Sunday, November 20, 2011


From the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”

The Declaration was approved in 1776, but what does “equal” mean? At its conclusion Native Americans are described as “merciless Indian savages” – obviously not “men” and equal. The law of the land, the Constitution, was ratified in 1788. Slaves, women, Native Americans and non property owners were not guaranteed the right to vote. Only white male property owners, 16% of the population, could vote.

Lincoln said in the 1863 Gettysburg address that the U.S. political dedication to equality was an “unfinished work.”

Then there was the cry of Liberty, Fraternity, Equality – the cry of the French Revolution 1789.

The heritage that U.S. 1776 rebels were struggling against is described by Samuel Fielden in a brief autobiography written in the Cook County Jail as he awaited hanging for the Chicago Haymarket riot in 1886. He was one of eight labor leaders convicted of murder in one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in U.S. history. As an immigrant from England, Fielden had great expectations. He wrote, “My elder brother … he was quite radical in his views … it was a constant torment to him to debase himself before his master (employer) as lackeys were compelled to do in England. Now one of these means of debasement was being compelled to put his hand to his cap, in fact to bow down to Gesler (his employer). Thus must the proletariat bow the knee to the ‘bourgeoisie’ or starve, and some people call this liberty of contract.” (The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, Philip S. Foner, ed. Monad Press, New York 1977, p. 144)

Fielden as a young mill worker in England supported the North in the U.S. Civil war even though the war cost them jobs in the cotton mills. English workers cheered the Northern victory, but experiences and observations on a trip to the South after emigrating to the U.S. forced some second thoughts for Fielden. In his autobiography he states, “… the Negro was held in as absolute bondage as he was before the war.” (Ibid. p.151) Does equality refer to status, class, religion, income or all of the above?

From the beginning, Catholic Social Teaching has been about equality. The first social encyclical concerning labor, Rerum Novarum, stated that workers had the right to organize in order to achieve equal status as persons and a living wage. In contrast "liberalism" considered workers as a commodity to be bought and sold at the lowest price.


The Call to Action conference in Milwaukee was so much better than I expected. When I saw the brochure I guessed it would be simply a hierarchy-bashing fiesta – a piñata for those nostalgic for Vatican II. It was that, but the conference was saved by three outstanding speakers - scholars, Marcus Borg, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and Jamie Manson.

The attack on Wisconsin workers was not mentioned in the brochure. Not surprising. Catholic response is muted by the priority of churchy “Social Issues” e.g. women’s ordination, abortion, gay rights, contraception, translation of the Roman Missal, Roman Catholic identity for hospitals. Both conservatives and liberals focus on these issues with a strong sense of purpose. Should Roman Catholic identity be defined by these “Church Social Issues” rather than by The Condition of Working People (Rerum Novarum)?

In my opinion, Church pronouncements on real social Issues are ignored. It seems that Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate just gathers dust. If this Encyclical were an attack on gay rights, it would have been widely read. Right wing Catholics would be saying, “I told you so,” and the left would righteously denounce another ridiculous pronouncement. Both sides would generate lots of print and rhetoric while labor rights would continue to be forgotten, and the church hierarchy would continue to wallow comfortably in tired myths.

It is interesting both Catholic liberals and conservatives are concerned about immigration reform, but not how it relates to labor unions, e.g. a Guest Worker Program or the Employee Free Choice Act – EFCA. The challenge and fear of labor unions perceived by both the right and left in the Roman Catholic spectrum make alliances more difficult. Is there a point of convergence in that Latinos put life into the tired myths in the fight for social justice? For example, Milwaukee Voces de la Frontera – New Sanctuary Coordinator Nancy Flores, with the help of her mother and grandmother, have designed vigils of protest and prayer in such a way that even the “hueros” (non Latinos) are proud to be “Guadalupanos,” (activists devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe) as a “comunidad de base.” (Medellin, Rerum Novarum) A “Comunidad de base,” could be a workers association not necessarily a labor union but a group that works with labor unions for social justice.

