JOSEPH P. FITZPATRICK: GOD'S SPOILED CHILD
Paper presented in the session in memory of Joseph P. Fitzpatrick (1913-1995) at the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Washington, D.C., 1995. Published on the web in 2003 in the Tributes section of the K. Westhues Homepage.
During the period of Joe Fitzpatrick's working life, sociologists sequestered themselves steadily more in their own academic professional world, measured one another in terms of publication and citation in peer-reviewed journals, and behaved as if they were building a value-free science, even though they knew they weren't. Russell Jacoby (1987) has called this trend the academization of the intellectual life. In the course of it, sociologists became swimming instructors who never get wet, researchers debating strokes in the academic high and dry, more at ease conversing with each other than with people in the pool.
Before all else, Fitzpatrick was a swimmer. If he ever took the Twenty-Statements Test, I doubt that he identified himself first as a sociologist, or even as a professor, a Jesuit, a priest, or a Catholic. I think of him as first a New Yorker. That city was the pool in which he swam, and he felt himself joined by its waters to everybody there.
Actually, all his friends know what he preferred to call himself: God's spoiled child. A child: open to experience, not yet held captive by by theories, able to enjoy swimming without having studied it in school. A child aware that he was spoiled, therefore grateful for his many gifts, never haughty or self-indulgent, instead compassionate toward people less favoured. But a child not just of human parents, so he claimed, but of God Almighty. He was certain in a folk-Irish way of his own worth and lovability. Chutzpah, you say! God's spoiled child with a Harvard Ph.D.—and a Jesuit to boot. Fitzpatrick had a life.
In a trenchant essay presented two months ago in Saskatoon (1995), Robert Bellah built his analysis of community, modernity and religion on Habermas's distinction between lifeworld and systems. The former includes the spoken and written word, family, local community, and religious groups. Systems, on the other hand, above all the market economy and the state, but also that primordial bureaucracy headquartered in Rome, any profession, and summas of philsophy and science, are a step removed from direct experience and exist in tension with it. In systems, what you honestly say to me and I to you matters less than money, power, law, principles, or some reified version of truth. Bellah agreed with Habermas that in our time, systems tend to subordinate and colonize lifeworld instead of serving it. People not only lack opportunities to speak in their own voices; they lose their own voices.
Fitzpatrick never lost his. Like the classic sociologists, he inhabited lifeworld (he would prefer the vernacular term instead of Lebenswelt). He was one student of Parsons on whom the social-systems treatment never took, nor did he wrap himself in Sorokin's system, much less Homans's. I'm not sure the Harvard brands of sociology had much effect at all except on Joe's self-confidence. His doctoral thesis, completed in 1949, was entitled White Collar Worker on Wall Street. It was concerned, he wrote,
with the goals, the motives, the ideals which people strive for in their work experience, because it is primarily this striving for satisfying social living, not the fulfillment of an economic function, that holds the key to an understanding of modern industrial situations. (Quoted in In Celebration of..., 1983)
That sounds to me like Chicago School ethnography, the kind of statement Charles R. Henderson or W. I. Thomas might have written. Or maybe Simmel or Tocqueville, scholars who looked at things through everyday people's eyes, instead of through a systemic lens. It was lifeworld Fitzpatrick was looking for in his research. He took it as his vocation to confront powerholders in the church, the academy, and the state with life as everyday people were living it.
His career was therefore in the service not of knowledge but of the interplay between knowledge and practice, thought and action, values and facts. In the late thirties, years before his graduate work in sociology, he worked as what he called a labour priest at the Xavier Institute of Industrial Relations in Lower Manhattan, teaching aspirant union leaders techniques of organizing workers, negotiating contracts, establishing grievance procedures, and securing rights. He saw those workers as his fellow swimmers in the biggest pool in America. His job was to help them articulate their lived experience, and take action on this basis. His later career as a sociologist was built on this activist foundation. Like Lester Frank Ward, Albion Small, Jane Addams, and most others in the founding generation of American sociology, Fitzpatrick saw no contradiction between sociology and democratic action. God's spoiled child had no time for sociology as Durkheim conceived of it, as a science for its own sake.
