By Judy Daubenmier and Jennifer Daubenmier
This July marks the 55th anniversary of the Chicago Freedom Movement’s open housing marches, the centerpiece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s effort to bring civil rights to the North.
As Catholic bishops discuss denying Communion to President Joe Biden, progressives might take heart by recalling a time when bishops made civil rights causes a priority and how Chicago’s summer of action helped lay the groundwork for a future Biden presidency. We may also learn from the political strife in the Catholic Church at that time.
King sought Catholic participation in the Chicago struggle, saying nuns brought the movement an “unstoppability” and a greater moral authority than that of male clergy. One of those who responded was our relative, Sister Mary Angelica Schultz, a member of the Order of St. Francis of the Holy Family in Dubuque, Iowa. In 1966, Sister Angelica worked as a teacher at Sacred Heart in Melrose Park.
On July 31 that year, Sister Angelica went to Marquette Park to march for open housing with King’s movement. As the demonstrators walked through the white, working-class Catholic neighborhood, a hail of racial slurs, bottles and bricks rained down on them. “This one’s for you, nun,” shouted one youth as he hurled a brick that struck Sister Angelica in the head, knocking her to the ground, unconscious. The Rev. Jesse Jackson scooped her up, and she was taken to a hospital for stitches. Time magazine called her possibly “the first U.S. clerical figure to suffer physical injury from her coreligionists in the service of civil rights.”
The Catholic laity feared integration threatened their home values and parishes resulting in harsh letters to Catholic newspapers and lower donations to parishes with outspoken clergy. Gradually through the decades, conservative concerns such as abortion became paramount.
The movement, however, sparked African American political activity, boosting the careers of Harold Washington, Jackson and ultimately Barack Obama. Obama cited the groundwork of King’s activism in deciding to become a community organizer there. Obama, of course, chose Biden as his vice president.
In becoming the nation’s second Catholic president, Biden won the Catholic vote 52% to 47%, about six points better than Hillary Clinton’s 2016 showing. He credits Catholic nuns and their culture of community with shaping his worldview. In his book, “Promises to Keep,” Biden wrote, “The nuns are one of the reasons I’m still a practicing Catholic.”
Sister Angelica recognized that all people need a voice, to be heard, even members of the white mob who attacked her. She wrote, “The man at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid of Church structure must have power in his Church or it is not his Church, no matter what new theological insights preach to him.” She called on the church to be a catalyst for social change.
Given Biden’s support among Catholics, one wonders whether the Catholic bishops’ desire to withhold communion from Biden would be as strong if they allowed the laity to have a voice. After all, a majority of Catholic laity, 56% to 42%, think abortion should be legal, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.
In 1966, Chicago Catholics who felt estranged from the church resorted to violence to express their views. Today, many just drift away. Rather than barring people from Communion and pushing young people away, bishops might open a dialogue with them about church doctrine and contemporary needs.
In a time of deep racial divisions, our relative was willing to listen to those who assaulted her. In these even more divided times, our bishops should follow her example and try to heal divisions.
Jennifer Daubenmier, Ph.D., is an associate professor of holistic health studies at San Francisco State University who studies contemplative traditions in relation to social justice issues. Judy Daubenmier, Ph.D., who is Jennifer’s mother, is a former Associated Press journalist.