Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Rerum Novarum was a revolutionary document that challenged capitalism at the core, but only right wing capitalists recognized this. Unfortunately the Encyclical missed so much that was happening, and advocated idealized structures of the middle-ages that were repressive.

The Encyclical focused on the horrible situation of working people in Europe. It’s as if Leo XIII went for a fifteen minute walk in the White Chapel neighborhood on the east end of London, threw up, then wrote Rerum Novarum – “The Condition of Labor,” from the catacombs of Rome.

There was no comment on the policy of Great Britain toward Ireland during the Potato famine of 1845 -1850. ‘Capitalism - economic liberalism’ was a cause of the famine and allowed millions to starve to death. Couldn’t the revolution in Mexico be for-seen? Inequality of wealth and economic power between nations was evident. World War I was not far in the future. What about racism, and women’s rights? Such issues needed to be related to economic policy.

Some more hushed voices from the past:

Women were admitted to Marquette in 1909, and Marquette then became the first co-ed Roman Catholic college in the world. “Nina Polcyn Moore, Jour. M.U. ’35, was a student activist when she visited the Catholic Worker house in New York’s Bowery. She journaled, ‘It was so bleak so agonizing. Red bugs, bread lines, dirt, drunks, narcotic addicts, senile old people, perpetual crises - and a demure young lady from Milwaukee.’” Nina Polcyn Moore started a Catholic Worker House in Milwaukee and was a life long friend of Dorothy Day. “Marquette Magazine,” Fall, 2009. The Duty of Delight, the Diaries of Dorothy Day, Ed. Robert Ellsberg, p.227.

St. Benedict the Moor Parish was founded in 1908 by African American Charles Valle who struggled against discrimination in Roman Catholic churches. Gesu Church on the Marquette ‘campus’ was the main Roman Catholic Church for Blacks, but they were relegated to the balcony for mass. Saint Benedict the Moor – A Legacy Revisited, Dolores A. Foster Williams. pp. 7 - 8.

In 1922 the Pfister-Vogel tannery on South Sixth Street recruited about 100 Mexican men to take the jobs of striking Anglos.” “Oppression of the Catholic Church in Mexico provoked armed intervention by a group that became known as ‘Los Cristeros.” Like thousands of others, in 1926, Miguel Sevilla Chavez fled his country. Latinos in Milwaukee, J.A. Rodriquez, Ph.D., and Walter, Ph.D., ch.1.

The Economist, James Wilson, answered Irish pleas for public assistance with the claim that ‘it is no man’s business to provide for another.’ He asserts that official intervention would shift resources from the more to the less deserving, since ‘if left to the natural law of distribution, those who deserved more would obtain it.’ One of the most evocative images of the Irish Famine is of a people being left to starve while their corn was being shipped off under military protection to pay rents. Poverty in the midst of Plenty crudely put.” The Great Irish Famine, Ed. Cathal Poirteir, p.249

It wasn’t strict neo-Platonism, but Socialists were put off by ‘pie in the sky’ theology, anti-socialist rhetoric, and the inability of Leo XIII and his advisors to recognize and point out that ‘class warfare’ was a fact, at least in a capitalist system.

Some of those that accepted the Encyclical as prophetic missed the point, and they saw Rerum Novarum as advocating a “kinder gentler capitalism.”

Father John Ryan when he wrote, Bishops Program of Social Reconstruction in 1919, made an important criticism of the AFL plan for post WWI economic change. He noted that the union federation plan did not include those who were not members of a union or most likely not to be unionized. He opposed the AFL plan to tax unused land. Ryan anticipated the more clear language of future encyclicals such as ‘preferential option for the poor’ to be implemented by changes in ‘economic and political structures.’

Hold it, wait a minute:

The Calvinist Protestants are supposed to be the advocates of individualism; if you’re poor, it’s your own fault, but the Roman Catholic Papal Encyclicals put the blame on economic and political structures. At the current ground level, however, the Wauwatosa Presbyterian Church is one of the strongest supporters of Milwaukee Voces de la Frontera New Sanctuary Movement. In contrast from the Roman Catholic side, a lay volunteer from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee at a youth center in Quito, Ecuador stated, “Membership in the Working Boys Center is contingent on taking personal responsibility for one’s condition …Poverty is a moral problem rather than an economic one.” The Catholic Herald, Milwaukee, Oct. 15, 2009.

Whoa – Nelly, hold it another minute:

Sister Mary McCauley, B.V.M., whose father was at one time the Milwaukee County D.A., provided sanctuary and protested vehemently the raids on immigrant workers in Postville, IA.

Rerum Novarum trashed both capitalism and communism. Would a successful third way ever be found?

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