San Francisco has long been known as a “wide open town” prioritizing individual freedom and tolerance over social control. Yet less recognized is the power exerted by the city’s Catholic Church throughout much of the 20th Century. As William Issel describes in his new book, Church and State in the City: Catholics and Politics in Twentieth-Century San Francisco, the Catholic Church helped build the city’s labor movement and fostered social activism. Issel shows how even secular leaders like former Mayor Joseph Alioto sought to govern according to what they saw as Catholic values. While the book ends before the Church’s disconnection from “San Francisco values” on gay rights, abortion and economic justice issues reduced its political relevancy, it restores the Catholic role in San Francisco’s development through the 1960’s to its rightful place in the city’s history.


When I moved to San Francisco in 1979 and immediately got involved in a citywide rent control campaign, I was surprised to see that some of the leading activists involved were being paid fulltime by the Catholic Archdiocese. Archbishop John Quinn assumed leadership of the city’s Archdiocese in 1977, and for nearly two decades his office implemented the “Catholic Action” strategy for social justice that went back to the 1930’s.

That’s why so many priests and Catholic parishioners were free to campaign for rent control and tenant protections, and why two of the city’s leading tenant groups through the 1980’s and into the 1990’s were based at Old St. Mary’s and St. Peter’s Churches. During the 1980’s Quinn also assumed a leading role in building local opposition to U.S. military intervention on behalf of dictatorships in El Salvador and Nicaragua, going so far as to personally attend the funeral of murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador.

The Archdiocese in those years had a Social Justice coordinator headed by Thomas Ambrogi. Ambrogi played a major role in building local and national opposition to the illegal and immoral U.S. war in Central America.

Unfortunately, the dramatic shift in the San Francisco Catholic Church that occurred in the last two decades of the 20th Century is not discussed in Issel’s book, which primarily focuses on the Church’s key influence through the Alioto era of the early 1970’s. But for those unfamiliar with San Francisco history, it’s important to recognize that the Catholic progressive activist tradition that Issel particularly highlights in the 1930’s was as strong as ever in the city through the 1980’s.

Building Business- Labor Unity

I was reading Issel’s book as the land use agreement between San Francisco and California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) was publicly announced. The key person who enabled this long delayed agreement to get done was Lou Giraudo, who comes directly from the Catholic Action tradition Issel describes. Giraudo is a business owner who has earned the confidence of labor, and is widely trusted by all segments of San Francisco. He perfectly fits the model promoted by Archbishop John Mitty in the 1930’s and the San Francisco Catholic Church for most of the 20th Century, which saw “the need for cooperation” between business and labor for the greater good.

Issel describes how this Catholic perspective led the Church to oppose the hard-line anti-union views of employers during both the 1934 and 1936 major strikes in San Francisco. The Church also backed workers in these struggles to compete with a rising Communist Party for the allegiance of those on picket lines. The Catholic Church saw the Communist Party as its chief rival well before its more publicized anti-communist crusades after World War II, and this helped motivate Catholic officials to aggressively seek worker support.

Archbishop Mitty’s belief in a “community interest above and apart from particular factions” that required business and labor to allow government to mediate their disputes did in fact guide San Francisco politics from the 1930’s and through the Alioto era. And I think this notion that the city’s history has emerged from business and labor unity, rather than from the high profile strikes and conflicts, is perhaps the single greatest contribution of this book.

It is a framing that runs counter to conventional understandings of the city’s history, but as Issel shows, the winning candidate for mayor through Joe Alioto’s “Pro-Growth” coalition always had business and labor support. Former Communists and left-wing labor leaders like Harry Bridges and Dave Jenkins (who also played a key role in the Tenderloin-based California Labor School) became part of the Alioto Administration, with the former even backing South of Market Redevelopment.

Extending Issel’s analysis, the post-Alioto mayors---Feinstein, Agnos, Jordan, Brown, Newsom and Lee---also were elected with both business and labor support. When Mayor Ed Lee proclaimed in his January 2012 inauguration speech that he would be a mayor for “the 100%”, his approach harkened back to a San Francisco tradition initiated by the Catholic Church eight decades ago.

Civil Rights, Freeways, Redevelopment

While Issel shows how Catholic Action backed the African-American civil rights movement, the book includes entire chapters on the Sue Bierman-led anti-freeway campaign and the struggle around Fillmore Redevelopment that have little connection to Catholic activism. While these accounts provide interesting local history---and many will be surprised to learn that blacks comprised less than 20% of the Fillmore population when it became a Redevelopment area---these struggles appear unrelated to the book’s thesis.

It’s unfair to criticize an author for not writing a different book, so I will instead describe Issel’s decision to not extend his analysis through the end of the 20th Century (as the title implies) as a missed opportunity. Due to changes coming from the Vatican, San Francisco’s Catholic Archdiocese went from being at the heart of the city’s social justice movements for decades into the 1980’s to becoming politically irrelevant by century’s end---a dramatic shift that warrants academic study.

But in the big picture Issel convincingly shows that Catholic institutions shaped San Francisco’s history far more than is understood. And from its backing of unions, civil rights, and the needs of the very poor, the Catholic Church fulfilled its mission of working for San Francisco’s greater good.