The Passion of César Chávez

The Catholic community in America is at present politically adrift.  In this presidential election year, candidates continue to strategize over how to win the Catholic vote despite any number of studies that continue to reveal that there is no Catholic vote.  Catholics run the rather narrow American gamut from liberalism to conservatism, in percentages that reflect the roughly 50/50 split of the general U.S. electorate.  The HHS mandate on contraception, the most blatant political assault on the Catholic Church since the rise of the public education system, has failed to rally Catholics into a united political front.  Even worse, the American bishops who have heroically opposed the mandate have as yet been unable to find any distinctively Catholic way of addressing the problem.  It is one thing to invoke the constitutional protection of religious liberty; it is another thing entirely to present oneself as doing no more than defending the U.S. Constitution.  The development of an authentic Catholic politics in a pluralist society requires an ability to speak a common language with non-Catholics even as one tries to lead them beyond the lowest common denominator to a fuller understanding of a distinctly Catholic position open to people of good will.  For all of its heroism, the pro-life movement has failed to accomplish this essential rhetorical task.

The last Catholic in America to achieve this cultural/political synthesis was César Chávez.

Chávez was a labor leader who organized a union to secure decent wages and working conditions for the largely Mexican and Mexican-American agricultural workers of California in the 1960s. At the peak of his influence, he rivaled Martin Luther King as a national spokesman for social justice.  No number of well-intentioned film strips with cartoon pictures of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy could disguise the fact that King was a Baptist minister from the South; as a Catholic school boy in the 1970s, I was taught to see Chávez as a kind of Catholic MLK, a great national figure that we could call our own.  Sadly, he is now largely a forgotten figure even among self-styled “progressive” Catholics, who have never been able to overcome the language barrier presented by Chávez’s Spanish-speaking world and who, despite sentimental posturing, have largely followed the liberal mainstream in abandoning the old Catholic commitment to labor justice in favor of an emphasis on issues of race, gender and sexuality.  The secular Left, in turn, has long had trouble with Chávez precisely because he was an orthodox Catholic and refused to allow his movement to be co-opted by Marxist ideology or the neo-pagan identity politics of the Chicano movement.

Chávez was born on March 31, 1927 in Yuma, Arizona.  His parents operated a small grocery store and supplemented income from the store by farming a small plot of land.  They lost all their property in the Depression and were forced to take up the life of migrant farmers in California.  This was a time of tremendous labor unrest among agricultural workers in California; in addition to the class oppression immortalized by John Steinbeck’s account of Okie migrants in Grapes of Wrath, Chávez faced the additional challenge of having brown skin and speaking Spanish.  World War II provided a temporary escape, as Chávez joined the Navy in 1944, but by 1946 he had returned to civilian life—and migrant farming.  Like many returning soldiers, he soon married.  He and his wife Helen (Fabela) did their part to contribute to the postwar Baby Boom, having four children between the years 1949 and 1952, and four more in the years that followed.

A stable marriage and a large family mark the limit of the Chávez’s participation in the postwar American consensus.  When not traveling for agricultural labor, Chávez and his family lived in a section of San Jose call Sal Si Puedes, meaning “get out if you can.”  In San Jose, Chávez came under the mentorship of an Irish-American priest, Father Donald McDonnell, who introduced Chávez to the social encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII and Pius XI.  Despite the range of challenges presented by the urban poverty of San Jose, it was the papal endorsement of labor unions that fired the political imagination of the young Chávez.  The cooperation of McDonnell and Chávez followed in the line of the great lay-clerical alliances of the labor movement of the 1930s, such as Charles Owen Rice and Philip Murray among steelworkers in Pittsburgh.  Yet from the very start, there was a distinctively Mexican cultural difference to Chávez’s labor activism.  Father McDonnell had built a mission church in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and la Guadalupana would serve as the patron saint of Chávez’s movement.  Images of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe would remain a constant visual presence in marches and strikes that followed Chávez’s initial politicization under McDonnell.

In 1962, Chávez organized the Farm Workers Association (FWA) as a self-help organization to assist farm workers struggling with low wages, poor housing and working conditions, and general hostile treatment from the grape growers of central California.  By 1964, the organization had successfully formed a credit union, but Chavez’s ultimate goal was for the FWA to secure recognition as a union representing farm workers in collective bargaining negotiations with the grape growers and other agribusiness interests of California.  Opposition to unionization was strong among the growers, and agricultural workers remained in an ambiguous relation to the federal labor laws guaranteeing American industrial workers the right to collective bargaining. In the mid-1960s, the Civil Rights activism of Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty inspired Chávez with hope for positive change in the situation of Mexican American farm workers.  Although in tune with national events, Chávez would root his politics in distinctly Catholic ideas and practices.  King had his march to Selma; Chávez would make his pilgrimage to Sacramento.

In 1965, Chávez had helped to organize a strike on the part of agricultural workers in California.  The growers responded with the usual tactic of bringing in strike-breaking, scab labor from other regions of California and Mexico. Chávez knew how this tactic often led to violent confrontations that only discredited striking workers.  Committed to non-violence yet thwarted at the point of production, he sought to challenge the growers at the point of consumption through a national boycott of table grapes (the tactic of the boycott itself has origins in the struggle of Catholic tenant farmers against Protestant landlords in Ireland). Still, Chávez believed that his cause needed something more than material tactics, but rather some symbolic action to call attention to the deeper spiritual values at stake.  To this end, he organized a pilgrimage from Delano, a town at the center of California’s grape growing region, to the state capitol of Sacramento to demand government support for the struggle of the farm workers against the growers.  In his “Plan of Delano,” Chávez spoke of the desire for social justice, but deflected the impulse toward righteous indignation by describing the “Pilgrimage to the capital of the State in Sacramento” as an act of “penance for all the failings of Farm Workers.”  With a Catholic understanding of the sacredness of place and time, Chávez chose a route that carried his pilgrims on the “very same road . . . the Mexican race has sacrificed itself for the last hundred years. . . .This Pilgrimage is a witness to the suffering we have seen for generations.”  The Pilgrimage was timed, moreover, to arrive in Sacramento on Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection.

