Catholics and the Social Climate of 1960’s Chicago

“It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.”

Dale Carnegie

Are you happy?

When asked this question, some will fervently claim that they truly are happy. Others will readily admit that they are not as happy as they could be. And if you are like me and cannot say for sure whether you are happy or not, we all fall on the spectrum of this thing we call “happiness”. It is something that we all think that we can define, but finding the sources of this abstract expression of contentment may not be as easy as we believe it to be.

This past week, I had the pleasure of seeing the film Inquiring Nuns, a fascinating documentary that premiered in 1968 at the Chicago International Film Festival, and was directed by Gordon Quinn and Gerald Temaner. The film featured two Catholic nuns, Sisters Marie Arne and Mary Campion, who visited a variety of Chicago landmarks and interviewed locals with the question, “Are you happy?”. The film was directly influenced by Chronique d’un été, a 1961 French documentary by Jean Rouch that featured individuals discussing topics in French society and happiness in the working class. [1]

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Inquiring Nuns Film Poster

The film was more than a telling of Catholic nuns interviewing Chicagoans, and it did far more than question what makes people truly happy. After over a decade of war in Vietnam, this film served a greater purpose: to shed light on the political, religious, and cultural climate of not only 1968’s Chicago, but of the nation as a whole. The film drew on something that everyone is arguably searching for more of but may never fully find: happiness. Through a series of interviews with locals, two Catholic nuns provided an opportunity to learn about the attitudes of everyday American citizens during a time of political and social tensions. More so, through its images, dialogue, and theme, Inquiring Nuns was an indirect reflection of the politics of American citizenship, what it means to be a Catholic, and what, aside from religion, differentiates Catholics from other Americans in their political and social views.

In order to effectively discuss the hidden themes present in the film, it is essential to examine the era in which the film was created. 1968: a year that we have constantly circled around in our discussions about American Catholic history. The year that arguably shook the nation to its core and sent aftershocks in the decades to come. From the Vietnam War, to Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae fighting against the sexual revolution, to Daniel Berrigan and the Cantonsville Nine burning Selective Service files, to Martin Luther King’s death, 1968 was certainly a year that disrupted every aspect of American life. It is incredibly important to note that this film was created in 1968, and given the tumultuous nature of this year, it would assist in explaining the character of the answers people gave when asked if they were happy.

More so, upon further analysis, this film takes place in the throws of winter in 1968 Chicago. This means that key events like the anti-war demonstrations at the DNC, and Martin Luther King’s assassination have already occurred, and the results of the Presidential election were soon to be announced. Thus, it is not a surprise to hear answers regarding “sex, social life and … what’s the other? .. your work” and “the present conflict we are having right now, the Vietnam situation”. [2]


The responses that people gave to the questions asked by the nuns were essential to the nature of and themes of the film. The people and their unique responses lift the film into a discussion about modern society and the ways that people examine their own lives. However, it was also these responses that reflect the locality of Catholic politics, Catholics and their citizenship, and what really differentiates Catholics from other Americans.

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”. 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”. This phrase, “all politics is local”, can be difficult to understand without identifying what the different types of politics there are. In fact, there are four different types of politics: personal, local, 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. [3]

In Inquiring Nuns, when people were asked whether they were happy or not, those who said that they were rather unhappy cited their lack of happiness to issues that were troubling their lives the most in that moment. Some stated the war in Vietnam, others mentioned Nixon, and many brought up finances. Conversely, when asked what really made them happy, there was a variety of answers ranging from “Avoiding people”, “Raspberries”, to “Joy in knowing Christ”. The causes for both people’s happiness and unhappiness were direct reflections of national political issues, personal financial issues, and personal satisfactions.

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Sisters Marie Arne and Mary Campion Interviewing a Man on the Streets. 

Is all politics local? 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. 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”.

Turning to the film and examining the responses that people gave, it seems that all politics are not local, but rather personal. Personal politics does not necessarily mean that it could not be local or national or even international. It can be argued that citizens often align their personal values and identities with those of their communities or home 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.

