Introduction and Catholic Activism


Hello everyone, my name is Jodie Casleton and over the course of this year I’m going to be relating my experiences and ideas concerning The Ramonat Seminar. The goal of this seminar is to study Dorothy Day’s America and how Catholic activism was incorporated in the country during this time. Before I delve too much more into that, I figure I should let you know a bit about me.

I am a junior at Loyola University Chicago and after trying out about a dozen majors, I finally landed on history. My experience with Catholicism is both substantial and limited. I grew up in a Catholic household and attended Mass with my parents most Sundays. However, aside from what I learned in Sunday School, I don’t know much about Catholicism nor had I expressed any significant interest in it before. Now I am in the Ramonat Seminar, a class meant to explore not only activism in 20th century America, but the significance of Catholic-specific activism and how the church came to represent itself. As someone who was raised Catholic yet almost paradoxically has a very limited experience with Catholicism aside from the occasional rosary with my mother and a rather decent church attendance throughout my years living at home, how do I incorporate myself into such a class? I have the “Catholic experience” but do I have the right mindset and understanding to use and participate in this class to the best of my ability?

Well, it looks like that’s what I’m going to find out over the next year. Though my experience with learning about Catholic activism is limited, I’m excited to expand upon that within this class. I have never viewed social justice and activism in America through such a lens as Catholicism before, and I am excited to see what challenges this will present me with along the way. Dorothy Day and Catholic Working Houses have been a large and integral part of activism in America for many years now, touching upon many issues within this country. Although my ideas are only in the beginning stages right now, I would like to study the kinds of activism inspired by Dorothy Day and other Catholic activists during her time which had to do with racial equality. I am interested in researching more about the Catholic involvement in the civil rights movement during the middle of the 20th century. I find this topic very fascinating, especially since this was happening during the mid 1900’s, after the Catholic church had reverted back to extreme conservative behavior. As for my example of Catholic activism in the Chicago area, I found an interest in a specific person who worked alongside the Catholic church for a while to promote social justice, although he wasn’t a Catholic himself. Barack Obama has obviously moved onto much bigger things since he was a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980’s, yet his involvement played an integral part in Catholic activism.

In the late 60’s, American Catholic bishops began to focus on the poor by creating the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an anti-poverty and social justice program. In the early 1980’s while Obama was attending Columbia, this program was financing a project to help neighborhoods after the collapse of steel mills near Chicago. In 1985, Obama became a part of this program as a community organizer. The point of such a program was to unify South Side residents against unsafe streets and poor living conditions. Although Obama had little knowledge of Catholicism when he arrived, this didn’t prevent him from successfully working with the church for the betterment of the community. Suddenly, Obama frequently found himself surrounded by Catholic pastors and congregations  as a part of his work in Chicago. Working out of a small office on the ground floor of Holy Rosary, a parish on the South Side, Obama helped to expand congregations and spread his organizing program. He visited many South Side parishes and spoke to several reverends about issues such as finding families to adopt troubled children and about programs that battled unemployment and violence. Through his visits to these parishes and his discussions with bishops and reverends, Obama was able to work with the Catholic church to spread activism for the South Side of Chicago. He even expanded the program to other Protestant congregations as well.

Although his work with the Catholic church began to falter in the late 80’s, Obama’s participation in these social justice programs alongside Catholics, even though he wasn’t one himself, was very interesting to me. I appreciated this story of teamwork between Obama and the Catholic church. Although the church had started these programs, it was because of organizers like Obama that these programs were able to reach the people they did. The fact that Obama wasn’t Catholic didn’t matter because he respected their traditions and their goals to help those in need as they coincided with many of his own. Though this is a small story of Catholic activism that took place within the Chicago area, I find stories like this encouraging and important because they show the simple power that both individuals and groups can have when they combine their efforts.

This first picture is of Barack Obama himself during the time that he was a part of these programs. The second is of the office he worked out of in Holy Rosary’s basement.





One thought on “Introduction and Catholic Activism

  1. Hey!
    I think I’ve been in that makeshift office! Just kidding, I guess that’s a pretty standard decor choice for the church basements… Anyway, one of the things that I really like about you including that photo is that it makes this story seem really accessible. I also liked that you included Obama’s work with people of differing religious backgrounds during his time as a community organizer. I think that that can be a really powerful part of social justice movements.


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