Fitzpatrick's priority on understanding life-world, and on working to make social systems more responsive to life-world, comes through clearly in the book for which he is best known among sociologists: Puerto Rican Americans: the Meaning of Migration to the Mainland (1971, 1987). Chapter Seven, for example, entitled "The Problem of Color," is essentially a demonstration that the dichotomous conceptualization of race in the 1950 U.S. Census of Puerto Rico, and the standard division of Americans into whites and non-whites, does not square with the Puerto Rican life-world. He reviews the wide variety of terms by which Puerto Ricans distinguish one another in their own language, mixing references to skin colour, class, and affection (negrito, moreno, mulatto, indio, grifo, de color, pardo, trigueño), and in this way illuminates the ambiguities of political relations between "Nuyoricans" and New Yorkers of black American origin. The book illustrates powerfully Fitzpatrick's attentiveness to empirical data on the one hand, but on the other hand his suspicion of all efforts to capture human beings in systematic conceptual categories. Shockingly for a work of sociology, the final chapters resort to long quotations from Nuyorican literature. Fitzpatrick writes:
When one reads a book like that of Piri Thomas, Down These Mean Streets, or the poems of Pedro Pietri, or watches a Puerto Rican audience respond to the music of Charlie Palmieri or Tito Puente, or sees the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre or the Ballet Hispanico, or listens to a choir of young people at mass, the vitality of the second generation bursts out and one realizes that whatever the data may indicate, a deeply important human experience is in progress that is never captured in the data. (1987, p. 180f).
A quotation like this suggests how far removed Fitzpatrick was, in his conception of sociology and its place in the public order, from the explicitly or more often implicitly positivist orientation, the scholastic detachment, that has overtaken our discipline since the 1930s. For the sake of legitimating himself and the Fordham department, he understood the need to publish in the major journals, and he was proud of his articles on ethnic assimilation in the American Journal of Sociology (1965, 1975). So far as I know, he acquiesced 30 years ago to the transformation of the American Catholic Sociological Society into the Association for the Sociology of Religion. But in terms of how he conducted his own career, he did not at all fit the bill of a specialist in the sociology of ethnicity or religion, as understood in the professional mainstream. His conception of sociology, and of himself as a sociologist, remained rooted in the older, activist, Catholic tradition out of which this organization was founded, a tradition not all that different from the activist, pragmatist tradition that inspired the American Journal of Sociology for its first ten years or so. More than once Fitzpatrick told me with some sheepishness how he was chastised by Alvin Gouldner in the late sixties, when the latter came to lecture at Fordham. "You Catholics had a reflexive, value-infused sociology," Gouldner had said, "and you should not have abandoned it."
The single book that probably best captures Fitzpatrick's thought is One Church, Many Cultures (1987), published by Sheed & Ward, a house that serves a specifically Catholic public. Unlike Puerto Rican Americans, this one appeared with "S.J." after the author's name, and Joe inscribed the copy he sent to me: "With the prayer that this little book will help all of us to understand and love each other in the Lord." The book's main thesis is the need for what Fitzpatrick called the inculturation of the Catholic Church in the diverse life-worlds of humanity. The book's sweep is awesome. It begins with the story of the conversion of the uncircumcised Gentile Cornelius in Acts 10, where St. Peter is quoted in support of the author's point: that God does not have favorites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.
In a later chapter Fitzpatrick recounts a story of which he was intensely proud, one he had set down in his first research paper for Parsons's course at Harvard, the story of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci in the 16th century, who sought to wed Christianity to Chinese culture. With nonpartisan evenhandedness, Fitzpatrick applauds almost equally the Franciscan Bernardino Sahagun, who was attempting much the same thing at about the same time among the Aztecs of the New World. "When the meaning of strange beliefs and practices is profoundly explored," Fitzpatrick concluded, "many of them are seen as the natural response of men and women to the awareness of God." The lesson to be drawn was obvious: ecclesiastical and theological systems must be fitted to life-worlds, not the other way around.
