Have Catholic Parishes and Politics Been as Local as the Rest of America?

“We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel!”

Pope Francis

Tip O’Neill, a former U.S. Speaker of the House, was once described by former President Bill Clinton as “the nation’s most prominent, powerful and loyal champion of the working people”[1]. Mr. O’Neill, known for his enormous sacrifice and contribution to the development of U.S. politics, is less known for a phrase that has sparked debates among historians until today: “all politics is local”[1]. This statement, which was primarily considered in an American political context, can also be applied to the Catholic community in the U.S., in which the nature of the Catholic faith and its parishes can be analyzed to determine if they were and remain local.

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Image from Jon Fetherston’s Blog

This phrase, “all politics is local”, can be difficult to understand without identifying what the different types of politics there are. And yes, to my surprise, the word “politics” does not encapsulate all of the political endeavors in the world. In fact, there are five different types of politics: personal, local, state, national, and international. Each layer of politics gets increasingly larger, with issues that affect more people than the last, that is, personal politics affect the individual, whereas international politics affect people from different countries all over the world.

So what does “local” mean exactly in the context of O’Neill’s phrase? One could argue that because local is one of the layers of politics, it means that all politics is centered around the local level, or the communities in which voters are based in[2]. One could also argue local to refer to the life of a specific person and their present situation, such that a voter’s personal life and home could be the center of “local politics”. But the real question is this: is all politics local?

I do not believe that all politics are local. I think that the argument of voter’s centering their focus on issues that are going to affect them on a local level has some substance. However, I think that it does not have to be as complicated as specifically dragging communities into all politics. In this, I mean to say that all politics does not have to involve one’s community, in fact, I believe that all politics is personal, and that voter’s are concerned about issues that affect their lives.

With the argument that all politics is personal, it does not exclude the other forms of politics entirely. Just because something is personal, that does not mean that it could not be local or national or international. I believe that voter’s often align their personal values and identities to those of their communities or countries. Just because there may be issues on a national level, or even a local level for that matter, not every individual is going to focus on said issues as another. However, there are individuals who establish their identities around their communities and countries, in which issues that affect politics at those levels will affect those individuals on a personal level. Just because an issue is at the national or local level, that does not mean that every voter will be personally affected, and thus they wouldn’t focus on it. But once an issue complicates an area of one’s personal life, whether that be their home, family, job, finances, or even their identity as a Chicagoan or American for example, then an individual becomes concerned and vote accordingly.

Religion is also an area of peoples’ personal lives that they take just as seriously as others, if not more. And thus, this idea that “all politics is local”, or in my case personal, can be applied to communities that value their religious freedom, more specifically, Catholics.

I had the pleasure of participating in Open House Chicago this past weekend. Open House Chicago is an event hosted by the Chicago Architecture Center, and is a free public festival that offers behind-the-scenes access to over 250 building across Chicago, where you can discover the hidden gems and architectural treasures throughout Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods. Check out pictures from my adventures below:

 

 

I had no idea that this event existed, and I have lived in the suburbs of Chicago my whole life. This was beyond anything that I had expected, and I will make sure to attend it every year going forward. During this expedition, I visited several different sites: City Hall, Corpus Christi Church in Bronzeville, St. Peters’ in the Loop, Holy Name Cathedral in Gold Coast, and the Catholic Charities in Gold Coast. I usually do not venture out into neighborhoods that are not a part of my daily commute, but having gone to a few different neighborhoods and scavenge for these architectural locations, I discovered more than I could have even imagined. Not only did I learn about each of these locations and how they tie to the Catholic history in Chicago, I was also able to do some reflecting on the demographics of Catholicism as a whole in Chicago.

To answer the question of whether or not Catholic politics and faith was and remains local, I absolutely believe that the politics and faith were and remain local. One thing that I observed when visiting these different Catholic Churches throughout the city was that it almost seemed like each one was isolated from another. Accompanied with each church is a community of people that identify with each church, communities that seem vastly different from one another, even though they are congregating under the same religion. However, as different and as isolated as they may seem from each other, the different communities blend together into this “Chicago Catholic” culture that we discussed in class, a culture that is quite distinct from its counterparts in major cities like Boston or Los Angeles.

In Ellen Skerrett’s article “Catholicism, Chicago Style”, she claims that although Chicago “lost [the] numerical supremacy [of the largest Catholic archdiocese in the United States] to Los Angeles”, Catholicism in Chicago “displays a distinction style all its own”[3]. She claims that Chicago has developed its own sense of Catholicism from numerous sources: ethnic diversity; a close identification between parish and neighborhood; able episcopal, clerical, and lay leadership; social and political liberalism; and a soaring self-confidence.

