The Changing Parish: Catholics and the Urban Crisis in Twentieth-Century Brooklyn

Date of Award

Spring 4-2016

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Joe. W. Trotter


Once solid supporters of the New Deal, by the mid-1960s Brooklyn’s working-class Catholics stood at the forefront of a movement to halt the perceived excesses of liberalism. Their political realignment was inextricably tied to the postwar urban crisis, which left New York City with a shrinking tax base and a population increasingly in need of social services. White working-class Catholics watched with resentment as the city distributed resources to non-white New Yorkers, whom they blamed for rising crime rates, their growing tax burden, and the physical decline of formerly-white neighborhoods. For these Catholics, liberalism came to be seen not as the extension of government welfare to those who had historically been denied access, but as a force of dispossession that was both political and spatial. In response, they moved toward the nascent conservative movement. This occurred alongside an equally resolute progressive movement in the Church spearheaded by black Catholics and their liberal allies. Liberal Brooklyn Catholics used their parishes as spaces for political activism, and built a network of organizations to act as intermediaries between the city and its neediest residents. The postwar urban Catholic world was thus defined by a political rift that predated Vatican II, but was publically exposed by the Council. For liberal Catholics and clergy, the Second Vatican Council legitimated their efforts to become more involved in secular and overtly political affairs, including the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, the welfare rights movement, vii rent strikes, and even the embrace of Black Power – issues, they argued, Catholics were morally obligated to support. For the conservative members of the Church, the Council’s mandate to empower the laity meant restraining the authority of the hierarchy. They renounced the clergy’s meddling in issues they deemed political, contributing to the erosion of Church authority in the lives of lay Catholics. The interplay of religion, race, and public policy, this study contends, shaped the political sensibilities of Catholics as well as their relationship with the Catholic Church.


This dissertation has been removed from Research Showcase @ CMU at the request of the author.

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