The Spiritual Roots of Working Class Woes

Secular readers have seen J.D. Vance’s recent best-selling Hillbilly Elegy as the prophetic book of the political year, explaining if not predicting Trumpism, and even as the most clear-eyed, dismal report on the moral state of the new American millennium, zeroing in on our national “family and culture in crisis.” Vance’s personal memoir knows that deep solutions are moral in essence and thus mostly beyond the reach of government programs, but he offers a tepid conclusion and pleads an ignorance that should be dissatisfying to Catholic readers: “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.” A son of Kentucky hillbillies myself, I have an answer: perennial Catholic wisdom. As Leo XIII wrote in his first footnote to his encyclical “On the Evils of Society” when Italy and Europe was waging open war on the Church (Inscrutabili Dei Consilio, 1878), “A religious error is the main root of all social and political evils.”

The specific religious error occasioning this encyclical was the replacement of Catholic sacramental marriage with civil marriage or what Leo called “legalized concubinage.” As marriage goes, so go the family and society. Leo explained that “when impious laws” set “at naught the sanctity” of Holy Matrimony, replacing it with “mere civil contracts,” “husband and wife neglected their bounden duty to each other; children refused obedience and reverence to their parents; the bonds of domestic love were loosened.” In short, the household, the basic cell in the civilization of love, went to hell.

Vance’s memoir of his upbringing is a horrifying indictment of the cruelty inflicted on children and spouses by the corollary of contractual civil marriage: secular no-fault divorce, what psychologists call gently, “adverse childhood events,” daily occurrences in Vance’s catalog of domestic deplorables, including verbal abuse, addictions, depression, suicide attempts, physical brutality, arguments advanced by throwing plates, swinging fists, or gunshots. One of Vance’s uncles took an electric saw to the “hide” of a man who insulted his mother; another made a man eat the underwear of his sister for speaking disrespectfully of her. In a crucial scene early in the narrative, when Vance was twelve, his own mother, after a failed suicide attempt amidst a new live-in boyfriend “every couple of months,” drove her son to a mall for baseball cards in order to make up for having scared him out of the house for two days. Halfway there, she exploded and threatened to beat him. He jumped into the back seat, and when she stopped to beat him, he fled into the rural country side and found refuge in a home that had the police arrest her. He eventually wound up in the custody of the most solid member of his broken family, his grandmother Maw Maw, a tough hillbilly woman who herself threatened a cow thief with a rifle as a child. Where was Vance’s father? Miles away, with his second family.

Vance does not confine this event to his own family but rightly sees it as the result of the looseness of “legalized concubinage” in his past afflicted “with a revolving door of father figures.” His research reveals that the percentage of children in America exposed to three or more maternal partners is the highest in the world: 8.2 percent, one in twelve (and higher in the working class), compared to .5 percent in France (one in two hundred), where marriage was, I might add, a sacrament and divorce illegal until six years after Immortali Dei. Is it any wonder that America, which has never institutionalized Holy Matrimony, should lead the way in unstable households?

The selfishness of the human heart afflicted with concupiscence requires the glue of an indissoluble vow, what Chesterton calls, in The Superstition of Divorce (1920), “a tryst with oneself.” As Chesterton foresaw of no-fault divorce laws, “If people can be separated for no reason they will feel it all the easier to be united for no reason.” The religious vow locks the biggest door of life against the most evil intruders into the household, and throws away the key into an untouchable golden bowl. Vance sees the disease of divorce but not the remedy of sacramental marriage. Indeed, the longest report of one of the few stable families in his scenes from Scots-Irish interiors is of, ironically, his alienated biological father, who, alone in Vance’s story, returned to his southern Protestant church roots. Vance cites a study by The National Bureau of Economic Research that “Religious folks are much happier. Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all.” He doesn’t mention the link between religion and marriage in that study, but it is there: double the rate of “religious participation,” and divorce decreases by four percent, and civil marriage increases also by four percent. I wouldn’t be surprised if the relation between domestic stability and Holy Matrimony is even higher.

In Inscrutabili Dei, Leo XIII called the Church of Christ mankind’s “nurse, mistress, and mother.” Vance’s born-again father’s church offered its “alcoholics a community of support,” abandoned “expectant mothers a free home with job training and parenting classes,” and unemployed men a job or a network in which to find one. Vance laments the sad fact “that in middle of the Bible Belt active church attendance is actually quite low.” His alienated father is nearly the only religiously affiliated character in the book, including his strong but violent Maw Maw, religious but completely unchurched, reading the Bible alone in the evenings. Is this portrait of the shrinking Bible Belt not a continuation of the shrinking of the Church begun half a millennium ago? Hilaire Belloc singles out John Calvin, not Martin Luther, as the true heresiarch of Protestantism, who denied those very elements missing in Vance’s father’s religious culture: “priests, sacraments, and the free peasant.” Get rid of the hierarchy, and in half a millennium the church is reduced to your grandma reading her Bible alone in her room while the kids play video games in the dark den.

