John Garvey

John Garvey

When the U.S. Catholic bishops do their laudable work in looking out for the needs and rights of migrants and refugees, they are looking out for a large and vulnerable share of their flock.

For all of the articles and volumes written about the new Americans and their growing political importance, though, it was the progeny of yesterday’s Catholic migrants and refugees who earned the national spotlight in the 2016 election.

When Donald Trump takes the oath of office Jan. 20, he will do so largely because working-class, white Catholic voters in key Midwestern states unexpectedly handed him the presidency.

Trump picked a high-profile fight with Pope Francis during the election, and polls suggested he would lose badly among Catholics. Instead, he carried their vote, and by unusually large margins in the states where he needed it most: by 10 points in Florida, 18 points in Michigan, 20 points in Ohio and 14 points in Iowa.

Sadly, no exit polling on Catholics was published for Wisconsin (or Pennsylvania where I grew up), but the story there was likely similar.


This is not the place to analyze these voters’ political aspirations. But an earthquake like this one cannot be ignored by any segment of society. The church in the United States may need to ask itself a less self-interested version of the question the politicians are all now asking: Did we forget these people? How can we serve them better?

This goes not just for the Catholics in this “forgotten America,” but for their non-Catholic peers as well, to whom the church is also duty-bound to bring the truth.

It is easy enough for middle- or upper-class, college-educated Catholics to go through life without knowing much of the Fourth World that Pope John Paul II wrote about in the encyclical “Centesimus Annus” in 1991 — the world many of their co-religionists inhabit.

As he put it, “Aspects typical of the Third World also appear in developed countries, where the constant transformation of the methods of production and consumption devalues certain acquired skills and professional expertise, and thus requires a continual effort of re-training and updating. Those who fail to keep up with the times can easily be marginalized, as can the elderly, the young people who are incapable of finding their place in the life of society and, in general, those who are weakest.”

This passage could describe so many of the coal and steel factory towns that have been destabilized and left behind by a growing global economy. The inhabitants of this Fourth World are not the world’s poorest people. They are not even the poorest Americans.


But many are on the edge financially, and they have watched with sadness as the once stable communities, where they had hoped to build lives on a worker’s wage, disintegrated. Even when government steps in to meet their immediate needs, people in the Fourth World may feel as if they have been robbed of their dignity and self-sufficiency.

The church and its charitable organizations are often present to help those with the most acute needs — drug addicts, the homeless, those pregnant and alone — and that is as it should be. But when Pope John Paul II wrote of “something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity,” he was not merely referring to the means of survival. He was also referring to the means “to make an active contribution to the common good of humanity.”

There is no one-size-fits-all answer for the church to reach the forgotten America. But remembering it, as this occasion clearly demands, is a good first step.


Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Catholic University’s website is