Monsignor Paul Hanly Furfey (1896-1992): Catholic Sociologist Pioneer, Settlement House Organizer
By: Michael Barga
At the turn of the 20th century, sociology was a young field in the United States, and only a handful of advanced degree programs existed for the emerging area of study. In 1895, The Catholic University of America established the first department of sociology in any Catholic university in the United States. At first, most of the courses framed sociology in a philosophical way, and aimed to strengthen the understanding of moral theology and Christian social teaching.
One member of this academic community, Monsignor Paul Hanly Furfey, integrated first-hand experience of social phenomena into his lifelong love of sociology. Furfey’s career is often divided into three phases, and each phase connected to social welfare in a different way. As a dedicated Catholic priest, he exemplified the use of modern social sciences alongside the bold application of Catholic Social Teaching, which gained him notoriety with secular social service agencies and Catholic Church hierarchy alike.
Paul Hanly Furfey was born on June 30, 1896 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He received his elementary and secondary education at parochial schools in Cambridge, then went to Boston College for an A.B. From 1917-1918, he was a Knights of Columbus Fellow at The Catholic University of America (CUA), focusing his study on psychology. Furfey later earned a Master of the Arts at St. Mary’s University in Baltimore. When he entered seminary, he returned to D.C. and was ordained in 1922. He completed a doctorate in Sociology at CUA by 1926 then studied medicine in Germany from 1931 to 1932.
An experience as a student of Monsignor William Kerby at CUA led to young Furfey’s first phase, which held an emphasis on scientific charity and state intervention as a means of social reform. While facts were considered essential, both Kerby and Furfey were careful to distinguish their beliefs from the worldview of positivism, which considered real only that which was observable.
Furfey’s interest in social work and the social sciences rested on his belief that “men are not won over to our Faith by logic but by seeing the Church in action.”1 Subsequently, research through sound methods, both scientific and theological, brought greater success to the Church in action. His dissertation was a study of D.C. gang culture, and he had direct involvement with early Catholic institutions under supervision of Rev. John O’ Grady. The Church in action meant both organizational and personal efforts to undo social ills.
Msgr. Furfey describes 1934 as a new phase in his career. He met the leaders of the Catholic Worker movement which drew his emphasis more toward the personal element of the Church in action. He felt the scientific approach should follow personal dedication exemplified by individuals like Dorothy Day. Furfey began writing of a radicalism that distinguished himself from Kerby and his mentors.
When Msgr. John A. Ryan endorsed the New Deal, Furfey expressed criticism for politically-minded Catholics who seemed absorbed in their work with secular movements, avoiding Ryan by name. Furfey is credited by many as the premier academic and scholar associated with the interconnected Catholic Worker movement and Personalist movements. At CUA, he facilitated a small but committed group of individuals who hoped to embody a response to racism, materialism, and other social issues through personal action. Even before this second phase, Furfey had condemned racism as a glaring offense to true charity, just as his contemporary Monsignor George Higgins would do early in his career as a labor priest.
During the 1930s, Furfey became interested by ideas of beauty and ethical integrity. In the Catholic Worker movement, he saw individuals who were strongly oriented toward personal ethical integrity, toward authentic testimony to the gospel’s concern for the poor, and toward a rejection of materialism. Furfey and a discussion group known as the Campions, decided to manifest their beliefs in a Washington, D.C. settlement house effort for the poor, particularly reaching out to blacks. In 1936, Furfey and Gladys Sellew founded Il Poverello on Tenth Street, N.W., in Washington, D.C.
Il Poverello house, literally “the poor one” house, acted as an outreach to the poor and homeless. Similar to religious orders who were committed to service of the poor, lay Catholics lived at Il Poverello house as an intentional community in the area where they served. They frequently celebrated the sacraments, and Msgr. Furfey’s direct service was often as spiritual presider. Furfey and Gladys Sellew, a nursing professor at CUA, helped bring the efforts to the attention of the professional community, in addition to providing direct services.
Promoting interracial relations was a priority at Il Poverello, an idea which was controversial at the time of its opening in 1936. Furfey and the Campions saw all races and nationalities as members of the body of Christ and contrasted their spiritual work with that of Hull House and efforts they considered based on a bourgeois mindset.
In 1940, Fides house was opened in the same area of Northwest D.C. Its name meant literally “faith” house, and Mary Elizabeth Walsh, a friend and fellow CUA Sociology faculty member, helped run the day-to-day operations in addition to providing professional support. She continued in this role until her resignation in 1958.
