The insider

Reviewed By Steven P. Millies
Wednesday, August 2, 2023

I have been telling people to read Ed Marciniak’s 1969 book, “Tomorrow’s Christian,” for more than a decade. The book embraces the Second Vatican Council’s vision of a church with its clergy in the midst of God’s people, leading the church from within to transform the world.

Yet, with that thought in mind, consider this tough line from Marciniak’s book: “When a priest marches in a picket line to protest racial discrimination, he is also publicizing to the world — without intending to do so — his failure to develop laymen who hate racial discrimination as much as he does.” No matter how just the cause, Marciniak wrote, the church wins people by conversion, not pressure, and political life is principally the domain of laypeople.

In the middle of the 20th century, the Archdiocese of Chicago produced an extraordinary generation of people devoted in the same way to social justice. They shared the conviction that laypeople, with the support of their clergy, would build a better world.

Marciniak was one of the most remarkable people in that group. Now he is the subject of an excellent biography from Charles Shanabruch, professor emeritus of history at Chicago’s Saint Xavier University.

The book is notable for several reasons. First, the most superficial thing of all: “Ed Marciniak’s City and Church” is a beautiful volume, with a striking cover illustration by Steve Shanabruch. Second, Charles Shanabruch profited tremendously as a biographer from the close collaboration of many who knew Marciniak, including Marciniak’s children. Third, this very readable biography’s thematic method conveys significant narrative power.

Shanabruch does not offer us a chronological account of Marciniak’s life. Instead, Marciniak emerges in chapters that address different parts of his life and work as a journalist, an activist, an official of city government, an ally of the poor and marginalized and as a Catholic layperson.

Themes emerge, are recalled, and sometimes the same events are recounted more than once. The effect is not tedious.

To read this biography is like looking at a painting: a detail catches your eye, you shift your gaze to another detail, then step back and see those details again together. Life isn’t only chronological, after all, and it is fitting a biography should capture the way we experience life. 

Probably the most remarkable thing about Marciniak was the decade he spent working for city government during the mayoralty of Richard J. Daley. After learning his faith in his Brighton Park parish and (briefly) as a seminarian, then becoming an activist with the Catholic Worker and then a journalist, Marciniak eventually joined the Daley administration during the hardest years of the 1960s as executive director of the Chicago Commission on Human Rights.

In that role, Marciniak was at the center of events when Martin Luther King Jr. came to march in Marquette Park in 1966. Marciniak described his and Daley’s determination to help King leave Chicago “with a victory.” Years later, while interviewed for the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” Marciniak defended Daley and ticked down a list of Daley’s civil rights accomplishments — as Shanabruch tells it, a “progressive social idealist” in Richard J. Daley’s cabinet.

These are contradictions Shanabruch does not avoid. “Sometimes when you are in your bed at night,” Shanabruch quotes a letter to Marciniak from an African American writer, “doesn’t your soul ache for the lies you concocted for the sake of ameliorating a vicious democracy-crushing political machine?”

Shanabruch’s biography casts light on the compromises that came with the political territory Marciniak chose. The book leaves the impression that Marciniak’s sensibilities were political, and he understood that compromises are inevitable in a sinful world. He understood Daley and Chicago politics. He chose to be an insider believing he could bring about change more effectively inside the system rather than outside it. 

Marciniak died in 2004, well after enough time had passed to know the church and the world he hoped for had gotten very little closer. The same questions still bedevil us.

Is change better made from inside with compromises or from outside without them? Can laypeople believe confidently and fiercely enough to navigate this world and its compromises as saints in the cities where we live?

Concluding “Tomorrow’s Christian,” Marciniak wrote that the person who faces their “personal responsibility recites his personal act of contrition, shoulders his share of the burden, and then takes the initiative.” Charles Shanabruch invites us with this wonderful biography to examine the life of one who did just that. Encountering Marciniak this way, now we see the initiative is ours to take.