Traditionally today is May Day, the Workers’ Day. Though it has somehow got moved to May 8th. For almost 135 years the Catholic Church has officially been a seemingly improbable advocate of workers’ rights. Repudiation of Socialism and socialist thinking, partly explain Pope Leo XIII’s famous landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum (The Condition of the Working Class) published in 1891. But, with genuine concern for the plight of workers in industrial societies, the Pope proposed what today is called “a living wage”, and put the Vatican’s support behind “workingmen’s unions and associations”, our trades unions. This kind of advocacy of what amounted to workers’ rights was new to Popes.
Until the 1950s, the Vatican saw the ‘social problem’ as essentially a matter of individual behaviour, the relations between employers and employees, between capitalists and labour. The deployment of Christian virtues by both sides, the fulfilment of their reciprocal duties, would bring just socio-economic relationships and a harmonious society. The Church recognised the class structure of industrial society; Marxism was primarily anathema because it promoted atheism and secondarily because of the way it promoted class conflict whilst the Church’s goal was social harmony and order.
The French Revolution’s attack on the Church sowed fear of revolution in general. But in his 1839 pamphlet On Modern Slavery, the remarkable French Abbé and philosopher, Félicité de Lamennais, later to leave the priesthood under Vatican censure, placed the abject dependence of the proletariat on Capital at the heart of social concern. The Bolshevik Revolution and Stalin’s subsequent ruthless elimination of religion and religious leaders and believers created the further fear of what communism and dialectical materialism meant in practice. For the Church, it confirmed its fear of the proletariat, or at least, the anti-clericalism of revolutionary movements. It became imperative elsewhere not to “lose the working class”, or rather to try to regain it. Only genuine, religiously motivated, concern for workers’ rights and pastoral concern for their human dignity could achieve that. Communism came to sum up for Rome what the Church must combat in its social teaching and practice.
The Church’s rejection of class conflict was in many ways self-defeating. The industrial era had generated a class differentiated society, each class with its different milieu or culture. The Church’s pastoral strategy needed to acknowledge and understand how these different milieux functioned, their language, values, demands, and expectations.
A young Belgian priest, Joseph Cardijn, later made a Cardinal, founded the J.O.C. Jeunesse Ouvrière Catholique (JOC), Young Christian Workers in 1926. Its see-judge-act methodology introduced to the first JOC organised groups a way of deciding on what action to take respecting their particular mileu. Instead of a paternalist and essentially individualist approach, calling for social justice for workers from virtuous employers, Cardijn sought the immersion of lay activists in the worker milieu and mobilisation of workers to procure their legitimate goals and rights.
Immersion in the life of industrial workers, or agricultural labourers, revealed to the young participants that class conflict was an undeniable reality. Young Christian Student groups were drawn into supporting workers in their demands. The same experience befell the post-war French worker priest movement of the 1950s, begun by the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Emmanuel Suhard. His Mission de France – to evangelise the working class – put committed priests into situations where they inevitably became militantly engaged, sometimes in leadership positions, in trades unions. The movement was banned by Rome in 1954, not very successfully and worker priests still exist today. Suhard’s worker priests had created an almost irresolvable conflict between parish ministry, contained within the episcopal, hierarchical structures of the Church, and worker ministry which made radical demands on the priests involved tending to place them – uncontrolled - outside parish structures.
Latin America proved fertile ground for Catholic action based on Cardijn’s methodology. Here the dynamics were different from Europe. Except for Chile and Argentina, a well -developed industrial working class was only just forming. The Church in the 1950s began to combat communist mobilisation of agricultural labour and peasants. This endeavour was most advanced in rural areas of North-East of Brazil. And at first, it involved educational approaches, through Catholic radio stations. But the pastoral strategy evolved, much aided by Paulo Freire’s radical educational methods – described in his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed - into mobilisation of peasant groups and creation of Basic Christian Communities. Unlike Europe, a small but critical mass of bishops were involved and supportive of the progressive theologians, led by the diminutive bishop of Recife, Dom Helder Camara . A similar process was underway in the Philippines.
The Brazilian experiment had emancipated itself by the 1960s from being a reaction to communism and had become a comprehensive pastoral plan of action. Agricultural workers’ rights became inextricably linked with questions of land tenure and ownership, the plight of landless peasants, and opposition to imported US ideas about development and modernity rapidly encroaching on Brazil’s national politics. Out of this ferment came a key strand in the origins of Liberation Theology which started with the conviction that in the divine plan the poor must ‘make their own history’ even in the midst of brutal military repression. It was a theology that drew on a distinctly Latin American experience and a variant of Marxism associated with the writings of the Peruvian José Maria Mariátegui. There was a linear path traceable to the creation of the Workers’ Party (PT) that took power in Brazil under Ignácio Lula da Silva in 2003.
Despite the savagery of military dictatorships in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Brazil, for example, in which trades unionists and leaders of peasant movements were brutally repressed, the rejection of class conflict, or at least the desire to seek other ways of realising human rights, continued amongst most Latin American bishops and in Rome. Conservative bishops, the Vatican and powerful evangelical Churches lined up to attack the liberation theologians. But on the side of communists and socialists there was a thaw: a growing acceptance of radical Church organisations in Brazil, with the murder of Church workers and leaders - such as Oscar Romero - threatening to make Marx’s ‘opium of the people’ claim about religion redundant.
Reflection on the development of thinking on workers’ rights in the Catholic Church should give pause for thought this May Day. There is a lot more to think about than how St. Joseph the Worker ran his carpentry business. But I doubt if sermons will be preached this weekend about workers’ rights in the gig economy and in the post-Covid-19 world. It is time to send out a mayday call: Catholicism is distorted when treated as necessarily the natural ally of capitalism. This assumption must be historically called in question.