Chávez’s selection of symbols reflected his awareness that while speaking for a largely Mexican Catholic constituency, was also trying to speak to a broader American public.  His “Plan of Delano” reflects a proper ordering of these symbolic allegiances:

We seek, and have, the support of the Church in what we do.  At the head of the Pilgrimage we carry LA VIRGEN DE LA GUADALUPE . . . because she is ours, all  ours, Patroness of the Mexican people.  We also carry the Sacred Cross and the Star of  David because we are not sectarians, and because we ask the help and prayers of all religions.
All men are brothers—sons of the same God; that is why we say to all men of   good will, in the words of Pope Leo XIII, “Everyone’s first duty is to protect the workers from the greed of speculators who use human beings as instruments to provide   themselves with money.  It is neither just nor human to oppress men with excessive  work to the point where their minds become enfeebled and their bodies worn out.”  GOD SHALL NOT ABANDON US.

The symbolic politics of the Pilgrimage dramatized the dignity and plight of the farm workers to the point that one of the major grape growers, Schenley Industries, agreed to negotiate a contract with Chávez’s union.

This victory was short-lived, as another corporate giant grower, Di Giorgio, used the Teamsters to try to take control of the union so as to serve corporate interests.  By 1968, this conflict once again threatened to introduce violence into the movement.  In response, he undertook a fast to call himself and his followers back to the spiritual roots of their struggle.  Though most associated at the time with the activism of Gandhi, fasting of course has a long tradition in Christian spirituality as well.  Chávez insisted that he did not use the fast as a pressure tactic so much as an act of spiritual discipline, an effort to see the world more clearly.  He conducted the fast in a small storage room in a service station, which he called his “monastic cell.”  He surrounded himself with images of the saints and Our Lady of Guadalupe, and lived only on the Eucharist.  These religious practices alienated many of his secular followers, but earned him a visit from no less a public Catholic than Robert Kennedy, who was soon to announce his candidacy for the presidency.  On March 11, 1968, Chávez broke his fast by breaking bread with Kennedy.

The next few months would see the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.  As two dreams died, Chávez continued his struggle.  By 1970, he had secured favorable agreements with a majority of the grape growers in California.  After five years, the grape strike and boycott ended in success.

This was hardly the end of the fight for Chávez.  Grape growers continued to use the Teamsters to muscle in on Chávez’s union, while the late 1970s and 1980s saw a general decline in organized labor across America.  Some within the movement criticized what they perceived to be his increasingly authoritarian manner, yet Chávez remained true to his principles to the end.  That end came, fittingly, as a result of yet another fast he undertook in connection with yet another labor battle.  In April of 1993, he traveled to Arizona to assist workers battling a lawsuit brought by a lettuce grower.  Despite the objections of many of his supporters concerned for his health, he subjected himself to a fast.  His followers finally prevailed upon him to break the fast.  A few days later, he died in his sleep. May his memory not die in ours.

Christopher Shannon


Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996) and, most recently, Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010).

  • Glenn Willard

    Dr. Shannon: Having two children who graduated from Christendom and another who is a freshman, I was encouraged to see a faculty member provide this biographical picture of Catholic Social Doctrine.   As your article demonstrates, Chavez (and CSD) transcends the false choices between the ideological right and left into which Catholics frequently accept as the only possible alternatives.   And as you mention,  the “pro-life movement has failed to accomplish this essential rhetorical task” of reaching people of good will.  This failure, in my opinion, is because the pro-life message is not an integral part of CSD, but has been unnaturally grafted on to the poisonous tree of economic liberalism.  Thank you for your article.   I hope Crisis can do more along these lines.

    • tedseeber

      Only the Protestant version of pro-life is not a part of CSD. For the Catholic version- Who is more the poor, than a child utterly dependent for food and oxygen on a parent? Who is more deserving of protection than the unborn child in the womb? Catholics are pro-life BECAUSE of CSD- because every human being is valuable and deserves to be cherished from conception until natural death.

  • Michael Ferguson

    Dr. Shannon,

    I find this to be an interesting piece. But I’m still not sure how you fit Chavez entirely in our tradition, when you consider things like Chavez’s call to vegetarianism, or that his fasts were not fasts for spiritual gains in themselves, but for more ambiguous things. 

    Don’t get me wrong; I think the modern “conservative” movement has adopted an anti-Catholic rhetoric and approach to the social questions, and would happily throw out or ignore Leo XIII, Pius XI, and so on. But, if Chavez was a vegetarian, allegedly saying, ““I became a vegetarian after realizing that animals feel afraid, cold, hungry and unhappy like we do. I feel very deeply about vegetarianism and the animal kingdom. It was my dog Boycott who led me to question the right of humans to eat other sentient beings.” (source: then how can we place him in our tradition? This seems to be a man who, in the end, was very mistaken about rights, what they are, who has them, etc. Thoughts?

