Friday, August 7, 2009

A labor priest in the Deep South

When 86-year-old Monsignor George G. Higgins died on "May Day"--also the day of St. Joseph the Worker--in 2002, many lamented that the day of the "labor priest" had finally passed. No one more embodied that title than Higgins, who fought for the rights of working people for six decades and who never wavered in his belief that "only strong and independent organizations can give employees a genuine say in their economic lives."

Higgins was perhaps the most famous in the long tradition of labor priests in this country. One of the early labor priests was Msgr. John A. Ryan, the Minnesota-bred priest who drafted the U.S. Bishops' 1919 "Program of Social Reconstruction" calling on capitalists to recognize that "the laborer is a human being, not merely an instrument of production." Another was the fiery labor priest of Pittsburgh, Msgr. Charles Owen Rice, who once had this to say in a column: "Mine was a rip-roaring, no-holds-barred denunciation of the steel magnates and the infamy of great wealth."

Hold the obituaries for the labor priesthood, however. I've found one in the most unlikely of places, the Deep South state of Mississippi where I live. Father Jeremy Tobin of the Norbertine priory in the rural woodlands south of Jackson fits the bill as well as any priest I've seen in the past 20 years. I had a lengthy interview with him recently, and I'll be writing a column about him in the coming weeks for Mississippi newspapers. But here is a little preview about the man and his mission:

I knew I had found another link in the Ryan-Rice-Higgins lineage when I attended an United Auto Workers meeting with civil rights and other activists in Jackson several years ago. The UAW was laying the groundwork for an organizing effort at the giant Nissan plant near Jackson. "What we need is action," Father Tobin told the crowd in a rousing speech. "We can make the South a beacon, a light of justice. An auto plant can be an oasis of justice."

The Chicago-born grandson of Irish immigrants who has been fighting for social justice in Mississippi for more than a decade, Tobin divides his time between the contemplative life at the remote priory where he lives and on the frontlines of the many social battles still raging in the poorest state in the nation. He's an activist for the rights of state's growing population of Latino immigrants--many of them undocumented--as well as for African-Americans, whose historical struggle for civil rights continues to this day.

His words were music to this Catholic's ears after watching the rise of Catholic conservatism since the mid-1990s, when Fr. Richard Neuhaus and Watergate figure Chuck Colson joined forces to create a coalition of conservative Catholics and evangelicals. Msgr. Rice saw this kind of coalition coming even earlier. He once declared that the emergence of Catholic Republicanism out of a people of immigrants who had known first-hand suffering and class-based discrimination was "another cross in my old age."

Few states are more conservative than Mississippi--Barack Obama got just 43 percent of the vote in a state whose population is roughly 37 percent African-American-- yet Tobin has never regretted the move. "I liked coming here," he said during my recent interview with him. "Since being here, I've gotten involved with all the causes I was interested in in Chicago. ... I've been very exhilarated to see all the young people so passionate about doing something for the poor." As for workers and unions, he said, "we have to get back to the betterment of working conditions of our low and middle-class workers." Unions themselves have often lost sight of their mission. "Unions have gotten so cozy with management."

Pope Benedict himself recently provided some inspiration for those in the religious life like Fr. Tobin. The pope's recent encyclical, "Veritas in Caritate" ("Truth in Charity") includes a rousing endorsement of labor unions. Here is an excerpt: "Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in representing the interests of workers, partly because governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit their freedom or the negotiating capacity. The repeated calls issued within the church's social doctrine for the promotion of workers' associations must therefore be honored today even more than in the past."

As I said earlier, stay tuned. More to come.

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