success stories

The Great Monsignor

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, May 7, 2002; Page A21

There is no such thing as a timely death. But just when you thought all the stories on American priests were destined to be about evil committed and covered up, one of the truly great priests was called to his eternal reward.

Monsignor George G. Higgins was the sort of Catholic clergyman regularly cast as a hero in movies of the 1940s and '50s. He was an uncompromising pro-labor priest who walked picket lines, fought anti-Semitism, supported civil rights and wrote and wrote and wrote in the hope that some of his arguments about social justice might penetrate somewhere.

He got attached to causes before they became fashionable, and stuck with them after the fashionable people moved on. Cesar Chavez once said that no one had done more for American farm workers than Monsignor Higgins. In the 1980s, he traveled regularly to Poland in support of Solidarity's struggle against communism and became an important link between American union leaders and their Polish brethren.

As it happens, even the day of Monsignor Higgins's death, at the age of 86, was appropriate. He passed from this world on May 1, the day that many countries set aside to honor labor and that the Catholic Church designates as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

If Higgins had been there when that famous carpenter was looking for a place to spend the night with his pregnant wife, the monsignor would certainly have taken the family in. He would also have handed Joseph a union card, told him he deserved better pay and benefits, and insisted that no working person should ever have to beg for shelter.

Yes, Higgins sounds so old-fashioned -- and in every good sense he was -- that you might wonder about his relevance to our moment. Let us count the ways.

One of the most astonishing and disturbing aspects of the Catholic Church's current scandal is the profound disjunction -- that's a charitable word -- between what the church preaches about sexuality and compassion toward the young and how its leaders reacted to the flagrant violation of these norms by priests.

Higgins, who spent decades as the Catholic Church's point man on labor and social-justice issues, hated the idea of preachers' exhorting people to do one thing and then doing the opposite. And so he made himself into a true pain for any administrator of any Catholic institution who resisted the demands of workers for fair pay and union representation.

"These men and women mop the floors of Catholic schools, work in Catholic hospital kitchens and perform other sometimes menial tasks in various institutions," he once wrote. "They have not volunteered to serve the church for less than proportionate compensation."

"The church has a long history of speaking out on justice and peace issues," he said. "Yet only in more recent times has the church made it clear that these teachings apply as well to the workings of its own institutions."

Where some religious leaders complain that they get caught up in scandal because they are unfairly held to higher standards, Higgins believed that higher standards were exactly the calling of those who claim the authority to tell others what to do.

It bothered Higgins to the end of his life that the cause of trade unionism had become so unfashionable, especially among well-educated and well-paid elites. For 56 years, he wrote a column for the Catholic press, and he returned to union issues so often that he once felt obligated to headline one of his offerings: "Why There's So Much Ado About Labor in My Column."

His answer was simple: "I am convinced that we are not likely to have a fully free or democratic society over the long haul without a strong and effective labor movement."

To those who saw collective bargaining as outdated in a new economy involving choice, mobility and entrepreneurship, Higgins would thunder back about the rights of those for whom such a glittering world was still, at best, a distant possibility: hospital workers, farm workers, fast-food workers and others who need higher wages to help their children reach their dreams. He could not abide well-paid intellectuals who regularly derided unions as dinosaurs, and he told them so, over and over.

It is one of the highest callings of spiritual leaders to force those who live happy and comfortable lives to consider their obligations to those heavily burdened by injustice and deprivation. It is a great loss when such prophetic voices are stilled by scandal and the cynicism it breeds. Fortunately, that never happened to Higgins. He never had to shut up about injustice and, God bless him, he never did.