The institutions had drifted apart in recent years, but Francis' new direction has brought them back together.
On Tuesday morning, as they have been doing on occasion for years now, low-wage workers from federal facilities in Washington — and scores of blue-shirted supporters — gathered with loud, stenciled signs to protest how little they’re paid to toil in the gilded halls of government.
This time, however, they protested in new surroundings: a church. One after another, religious leaders of all faiths sermonized next to a home-made altar with Pope Francis’s image on the front, along with people carrying beatified images of Cesar Chavez, Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
“Remind all low-wage workers who are janitors and cooks at the U.S. Capitol and other federal buildings that they are not suffering alone as they seek to attain dignity and living wages!” prayed one robed speaker, from his pulpit a block from the Capitol. “Bless their struggle for justice and work so that they may provide for their families.”
In recent years, however, the relationship has faded. As U.S. Catholics grew wealthier, they felt less of a need to make common cause with the labor movement. Through the 1990s and 2000s, many dioceses became distracted by sexual abuse scandals, and unions had their own problems with corruption and loss of membership. Meanwhile, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II deemphasized the Church’s economic message in favor of social issues like abortion and gay marriage, where common ground with the labor movement is harder to find.
“One of the challenges, frankly, is labor has to decide who its allies are,” says John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. “If the labor movement is simply another faction in a movement that begins with culture issues and eventually gets to gets to workers, that’s going to be a hard bridge to build. If the labor movement looks to the Catholic community as an ally in standing up for workers, that’s a bridge you can build.”
From the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis started sending a clear message to labor groups that the church would be an ally. His speeches often dwell on the rise of income inequality and the dignity of work, and he’s spoken of the need for safe workplaces where people are paid fair wages — not just alms for the poor, as predecessors often emphasized.
“It’s not anything new in terms of what he’s saying,” says Rudy Lopez, director of Interfaith Worker Justice, which helped organize the protest and march on Tuesday morning. “What’s new is the position he’s giving it. The church for the first time is really looking at it in a different way.”