Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Origins of Radical Catholicism

Several days ago I published a letter (in edited form) that I had received from a liberal voter-motivational group commenting on the issue in Wisconsin with the governor trying to take away collective bargaining rights from Wisconsin State employees.  I had always thought that American Catholics knew the tradition of Catholic teaching on social issues, and in particular the rights of labor to organize, but I am finding out that not everyone went to Catholic Schools as good as the one I went to back in the 50’s and early 60’s.  (I graduated 8th grade three and a half months before Vatican II opened—so I qualify as a pre-Vatican II Catholic School grad.)  The nuns—the Sisters of Mercy—beat this labor union tradition into us and the good members of the Society of Jesus (these were their pre-liberal years—Father Arrupe, aka Bl. Pedro, was elected General when I was in High School) drove the tradition home as well, even though I was one of the few students to come to their fancy-schmancy school from a working class family.  So I think I will start a new strand on Catholics and Labor to share what the good sisters and fathers taught me. 
The nineteenth century was hardly a time when the Catholic Church espoused liberal principles.  At the close of the eighteenth century the Church got whacked up the side of the head by the French Revolution.  It was not pretty.  Across Europe, the Church lost huge amounts of property in the social reorganization effected by the Revolutionaries, not to mention the countless victims of the guillotine—priests, religious, bishops, and laity—during the more radical phases of the Revolution in France itself.  The chapter (dean and canons) of Notre Dame in Paris—before the Revolution one of the wealthiest Church institutions in Europe—were reduced to such poverty that they had to beg for brooms to clean the cathedral when it was reopened for Catholic Worship in 1801.  Pius VII came to the papal throne as a liberal but his arrest and detention (I won’t say imprisonment; it is too strong a word) in France by Napoleon moved him considerably to the right.  Gregory XVI (other than for his condemnation of slavery and the slave trade) was totally in favor of the ancien regime, and Pius IX, like Pius VII, began as a Liberal but the 1848 revolution that cause him to flee Rome left him an implacable conservative, indeed reactionary.  In other words this was a papacy that was firmly behind Tradition, Authority, and Property.  It has a justified paranoia about the liberté, égalité, fraternité of the Enlightenment and the Revolution it had brought about.  Its commitment to aristocracy, traditional social order and the rights and privileges thereof understood labor to be subordinate to capital while the middle and working classes (and, of course, the poor) were to be entrusted to the “protection” of the aristocracy.  The Church at this time also saw Monarchy as the divinely ordained social order and was highly suspicious of democracy which overturned the idea that authority is from God to his anointed and chosen rulers; Catholic thought rejected the idea of vox populi vox dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God).  This was not an atmosphere in which the rights of labor were about to flourish.
Americans, including Catholic Americans, tended to see things a bit differently.  American Catholics had supported democratic government from the time of our revolution which Catholics—then a minority religion located almost exclusively in Maryland and Pennsylvania—universally supported.  American Catholics had never supported Monarchy, which to them represented the repression of their faith as they knew only the British Crown which had so long put Catholics at legal disadvantage when they weren’t actually being persecuted.  A century of republican government had given American Catholics great confidence in the idea that political authority comes from God through the citizenry not directly to civil officials. Moreover, Catholic clergy—and even a few bishops—supported the rights of the working class out of a genuine pastoral concern.  After all, the vast majority of American Catholics in the late 19th century were working class and immigrants in search of employment.  The economic-capital class who benefitted from the Industrial Revolution were overwhelming the old (and in the case of Andrew Carnegie and a few others, new) Protestant American aristocracy.  Let’s take a look at the example of one of the more forward looking priests of the period—the Reverend Jeremiah Cummings of Saint Stephen’s Church in New York. 
Cummings was an extremely talented man—a linguist, a musician, and a powerful orator.  He was a close friend of the literary convert to Catholicism (from Calvinism via Universalism), Orestes Brownson, and was himself a noted writer.  Sent to Rome by Bishop DuBois for his education and assigned to the Cathedral on his return, Cummings travelled in the best of circles and in 1848 when he established Saint Stephen’s Parish in what is now the Lower East Side he drew “the better sort” of people to the church by his gifts for preaching and good music.  At the same time, he was a noted social thinker whose “outside the box” ideas on everything from seminary education to social welfare stirred a considerable about of controversy.  Although educated in Rome, he was one of the earlier “Americanist” thinkers who wanted to adapt Catholicism to American political and social models without lessening the doctrinal stringency of the faith—indeed as an Americanist intellectual he and Browning and others—saw the Catholic doctrinal tradition to be just what America needed to give its democratic spirit the rich loam in which it could develop healthy intellectual roots that would guarantee its republican ideals a stable future.  People like Cummings, Browning, and Issac Hecker (another intellectual convert) were able to see the forest of Catholic culture through the trees of Catholic customs ((I won’t’ say traditions for fear of being misunderstood for Catholic Tradition).  They were often misunderstood (and still today often not appreciated) for their ability in forward thinking. Cummings’ keen awareness of American society and Catholic faith let him see (and write and preach) that new solutions to the problems of poverty needed to be found and he used his pulpit as a powerful tool to advance the cause of the working classes.  Saint Stephen’s became known not only for its beautiful music and elegant liturgy, but for social outreach to the immigrant and working poor.  More on this subject to follow—the famous Father McGlynn!!!
The image today is a portrait of the younger Father Issac Hecker, founder of the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle, or Paulist Fathers

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