Thursday, March 10, 2011

Origins of Radical Catholicism II: The Father McGlynn story part 2

His involvement with the Land League and its earning him the ire of several bishops was not the end of McGlynn’s problems—to the contrary it was just the beginning.  The plight of the Irish Tenant Farmers and the exploitative rents they were being charged drew McGlynn’s attention to the whole issue of land ownership and the relation of landownership to poverty.  The relationship of land to wealth is much less ambiguous in less developed economies than Modern America, but it was certainly true in the late nineteenth century that those who owned land were rich and those who did not were poor and the more land one owned, the richer he or she was.  Today a person could be worth tens or even hundreds of million dollars and own little or no land—wealth being invested in a wide variety of capital beyond land.  It was not that way in the nineteenth century where there was a more direct tie between capital and property.  McGlynn came to view the separation of rich and poor, the immense chasm between America’s Industrial Revolution rich and Industrial Revolution poor, as a result of the disparity in property (including land) ownership and he found himself drawn to the economic theories of Henry George (1839-1897).  George developed an economic theory that held that while people were entitled to ownership of what they produced, the resources of nature, including land, by right belonged to society as a whole, never to individuals.  George proposed that those who used the land should pay a tax for its use and that tax, a “Single Tax” as it was called, would be the sole basis of taxation would provide for the expenses of government including the various pensions and benefits to provide the less fortunate with what we often refer to today as the “social safety net.” This land tax also would to some degree equal out the distribution of wealth among a wider social base.   While it is incomprehensible today that such a “single tax” might be sufficient to provide financial basis for government, apparently in the late nineteenth century economists seeking an alternative to the extremes of the gross greed of “robber baron” capitalism were convinced that the system would worke.  It certainly did not appeal to the sort of people who held the economic cards in nineteenth century New York—Vanderbilts and Rockefellers and Astors and the like. While only the first volume of Karl Marx’s work, Das Kapital, had yet been published (1867) and the second and third volumes were being posthumously edited by his collaborator at the time that George was proposing his theories, Socialism was already being seen as a threat to the existing social order and George’s ideas were seen as threatening to private property.  Cardinal McCloskey of New York, at the direction of Cardinal Simeoni of the Propaganda Fide in Rome, instructed McGlynn not to discuss his ideas on land ownership in public.   Actually McCloskey softened Simeoni’s order which had been to have McGlynn retract his views on land ownership.  McGlynn may not have been aware of Simeoni’s directives and when McCloskey died in 1885 McGlynn felt the death left him free to take up his advocacy not only for Henry George’s ideas but for George’s candidacy for mayor of New York.  He had agreed to speak at a Rally for George on October 1, 1886 when two days before the rally Archbishop Corrigan, McCloskey’s successor as Archbishop of New York, imposed a ban on him speaking on behalf of George.  McGlynn said that he had to honor his commitment and would then refrain from further public speaking.  For talking at the October 1st rally Corrigan suspended him from priestly ministry for two weeks.  When a second suspension was placed on him, McGlynn’s parishioners—and many other New York Catholics—rallied behind McGlynn.   He was known to be a champion of the poor whereas Corrigan was seen, not without reason, to be on the side of the rich.  Someday we will have to take a better look at Archbishop Corrigan as he is an extremely key figure in the history of the Church in the United States—more influential for the battles he lost than the ones he won, and who governed his archdiocese with an eye for protection of the Institutional Church rather than a heart for the integrity of the Gospel.  Does this sound familiar today with the way that the abuse scandals have been handled in many dioceses?  In Corrigan’s defense, however, his conviction of the impeccability of the Church did not allow him to see the disparity between protecting the Institution and defending the Gospel.   
In any event, on January 14, 1887 Archbishop Corrigan removed McGlynn from the pastorate for his obdurate disobedience and sent a letter informing the other bishops and archbishops that McGlynn was barred from priestly ministry.  Cardinal Simeoni summoned McGlynn to Rome to formally retract his land theories which Simeoni believed were incompatible with the Church’s doctrine of the right to private property.  (By the way, Christian faith and Private Property is a fascinating topic for a blog.)  Now here is where the intrigue starts—an intrigue that would end up changing the course of the Bark of Peter.  A friend of Father McGlynn was none other than James Gibbons, the Cardinal Archbishop of Baltimore, who happened to be in Rome at this time.  He cabled McGlynn that he should come at once. McGlynn was reluctant to go however and had his canon lawyer, Rev. Dr. Richard Burstell, write Gibbons a letter to be given to Simeoni explaining McGlynn’s position canonically and pleading McGlynn’s health as a reason why he could not come to Rome.  Gibbons, for an unknown reason, chose not to give Cardinal Simeoni the letter but only a verbal report.  Not receiving a written response from McGlynn, Pope Leo XIII gave McGlynn 40 days to appear in Rome or to be excommunicate.  McGlynn, unaware that his letter had never been received by the pope or by Cardinal Simeoni, was aggrieved that he was threatened with excommunication and argued that he had been obedient to legitimate authority all along, claiming that it was Corrigan’s unreasonable demands that had led to his suspension and being summoned to Rome rather than any action on his part.  McGlynn was excommunicate on July 4, 1887.  As one might as well be hung for a sheep as for a Lamb, McGlynn took his excommunication as an absolution from any obedience to the contrary and became a regular speaker on the subject of the Single Land Tax and Henry’s George’s political and economic philosophy.  The years of devoted service to the poor and arguing for economic reforms to relieve their plight left McGlynn with a strong following among the ordinary people—Catholic people—who did not regard his excommunication as anything more than petty vengeance on the part of those who always had taken the side of the rich against them.  McGlynn’s alienation from the Church ended up hurting Corrigan more than it did McGlynn.  But the story isn’t over by any means—next installment: the black sheep and the white shepherd. 
 the image today is Father McGlynn in his prime

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