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. More »