Chicago has been known for centuries to be one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States, with a variety of ethnic groups arriving in Chicago during its inception in the nineteenth century. For many, the Irish population is considered the poster child for Catholicism, as many people think them synonymous with one another. Skerrett argues that “whereas most other American dioceses were dominated by either the Irish or the Germans, Chicago welcomed large numbers of both”, and “in no other city did such a wide range of Catholic groups make their homes”. And by no means was it just Irish and Germans. As I saw in my adventures around the city, Catholics come from all different ethnic backgrounds, even a primarily African American community at Saint Sabina’s when I visited there. The ethnic differences that existed between Catholics caused them to form separate parishes, but still united them under the city as “Chicago Catholics”.

 

Skerrett also discusses the demographic that I was able to observe first-hand during Open House Chicago: the tendency for Catholics to center themselves around their parishes. Skerrett mentions that “no matter what their ethnic group, Catholic Chicagoans have traditionally taken much of their sense of neighborhood from their parishes”. One of the locations that I did not visit during Open House was St. Stanislaus in West Town. This church is such a prime example of how Catholics built their ethnic communities around their parishes, that Skerrett discusses it in her article. She states “Poles…readily turned any parish name into a neighborhood name by adding the suffix -owo to the parish saint”, thus was born the neighborhood of Stanislawowo. To further emphasize my argument, Skerrett makes the blanket statement that the “Catholic Church is geographically organized, with each diocese traced into territorial parishes”, and a Catholic “usually worships near where he or she lives”.

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Image of St. Stanislaus from Open House Chicago’s website

It is evident that Catholic faith was very localized in mid-nineteenth century Chicago. Ad we had previously discussed in seminar about the nature of Catholic immigration to America, new waves of immigrants came from all over Europe, and new ethnic groups began to emerge specifically in Chicago, and with them trailed the Catholic faith. Each group brought along with it it’s own traditions and form of Catholic faith, and established their own parishes and neighborhoods around them. And we can compare that to the nature of the Catholic faith today in Chicago, as I was able to observe the nature of this demographic trend for Catholics of different ethnic backgrounds to localize themselves around their parishes as their neighborhoods and parishes still stand to this day.

Like I had mentioned before after visiting Saint Sabina’s, it really is a beautiful thing when one is able to connect what they are learning in the classroom to actual events and people and locations out in the world. Open House Chicago has provided me with another such experience where I have been able to reflect on my readings of Catholics in Chicago and connect that to the history of the different ethnic Catholic Churches and charities and fundamental Chicago institutions.

But this question about whether or not Catholic parishes and politics was and has remained local is just a part of the larger question of whether or not all politics is local. While I argued that all politics is actually personal, it is not the only argument against politics being focused on the local level. Paul Kane, a columnist for the Washington Post, looks at the state of the government in the era of Trump and states that the phrase “all politics is local” has “been put to the test over the past decade by an increased level of national news consumption by an electorate watching cable TV and reading the Facebook pages of friends across the country”[4].

He states “in the age of Prudent Trump, surging seas of activists on the left and the right are drowning out local issues and forcing senators and representatives to answer locally for every national controversy”[4]. I found this perspective to be quite interesting, as not only does Mr. Kane claim that all politics is not local, it is actually national, and so much to the extend where local issues are essentially disregarded for national ones. And he has a point. Voters do not seem to care as much about their local issues than they do with the national ones, and I believe that is due to the amount of attention that was drawn to the national issues from the 2016 presidential election.

Whether personal, local, national or otherwise, it is essential that we discuss the nature of politics now more than ever, with the midterm elections approaching and each party fighting for as many votes as they can get. Moreover, as we continue discussing this grand, over-arching question of whether or not there is a “Catholic vote”, being able to identify where politics lie for voters is key to being able to isolate Catholic voters’ perspectives to identify if there votes are uniquely isolated from the rest of mainstream America.

Notes

[1]“All Politics Is Local.” All Politics Is Local - Wiktionary, en.wiktionary.org/wiki/all_politics_is_local. 

[2]Kane, Paul. “Analysis | All Politics Is Local? In the Era of Trump, Not Anymore.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 Feb. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/all-politics-is-local-in-the-era-of-trump-not-anymore/2017/02/25/9a15bc94-fab2-11e6-9845-576c69081518_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b2e5ded89343. 

[3]Skerrett, Ellen. “Catholicism, Chicago Style.” 1993. 

[4]“Tip O'Neill.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Oct. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tip_O'Neill#Death_and_legacy.

 

 

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