  • Rick Cross

    I think Shannon’s article is a bit rosey. I worked as a day laborer in the picking sheds during my college years over summer harvest on the industrial farms in the San Joaquin Valley north of Bakersfield California from 1972 – 1975. I saw Chavez’s union “organizing” up close and personal rather late in the game and was struck by its intimidating tactics. First of all, there were ordinary hispanic families from the Delano area who hated Chavez. His organizing actions were perceived by many to be fearsome and divisive. A lot of folks felt trapped in a fight not of their own making. Chavez’s organizers would sometimes position themselves outside election booths during union elections, some  packed revolvers. Amongst a large percentage of the workers I knew –anglo and mexican alike– there was fear of both UFW and Teamster organizers. Ironically, Chavez’s organizers were supporters of very strict border controls, because it kept control of the influx of “illegals” who would be scooped up by the harvest crews–which kept a lot of families from unifying.  Chavez’s organizers would demonize the “tex-mex”  since the influx of migrants for the other border states of Arizona and Texas complicated UFW organizing. Curiously, there was a time when the promotional television shows that helped Chavez politically were funded by Zero Population Growth, a group related to Planned Parenthood. In sum, Chavez was no saint. On measure he might of been better than the Teamsters or the growers, but he ran a scary operation with some shady funders. 

    • Nick_from_Detroit

      Mr. Cross,

      Thank you, for an insider’s perspective.

      Anyone who would fast so long that it resulted in death, is no saint.
      And, Mr. Shannon’s use of the term “scab labor” is offensive.

      • DfromDetroittoo

        Cesar Chavez was a practicing Catholic, evident to anyone who seriously studies his life. He began his mornings with prayer until the day he died. Followers are not always true to a leaders’ call for peace towards justice and he was man of peace.  I take issue with ‘many grape growers of California were and are good Catholic and Christian families”.  Maybe some, but not enough of them.  There is also arrogance and racism among “good Catholics”.  All one needs to do is study the lives of the saints, many who were victims of both even from very “good Catholics” who were their brothers and sisters in the Lord. President Lincoln once quoted the Bible, “A house divided against itself cannot stand..”, relevent to the issue of unity. BTW Lincoln was against slavery, yet he also said “I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social or political equality of the right and black races…there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” I throw that in to say that people are complex creatures. Don’t put Chavez in a box. He did a lot of good, and his intentions were good as did many imperfect people, like Lincoln. The issues faced in Chavez’s day were serious  and valid concerns, such as fair wages and dangerous pesticides. My mother picked cherries when she was a little girl and, not knowing any better she would eat a few even though they had white film on the skins. Sometimes the fields were sprayed with toxic pesticides while the migrant workers were working the fields. We could go back and forth on personal experience. Doing so sidesteps the issue at hand and I think Dr. Shannon’s main point should not be missed, one being the need for Catholics to unite. To quote Mt. Storch “Until American Catholics care more about being Catholic than about being conservative or liberal or American, we will have no influence….”
        To Shephardmaxx: Look up St. Elizabeth Ann Seton for starters, a family favorite. BTW: The University of Michigan was founded by Catholics! As were many colleges, in fact the idea of universities were started by Catholics.

        Nick_from_Detroit: Many saints did die from their strict and severe penances, study and discover. And it may be that Chavez was not a saint, but can you read a man’s heart? And yet, it’s not about grapes, or Chavez. or “good christian famers”. It’s about the future of this country, we christians seem to be losing ground on marriage, abortion, eugenics, stem cell research, etc.
        Dr. Shannon: Thank you for raising the serious issue regarding the failure of American Catholics to unite and create an effective political front. As you can see from the comments, we have a long way to go.

        • DfromDetroittoo

          typo. It should have read “….the white and and black races..” quoting President Lincoln

        • Nick_from_Detroit


          Practicing Catholic? San Fran Gran Nan Pelosi claims to be a “practicing” Catholic, too. So, what does it mean, really? One is either a Catholic, and believes everything that the Church teaches, or, one is not a Catholic.

          “Many saints did die from their strict and severe penances […].”

          By all means, name some and I will look them up.
          And, I am not judging Chavez’s heart. I’m not claiming that the man was evil. I just don’t have any respect for unions or their organizers, based on their long, disgraceful histories.
          God Bless!

          • DfromDetroittoo

            Nick: For starters: (And you should be doing your own research if you really want to know)

            St. Jerome: “The aged Jerome soon fell ill, and after lingering for two years succumbed. Worn with penance and excessive labor, his sight and voice almost gone, his body like a shadow, he died peacefully on September 30, 420..”
            Because you have so much objection to Dororthy Day I think this is a good one:
             St. Margaret of Cortona: “At the age of 17 she met a young man, named Arsenio according to some accounts, the son of Gugliemo di Pecora, lord of Valiano. She ran away with him. For ten years she lived with him in his house near Montepulciano and bore him a son. She wanted to marry him as he had promised, but he refused.
            ……. She fasted, avoided meat, and subsisted on bread and vegetables….. she died on February 22, 1297, having spent twenty-nine years performing acts of penance.”

            Pelosi, Kathleen Sebelius, Jennifer Granholm, none of these people are faithful to church teaching in regards to contraception, abortion etc. Chavez was not a pro-abort, nor did he fight for issues that are against church teaching.

