I happened to be browsing Will Herberg’s classic Protestant, Catholic, Jew the other week, and this passage caught my attention:

The remarkable combination of discipline and diversity with which the Catholic Church conducts its work has always been a source of bafflement to the outsider. “Rome remains an enigma in theology and in politics,” confesses the Protestant church historian F.E. Mayer. “The Roman Church is the most dogmatic and at the same time the least doctrinal church. There is a fixed dogmatic limit, but within this limit there is room for divergent and often contradictory opinions. … There is probably no church which has the capacity for harboring so many widely divergent points of view as the Roman Church.”

“The Catholic press,” Herberg notes, “varies all the way from super-nationalistic publications with strong isolationist leanings to such a paper as The Catholic Worker, the exponent of semi-anarchistic Christian pacifism.”

This capaciousness is worth keeping in mind when reading about flaps like the one surrounding the pope’s recent “Who am I to judge?” remarks. A few commentators hastily assumed the pope’s words signaled a change in doctrine regarding homosexual clergy. Rather more seemed surprised even to hear the way Francis spoke, as if an attitude as well as a theology could be assumed as definitively Catholic or papal. What Herberg quoted from Mayer is correct: Catholic consistency can take forms that look bafflingly diverse to the outsider.

I suspect the misunderstanding here is rooted in different conceptions of authority: an Old World view understands that an authority remains legitimate even if its expression under a particular pope or king (for example) changes. The same authority may underlie a plethora of styles and nuances. A New World, rather Protestant and Lockean view of authority holds that legitimacy is a function is consistent representation. An unbreathing abstraction like “the people” or “the faithful” can be attributed a uniformity that no series of specific human beings in time and space can ever possess. Catholic dogma couldn’t endure as long as it has, safeguarded by an equally long-lasting institution, if that institution weren’t as personally spacious as it is.

At the time he wrote (1955), Herberg did find something consistent about American Catholicism that he could analyze, however: namely, its attitude toward labor and capital.

The Catholic Church has remained, by and large, pro-labor and has shown a deep concern for retaining the allegiance of its working people. It very early adopted the approach later formulated by Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno (1931)—‘The first and immediate apostles to the working man must themselves be working men’—and it could follow this injunction, where American Protestantism could not, because so many of its clergy and lay leaders were themselves of working-class origin and background.


But that’s changed over the last half-century, and indeed even at the time Herberg wrote he observed that Catholicism was being homogenized into mainstream American culture. What had once been a highly suspect “foreign” religion had come to be considered by the 1950s one of the country’s three great faiths—alongside Protestantism and Judaism—and differences among Catholics (between Irish and Italians and Germans and French) were wearing away.

The consequences of Catholicism taking on an all-American classlessness have not been altogether salutary. I’ve thought for a while now that one of the chief contributors to the decline of the American working class—to its economic stagnation and family disintegration—has been the loss of working-class institutions, not only private-sector labor unions but also churches with a strong community character. These institutions not only represent labor before the other great interests of the nation (however imperfectly), but more importantly they provide lines of authority within the working class itself—and examples of how to live according to the ethos of a class.

Without such structural reinforcement, the family itself is easily dismantled, and the capital accumulation that comes with strong families dissipates, leading to further economic hardship: a vicious circle. The political profile of the Catholic Church in America today, however, is tied less to economics than to controversies about bourgeois sexuality, and for all that these seem to be important moral battles, they may well be secondary as far as the integrity of the working-class family is concerned.

Moral codes are strongly class-correlated, and while America has always had pretensions of being a classless society, today the working class really has been stripped of organizational expression, which has led to moral disorganization.

Amid all this, it’s interesting to note that Pope Francis is thought—rightly or wrongly—to be a more working-class-minded pontiff than his recent predecessors. The success of this pope in strengthening Christian morality may well depend more on restoring an organized consciousness to labor than on reading from the script that culture warriors left and right have assigned to him.