!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Working People of Holyoke II: The Bishops' Program on Social Reconstruction

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Working People of Holyoke II: The Bishops' Program on Social Reconstruction

It shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that the tensions between, on the one hand, Catholic clerics concerned with social justice, and, on the other hand, clerics concerned with supporting existing social relations, have existed for many years. For example, in Working People of Holyoke: Class and Ethnicity in a Massachusetts Mill Town, 1850-1960, William Hartford describes a conflict between these two points of view dating back to the 1920s:

Although the 1920s would be a cheerless decade for both trade unionists and social activists, the period opened on an optimistic note. In 1919, Father John Ryan penned a sweeping statement on contemporary social problems that was subsequently adopted by the National Catholic War Council. Popularly known as the Bishops' Program on Social Reconstruction, it called for minimum wage legislation, unemployment and old-age insurance, public housing for workers, and the abolition of child labor. The document also urged organized labor to look beyond its own immediate interests and assume a more active legislative role. Although their proposals were in many respects similar to a statement recently issued by the AFL's Reconstruction Committee, the bishops chided labor leaders for leaving such vital matters as a living wage and eight-hour day to union voluntarism, an apporoach that failed "to give sufficient consideration to the case of the weaker sections of the working class, those for whom trade union action is not practically adequate."

A persisting commitment to voluntarism was not the only feature of the AFL declaration that the bishops found wanting. They also faulted labor leaders for an unwillingness to develop means by which workers might "become owners as well as users of the instruments of production" and recommended that steps be taken to provide labor participation in management through copartnership agreements and producer cooperatives. Intended as a moderate alternative to the British Labor Party's postwar social reconstruction agenda, the bishops cast their proposals in a framework of reciprocal rights and duties that would preserve the interests of labor, capital, and society at large. The laborer, they concluded,
must come to realize that he owes his employer an honest day's work in return for a fair wage, and that conditions cannot be substantially improved until he roots out the desire to get a maximum of return through a minimum of service. The capitalist must likewise get a new viewpoint. He needs to learn the long-forgotten truth that wealth is stewardship, that profit-making is not the basic justification of business enterprise, that there are such things as fair profits, fair interest, and fair prices.
Despite its conservative features, the bishops' program was not what American corporate leaders had in mind when they enthusiastically endorsed Warren Harding's call for a "return to normalcy." The statement looked much further down the road of industrial reform than capital was willing to travel, and the National Civic Federation (NCF), acting on behalf of the nation's largest businesses, mounted a counteroffensive. The NCF gathered "expert testimony" from anonymous Catholics who collectively affirmed that the bishops had exceeded their authority by issuing so wrong-headed and radical a declaration. Their program, a 1921 NCF report asserted, tended to undermine public confidence in the government and institutions of this country," and was apparently the work of a small band of radical priests sympathetic to Marxism.

However self-serving, NCF contentions that the bishops did not speak for all Catholics were only too accurate. During the early 1920s, conservative hierarchs opposed to the social-justice orientation of the recently formed National Catholic Welfare Conference persuaded Pope Benedeict XV to lift his approval of the organizstion. Although Benedict's successor, Pius XI, resanctioned the council, episcopal opposition would continue to hinder its activities, particularly efforts to implement the bishops' program. As Father John Ryan, head of the council's Social Action Department, observed: "The first obstacle confronting the department is the fact that neither the bishops, the priests, nor the laity are convinced that our industrial system should be reorganized in this radical fashion." If anything, Ryan understated the difficulties facing Catholic progressives. For as the decade unfolded, traditionalist churchmen, seeking to restore a threatened hegemony, would mount one final campaign to impose their paternalistic nostrums on American Catholics.
[The campaign in question was a successful effortin 1924 to defeat an amendment to the US Constitution banning child labor.] [pp. 158-159]