But the best part of Fitzpatrick was not in his books. When I joined the Fordham department in the fall of 1969 as a very green new Ph.D., I was struck by the contrast between the two most senior members, Fitzpatrick and Werner Stark. They were friends. As department chair, Joe had recruited Werner on the recommendation of Robert Merton, as the theorist-successor to Nicholas Timasheff. Insightful, learned, Catholic, disciplined, singleminded, and phenomenally skilled with pencil stubs collected off sidewalks in the Bronx, Stark was the compleat intellectual. He had no life to speak of outside the academy, and his books were the measure of the man. Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, could never be content standing on the safe shore of thought. He always had at least one foot in the waters of action. Yes, he was writing a book, but a promised article was overdue, he had a wedding to perform on Saturday, a conference in Chicago next week, and a call to return from some reporter at the Post. I asked him once his plans for the summer. "I don't know," he said, in a tone of exasperation with himself. "I have so many things sitting on my desk I'll probably just look at them all and not get any of them done."
People tell who they are by the company they keep. Fitzpatrick kept company of many kinds: he mentored nearly 50 doctoral students at Fordham, and most of these became his lifelong friends. To hear him talk, he was on friendly terms with everybody who counted in the hierarchy of Fordham, the Jesuit Order, the profession of sociology, municipal and state politics, and the New York Archdiocese. He always referred to Robert Merton as "Bob." His contacts did not stop there. When I was teaching at Fordham in 1979-80, on a visiting appointment Joe had finagled, I went up to Rose Hill over the Christmas holidays to collect exams I had to have marked by the first of the year. Dealy Hall was locked and I had no key. I walked around in the cold until I found a member of campus security, a young Puerto Rican who eyed me suspiciously. "I am a visiting professor and I have to get into my office," I told him. He said no, that the heat was off and his orders were to keep everybody out. "Then can you take me to a phone," I asked, shivering, "so that I can see if Father Fitzpatrick is in his apartment; he will surely have a key and let me in." "You know Father Fitzpatrick?" the young guard asked, his face breaking into a defenseless smile. No phone call was required.
Fitzpatrick was mild-mannered. A perceptive colleague once described him as a marble rolling around on a drum, never making a big racket, but a sound you can't ignore" (quoted in Brown 1983, p. 3). But he was the intellectual mentor and closest friend of Ivan Illich, one of the noisiest, most piercing critics of contemporary culture, an activist intellectual who would deschool society, deprofessionalize work, celebrate awareness, and probably put you and me out of our academic jobs. When Illich left New York to found the Institute of Intercultural Documentation in Puerto Rico, Fitzpatrick was there with him. He stood by Illich when the latter broke with the church, and then joined him in founding the institute in Cuernavaca. Fitzpatrick taught there every summer for at least ten years, alongside Erich Fromm, Everett Reimer, Paolo Freire and Paul Goodman. Both in print and in person, Joe was normally a peacemaking pussycat, but he ran with tigers and blessed their attacks on the tyrannical systems of our time. At the same time, Joe exemplified the possibility of a gentler, more joyful way of life, as witness his close and caring friendship with the late Dorothy Dohen, who was first his student and then his colleague in Fordham sociology.
No embrace of life-world is possible except on a spiritual foundation. Joe's spirituality was in his Irish Catholic bones. Death was for him no alien or enemy, but an integral, essential part of life. I bumped into him once as he returned from officiating at an interment on Long Island. The gravediggers were on strike, so that the deceased had not actually been lowered into the ground, but instead carried off to storage until the strike would be settled. Labour priest or not, Joe was outraged. "We return to the earth." he stormed. "The ceremony is not complete unless that's part of it."
Now the earth has reclaimed even God's spoiled child. If he were here today, he would find some way of reminding us, even if only (on account of professional decorum) by the twinkle of his eyes, that we are God's spoiled children, too, and should act like it.
Bellah, Robert N., 1995. "Community, Modernity and Religion." Keynote address at the Conference on Community, Modernity and Religion: Eurocentric/Aboriginal Conversation," St. Thomas More College, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Brown, Robert M., 1983. "'Father Fitz': a Majority of One for a Minority of Millions," Fordham 17 (September), pp. 2-3.
Fitzpatrick, Joseph P., 1987. One Church, Many Cultures. Kansas City: Sheed & Ward.
Fitzpatrick, Joseph P., 1987. Puerto Rican Americans: the Meaning of Migration to the Mainland. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall (first edition, 1971).
In Celebration of 35 Years of Dedication to Fordham University: Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, S.J., 1983. Pamphlet, Fordham University.
Jacoby, Russell, 1987. The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. New York: Basic Books.