As mentioned previously, when individuals were explaining what made them unhappy in Inquiring Nuns, some of them stated the war in Vietnam caused them distress, others were either pleased or upset with Nixon running for President, and many were not satisfied with their financial situations. These issues mentioned were only a few that were brought up by those that the nuns had interviewed. While it may seem that such issues are a result of the national politics during 1968, it is important to note that not everyone cared as much about Vietnam or Nixon as others. These issues that are representing the nation as a whole do not necessarily directly impact the lives of every American, or even every Chicagoan as seen in the film, and thus cannot be used to claim that all politics or local or even national. In fact, the responses given by the interviewees support the notion that all politics are personal because they mentioned the things that they truly cared about and affected them personally, not necessarily because they were affecting the entire nation.


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 the case of Inquiring Nuns, personal, can be applied to communities that greatly value their religious freedom, more specifically, Catholics. And, through further analysis of the dialogue present in the film, the locality of Catholic politics and the factors that distinguish them from other Americans can be identified.

The question of whether or not there is a “Catholic vote” and to what extent it has played a part in American history is a central theme to the discussions we have been having for several months now. This idea was broken apart into different eras and different ideas that illuminate a different aspect of American Catholic history that guides us to an answer.

In order to effectively determine if there are certain trends in the way that Catholics vote, it is essential to pin-point the issues that Catholics care the most about. Historically, it has been proven that most Americans typically only care most about two or three political issues, and then typically go out and vote for the candidates that support their perspectives on such issues.

In 1968, Catholicism was facing some of its greatest challenges that would test the new ideologies that were born out of Vatican II. Vatican II introduced new theologies to the Catholic Church, which eventually reverberated their way to the states. Humanae Vitae was one of the biggest changes that shook the Catholic Church and clashed with the evolving values of American society. The Church’s condemnation of contraception, especially condoms, provoked massive amounts of criticism from those who were experimenting with the ideas of the sexual revolution, and even from those in countries where sexually transmitted diseases were rampant and could be widely prevented with contraception.

Another issue that was important to Catholics in 1968, especially radical Catholics, was the war in Vietnam. For example, there was Dan Berrigan who was a pivotal figure in the resistance against the Vietnam War. He paired with brother and several other radical Catholics to form resistance groups like the Baltimore Four or the Cantonsville Nine. These groups, led by Berrigan, were passionate about using forms of civil disobedience to battle the war that they thought were unjust.

By looking at the different responses given in the film, those who are Catholics are able to be identified by the issues that they said were troubling them the most. By looking at population data alone, it can be quite difficult to gather conclusions about what Catholics care about and how they vote accordingly. However, Inquiring Nuns offers an unparalleled opportunity to hear directly from individuals and personally hear what troubles them and what they care about most, which is an invaluable resource in trying to define the Catholic Vote and predict its impact in future elections.


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”. 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”. [5]

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”. [6]

Whether personal, local, national or otherwise, it is essential that we discuss the nature of politics now more than ever, with the presidential election 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 their votes are uniquely isolated from the rest of mainstream America.

Inquiring Nuns holds an important place in the discussion of the state of American society and politics since 1968. By directly hearing from people on the streets of Chicago and listening to what causes them happiness and distress, we are able to establish a sense of the Catholic identity. The film, which primarily had a purpose of generating a discussion about the state of society in 1968 by highlighting the causes for peoples’ happiness or distress, indirectly helped promote a commentary about Catholics in 1968, the locality of their faith and politics, what truly distinguishes them from other Americans and if that could be used as support for the “Catholic vote” that still puzzles contemporary political analysts as to what effect it will have on future elections in the United States.

Want to watch a trailer for the film? Click the video below!

Notes 

[1] “Inquiring Nuns.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Nov. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquiring_Nuns.

[2] “Inquiring Nuns.” April 2013 Film Updates, kartemquin.com/films/inquiring-nuns/about.

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

[4] Steinberg, Neil. “'Inquiring Nuns' Holds a Mirror to 1967 Chicago, and to Ourselves Today.” Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Sun-Times, 27 Nov. 2018, chicago.suntimes.com/news/steinberg-inquiring-nuns-1967-documentary-chicago-kartemquin-films-ebert/. 

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

[6] Kane, Paul. “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?utm_term=.282eb8985829.
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