Wednesday, January 28, 2015

‘Worker Priests,’ where did they end up?

A BOOK REVIEW: SCANNING THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES – French Dominicans in the Twentieth Century by Thomas F. O’Meara and Paul Philibert, ATF Theology, Adelaide, 2013.

   Patrick Marrin wrote an excellent review of Scanning the Signs of the Times in the National Catholic Reporter.  I enjoyed the review and would like here to emphasize the work of two of the seven Dominicans considered in the book.  The Dominicans were from the Saulchoir Studium in Belgium which later moved to France.  Marrin’s review was comprehensive and covered all seven Dominicans whose theology provided the backbone for Vatican II.

   I would like to emphasize the work of Luis-Joseph Lebret, O.P., and Jacques Loew, O.P.  They had significant impact on Catholic Social Teaching concerning labor.

Luis-Joseph Lebret, O.P.

    The Vatican II document, Gaudium et Sp,s and the Paul VI Encyclical, Populorum Progressio, represent an important advance in Catholic Social Teaching.  Luis-Joseph Lebret had a determining influence on both documents.  He brought a world-wide economic perspective to Catholic Social teaching which is evident in Populorum Progressio. He deals with trade issues and neo-colonialism. 
   The corporate model of economics advocated by Catholic Social teaching was modified by Gaudium et Spes, declaring that workers had not only the right to organize but also to elect their own leaders.  Lebret insisted on reversing the top down approach to politics as practiced by communism, capitalism and fascism.

   The ‘worker priest’ movement was a result of Lebret’s experience- driven sociology and analysis.  ‘Justice for the worker’ – the people - was a key to achieve peace.  The age of anxiety of the 50’s and 60’s was the result of an apocalyptic challenge to humanity.  Lebret stated in his book Le Drame du Siecle first published in 1960:

People are now playing while atomic war or the revolution of the rest of the world threatens them with total extinction, invasion or occupation.  (English edition: The Last Revolution, Sheed and Ward, New York, 1965, p. 164)

Lebret understood the urgency of dialogue and the importance of Vatican II for the world.  Scanningco-author Paul Philibert states that the “voice and influence” of Lebret is clear in #83 of Gaudium et Spes:

If peace is to be established, the first condition is to root out those causes of discord between people which lead to wars especially injustice. (Scanning… p. 73) 
Peace through justice was the hope expressed by Vatican II.

Jacques Loew, O.P. (Religious name – Marie Reginald)

   Jacques Loew was ordained a priest in 1939 – the beginning year of WW II.  Loew was, like his mentor Lebret, a sociologist.  Both had background studying the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas in the Dominican Studium of Saulchoir.  The realism of the Aquinas tradition legitimized the study and practice of sociology for the solemnly dedicated religious.

   At Lebret’s suggestion, Loew went to Vichy-controlled Marseille in 1941 and became one of the first ‘worker priests.’  (Vichy – France deported thousands of Jews to extermination camps in Germany during WW II, Loew and Lebret thought if you want to understand the proletariat you had to be part of it.  Statistics were not sufficient.  Loew wrote:

Social mixing is a thing of the past: The teacher who instructs you, the doctor who prescribes for you, the priest who absolves you, all come from outside with their services or blessings. (M.R. Loew, Mission to the Poorest, Sheed and Ward, New York, 1950, p. 83)
  The ‘worker priest’ had to be involved in the union movement. But increased wages to “create a bourgeois worker would scarcely be a gain.” (Ibid. p. 118)  Education of workers was required. (‘Concientizaciรณn’ is the term used in Latin America)  Economic and political structures could and should be changed from the bottom up.  Like Lebret, Loew had a world vision.  Solidarity needed to be international.  He wrote:

The emancipation of the people by its own leaders has given birth to heroes, martyrs and saints.  Re-read the story of the Chicago martyrs, who in 1887 (actually 1886) originated May Day. (Ibid. p. 94) 

Remember by 1945, the date of the English translation of this book, May Day was labeled in the United States as a communist holiday.  In 1955 Pius XII inaugurated May 1st as the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker to counter May Day celebrations considered communist.  Loew continued:

Take up again the recently published letters of the militants – believers and atheists – shot during the Occupation (German occupation of France) … ‘There is no greater love than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ (p. 94)   
He mentions the German occupation, the unity needed to fight the invaders, but what about the Jews?  There is nothing about the holocaust in the Scanning narrative which covers the WW II years.  The book reports that Yves Congar, O.P., a prisoner of the Germans during WW II and one of the seven covered in Scanning, contributed in writing the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate which successfully fostered dialogue with non Christian religions – including Jews and Muslims but especially with Jews. (Scanning, p. 50)  Another of the seven Dominicans considered in Scanning was Marie-Alain Couturier who collaborated with the Jewish Artist Marc Chagall on the art work at a church, Notre Dame de Tout Grace, in Plateau d’Assy in the French Alps opposite Mt. Blanc. (Scanning. p. 130) 

   The ‘worker priest’ movement promoted by the Dominicans of Saulchoir was in dialogue with the world, even the communists, before Vatican II.  The attempt was to form a united front for justice to achieve peace. The backdrop of Vatican II was the Cuban missile crisis.  Dialogue did achieve a reprieve from nuclear destruction.  Pius XII squelched the ‘worker priest’ movement in 1953, but the momentum of the Saulchoir Dominicans was re-invigorated by John XXIII.   Vatican II was effective but, unfortunately limited.  The post Vatican II Roman Catholic Church did produce important documents on justice for workers and moved forward in dialogue with non-Christian religions, but did not succeed in moving forward in transforming the role of the priest. 

