Between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s, the federal government finally recognized the claims of African Americans to their full rights under the Constitution as ratified and amended. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were great and historic achievements, significant steps toward righting old wrongs. But in that same period, American politics began to backtrack on the promises made to earlier generations regarding the economic stability necessary to achieving full equality. Over the past 40 years, we have systematically dismantled many aspects of the social order that had enabled the rapid assimilation and ascent to wealth of the previous generation of white immigrants. With organized labor undermined, public schools systematically underfunded, homeownership further and further out of reach, and voting rights under sustained assault, many of the very gains that once helped ensure social mobility to the children and grandchildren of white European Catholic immigrants have been reversed.
Christians should care for the poor and vulnerable because doing so is at the heart of the Christian call. But somehow that call often seems to carry less weight than it should in the public arena. We often feel free to reject politics that would uplift the poorest because we don’t owe anything of what we’ve worked hard for to fellow citizens we imagine as working less hard. This is perhaps why Trump was able to win a majority of Catholic votes.
But the history of 20th-century white Catholics in America suggests that this bootstraps story is not historical. The social mobility of the Catholic immigrants of yesteryear was a result of hard work, courage and perseverance — but it was also the result of vast public investment, government subsidy and the advantage many Catholics had because they were white. At the very least, this reality of white Catholic history should call contemporary white Catholics to support levels of investment, support and trust in our fellow citizens at least as generous as those that led many of us to where we are. Rather than reinventing a mythical past about self-reliance, it’s time to pay it forward.