Liberal San Francisco and the Catholic Church


San Francisco’s much touted reputation as a bastion of liberal tolerance has an unexpected foundation in of all things, the Catholic Church! It’s a complicated tale involving the emergence of a liberal cross-class majority in favor of economic growth and individual rights that has important roots in Catholic doctrine. By the last quarter of the 20th century the same liberalism that had prevailed as a manifestation of a “vital political center” had sown the seeds of its own demise. The dominance of Catholic morality over politicians, police, business, and labor leaders began eroding under the pressure of the post-war demographic changes in San Francisco. By the time the Soviet Union finally dissolved in 1991, liberalism had already lost its defining purpose (anti-communism combined with a capitalist-friendly regime of limited labor and human rights), while in San Francisco, the liberals had long become fused with elite business interests in their pursuit of a growth economy based on white-collar finance, real estate, medicine, tourism, and technology.

William Issel does a wonderful job of revealing and analyzing this history in his 2013 book Church and State in the City: Catholics and Politics in Twentieth-Century San Francisco (Temple University Press). Rooted in the early 20th century’s labor movement, then dominated by Irish Catholics (and to a much lesser extent Italian and Latin American Catholics), “native sons” of San Francisco’s Mission District born between 1890 and 1930 played an extraordinarily influential role in the political and social development of San Francisco up to the 1970s.

In the years before the Great Depression, in the context of Vatican teachings, natural disaster, and the nation’s first red scare, Catholics challenged the presumptions of organized capital to unilaterally define the public interest. The contests involving organized business, organized labor, and the Catholic Church were then complicated by transnational rivalries, including the Communist Party’s entry into politics and its competition with Catholic Action. The city’s Catholic business, labor, and civic leaders, in complex relations with the political left and the business right, contributed to the shaping of a local New Deal liberal regime that favored expanded rights for organized labor. Organized business, Catholics, and the left, including the Communist Party, also played key roles in redefining the city’s priorities around the importance of fostering future economic growth and human rights. (Issel, p. 251)

Many histories of San Francisco tend to focus on the ebb and flow of class conflict between the city’s business-owning elite and the various unions, confederations, and labor parties that emerged in different periods, a conflict that featured social unrest and upheavals from the 1870s through the dramatic General Strike in 1934 and into the post-WWII era, punctuated by only a few periods of sustained social peace. In this fraught dynamic, Father Peter Yorke held forth at the Mission’s St. Peter’s Church on 24th Street at the beginning of the 20th century. He was an outspoken advocate of the rights of the working man (who were largely identified as white ethnic Irish) along with his ardent support for Irish nationalism vis-a-vis the British empire. Yorke was but one of many Catholic men and women who sought to influence the terms of debate about the common good and what public policy would look like in the early 20th century and ensuing decades. Catholics enjoyed a disproportionate role in the political life of San Francisco due to being nearly a third of the population before WWII, but the politics of the Church (run by the Archdiocese with offices on Franklin Street) were not uniformly conservative. 

Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) issued his encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor) in 1891. “He condemned socialism and communism and defended the right to private property. At the same time, he condemned laissez-faire business practices and defended the right of workers to organize labor unions; called on government to protect working-class interests; and urged businessmen, workers, and government to ensure harmony between capital and labor.” (Issel, p. 45-46) Catholic activists in the San Francisco area would return to this and other Papal pronouncements to bolster their political work on behalf of white working-class men, and in favor of a kind of corporatist deal between business, government, and organized labor which was intended to establish what they saw as a “moral economy.” When Pope Pius XI attacked both “utopian left-wing ideologies and social movements and materialist business practices backed by laissez-faire government that ignored the general good of the community” in 1931 he provided a foundation for the emergence of Catholic Action.