So much richer than the social network of Christian community, however, is the sacrament of the Church herself, in communion with the wisdom of the saints and Magisterium, through which comes sacramental grace (especially that of Penance, which relieves the crushing burden of guilt, so injurious to addicts) and led upward by sacramentals, which buttress cooperative grace, our power to help ourselves. Without the full Church, man’s heart and mind are shrunken, and followers of Christ drift away. Vance cites an article in the Huffington Post that attributes the “terrible retention rates of evangelical churches” (statistics undisclosed) to “pernicious sexism, intolerant attitudes, and conservative politics,” but he attributes his own lapsed faith to a dumbed-down, anti-intellectual catechesis, a result of Protestantism’s view of the intellect, “a pestilent beast” (Luther) “groping in darkness” (Calvin).

Saint John Paul the Great’s Laborem Exercens (1981) offers a third theological enrichment unsuspected by Vance: the prioritization of labor over capital. Vance is silent about the brutalization of industrialized work that now afflicts so many ways of earning one’s keep. Early in the book, he laments the loss of the famous Scots-Irish work ethic, telling the story of a tile factory that pays “good wages with benefits” starting at thirteen dollars an hour with regular increases. Vance did it himself one summer before he entered Yale Law School:

Floor tile is extraordinarily heavy: Each piece weighs anywhere from three to six pounds, and it’s usually packaged in cartons of eight to twelve pieces. My primary duty was to lift the floor tile onto a shipping pallet and prepare that pallet for departure. It wasn’t easy, but it paid thirteen dollars an hour and I needed the money, so I took the job and collected as many overtime shifts and extra hours as I could.

Vance can’t understand “why the managers found it impossible to fill [his] warehouse position with a long-term employee.” Catholic anthropology, however, understands why such “wage slavery” is to be condemned. Imagine lifting that tile from pallet to floor for eight hours a day, day after day as far as a young man can see, and compare that with the variety of work of Belloc’s “free peasant” on his small freehold, the disappearing norm two generations ago in Kentucky, working the soil and urging the livestock, reading the land and the elements, flora, and fauna, with your children and wife close by, often near enough to touch—“toil by the sweat of the brow,” to be sure, contentio, an arduum bonum “full of thorns and thistle” but creative and free like that of Christ the workman (Laborem Exercens, 9, 24-25)—and you will see why the tile factory managers find it difficult to find men for this hyper-specialized spirit-numbing bondage.

It’s not merely the disappearance of mining and manufacturing that’s behind the opioid epidemic in Appalachia and the decline of the work ethic; it’s also the inhuman nature of much modern work itself. Give workers a stake and share and say in ownership, the Catholic distributists and papal encyclicals say, and they might organize themselves in a humane way, form guilds, find fellowship, and turn tile into mosaics—even sponsor Corpus Christi plays, as they did in merry medieval England. The shop, being small, says Catholic convert and economist E.F. Schumacher, is more beautiful and human than the factory. The social historians Hilaire Belloc, Max Weber, and R.H. Tawney all blame Anglo-Saxon Calvinism for the prioritization of capital over labor. Are Papaw’s alcoholism, infidelity, and paternal absence, which he himself blames for Vance’s mother’s addiction, partially owing to the dehumanizing, alienating, isolating line work at the well-paid, now bygone Kawasaki plant that may have turned him into an instrument rather than a human subject? As Pius XI wrote in Quadresimo Anno (1931), “And so [by treating workmen as mere tools] bodily labor, which was decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul even after original sin, has everywhere been changed into an instrument of strange perversion: for dead matter leaves the factory ennobled and transformed, where men are corrupted and degraded.”

Mammon, if not “filthy lucre,” wins Vance’s remote formal cooperation. Despite his thesis that hillbillies are more responsible for their own disordered lives than the political system is, he depicts their failings (perhaps more to satisfy his publishers and audience than in his heart of hearts) primarily as loss in material status—unlike himself, who, thanks to Maw Maw’s respect for book learning and the Marine Corps’ discipline, rose to Yale Law School and a corporate law firm. (It was the Marine Corps, and not Dominican nuns, that taught him Thomistic virtue ethics, the day-by-day practice of good habits forced upon the enlisted, “assuming maximum ignorance” even to the point of driving a recruit to a credit union to open an account.) While he holds up examples of simple wives and fathers as worthy models of lives well lived, careerism and consumerism haunt the book because attenuated Calvinism lacks the tradition of Holy Poverty, the virtue of the third Joyful Mystery and the first Beatitude, “the poor church for the poor” of Pope Francis. Vance’s poor are only to be pitied. Moreover, without Catholicism’s embrace of cooperative grace, by which penitential suffering can make deposits of love into the Treasure House of Merit, the poor see themselves merely as failures and victims. Despite its compassion, Vance’s anthropology remains divided between the elect of the Ivy League and the reprobates of the hills. His eudaimonia is not much more than improved “chances at rising through the ranks of American meritocracy.”

Vance loves his Kentucky cousins, but I can’t help regretting that his America doesn’t understand as well as perennial Catholic wisdom does that marriage is not a contract, that man needs the whole Church, and that the poor are blessed.


Kenneth Colston’s articles and reviews have appeared in The New Criterion; LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture; First Things; New Oxford Review; St. Austin's Review, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He is a retired teacher who lives in St. Louis.

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