Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Origins of Radical Catholicism VI: The Church and Labor Unions part 2

The late nineteenth century saw the rise of Labor Unions as the working classes in the United States, Canada, Australia, and several European nations developed strategies to protect themselves against the exploitation that was making many of their employers rich.  Indeed American society had a numerically small but very wealthy upper class whose money was being made in industry, transportation, and exploitation of natural resources along with a moderately small middle class of professionals, a “survival class” of rural family farmers, and an immense poor class made of urban industrial workers.  When one sees the great mansions of Newport or the Philadelphia “Mainline” and contrasts them with the urban tenements that blighted so many American cities especially in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, the discrepancy is truly shocking.  What is even more amazing  is that the urban poor accepted their situation with relative complacency while the rich ensconced themselves in their fashionable churches—mostly Episcopalian and Presbyterian—with nary a pang of conscience.  Christianity of every sort—Catholic and Protestant—simply did not question the existing social structures, and when clergymen did raise questions, as Father McGlynn had, they found themselves in very hot water indeed and from their bishops, not from outside the Church.  Even as the Irish bishops sided with the English landlords against their own poor faithful who were the tenant farmers on the English and Anglo-Irish estates, the majority of American bishops failed in their responsibility to look out for the temporal welfare of the vast majority—probably 80 percent—of their faithful.  Of course the majority of bishops, while coming from working class families—or like Dennis Dougherty who would become Archbishop of Philadelphia in 1918) had himself worked in the coal mines as a boy—were setting themselves up in fine mansions in the better neighborhoods of their See cities.  Labor Unions were seen to be socialist, even communist.  They threatened the rights of property.  The poor were to be the objects of charity not the reason for social reform. 
An exception to these establishment bishops was James Gibbons of Baltimore.  He was an unlikely exception in many ways.  He was every bit as much a prince-bishop as Corrigan was or O’Connell and Dougherty would be.   In fact, unlike a number of mitered pigs’ ears who fancied themselves to be silk purses, his manners were naturally genteel without being affected and he moved comfortably in the best circles.  The few other liberals in the hierarchy were not particularly interested in the issues of labor.  Of course Ireland was in the Midwest where most of his sheep were safely grazing on the farms of Minnesota.  O’Connell was still in Rome directing the seminarians at the North American.  Moore was in Florida—not an industrial area.  But when Archbishop Taschereau of Quebec attacked the Knights of Labor and declared its Catholic members excommunicate, Gibbons—like a mad dog awakened from his sleep by a trespassing cat—went straining at his chains to attack the Quebec prelate and let it be known that Knights of Labor in his diocese were perfectly free to continue as Catholics in good standing. 
Taschereau had no right, of course, to make rules for Catholics beyond his Archdiocese but he did not see himself as exercising a universal jurisdiction.  His ban was based on what he perceived to be the universal magisterium declared by popes and councils through the centuries that had defended the right of private property and condemned any form of socialism that threatened that right. 
Archbishops Taschereau and Gibbons received their red cardinalatial hats in the same 1886 consistory.  In fact they sailed over to Rome on the same ship.  They probably weren’t shipboard dinner partners as the atmosphere between them was rather chilly—or hot, depending on how you see things.  Taschereau’s complaints about Gibbons’ public disagreement led to the Pope’s taking the question to himself. 
Leo’s conclusion could clearly be foreseen--or so it was thought.  Leo was aristocratic and doctrinally quite conservative.  Taschereau was consistent with previous teaching.  It came as quite a shock, therefore when Leo published his encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891.  Leo did affirm the traditional right to private property and he condemned communism but he said that while the individual had the right to private property the state had the right to regulate it in the interest of the common good.  He also condemned unregulated capitalism.  And, most germane to Gibbon’s argument with Taschereau, he defended the rights of labor to organize.  He viewed the labor of the worker as a commodity that the worker brings to the production even as the owner provides the capital. 
This was a dramatic turn-about in Catholic social thought.  The economic and political establishment could no longer count on the Church’s unrestricted support.  Prelates like Corrigan of New York who had totally opposed the Church’s support of the working class were blindsided—it may be one of the reasons that Corrigan never got a Cardinal’s hat, the last Archbishop of New York to go so bareheaded to his crypt.  I think more important it secured the loyalty of the working class to the Church.  The workers knew that while their bishop and their employer might still enjoy a glass of port togehter on the terrace of one or the other's mansion,  the pope had blessed their struggle for a just wage.  But this wasn’t the end.  Nor is this the end of the thread on the Radicalization of Catholicism. 
The image today is Cardinal Gibbons  

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