Catholic Action became a powerful organized movement of lay Catholics worldwide. In San Francisco it was supported and directed by Archbishop Mitty and was a powerful force in local politics from the 1930s to the 1950s. It declared itself non-political but dedicated to working for “Cross and Flag,” a potent combination of Catholicism and American patriotism. During the following years the efforts of Catholic Action to affect the politics of San Francisco and the relationship between capital and labor by way of its influence over key trade union leaders, paralleled efforts of the Communist Party and other left-wing organizations. According to Issel’s analysis, Catholic Action was considerably more powerful in achieving their agenda than the formal left ever was. Mass events such as the annual Feast of Christ the King (which for example drew 50,000 people to Kezar Stadium in 1934), newspapers, and political meetings were held by Catholics and Communists, while each promoted different views of world events (in particular, the Spanish Civil War pitting Republicans with USSR support against military coup leader General Francisco Franco with support from Hitler and Mussolini), also led to local Catholic efforts to undermine what they saw as “communist propaganda.”

During the 1930s labor battles in San Francisco, Harry Bridges of the Longshoremen’s Union was a secret member of the Communist Party (Issel cites the research by Bob Cherny in the KGB files opened after the fall of the Soviet Union that finally provided the proof that Bridges was an undercover agent of the Comintern all along, despite his denials and the failure of the U.S. government to make the accusations stick in various legal proceedings), but interestingly

the independent Catholic newspaper The Leader—originally founded by Father Peter Yorke—condemned the charges of communist influence as “vicious misrepresentation [by] callous capitalists and the servile press and radio stations.” The Monitor, the official newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese in San Francisco, while critical of “materialists on both sides,” especially castigated the “rugged individualists among the shipping executives who hate resistance to their lust for power and for profits.” The Monitor warned that settlement of the strike would come only when business agreed to “break away from the code of hate and contempt that has characterized too many American captains of industry and finance.” (Issel, p. 50)

By 1940, Popular Front politics pushed American communists to support FDR and the Democratic administration, while local Catholics were determined to cooperate with the communists too, in a shared “anti-Fascist war.” Throughout this evolution the politics of the Church were strongly shaped by individuals who had grown up in San Francisco’s Mission District. Father Hugh A. Donohoe (1905-1987) was Archbishop Mitty’s unofficial and informal coordinator of the Catholic Action activists in San Francisco, while also editing the official Diocesan newspaper and acting as pastor of St. Mary’s Cathedral. He was born in 1905 to an Irish father and a mother of Irish descent, who owned a headstone business serving the Catholic Holy Cross cemetery in Colma where the mortuaries lining Valencia Street in the Mission sent most of their burials. Donohoe was the founder of the local branch of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, serving as its chaplain from its 1938 founding for more than a decade.

Donohoe’s vigorous defense of the Wagner Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act in years to come derived from his conviction that they conformed to “the Catholic approach to the labor question,” which he located in “the doctrine of natural rights.” “The specific rights include the right to private ownership, the right of reasonable access to the goods of the earth, and the right of a living wage. The processes are two in number: group action that aims at promoting individual welfare and the assistance of the state to effect the same purpose.”

Donohoe’s childhood friend was John. F. “Jack” Shelley (1905-1974) since they were classmates at St. Paul’s grammar school in the Mission (on Church, today we call it “Noe Valley”). Shelley graduated in 1922 from Mission High School where he was a popular and successful student. He is probably best known for being Mayor of San Francisco from 1964-68 before being convinced to step aside from his re-election effort in favor of Joe Alioto. But Shelley had a long and illustrious career in local politics starting in the 1930s, when as a Teamster he quickly rose in the ranks of the bread truck delivery local while also getting his law degree from the Jesuit University of San Francisco. In 1937 he won election to the San Francisco AFL Labor Council and the year after that he helped organize the local branch of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists with his old friend Father Hugh Donohoe. In 1938 he was also elected as San Francisco’s state senator and sent to Sacramento where he stayed until 1946. He headed the local Labor Council and the State Federation of Labor through the 1940s, and in 1949 he was elected to the U.S. Congress where he served until being elected Mayor in 1964. Throughout his long life as an elected official and union leader he was known for basing his actions on the principles he learned from the Catholic encyclicals put forth by the Vatican. In pursuit of cooperation and labor peace, he met with leaders of the city’s Chamber of Commerce in 1937 when voters refused to renew an anti-picketing ordinance and from those talks the Industrial Association was disbanded (it had organized the violent response of business to labor action for more than 20 years) and the employers agreed to accept the legitimacy of non-violent picketing.

