In the 1920s, the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the forerunner of today’s United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, threw its support behind efforts to enact child labor laws. But, there was no unanimity. Cardinal William Henry O’Connell, the archbishop of Boston, opposed the NCWC, arguing that the government had no right to interfere in parental rights and if the parents wanted their kids to work long hours in a sweatshop, so be it. O’Connell also resented the role of the NCWC more generally: After the death of Cardinal Gibbons in 1921, O’Connell was the senior churchman and thought he should be the spokesman for the Catholic Church in the U.S. not the NCWC.
I raise this historical anecdote because at this week’s meeting of the USCCB, you could discern further evidence of polarization within the bishops’ conference and the emergence of the next area of struggle: The bishops overwhelmingly decided to draft a statement on the economy and poverty.