Crises, Tidings & Revelations: A Priest for All Seasons

Among the priests I’ve known and admired for many years one man has remained for me a reference point as steady as the north star, a standard that has not varied during a number of turbulent decades. At one point in his active career, I was told that he probably knew personally more American priests than anyone else in the country. Clearly, he was not a little known priest struggling in relative obscurity.

In fact — as much as he might wince at the term, or smile in amusement — Msgr. George G. Higgins has been a very visible ornament of the church since pre-Vatican II days. A highly utilitarian ornament, it is true, since he has been in the thick of many of the messy struggles and controversies central to the American Catholic story in this century. One could not tell, for example, the history of the labor movement in this country and the role played by the Catholic Church without encountering this “labor priest” and his activities.

When I first met Fr. Higgins many years ago, we fell into an edgy disagreement about public and parochial schools, public and private funding. It took me some time to realize that he was right and I was wrong. We still differ on a number of matters, but I have been learning from him ever since.

At a time when the labor movement was a more vibrant and significant agency than it is now, he, like many others, had to deal with the issue of Communist organizers in the free trade unions. That struggle, which culminated in the rejection of Communist-led factions, helped shape organized labor as we know it today. Higgins also encountered opposition with Church organizations. In attempting to apply Catholic social teaching to contemporary labor conditions, Higgins sometimes found himself at odds with recalcitrant Catholic institutions, schools, and hospitals, and stood with the workers against the administrators of those institutions. (He has given generous tribute to John Cardinal O’Connor’s own tough-minded stance on issues that have pitted workers against similar Catholic organizations.) Because he traveled widely he has been able to bring not only his specifically American perspective to labor questions but an international perspective as well.

Higgins was a friend and ardent admirer of one of America’s preeminent theologian, John Courtney Murray, S.J., and I recall his subdued outrage when Father Murray was disinvited to Vatican II, and his undisguised pleasure when, after Cardinal Spellman’s intervention, Murray was subsequently invited and able to make his uniquely American contribution to matters of religious liberty. We were both there when, along with other clerics, Murray concelebrated the mass with Paul VI. (Our own concelebration of this event took place in a decidedly more secular venue.) It was during this period that Higgins himself helped draft a section of one of the most significant documents to emerge from the Council — Gaudium et spes.

I remember certain occasions with Monsignor Higgins. During Vatican II, at a small subterranean Italian restaurant, Higgins, a few other priests, and my wife and I, carry on the inevitable talk about who said what during the day’s session and what it meant. Molly is the only woman present and I notice how naturally and unobtrusively Monsignor Higgins brings her into the conversation. Not at that time the standard behavior of every cleric.

The “Call to Action” program of the U.S. Catholic Conference included hearings in regions across the country. The assigned task of those of us who sit on the panels is primarily to ask questions and to listen to the witness of those who live in the area and who come to express their concerns about the Church and how it does — or could — function in their lives and their communities. At one point, a young, black man speaks passionately and with evident distress about an aspect of black-white relations in the United States. I think that he is, in historical terms, simply inaccurate; and I am inclined to challenge him, to suggest other ways of looking at the issues he brought up. But George Higgins is doing the questioning, and he simply and generously thanks the young man for expressing his concerns so movingly. I learn afterwards that Higgins’ judgment of what the young man had said matched mine exactly; but he had also judged — quite accurately, I believe — that listening respectfully to that young man was more important at the moment than challenging him publicly. To heavily underline what I trust is already obvious: this was not a mark of condescension but a sensitivity to and deep respect for the other person.

A memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York for Dorothy Day, that complicated and dedicated woman who had recently died. The eulogy is delivered by George Higgins. I had known Dorothy Day for years and had visited the Catholic Worker irregularly but often. After her death I read every notice, recollection, and tribute that I could find. I believe that of all of them the one by George Higgins was the most discerning, empathetic, fair, and moving.

George Higgins’ approach to controverted issues is less confrontational than it is bridge building. His objective and non-ideological style has not, however, kept him from making principled judgments that set him at odds with powers that be. For example, at one point in our history labor and religion had cooperated closely and, in the 80s, officials from both sectors sought to revive that relation. The religious sector was to have Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish representation. However, at an early stage of what was to have been a dialogue, representatives from the National Council of Churches (NCC) presented demands: formally condemn the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a small organization that had incisively criticized the international political policies of the NCC, and sharply discipline David Jessup, a Methodist layman who was the founder of the IRD and a high staff member of the AFL-CIO. When the representatives of the NCC were told that this was not organized labor’s idea of dialogue — as it certainly was not Higgins’ — they took their ideological marbles and retreated homeward.

Higgins has long been a much sought-after speaker. At a high point in the war in Nicaragua, he addressed a largely religious group. When he criticized Chile’s Pinochet, they cheered; when he criticized an equally unpalatable leader, they cheered again; when he criticized the Sandinistas for not allowing free trade unions to develop, silence reigned in the hall. Shame! How could he break ranks on the issue of the Sandinistas. But on the issue of free trade unions his critics were mute.

Although Higgins was a strong advocate of the labor movement, he was capable of protest when it seemed to diverge from its central concerns in order to engage highly controverted social issues. When, for example, some local unions used membership dues to work for “freedom of choice” causes, Higgins sharply opposed them; and when some of the same local officials called those who supported the “right-to-life” position “frauds and bullies,” he was outraged. He proclaimed that as one who had supported labor over many years he felt personally insulted. This matter has yet to be definitively settled, and one can only hope that Higgins’ strong voice will continue to be heard.

Much more could be said about George Higgins — about his abilities as a raconteur, for example, and his seemingly endless supply of anecdotes (all true) that reveal various aspects of the Catholic Church and its sometimes quirky members — but I hope I have at least suggested some of his preeminent qualities: his immense energy, his ability to move at ease in the world of the ordinary worker and that of the intellectual, his capacious knowledge of the immediate, organizational life of the Church as well as its long history, his rare modesty, his sense of fairness and a fierce loyalty to that in which he believes.

George Higgins’ path as a leader in the church has not always been an easy one. He once wrote of an eminent predecessor, “the Right Reverend New Dealer,” Monsignor John A. Ryan, that “Church authorities would at times show their appreciation in curious ways.” That observation could apply equally to Monsignor George G. Higgins. But he soldiers on. In the conviction he shares with John Paul II that free trade unions are “indispensable” to a free society, he continues to teach new generations about their value in countries around the world — Poland, Latin America, Russia and its neighboring countries — and the United States.


  • James Finn

    James Finn is author of Protest: Pacifism and Politics, a study of the Vietnam peace movement, and, when Crisis was originally published in 1982, he was editor of Freedom at Issue, the bimonthly journal of Freedom House.

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