     Today, the Roman Catholic priest is a male with the magical power to physically bring a Roman Catholic Christ into our midst.  Only such priests have the ultimate authority in the Church.  Again we face a crisis of existence – France, Syria, Nigeria and the U.S.  A Roman Catholic hierarchy frozen in dogma will be of no help. Where will the momentum for dialogue originate?

                     Pre-Vatican II         Post-Vatican II

WORKER PRIEST                           HOCUS POCUS
Cartoon by Liam Gima Lange

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Working Catholic: Too Much Sentiment, Part I By Bill Droel

“A Christian worldview can exist in writing that is not necessarily Christian,” asserts Lisa Ohlen Harris in the February 2015 issue of a terrific evangelical publication, Books and Culture. Meanwhile, she continues, “our own [Christian] literature often lacks the bite and angst our worldview ought to embrace.”

Harris has in mind most of the novels in the “Spiritual” or “Christian Fiction” section of many bookstores—though there are not so many bookstores these days. She doesn’t like all the sweetness and sentimentality. “We do the same with Bible stories, sanitizing and simplifying them,” she says. “The story of Noah becomes a sweet means of counting by twos instead of a story of apocalypse.” Life, she reminds us, is not tidy. Most tensions are not resolved in a moment during which we “receive Christ” and shout “yes and amen.”  Indeed, many tensions are never totally over.

Harris draws upon a 1957 article by Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) that appeared in America magazine: “The Church and the Fiction Writer.”

“Sentimentality is an excess,” says O’Connor. It is “a distortion of [proper] sentiment, usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence.” Writers who traffic in sentimentality do not respect the limitations of their craft. Fiction can “reinforce our sense of the supernatural,” but only when it stays true to its nature and is grounded “in concrete observable reality.” Grace builds on nature.

Christian art does not need to overtly reference Christianity; in fact, the artist may not have Christianity in mind at all. God wants art with all its teeth.

What is true of artists is also true of those in crafts, in the trades, in education or in journalism. For example, high-quality bloggers who appeal to a Christian audience (perhaps like your Working Catholic writer) are not compelled to hammer home any Christian message, nor even mention religion as such. It is enough to report accurately on a human condition, to write thoroughly and to trust that an engaged reader will see some thread of the mystery of cross and resurrection in the report, if she or he is so disposed. Puff and fluff, sugar and cinnamon, banal pleasantries and hallow compliments, or noble intentions and laying it on thick—all undermine what their purveyors presumably think they are accomplishing.  

Of course, cultural comment like in this column makes generalities. There are complexities and exceptions. But the flood of sweetness in our culture, albeit sincere, is ruining our public life.

Why does sentiment appear where it doesn’t belong? Why is it a common default position? What are its side effects? What can be done? To be continued…

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


   When we were in Guatemala last spring we visited a group called NISQUA a U.S. NGO that accompanies court witnesses as international protectors from assassination.  I asked the NISQUA representative about the cause of violence and repression in Guatemala expecting she would say – capitalism.  No – without hesitation she said – RACISM!   Racism can pervert any system or political – economic structure.  Racism in the U.S. is different than in other countries in the Americas, but at its core it is the same.  It is the refusal to grant the status brothers and sisters to certain people because of color and/or social class. The Jewish Bible calls them the ‘anawim.’  Today it’s the low wage workers – the unemployed – the indigenous – immigrants and African Americans shot and killed by police and neighborhood lawlessness.

   A popular Christmas tale is the story of the Three Kings found in the Gospel of Matthew. (Mt. C. 2)    The author of Matthew attempts to adjust the Jewish messiah myth and refer it to Jesus.  Jesus is presented as a special child born in poverty but a king destined to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.  He will be called out of Egypt as stated in Jewish Scripture.   The homilist at our San Francisco parish, before a packed church of over500 of the faithful, noted that the story is metaphorical but pointed to the truth of the story which is a matter of Faith.  The kingdom of non violent peace is here for all but only insofar as we are people of good will.  That means people of Faith committed to bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven – not just Christians but all people for all people.  Our homilist exuded the ‘Joy of the Gospel.’

    But Matthew’s story relates that King Herod slaughtered all the children in Bethlehem under two years old to protect his position in the Roman Imperium which promises the ‘Pax Romana’ to the world but through violence.  We’ve moved to Roman Imperial horror.  It was easily dismissed by our San Francisco homilist with a short comment – then, after all it is just a story.  But what does it remember?  What does it point to?

   If you relate the gospel story to the current news cycle, the slaughter of innocent children is present in full force especially in Milwaukee but also in San Francisco.  The sound of Rachel crying is clear once again.

“Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, In R’ama there was a voice heard in lamentation and weeping and great mourning.  Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted for they were no more.” (Mt. C. v. 17-18)

    We have to ask why and what are we going to do about it?  Faith includes imagination and commitment.  A beginning would be an all inclusive discussion by Faith communities about racism with a goal of stopping the political, economic and military violence against God’s chosen ones – the ‘anawim.’  The joy of the Gospel is in co-creating the Kingdom of Heaven despite the opposition of the seeming ever present Imperium.