            I am a homeschooling mom with several children so I don’t have anymore time to invest in this discussion. And you’re asking me silly questions like naming saints when you could look it up yourself if you were truely interested. I’ve made it clear that you are unfair with your critism towards a man who did much for the migrant worker. You may know some things about unions but you don’t know Chavez and I bet you never studied and researched the man.
            What I care about most is for Catholics to unite and push forward on the political front. The Catholic vote is infuential, yet we are divided. We even vote in liberal politicians! 
            Nick, may the Lord bless you and keep you, may his face shine upon you and give you peace.

      • DfromDetroittoo

        Chavez died from “Natural causes”. He had dinner at 9pm the night he died.

    • poetcomic1

         When I lived in Stockton, CA in 1970-1, if you needed some bucks right away you could catch the picker’s buses before dawn and do a damned hard days work.  Come home with some ready cash.  It reminds me of the ‘restaurant workers union’ in NYC that a bunch of college kid commies tried to organize for dishwashers and the like. Who wants to be a ‘proud lifetime dishwasher’  Some jobs should always be there, maybe not paying much but easy to get in and out of.   One thing I will say about Chavez – he REALLY hated Mexican scab labor and the illegals busting his union.

  • Nick_from_Detroit

    All unions are corrupt and marxist, which is redundant.
    Chavez’s memory can’t fade fast enough.

  • Chris Shannon

    Dear Readers,

    I would first of all like to thank those who took the time to respond to this all-too-brief account of Chavez’s life as a Catholic activist.  I did not intend in any way to present this account as comprehensive, but rather to recover a Catholic political language that has all but disappeared in American Catholicism.  I thank Mr. Willard for appreciating the modest goals of this profile, and I too hope that Crisis will publish more essays that remind us how a true Catholic politics simply does not fit into the false alternatives presented by contemporary liberalism and conservatism. 

    That being said, Chavez is a very complex figure who was engaged in a violent war for survival, and is open to criticism on many fronts.  Those who think this an inevitable consequence of his labor organizing might want to look at some of Blessed Cardinal Newman’s historical accounts of the Church of the Fathers.  There you will find many ugly accounts of subsequently canonized saints at each others’ throats.

    On the issue of vegetarianism, the quotes cited by Mr. Ferguson show Chavez not immune from the excessive rights talk of his age.  There are, however, very good Catholic reasons to be vegetarian–just ask the Benedictines.  The New Age associations of vegetarianism today have certainly given it a bad name, but that is no reason to reject it as a legitimate spiritual discipline.

    The other comments so far–from Nick-from-Detroit and Rick Cross–present a different kind of challenge.  To Nick I would say that in rejecting all unions he is definitely out of step with every pope since Leo XIII.  The tendency of some Catholics to continue to see the Church’s social teachings as merely prudential or optional is one of the major causes of divisions in the Church today (the other cause being the tendency of certain Catholics to view the Church’s teaching on sexual love and marriage as optional).  At the very least I would hope that Nick is aware that a union–Poland’s Solidarity movement–helped to bring down the Soviet Union.

    Rick raises more serious issues.  There is no doubt that Chavez made many enemies among the workers he tired to serve.  The problems he encountered are endemic to labor organizing throughout the industrial era.  Most people simply want to survive and are fearful of losing the little they have if they take the risk of joining a union.  Others who desire something more in line with principles of justice are willing to take the risks, but they need everyone on board.  The growers, like their industrial counterparts, used a divide and conquer strategy.  In the Mexican case there was the additional problem of immigration, both legal and illegal.  Mexicans who wished to be reunited with their families understandably resented Chavez’s efforts to restrict the importation of foreign labor, which would only undermine his ability to forge a united union.    I do not doubt that Chavez’s people used violence, despite his personal opposition to it.  Unless Mr. Cross is willing to insist on absolute pacifism, I do not see how violence could be completely avoided.  Chavez was engaged in a war, and any cursory reading in the history of American labor will show just how bloody that war has been for most of American  history.

    • Nick_from_Detroit

      Dr. Shannon,

      I’m sorry. I should have qualified my statement to read: 
      All American unions are corrupt or marxist. 
      Is that better?
      I don’t know that much about European unions at the turn of the 20th century, I’m afraid.

      I do not regard Catholic social teaching as “optional,” by the way. And, being half Polish (based on my great-grandparents,) I am well aware of the Solidarity movement (I was 12/13 at the time.) The Poles were fighting a marxist regime. So, Solidarity cannot really be compared to the UAW or the Teamsters in the same breath.

      The Poles were fight for bread. The UAW was fighting for more sick-days and vacation days. Not quite the same, is it?

      I’m sorry my pithy comments weren’t serious enough for you. I just assume that those who know the true history of the labor movement in this country are aware of the  marxists and mobsters who founded and controlled them, and the numerous acts of violence committed against mine and factory owners. That way, I don’t have to type so much.
      God Bless!

      • Mike formerly from Detroit


        I worked with Chavez in the 1970s as an organizer and contract negotiator.  Mr. Shannon’s depiction is a bit rosy, but your characterization of unions is historically incorrect. The reasons labor unions exist, are the poor working condition, unsafe work practices, and the low pay which combined with labor contractor systems of supplying workers keep workers from making enough money to break free. Violence in industry  and mining has always been a two-way street. The employers have often hired goons to kick people out of company housing and to break the bones of those who dared to vote for a union.

        As for some hispanic families in Delano not liking the United Farm Workers, I know first hand that many of those folks were labor contractors who made a lot of money keeping the workers they supplied to the growers poor by charging them outrageous sums for housing, food, and transportation, so much so, they had very little money left at the end of the season.