I was reminded at the Call to Action round table discussion of the keystone of Roman Catholic Social teaching. I asked, what is the most important document of Catholic Social Teaching? The response was, Rerum Novarum, which gives the rationale for workers right to organize. I agreed; all flows from this point. Before it could be mentioned that John Paul II declared Labor prior to Capital (Laborem Exercens, Part 12) and that labor unions are an “indispensible element of social life” (Ibid. Part 20), the group dispersed for a protest rally. The Milwaukee Catholic Worker group had organized a march and demonstration to protest Marquette Universities sponsorship of the R.O.T.C.

Call to Action keynote speaker Jamie Manson pointed out that her “church downstairs,” a type of “comunidad de base” that doesn’t need to be sanctioned by the hierarchy, has emerged, and is the Church of the future. Manson explained that at the church in New York where she ministers, she is not officially recognized as a priest or official of the church in the “upstairs church liturgy” because of her gender. In the “downstairs church,” at the community meal for the homeless, she has status from the people as a respected minister. This is the new church that is emerging, a “comunidad de base.”(Medellin) A step towards equality; isn’t it time to just forget about the hierarchy?

Another Call to Action keynote speaker, scripture scholar Marcus Borg, helped put Christian action into perspective by noting that the Jesus movement was in opposition to civilization as established by empires throughout history. Jesus, the Palestinian Jew, opposed the Roman Empire and was executed. Borg explained that the empire was for the benefit of the few in control. In resistance, Jesus enjoyed community meals with the alienated.

According to CTA speaker Angie O’Gorman, the best of capitalism follows the dictum of John Stuart Mill, “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Is this really acceptable for the ancient prophets and the Jesus movement? Before he was hanged as one of the Haymarket Martyrs in 1887 labor leader, Albert Parsons, wrote from the Cook County Jail,

“For the greatest good to the greatest number anarchy substitutes the equal right of each and everyone.” “Anarchy is the extension of the bounds of liberty until it covers the whole range of wants and aspirations of man-not men, but Man.” (Ibid. p. 43) “Privileges are none: equal rights for all. Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.” (Ibid. P. 56)

Does income equality mean a level playing field for all in the race for riches? C.T.A. Sunday speaker Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz explained the principle of solidarity in terms of relationship and cooperation as opposed to equality in competition. Fraternity – Sorority is a form of love – compassion, not a method of fair competition for happiness measured by riches. Ms. Isasi-Diaz mentioned the attack on worker rights in Wisconsin and the massive May Day marches organized and sponsored by Voces de la Frontera.

As stated above, a problem for both liberals and conservatives is for Catholic Social Teaching to remain relevant and present. Let us consider an example from the past. During the transition stage to Vatican II, Pius XII, in 1943, watched in silence as the Jews of Rome were sent to Auschwitz yet he made a major pronouncement on the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Gerald Ellard, S.J. commented and quoted Pius XII in his introduction to Pius XII Encyclical Mediator Dei:

“Pope Pius XII affords us, in his customary charge to Rome’s Lenten preachers, what might be called an annual ‘pastoral’ for Rome. That for 1943 dealt at length with the nature and efficacy of prayer and the Mass at the center of the Christian life. ‘The greatest, the most efficacious, and holiest of piety is the participation of the faithful in the holy Sacrifice’ (March 13, 1943).” (Encyclical Letter, Mediator Dei, of Pope Pius XII. With notes by Gerald Ellard, S.J. America Press, 1948, p. 9)

In the Encyclical (Mediator Dei November 20, 1947) Pius XII states, “We ourselves in the course of our address to the Lenten preachers of this gracious city Rome in 1943, urged them warmly to exhort their respective hearers to more faithful participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice.” Ibid. p.15.

The slaughter of the “unequal” Roman Jews was not remembered. Their existence and the memory of their existence were blotted out.

This blog is a review of Catholic Social Teaching with a reference to current events. We are now moving from the beginning documents into the transition stage before Vatican II.

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