After World War II, the federal government sharply restricted labor rights by passing the Taft-Hartley Act. Amidst rising anti-communist hysteria at the beginning of the Cold War, the California Labor School came under attack from legislators in Sacramento and IRS tax authorities. Catholic labor activists like Father Donohoe and Father Andrew Boss of USF established a Labor Management school at USF to compete with the overtly left-wing teachings of the California Labor School and promote alternatives to radical unionism.

The idea to establish the labor management school emerged in a series of discussions in 1946 between Donohoe and Father Andrew C. Boss of USF. Like Donohoe, (Joe) Alioto, (Jack) Henning, (Margaret) McGuire, and (Jack) Shelley, Boss was a native of San Francisco, one of the six sons of a Mission District barber. Also like Donohoe, Boss saw Catholic labor schools as a way to enhance the statue and power of the mainstream labor movement, as well as to compete more effectively against the Communist Party in San Francisco. Donohoe and Boss regarded the new school as one element of a two-part strategy. The ACTU, which was nearly a decade old at the time, would continue to combat communism within the local labor movement, and the Jesuits at USF would operate an educational program that could effectively compete with the California Labor School, which was supported by the Communist Party.

Another initiative emerging from what we might call the Mission District’s Catholic Liberals was the Council for Civic Unity (CCU), which was founded in 1944 and carried out 20 years of work with local and state African American, Asian American, and Mexican American organizations on behalf of racial equality in education, employment, and housing. Harold J. Boyd was considered to be the “real founder” of the CCU, and he was another product of the neighborhood.

Boyd, the city’s controller in 1940, was born in 1890 [and] came of age in the Irish American Catholic Mission District. A labor union activist as well as a city official, and a “champion of the underdog” since the Progressive era, Boyd stirred the community when he made an outspoken public speech at the Golden Gate Exposition at Treasure Island in1939, condemning Nazi attacks on Jews and Catholics.

San Francisco was over 90% white before World War II but after the war the population had changed. More than 40,000 African Americans had migrated to the city to work in wartime industries. People from Central America had been migrating since the 1930s and by the 1960s the Latino population was growing rapidly and replacing the formerly Irish and Italian Catholic residents of the Mission District. The earlier generation of Catholic liberals, rooted in a traditional notion of the white male bread winner—a version of the 1950s American Dream—were nevertheless influenced by their experiences in the war to advocate for desegregation in housing and schools.

Another politician who came out of the Mission (and Mission High School) was Eugene McAteer. While serving on the Board of Supervisors in the late 1950s he made an impassioned speech in favor of a successful fair employment ordinance.

… His speech mixed patriotism with civic pride and a blunt reference to his faith-based decision, arrived at after “wrestling with my conscience.” He explained that “in the eyes of the Lord,” the Filipino Scout, the black infantryman, and the Ute Indian who died for their country were all “of equal quality and dignity.” “We should now provide our peacetime citizens an equal chance to get a ‘shot’ at employment without reference to his skin pigmentation!”

Curiously, McAteer later went to the State Senate where feeling the wind at his back from the Save the Bay movement he teamed up with east bay state representative Nick Petris and pushed the McAteer-Petris Act through the state legislature. That act created the Bay Conservation and Development Commission which became the state agency tasked with saving the bay from rampant filling and despoliation.