Furfey, the Campions, and others involved in the movements expressed views described as a mix of Catholic liberalism and conservatism. They were multi-dimensional, difficult to fit in a box, and outside the usual paradigm. While critical of capitalism and racism as a liberal Catholic may be at that time, there was also a strong rebuke of Marxism and government interventionism, which was more in line with conservative Catholic thought.
One clear example is the opinions expressed on WWII from those in the Catholic Worker and Personalist movements. When the Nazis began their takeover of Europe, many Campions protested and called for personal commitments to respect for all men. When the Americans joined the war, Furfey and others also protested based on the idea that obedience to the state was below the Christian’s obligation to the kingdom of love which would ultimately yield peace.
While personal action took prominence over organized action and scientific charity in this second phase, Furfey still saw his responsibility in contributing through his professional capabilities. Numerous reports about D.C. neighborhoods and related case file research were utilized in hopes of understanding how to best direct authentic efforts in charity. Secular institutions recognized his work and awarded him honorary degrees, including Duquesne University in 1944 and St. John’s University in New York in 1969.
Furfey became a Domestic Prelate in 1958 and in the same year was awarded a papal medal of honor, the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice. Both gestures represented continuing favor for his work by Catholic hierarchy. At that point, he had been head of CUA’s sociology department for over 15 years, guiding the development of the Bureau of Social Research, the National Catholic School of Social Service, and CUA’s Center for Research in Child Development. He was president of the American Catholic Sociological Society and also served on a task force focused on researching juvenile delinquency.
In the midst of these activities, Furfey had produced a number of works including books with provocative challenges to Catholics based on sociological analysis. His works consistently blend different elements of what he hoped would produce a good society, where citizens “develop those human faculties which are most human…in accordance with really human principles of conduct.”2 For Furfey, justice was organic rather than calculated and proportional, like the early economic work of Ryan suggested. Furfey and these radical Catholic movements recognized the eroding of social networks and civic engagement in society, reprimanding it through individual virtue and communal spirituality.
As civil rights and new anti-war movements developed in the 60’s and 70’s, Furfey’s activism was ignited once again. The final phase of his career centered on revolution and continued to develop after his retirement from CUA in 1966. Two areas of specific interest were the Great Society programs and, more significantly, the liberation theology movement of South America. Both movements appeared insufficient to Furfey, and the early pioneer of Catholic sociology sought to conceive of a Christian revolution, based on love. The example of Christ as a revolutionary of love became the focal point during his later years of seeking the good society. In 1973 Furfey helped to found the International Committee of Conscience on Vietnam.
Monsignor Paul H. Furfey died on June 8, 1992, leaving an important legacy for Catholic sociology. His willingness to critically and dynamically examine society while simultaneously serving both the poor and the research community manifest his counter-cultural and communally engaged life. He was a prolific and provocative writer whose work impacted the lives of the poor, and influenced Catholic thought on social welfare and social justice.
Additional works by Monsignor Furfey may also be read through the Internet Archive.
1. “Paul Hanly Furfey and the Social Sciences: Liberal, Radical, and Revolutionary” by Nicholas Rademacher. U.S. Catholic Historian 25(4), (Fall, 2007): 32.
2. “Paul Hanly Furfey’s Quest For A Good Society” Ed. By Bronislaw Misztal, Francesco Villa, and Eric Sean Williams. Washington, D.C.: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 2005: 12.
“History of the Sociology Department” on The Catholic University of America Website: http://sociology.cua.edu/history.cfm
“Biographical Note” on The University Archives of the Catholic University of America Website: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/furfey.cfm
“The Church Irrelevant: Paul Hanly Furfey and the Fortunes of American Catholic Radicalism” by Eugene B. McCarraher. Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 7(2), (Summer, 1997), 163-194.
“Catholic Conscientious Objection during World War II” by Patricia McNeal. The Catholic Historical Review 61(2), (April 1975), 222-242.
Levy, C. (1992, June 11). Paul Hanly Furfey dies at 95. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1992/06/11/paul-hanly-furfey-dies-at-95/e0dc70da-2d60-4aa9-bb50-745733bcda1f/?utm_term=.307d93d95bda
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How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Barga, M. (2013). Monsignor Paul Hanly Furfey (1896-1992): Catholic sociologist pioneer, settlement house organizer. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/furfey-monsignor-paul-hanly/