The Contributions of George G. Higgins to the Social Action Movement in the United States, 1944-1980

Conkle, Daniel, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Fogarty, Gerald, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

George G. Higgins joined the Social Action Department (SAD) of the National Catholic Welfare Conference in the spring of 1944, an organization which sought to implement the social teachings of the Catholic Church within American society. Higgins served the American Catholic hierarchy in this regard for over 36 years, acting on their behalf as the Assistant Director of the SAD from 1946 to 1954, as a director of the department from 1954 to 1972, and finally as a consultant to the United States Catholic Conference from 1972 to 1980. As a member of the department, Higgins followed the agenda of his director, Fr. Raymond A. McGowan, who sought to implement the Industry Council Plan of Pope Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno. It was an effort that Higgins would consistently promote throughout his years of service to the American Catholic Church, and one which influenced the development and understanding of Catholic social action both prior to and following the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.
The historical account of Higgins’s actions during these 36 years of service details the efforts of the American Catholic Church to influence the social order of the United States, as well as the development of its understanding of social action from the 1940s to the 1980s. In particular, Higgins’s efforts to validate lay participation within secular organizations contributed to a new understanding of its place within the American Catholic Church, and empowered lay Catholics to act outside of approved organizations that were directed by the hierarchy. In doing so, Higgins helped prepare American Catholics for the reforms promoted by the Second Vatican Council, including its call for the laity to take on a greater role within the Church. Finally, the account sheds further light on the American Catholic Church’s relationship with labor for this period, as these were the primary secular organizations that Higgins promoted as an acceptable expression of Catholic social action. Consequently, George Higgins stands as one of the principal Catholic social reformers of the 20th century.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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