        It is true that various labor unions have come under the control of organized crime, particularly the dock workers, and teamsters. In the 70s the Teamsters signed sweet heart agreements with the growers without elections in the fields. Not only did Chavez and the UFW have to struggle with the growers to gain recognition, but had to fight the goons, hell’s angels hired by the corrupt Teamsters union.

        The union movement currently has lost its soul. It has become corrupt, captured by the socialists, and ultra leftists. Its very success in the late 20th century has caused it to become reactionary in nature, concerned only with political dogma and power. Except for the political power it welds as an adjunct of the Democrat Party, the labor movement has marginalized itself with less than 6% of non-government workers membership. 

        In the 50s and 60s, when George Meany was president of the AFL-CIO, the labor movement was anti-Communist. The labor movement could really use a George Meany or a Cesar Chavez now.

        Also, the Poles I met in the Solidarity movement, primarily the shipyard workers, were the highest paid in Poland. They weren’t fighting for bread. They were fighting for freedom.

        • Nick_from_Detroit


          “Violence in industry  and mining has always been a two-way street.”

          No, it started with violence from union thugs. The owners had every right to protect their new employees, i.e., scabs, and property. Starting in the late 19th century, unions (made up of socialists and anarchists) caused riots, committed bombings and assassinations, and generally tried to sow discord in society. The history of unions in this country is a disgrace that has been expunged from the history that is taught to school children. Which is sad.

          “It has become corrupt, captured by the socialists, and ultra leftists.”

          Become corrupt and socialist? It started out that way!
          Samuel Gompers, Peter McGuire, Walter Ruther, and George Meany were all socialist/marxist. Ruther and Meany may have claimed to be anti-Stalinists, but, they still clung to socialist ideals.

        • Nick_from_Detroit


          I forgot one thing.
          I meant “fighting for bread” as a metaphor. But, there were shortages in Poland like there were in the Soviet Union. 

          My point was just what you wrote, they were fighting for freedom. Were the Teamsters and UAW?

    • Thank you for bring this fascinating topic to the front. In view of Luke 4:5-7, “The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours…’ ”, I am amazed at the extraordinary roll we are all called to by Christ’s Easter Victory. The saints are beyond human imagination, take for instance, Joan of Arc among many many others. We have the same call — to change the world in some way whether big or small! Thanks again for reminding me.

  • Georgia-hedrick

    It saddens me  to read comments such as ‘graduated from Christendom’ and  ‘all unions are corrupt and marxist’,  and so on.  Such verbage echoes of arrogance as well as ignorance.  It is sad to read.

    I did much research on Cesar Chavez so I could write a children’s book about him.  The more books I read about him, and people I listened to who worked with him, and the sayings he said over time simply convinced me that he believed that what he was doing was fair and just and right. 

    Today, we have aborted all our possible leaders, I think, since 1972.  We are left with puppets and cowards.

    The illogic of abortion never fails to amaze me.  The whole concept of it is okay to kill at certain times and moments  and not okay at other times makes no sense to me.   Life either matters or it doesn’t matter.  I think this country has gone mad.  gh

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  • I’m sure Chavez is open to criticism, who isn’t?  But the excellent thing about this article is that it is attempting to articulate a truly Catholic political approach, eschewing the tired and anti-Catholic approaches of both conservatives and liberals.  Until American Catholics care more about being Catholic than about being conservative or liberal or American, we will have no influence in American culture; rather our own sensibilities will continue to be colonized by American Post-Protestant attitudes, so that, as Cardinal George said a few years ago, most American Catholics are cultural Calvinists.

  • Shepherdmaxx

    Dr. Shannon and anyone else.  “The HHS mandate on contraception, the most blatant political assault on
    the Catholic Church since the rise of the public education system” caught my attention. 

    Where might I find resources around the beginning of the public education system?  I thought understood that the Catholic education system preceded the public education, but do not remember how I arrived at my understanding.

    Any help or references would be appreciated.

    Thank you.

  • Dr. Anthony Lilles

    Dear Dr. Shannon,
    Your article raises important questions for me as the son of a California farmer.  Did Chavez really disentangle himself and his movement from being co-opted by other social agendas as you suggest?   There are valid questions about whether Cesar Chavez and his movement were too comfortable using techniques developed by Saul Alinsky – techniques in which the end justifies the means, techniques in which one’s opponents are humiliated and dehumanized – and sometimes intimidated into submission behind the scenes.  This is not incidental to the narrative you have presented. 
    Contrary to the popular narrative at the time—which seems to continue even now—many grape growers of California were and are good Catholic and Christian families—not nameless and godless corporations.  Furthermore, even the much maligned corporations were and are managed and administered by a lot of great Catholics.   These agricultural families are in a unique place to protect religious freedom and promote the social teachings of the Church in their communities.   The truth about them should be told.
    My French Basque great grandparents (who started out with much less than Mr. Chavez did when they came to California) were still alive when his movement galvanized many Church leaders against their generation – even to the point of their having been presented as villains in children’s catechisms we were forced to study that long ago.   The truth however is that many of those farmers – not only then but also today – actually provided work when virtually no one else did, relief for disaster when very few others could, and real opportunity to migrants when almost no one else would.  They did so even though very few of them were wealthy by today’s standards.   Still, the fruit of their sacrifices, fasting, and prayers lives today in the St. Vincent de Paul Societies, hospitals, schools, soup kitchens, shelters, churches, and vocations throughout Central California.  Against these achievements, the perhaps well intentioned efforts of Cesar Chavez suffer their own ambiguities.  Does not something about the story of the other Catholics whose witness is obscured in his narrative deserve another look as we discern advancing the social teaching of the Church in the public square today?

