money changers than to the carpenters, bricklayers, coal miners, steel workers, and other blue collar workers.

In 1980, a fallen-away Catholic named Ronald Reagan was elected president, and the working class in America has never recovered.

The relationship between the church and organized labor in this country was strong in the 1950s, and so far from being reactionary, it was even visionary.

Labor leaders could quote Catholic social teaching chapter and verse. The relationship atrophied a bit during the '80s and '90s as the bishops' public witness increasingly focused on social issues ….

To take control of the political economy of a nation, the first target is always the trade union movement. They knew they had to smash unions, not co-opt them. "Trade unions were the political power behind the rise of Keynesian social democracy," Silvers said. He pointed to the role of Reagan's breaking the air traffic controllers' strike early in his first term and Margaret Thatcher's refusal to negotiate with striking miners in 1984 in the United Kingdom as key moments when organized labor was attacked by neoliberal politicians.

Michael Sean Winters, National Catholic Reporter, April 29, 2023

The “Idolatry of markets”

Somehow, JPII and his successor as pope were more interested in the bottom line of the church and not in its working class base. They became culture warriors and ignored Catholic social teachings, appointing those same-minded bishops in the U.S. who now ignore the workers.

They are calling these people neoliberals in America. In the church, they are un-Christian to forget the struggles that Joseph’s family underwent while trying to make a living on a carpenter’s salary. In the U.S., unions provided a backbone for the workers, giving them good wages, healthcare, and a pension.

In postwar WWII, workers achieved that through the blood and sweat of unions. Then Reagan and Republicans came in a demonized unions and workers, and now they are in a financial and social desert.

Ironically, many workers have gone over to the Republicans, who have never done anything for the working class.

Pope Francis has tried to change that thinking and has criticized the godlessness of the free-market economy, but has struggled in the U.S. with the bishops who worry more about corporations’ bottom lines than on the plight of the workers,

"The Holy Father's emphasis in Laudato Si' on the ways in which both the crisis of climate change and the crisis of global poverty arise out of an idolatry of markets is really a critique of neoliberalism as a global system. In these lectures I hope to expand on those points and also to explore the paradox of libertarianism — that it leads to and is intertwined with authoritarianism."

As Catholics and as Americans, we need to pay attention to that paradox and do everything we can to hasten the end of neoliberalism and restore the kind of postwar political economy that brought widespread prosperity and governments capable of addressing the problems and the challenges of our time. In most, but not all, areas of public policy, President Joe Biden has been restoring the values of solidarity, the common good and human dignity to our politics.

Catholic social teaching and its secular sibling, Keynesianism, are not perfect, but they are the best forms of political economy we have ever seen in the West. Finding new, creative ways to strengthen public power can only help poorer countries in the Global South resist the power of multinational corporations that so often rape their economies.

Michael Sean Winters, NCR, April 29, 2023

No, this is not “socialism” as so many conservatives like to label it. If is freedom and democracy and Christianity that at one time, allowed workers to succeed on every level.

Poor St. Joseph: His plight is forgotten by so many who call themselves Christian but forget about the plight of him and his family in the early years.

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