Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Origins of Radical Catholicism V: The Church and Labor Unions

Sorry for the break—I needed a few days to catch  up on my day job.  In the meantime, I had several emails asking me to continue with the theme of the radicalization of the American Church.  I had been thinking of returning to that series on the turning back the clock on Vatican II, but I will continue the story of how the Catholic Church in the United States became radicalized.    We finished with Father McGlynn, but not with the rest of the characters.
We will pick up the thread with a layman with some, for this time, radical views—just as radical as McGlynn—and that is Terrence Powderly.  Powderly was the son of Catholic Irish Immigrants who settled in Carbondale PA.  in 1874 he joined a labor union known as the Holy and Noble Order of the Knights of Labor.  The Knights were drawn from a wide variety of professions—not a single occupation—and they had borrowed some key organizational principles and rituals from the Masons.  Post Civil War America was enchanted by medieval images and rituals and the idea of Knights and secret rituals was a drawing card.  Nevertheless, the Knights of Labor began quickly to evolve from a fraternal society towards the more modern concept of a labor union.  With the collapse of the National Labor Union in 1873 many of its members migrated towards the Knights of Labor while others turned to the American Federation of Labor (AF of L).
Powderly joined the Knights of Labor in 1876 and by 1879 was “Grand Master Workman”—the head of the organization.  He remained in this position until 1893. It was a time of growth and victory for the organization.  The membership increased from ten thousand to seven hundred thousand  (some records claim up to a million).  This included 10,000 women and 50,000 African Americans.  Powderly’s vision was not only to protect (or actually to achieve) workers’ rights but  to unite all workers—skilled and unskilled—into a single organization to achieve social and economic reforms that were tilting the balance of power in favor of the big industrialists.   Powderly was advanced for his time, but he did have some chinks in his armor—while open to African American members, his union opposed Chinese immigration as they saw the Chinese migrants undermining the goals of the Knights by providing strike-breakers.
Now the Catholic Church was not in favor of Labor Unions.  European attempts to organize labor tended to have ties to secret organizations condemned by the Church as well as to express socialist ideas not compatible with Catholic doctrine about property.  In the nineteenth century the Catholic Church had a strong record of social and economic conservativism.  You have to remember how badly the Church was burned by the experience of the French Revolution.  Catholicism was very much on the side of the ancien regime.  Even the two popes who had come to Peter’s Chair as liberals (Pius VII and Pius IX) soon lost their enthusiasm for a new social order when they saw how it would undermine the authority (and wealth) of the Church.  The Church—like many people today—put its faith in charity, not justice and believed that the role of those with power and wealth was simply to provide for those who could not care for themselves.  Indeed many people in the nineteenth century felt that wealth was divinely ordained and that the “haves” had at God’s disposal and the poor—again at the disposal of God—had not.  One of my favorite examples of this is an old Anglican hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
This song was written by Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander, the wife of an Anglican Clergyman (later Bishop and Then Archbishop-Primate) at Markree Castle Sligo while visiting friends, Col and Mrs Edward Joshua Cooper (the seigneur and dame of the castle) in 1848.  It was the middle of the potato famine.  The people inside the Castle (the Alexanders and the Coopers) whose estate God supposedly had been ordered to being rich, were Anglicans.  The Poor at the gate—likewise ordered by divine will into poverty and famine—were Catholics.  For many people,  both then and now, the fellowship of class is stronger than the fellowship of the Gospel.  But I wander.  Perhaps even pontificate.  Back to the story.
As I wrote, the Catholic Church had opposed labor unions.   That is not to say that it endorsed child labor or unjust labor conditions—only that it thought reform should come about through the conversion of hearts rather than political or social organization.  As the Knights of Labor grew and began to spread internationally, Archbishop Taschereau of Quebec condemned the movement and put an excommunication on any Catholic who belonged. 
Our friend Cardinal Gibbons (then only an Archbishop) disagreed) and publically declared: "Archbishop Taschereau's condemnation of the Knights of Labor should not be taken as the sentiment of the church toward that organization.” Gibbons did not claim that Taschereau could not impose a ban Knights in his own Archdiocese, but he insisted Taschereau did not speak for the universal Church.  Taschereau insisted that he did.  In 1886 both men were named to the College of Cardinals and ironically sailed for Rome on the same ship.  Whatever the weather, it had to have been a stormy voyage but it would fall to the pope to decide the issue 
   the image today is Cardinal Taschereau of Quebec (1820-1898) who condemnation of the Knights of Labor led to a reversal of Church policy on labor unions

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