  • Hmmm, too bad to see such an uncritical look at a union organizer.  I’m a Christendom grad and like to believe I conscientiously live out my faith, and it seems to me there must be sounder examples of Catholic lay leadership than this.  Vegetarianism?  As a principled matter, that would be a negation of Catholic thought.  The fruits of unionism we’ve experienced for the past 50-75 years, and it has not been particularly positive, as unions have become the locus for much class warfare, institutionalized envy, greed, and other social ills.  Even Chavez’ own union was strongly anti-immigrant, for instance, since the immigrant work force, as it does now, jeopardized the union’s efforts to monopolize the labor pool.  I wonder how this anti-immigrant stance would suit Chavez’ case for beatification, given the American Church’s seeming “preferential option” for the illegal immigrant.

    Other things, like his use of the red flag for his union, with an Azteci eagle on it, gives one pause as to this man’s bona fides as any sort of traditional Catholic.   I suppose he wasn’t the worst of the radicals produced by the zeitgeist of the 1960’s, but he sure hung around plenty of that crowd.

    In any event, surely not a figure to emulate from a Catholic point of view, unless it’s to say that we should all be willing to commit as “radically” to the promotion of the social reign of Christ the King as Chavez committed to advancement of the interests of the grape and lettuce pickers of the American southwest.

    • DfromDetroittoo

      Yes, would you like Dortohy Day? She had an abortion in her twenties before her conversion. She also surrouned herself with communists and one of her dear friends included Eugene O’Neal, not a devout man by no means. Dororthy Day was and still  is a controversial Catholic, even her Bishop in New York found her troublesome and asked her to stop her work. Like Chavez, she was imperfect and so many did and do not know, or understand her. Nonetheless she may someday be canonized and I hope it comes to pass in my lifetime. 

      • Nick_from_Detroit


        Dorothy Day will never be declared a saint, either.

        • DfromDetroittoo


          You don’t get to decide.

      • MillerJM

        Dorthy Day did NOT identify herself as a communist when she converted to Catholicism. She believed in Christian Anarchism.

    • Mouse

      But the corruption into which many unions have fallen is not an argument against all unions (as I’m sure you would agree), just as the corruption of corporations is not an argument against all corporations. I think we should all learn more before making a judgment – I plan to read more about Chavez because I still don’t know that much about him. 

      Let’s all remember that the Bible says that one of the four sins that cry out to heaven is witholding the wages of a worker, and there are biblical condemnations about the abuse of poor workers by their employers/masters, defrauding people of their wages.  It’s right up there with sodomy and murder, in the eyes of God.

      We may forget that without unions, business owners were greatly abusing the poor, and we today cannot imagine the poverty some of them were forced to live in, while the bosses got disproportionate rich off their labor.  History shows that many who run big companies  tend to fall into extraordinary greed if there are no checks and balances against it. From coal miners to garment workers, the reality was that their employers basically would pay them as little as they could possibly get away with without their totally starving to death, and that was about it.  Before there were minimum wage laws, the minimum wage tended to be a starvation or near-starvation wage in many industries, simply because of greed.

       Also, it is a violation of the rules of logic to assume that someone is a certain way because he hangs around people who are that way…after all, they attacked Jesus for hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors! 

      Like you, however, I tend to be cautious if there could be any association with communism and such. I have always been horrified to find any supposed Catholic being soft about Communism during the 20th Century (now too) when at that very moment the Communists were killing priests, bishops, laity, and anyone else they felt like, and everyone knew it. 

       So what am I saying? I think we should all dig deeper before we tar someone with the same brush as the rest of the people in a movement… and also, I think a challenge for us today is to advocate for the rights of workers when it is necessary, without sliding into the leftist errors that are too common. It should not just be dissenting “liberal” Catholics who are for the workers – this is the impression one gets, becuase sometimes “conservative” Catholics seem to side too much with the rich even when they are making lame excuses for their greedy practices. I say this as a very traditional/conservative Catholic!! 

    • MillerJM

      There is a certain spin you are giving to the facts. Chavez was not necessarily “anti-immigrant.” He understood the reality that while the laborers were fighting for their rights as workers, the farmers were trying to undermine their efforts by utilizing illegal immigrants as scabs. Worker’s rights could not be achieved under that scenario – it would have been impossible. He correctly understood that that illegal immigration had to cease or everyone would be taken advantage of. His union activities were also about more than Latinos – he included people from the Philippines. This alone undermines your assertion that he was “anti-immigrant.” He was anti-scab, regardless of immigration status.

  • right on!

    I’m proud to be of Mexican/American Heritage and proud of what Cesar Chavez accomplished while never leaving his true conservative Roman Catholic identity!

  • Mike

    I was a farm worker in 1965, picking cantaloupe west of Yuma, AZ. I am anglo and had other places to go so I did not go back to picking. The farmer/owners were dishonest by withholding earned pay of braceros and other pickers. The farmer decided what to pay at the end of the week and it was not what was quoted when we agreed to work for him. There is nothing a picker can do to obtain the money owed him; he just has to accept the wage given. All the farms in the area had the same practice. If a worker complained about the lost/stolen wages, he was fired, and then had no pay at all. The Green card Bracero’s had no choice but you cannot tell me picking 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and earning $17.50 for the weeks work ($2.92/day) is anywhere near fair pay. $0.24 cents/hour plus 3 meals of beans and rice, and a cot in a dirty 40 man room, when  $1.25 cents per hour plus 10 cents a crate wages were promised. How many crates of cantaloupe could you pick in just 1 day? 
    I remember Cesar Chavez. He was a great man, a compassionate man, an honest man. FWA is the only union I have ever considered an honest union, looking out for the workers.  You can keep all the other unions, but Cesar Chavez and his union leadership were good for the people.  I supported him then and now.