Another unexpected example of the Catholic liberal legacy leaving us an important environmental achievement was the derailing of the Redevelopment Agency’s plans to bulldoze the Mission corridor during BART construction along the lines they had carried out in the African American Fillmore district. The Mission Council on Redevelopment (MCOR) organized older white conservatives and newly arrived Latino renters and activists to oppose the Redevelopment Agency at City Hall. When it came to the climactic vote in the Board of Supervisors, Redevelopment Czar M. Justin Herman was stunned and angered when the vote went against him and Redevelopment 6-5, stopping plans for the Mission in 1967. It turns out it was a phone call from Archbishop Joseph McGucken (after a request from Herman Gonzalez, chairman of MCOR) to Supervisor William Blake that changed his vote from yes to no. The same Supervisor William Blake (a conservative from the west side) had only two years earlier been the key political mover on the Board putting together 6-5 majorities to kill the Panhandle-Golden Gate Park and Golden Gateway (waterfront) freeway plans.

Thanks to Issel’s book, we have a clear account of the multi-generational Catholic activists, most of them from the Mission District, who did so much to shape the specific contours of the liberal growth political establishment, but also helped save the City and the Bay Area from some of the worst possible outcomes of unfettered development. San Francisco has a poorly recognized tradition from the early 20th century of challenging the prerogatives of business and capital, defending families and working class communities, rooted not in a left-wing agenda, but in the teachings of a liberal Catholicism. The ground on which this liberal Catholicism could flourish necessarily had pressure and competition from left and right, both of which gave purpose and sustenance and helped define the centrist path carved out by the Catholic political class that emerged from the city’s Mission District and beyond.

The San Francisco Police Department’s traditional hierarchy slowly broke down from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. For decades the Chief as a staunch Catholic determined the policies and morals of the rank and file officers and gave them license to enforce those values on the city’s population regardless of religious affiliation. Following the dramatic demographic and political shifts that really took hold in the 1950s, the influence of Catholic morality began to erode. Anti-censorship decisions like the famous Howl case, and later the Lenore Kandel “Love Book” case, blocked the police from using the Catholic standards of morality when it came to obscenity. The California Supreme Court’s decision in the early 1950s that it was not illegal to be in bars where most of the patrons were homosexuals as long as there was no illegal behavior narrowed police authority to control transgressive sexuality. By the early 1960s when the Gayola scandal rocked the SFPD, the rising gay movement put Catholic moral crusaders into a permanently shrinking and defensive position. Women’s liberation, Third World and left-wing political movements, beats and hippies, and the rising influx of young professionals working in the expanding financial district all contributed to the consolidation of a new public morality based on individual choice and not on moral standards promulgated by the Catholic Church (or any other religion). The police too were forced to desegregate the department, forcing the moral crusaders to regroup in the Police Officers’ Association (a union dedicated to the interests of the old white guard, even to this day) and to liberalize their approach to everyday behaviors that once would have given them license to harass, arrest, and even inflict violence (nowadays that kind of treatment is reserved for those tarnished by accusations of “gang membership,” nearly always African American and/or Latino).

I’ve always been an atheist and have held the Catholic Church in particular antipathy for its centuries of civilizational barbarism. But it was quite enlightening to read Issel’s book, combined with my recent reading of Christopher Agee’s book Streets of San Francisco on the history of the San Francisco Police Department from 1950 to 1972. Given the domination of Irish Catholics in the SFPD, the history of the Department’s shift toward a more “professional” and modernized style of policing corresponds in time to the end of Catholic hegemony over City politics and daily life in general. As the old style of street-level vice and policing gave way to new standards, the old liberal deal among big capital, big labor, and local politicians began to fray too. By the 1970s, the election of George Moscone represented the ascension of a new political progressive majority (even if Moscone was himself another Italian-descended Catholic liberal from San Francisco), but it would quickly be snuffed out by the Dan White assassinations of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in November 1978 (within days of the horrific mass murder/suicides in Jonestown, Guyana, most victims being former San Francisco activists). Pacific Heights politician Dianne Feinstein took power and consolidated the preponderant influence of corporate downtown over City politics, a power that has not yet lost its grip after more than a quarter century.



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