.- The late labor activist César Chávez offers Catholics a model for faithful and effective civic engagement, according to a professor of history at Christendom College.
In his April 16 essay for Crisis Magazine, “The Passion of César Chávez,” Dr. Christopher Shannon claims that the United Farm Workers leader was “the last Catholic in America” to achieve a “cultural/political synthesis” that brought the Church's social teaching into the public square.
The union organizer, Shannon says, contributed to the development of “an authentic Catholic politics,” because of his ability “to speak a common language with non-Catholics” while trying to “lead them … to a fuller understanding of a distinctly Catholic position open to people of good will.”
While Chávez's birthday on March 31 is a civic holiday in some states, he is also controversial in some quarters of the labor movement.
This discomfort over Chávez's legacy, Shannon notes, is partly due to the Catholic activist's decision to bring his faith to bear in disputes over issues like wages and working conditions.
“As a Catholic school boy in the 1970s, I was taught to see Chávez as a kind of Catholic Martin Luther King, a great national figure that we could call our own,” he recalls.
But according to the Christendom College professor, even “self-styled 'progressive' Catholics” have largely “forgotten” Chávez – preferring “issues of race, gender and sexuality” to his struggle on behalf of farm workers, which drew heavily from Catholic social teaching.
“The secular Left, in turn,” he writes, “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.”
In the Crisis essay, Shannon details the ways in which Chávez used Catholic ideas and practices – such as pilgrimages, fasts, and Marian devotion – to focus the nation's attention on concerns that were not “sectarian,” but universal.
Shannon notes that “while speaking for a largely Mexican Catholic constituency,” the union leader “was also trying to speak to a broader American public.”
His message, meanwhile, was that of Pope Leo XIII – who called on Catholics, and non-Catholics, to “protect the workers from the greed of speculators who use human beings as instruments to provide themselves with money.”
Shannon suggests that Catholics who feel “politically adrift” can look to Chávez's achievements for guidance on making the Church's social concerns known to the world.
His essay can be read in full at http://www.crisismagazine.com/2012/the-passion-of-cesar-chavez.