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  • Kirk Kramer

    The following passages are from Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rerum novarum,” on the condition of the working classes.
    THE EVILThe condition of the working people is the pressing question of the hour; and nothing can be of higher interest to all classes of the State than that it should be rightly and reasonably adjusted.All agree, and there can be no question whatever, that some remedy must be found, and found quickly, for the misery and wretchedness pressing so heavily and so unjustly on the vast majority of the working classes.
    NATURE OF THE EVIL – A FEW RICH AND MANY POORThe result of civil change and revolution has been to divide society into two widely differing castes.On the one hand is the party which holds power because it holds wealth; which has in its grasp the whole of labor and trade; which manipulates for its own benefit and its own purposes all the sources of supply, and which is even represented in the councils of the State itself.  On the other side are the needy and powerless multitude, broken down and suffering.
    THE CAUSES OF POVERTYIt has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, all isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.  The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless under a different guise, but with the like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men.  To this must be added the custom of working by contract and the concentration of so many branches of trade in the hands of a few individuals; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.
    THE CHURCH WISHES THE EVIL TO ENDNeither must it be supposed that the solicitude of the Church is so preoccupied with the spiritual concerns of her children as to neglect their temporal and earthly interests.Her desire is that the poor shall rise above poverty and wretchedness in life; and for this she makes a strong endeavor.
    WORK MAKES WEALTHAll human existence is derived either from labor on one’s own land, or from some toil.It may be truly said that it is only by the labor of working men that states grow rich.
    RIGHTS MUST BE SAFEGUARDED BY STATERights must be religiously respected wherever they exist.  It is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury and to protect everyone in the possession of his own.
    THE RIGHT NOT TO BE SWEATEDReligion teaches the wealthy owner and the employer that their workpeople are not be accounted their bondsmen; . . .  that it is shameful and inhuman to treat men like chattels to make money by, or to look upon them merely as so much muscle or physical labor.The rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force or fraud or by usurious dealings; and with all the greater reason because the laboring man is, as a rule, weak and unprotected, and because his slender means should, in proportion to their slenderness, be accounted sacred.
    THE RIGHT TO LIVE BY WORKThe preservation of life is the bounden duty of all.  It follows that each one has a right to procure what is required in order to live; and the poor can procure it in no other way than through work and wages.
    THE RIGHT TO A LIVING WAGEA workman’s wages should be sufficient to enable him to maintain himself, his wife, and his children in reasonable comfort.
    THE RIGHT TO THE FULL RESULT OF LABORIt is just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor.
    THE RIGHT TO ASSOCIATION(i.e., TRADE UNIONS)The State is bound to protect natural rights, not to destroy them. And if it forbid its citizens to form associations, it contradicts the very principle of its own existence, for both they and it exist in virtue of the like principle, namely the natural tendency of man to dwell in society.
    THE WORK-FOLK’S SPECIAL RIGHT TO PROTECTIONWhen there is a question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and helpless have a claim to special consideration.The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas those who are badly off have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State.  And it is for this reason that wage-earners, who are undoubtedly among the weak and necessitous, should be especially cared for and protected by government.
    BAD LAWS ARE NO LAWSHuman law is law only by virtue of its accordance with right reason.  Thus it is manifest that it flows from eternal law. Insofar as it deviates from right reason it is called an unjust law.  In such a case it is no law at all; but rather a species of violence.
    OWNERSHIP IS STEWARDSHIPMan should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all; so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.Whoever has received from the Divine Bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and corporeal or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature and, at the same time, that he may employ them as the steward of God’s Providence for the benefit of others.
    THE STATE CAN CONTROL PROPERTYThe right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether.
    WHAT GOD HAS DONE -WHAT THE STATE MUST DOGod has granted the earth to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it has been assigned to anyone in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man’s own industry, and by the laws of individual races.
    SMALL OWNERSThe law therefore should favor ownership; and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the humbler classes to become owners.
    THE DUTY OF THE CHURCHEvery minister of holy religion must bring to the struggle the full energy of his mind and all his power of endurance. . . .  They should never cease to urge upon men of every class, upon the high-placed as well as the lowly, the Gospel doctrines of Christian life; by every means in their power they must strive to secure the good of the people; and above all must earnestly cherish in themselves, and try to arouse in others, charity, the mistress and queen of virtues.
    The above extracts were arranged by Father Vincent McNabb, o.p., and printed by Douglas Pepler at Ditchling, Sussex.  MCMXIX
    The full text of the encyclical:

  • Chris Shannon

    Dear Readers,

    Its been a few days, and many others have chimed in, so I thought it was time I
    responded to some of the issues raised.

    Though the topic of my original essay is Chavez’s Catholic
    language, the most heated comments have come with respect to the more basic
    issue of the place of unions in Catholic social thought and history.  I thank Kirk Kramer for providing the quotes
    from Leo XIII.  Far from
    de-contextualized proof texts, these are fairly representative of papal
    pronouncements for the last hundred years. 
    I agree with these papal statements and have little to add on the legitimacy
    of unions.  I would like to hear a
    response from some of the critics of unions—how do you square your rejection of
    unions with Catholic social teaching?


