Why the Church Lost the White Working Class

By Peter Wolfgang Published on April 10, 2017

Maggie Gallagher thinks the white working class is “dying of despair.” They face “a crisis of meaning” brought on by “a church gap” — less-educated whites no longer attend at the same rate as the college-educated — and a decline in patriotism. Maggie blames the latter on anti-white political correctness. She fingers no culprit for the former.

I wonder to what extent the Catholic Church herself bears responsibility for the loss of her working class.I’m writing as a Catholic, but other churches have this same problem. From its beginnings, Catholicism has been a church of and for the working class. It started with a carpenter and some fishermen. A Church that cannot reach the working class is a church that is not fulfilling a key part of its mission. It’s also a Church that’s missing a crucial part of the body.

His name was Louis. He approached me one night after a workshop against assisted suicide. An electrician and a union man, he wanted me to know that the push for assisted suicide is driven by a desire to control costs, that big business in particular only views human beings as numbers.

He looked the part of a manual laborer, a big guy, tough. He and his dad before him had been the union delegate to the New York City transit authority. He was from Staten Island and new to Connecticut.

He and his wife had adopted a special needs child, he told me — here his eyes turned red and he almost started to cry — and he was concerned about a society that doesn’t value his son. He spoke with feeling about how much his son loves the children’s shows on EWTN. He discussed with me a plan he has to reach other working Catholics via men’s barbershops.

He told me he may not be long for Connecticut. He and his wife wanted to move to Maine because it has the best mental health services for his son. As we parted company it occurred to me that I don’t see his kind anymore, a union man whose Catholic faith comes first. He was like something out of an old Dorothy Day Catholic Worker article.

Did the Church cause the “church gap” and encourage the “crisis of meaning”? I suspect so. Let me explain.

The Lost Working Class

We had a special Mass at my parish last Sunday to bid farewell to a dynamic young priest who had been transferred to another parish. At the reception afterwards, I spoke with one of the Knights of Columbus honor guards, still wearing his tux. I was struck by how unusual such conversations are in Catholic settings.

Jim is 50 years old, sports a triangular white-grey beard down to his clavicle, and has a gravelly Wolfman Jack-like voice. He worked most of his adult life for Davenport Screw Machines, but was laid off when the Great Recession hit. He found part-time work delivering Meals on Wheels but developed two herniated discs in his back. He couldn’t get workman’s comp, so he’s struggling.

Jim claims his industry has picked up since Donald Trump was elected. He says there is a new hopefulness and Davenport has been in touch about possibly hiring him back. Jim never married and has no kids.

Guys like Jim are not unusual. What was unusual was seeing him in church and seeing him so involved. I do come across guys like Jim once in a while, but rarely. The Catholic Church of that opening scene in the 1940s movie Going My Way, when all the manual laborers stick their heads out of tenement windows to welcome the new priest to the parish  — that Catholic Church has disappeared.

The study cited by Maggie Gallagher documents their decline in church attendance and suggests some reasons for it. The scholars argue that “the erosion of the labor market and cultural structures associated with the bourgeois and familistic moral logics in American life.” In other words, fewer economic prospects and the loss of the importance of marriage in society both encouraged a way of life in which the Church has little place or use.

Upper-Middle Class Snobbery

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful thing when a Harvard law professor converts to Catholicism. But I wonder why the Church tends mostly to attract guys like that? Is 21st century Catholicism becoming mostly a church for eggheads?

I think of two blue collar friends of mine. Both of them are very committed to the faith but alienated by what they see as its upper-middle class snobbery. It’s gotten too suburban for them.

One is exceedingly well-read. He attends high-level seminars advertised in Catholic publications. He corresponds with some of the nation’s top Catholic intellectuals. Yet he feels, or is made to feel, out of place at those events, because he doesn’t have the right educational pedigree. He says it sometimes seems like those intellectuals disdain their own base.

My other friend, an older man, joined a Catholic apostolate (ministry) in the 80s when, he said, it was run by tough guy WWII-veterans. He feels out of place in it now because it’s been taken over by eggheads. “I can’t understand what they’re saying half the time,” he tells me. They bore him.

People with more knowledge of the history than me can speak of the effects of the post-Vatican II era. Removing all the statues and other appeals to the senses and making Catholicism a respectable suburbanized thing lost the working class. That’s an old story.

What interests me is where we are now and how do we get back working class white Catholics . It interests me for the sake of their souls, of course. But it also interests me for the things Maggie is writing about. They are dying of despair. They need the Church. And the Church needs them too.

 

Attorney Peter Wolfgang is president of the Family Institute of Connecticut, a Hartford-based advocacy organization whose mission is to encourage and strengthen the family as the foundation of society. Follow him at Twitter.com/Peter_Wolfgang.

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