    Of course, there is often a large gap between the principles
    of Catholic social thought and the messy historical reality within which
    faithful Catholics try to interpret/implement this thought.  We are fortunate to have heard from two sides
    of the agricultural labor wars of the American West.  Mike speaks from the labor side and tells a
    tale of systematically abusive labor practices. 
    I have to say that my reading in labor history leads me to see his story
    as far from anecdotal, but in fact the norm of labor relations before
    unions.  The burden of proof is on
    critics who assume/assert that everything was fine for the American worker
    until unions messed everything up. 
    Before the 1950s, American workers were often, like the Polish workers
    of Solidarity, fighting for bread.  A
    good percentage of Mexican American Catholics are still fighting for bread, and
    I was pleased to hear right on!’s support for the particular inspiration that
    Chavez provides for Mexican Americans.

    At the same time, there is the view from the perspective of
    the growers, presented by  Dr. Lilles.  I confess that I know less about good
    Catholic families on the growers’ side. 
    Just as Dr. Lilles is willing to concede the good intentions of Chavez,
    I am certainly willing to accept the good intentions of some of the Christian
    growers.  However, this monumental
    social/economic struggle cannot be judged by good intentions alone.  If most of the growers treat their workers
    like those that Mike worked for in Arizona, even a well-intentioned Catholic
    grower would not really be able to compete effectively if he was committed to
    providing his workers with a living wage and decent working conditions.  Rather than demonize growers, I would prefer
    that we shift the debate to the problem of scale.  Unions are the working man’s response to
    corporate capitalism; bigness on one side produced bigness on the other.  Chavez did his best to cultivate a Catholic
    ethos within the FWA, but most American unions have simply come to mirror the
    corporate behemoths that have been their adversaries.  California farming is ruled by the
    imperatives of agribusiness, even if some of those businesses happen to remain
    within a family.  A true family business
    is one conducted on scale where one can treat your employees as if they were
    members of your family.  This does mean
    absolute equality (families are hierarchical institutions), but it does entail
    providing human sustenance and love—yes, love. 
    Any business that grows to the point where employees cannot be treated
    as human beings is inhuman.  Treating
    people like human beings does not mean financing their full participation in American
    consumer culture, but neither does it mean turning them out on the street when
    times get tough.  We stand or fall

     On a couple of more
    specific issues, I want to reply to Shepherdmaxx’s query about the school
    system. I invoked the public school issue because this was at the heart of the
    Catholic political struggle for as long as there was a strong parochial school
    system.  Catholics have been paying an
    infidel tax since the 19th century, when mandatory public education
    began to be the norm, imposed by local, not federal, government power.  Any Catholic who pays taxes that go to support
    public education finances the promotion of values that a Catholic would not
    otherwise in good conscience support—that’s why a separate Catholic school
    system developed in the 19th century.  That the government is now trying squeeze
    Catholics out of health care is not due to any uniquely evil Obama agenda.  Obama is working in a great American
    tradition.  On the issue of Catholics and
    the public school system,  I can recommend
    chapters 1 and 4 of John McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom.  I don’t agree with the trajectory of his
    overall argument (Catholicism must conform to American Freedom), but he gives a
    very thorough and reliable account of the school wars.


    One last note, I have been informed of a typo in my original
    essay:  it should read Pius XI, not Pius


    Thank you all again for your contributions.


  • Colby Storck

    I have have heard of the injustices (granted they’re anecdotal) done to migrant workers. They are indicative of a system that feeds off of cheap labor. For example: big meatpacking industries recruit illegal workers with ads on Spanish radio stations and then when there’s a bust, it’s always the workers who get in trouble, not the ones who lured them here in the first place (even bused them in and put them up.)  The model of buying cheap and selling dear that enables corporations to become so powerful, and the special interests to control the political process that we now see- is predicated on cheap labor.  I’m not an economist, but it seems to me that economies of scale by its nature favors the industrial process. And in this, workers are just as much a cog in the wheel as in communism. So as Americans, either we are part of the problem or we are part of the solution. If our Catholicism is to be something lived, rather than merely professed (is both internalized and externalized) we have to make choices, often difficult ones, to try to move away from this so-called “blessed way of life” (to quote Pres. Bush) that really isn’t. Being materially well-off is not what matters most, and is not what salvation hinges on. It’s a matter of how well we have lived out the gospel message. Little steps can make a difference; buying food from the farmers directly, or supporting local artisans, walking and trying to self-subsist and rely as much on the community as possible are definitely steps in the right direction if we want to try to shrink corporations and government.  But for this Catholics need each other’s support. Some Catholics may or may not be amenable to this. (Either we can or we can’t have things both ways. I think we can’t in the end.) If we don’t find agreement among ourselves as to ideals than our challenge is even greater. To me this is all about building a Culture of Life in every sense. We have to show that it is something worth striving for as more conducive to a well-lived life that best serves God and His Church (and restores all things in Christ) than the status quo is. The thing is we can’t do this alone. (I graduated from Christendom, but never knew Dr. Shannon (he got there after my time.) We did go to school with now-Fr. Willard.

  • Kirk Kramer

    Professor Richard Fossey of the University of North Texas has written an account of a remarkable cure worked through the intercession of Dorothy Day.  Those of us who pray for Dorothy’s canonization hope that this miracel will advance her cause.  Casa Juan Diego, the Catholic Worker House in Houston, have publicized the case in question by printing Dr Fossey’s article and a follow-up:

    And we pray for Mrs Maple’s continued good health!

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  • Dedangelo

    The birth control mandate is an “assault on the Church”? Really? Quite the stretch there, Pal….

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