A Radical Social Transformation is Inevitable – Fr. H. A. Reinhold (1945)

[From Reinhold’s Timely Tracts in the Catholic journal Orate Fratres]

“Shall it be achieved without us (Catholics) ?” The statement which we have quoted for our title and the ensuing question derive from the lenten pastoral of one of those courageous and far-seeing bishops who are France’s glory today, in this case, Bishop Jacquin of Moulins. He is only one in a whole chorus of French episcopal voices which have recently been lifted. They speak a language that refreshes any observer on the sidelines of the social struggle.

The Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Suhard, courageously took up the issue last Advent by advocating “structural reforms” of society. The aim is to abolish the proletarian state which maintains the masses outside the national community in a position of economic dependence and servitude irreconcilable with the rights of human beings. Now don’t let us shrug this off by telling ourselves very loudly that, of course, this is France, where everybody is hungry now, even archbishops, and by asking: why bring up such a matter in this beautiful, liturgical atmosphere? Tell us instead about the historical origins of the paschal candle and the kingship contained in the chrism anointing. Don’t bring us the malodorous topics from the other side of the tracks, where they have ugly churches, with worse plaster statues, and those devotions which you have so often criticized as commercial, unspiritual and cheap.

I shall go on condemning these things, as before, but less when they go hand in hand with the bare poverty of the other side of town, and more, when they appear among the rich and educated and are only in degree of price different from those found in the churches of the poor.

But I am not going to empty the struggle of its full meaning by leaving out from our “return to worship and the Mysteries” those thorny issues which give salt and condiment to the sweet message of Christ.

The language used may not be very nice — although not worse than what you hear in high school or your workshop or your army camp — but, if we want to know whether it is just a French problem or our own, take up Richard Wright’s Black Boy and remember that we still have poor whites whose condition, through no personal crime of their own, is equal in poverty to that there described. Besides, if we as a rich nation do not have the immediate problem of stark poverty as we find it in Chinât, South America, Africa, Europe and the Pacific, does that mean that we can crow in pride in our neat and well-provided yard and let the rest of the world go to pieces? Haven’t we Catholics recently been rather loud about moral principles among nations? Has not our finger pointed persistently and with naked visibility to such culprits as state-eating Russia and empire-hogging Britain? If we want nice treaties for all people, we will also have to be very nice about economic adjustments, sharing the wealth and, at least, giving one of our own two coats to those who are naked or in rags — something that is not yet done by a few generous clothes collections.

Let us look things in the face. The roots of this evil war forced by reckless, immoral and brutal men on the rest of humanity have something to do with envy and greed. Most revolts and mass hysterias prosper in true and imaginary grievances of those who seem to have received the short and dirty end of the stick. But even when we disagree on these matters of facts and statistics, stomachs and hearts, there is still burnt deep into our souls the picture of human dignity, the rights of human beings of which Cardinal Suhard speaks. The Church can never bless an economic system that keeps the majority of mankind in sheer dependence on the powerful few rich or their managers and political stooges. And that is what unbridled capitalism has done during the last two centuries, cloaking itself meanwhile with such fine words as liberty, free enterprise, private initiative — all good things, if they aren’t bought at the expense of sweating and suffering classes, nations or races. The Church cannot bless such a system merely for the sake of its by-products if it is built on the wrong view of man — the survival of the fittest — or if it does not do what it preaches — offer equal opportunity to all. She can bless it as little as she can bless an equally brutal and materialistic system at the other end, of the same line which dethrones the individual, grinds him into a shapeless piece of meat, and establishes a caricature of social justice by procrustean means of “social engineering,” liquidations, slave labor camps and a tight governmental totalitarianism: communism.

There she stands, holding off both her enemies at arms’ length, and the task becomes harder now that both have dropped their knives and try to tell her that they want to* give her a nice little home, a corner in their big palace. The older suitor, capitalism, an inveterate old wolf, has tried this for generations. Now his younger brother has learned the lesson too, and offers the Bride of Christ a quiet little concubinage in his big cage. Of course their flatteries occasionally change to insults, and then one calls – her a fascist tool and the other an ally of the Reds; but the Church ‘ remains stern and points to justice carried through with just means and well oiled with charity.

This is what Cardinal Suhard, according to La Croix, said on February 7 of this year, referring to the necessity of structural reforms:

A certain number of Catholics are afraid or astonished. A declaration may help to warn or reassure them. While Mgr. Rastouil at Limoges is compelled to remind socialists and communists that for more than fifty years the Church has officially taken her stand ~ against the excesses of capitalism, and has maintained the right of the worker to a fuller life, Mgr. Lebrun, Bishop of Autun, has addressed a pastoral letter, on the abuses of the present social order and the reforms essential to the temporal and spiritual recovery of our country, to those members of his diocese who ignore the existence of papal encyclicals and to those who accuse the Church’s social doctrines of being demagogic.

“There is no doubt that certain Catholics are behind the times,” declared Mgr. Jacquin. The Bishop of Moulins elsewhere advises young propagandists of social Catholicism to add to an intransigent firmness in the defense of truth a gentleness towards the supporters of reactionary doctrine, as these are often the unconscious victims of old family traditions or of a lazy egotism winch prevents them from seeing the crying injustice in the present-day distribution of wealth.

Why should we discuss these delicate subjects, you may say? In such matters every Catholic is free to adopt the opinion of his choice. When the extremist parties are preparing a radical upheaval of the social order, is it not dangerous to facilitate their task by approving their criticism of contemporary society? It is easy to reply to these objections without entering into the controversy arising from the opposition of the theories of various social schools of thought to the economic theories in conformity with Catholic teaching.

Whether we wish it or not, for the last thirty years we have been in the middle of a social revolution. No human political, social or economic system is immutable: “the system of private property no more than any other institution of social life.”

There is only one effective weapon at our disposal which may avoid the grave social upheavals we fear: the reform of grave and pernicious abuses winch oppose the forward march of human society —abuses which according to the greatest thinkers were the real cause of the World Wars of 1914 and 1939, and which, if they do not disappear, will drag us into new social and international conflict.

“If we, each for our own part,” declared Pius XI, “do not decide to carry out the programme of reform we shall not succeed in effectively defending public order and the tranquility of society .against the attack of revolutionary forces.” In such circumstances, therefore, silence would constitute treachery.

If the extent and nature of structural reforms to be carried out must be discussed by laymen and finally decided by the leaders of civil society, the principle and the necessity of these reforms have been affirmed by the representative of the Church’s hierarchy in the name of natural law; they cannot be disputed by any enlightened Catholic of good faith.

When a social order no longer corresponds to the good of society because it no longer respects the rules of justice, must be condemned and disappear. It is the duty of the members of this society, and more particularly of its leaders, to devote themselves to this task. Nothing authorizes them to take refuge in abstention, on the pretext, for example, that the undertaking will arouse opposition, that it is dangerous or that it will end in failure.

That the contemporary social order must be condemned cannot be held in doubt by anyone who has read the repeated declarations of the Sovereign Pontiffs … . Social reforms must then be inscribed on the programme of all sincere Catholics and of all militant Catholics.

A radical social transformation is in any case inevitable. Shall it be achieved without us? In this case there can be no illusion. It will be accomplished in opposition to us, in opposition both to the Catholic Church in our country and to the real temporal good of the nation.

I have said repeatedly that we cannot thank God enough for Dom Virgil Michel, because he had the vision to do for America what so many leaders of the liturgical revival elsewhere neglected to do: he saw that the return to the fulness of our Mysteries was synonymous with a return to the full Christ and he saved the movement in our country from becoming one of those romantic historicisms or esthetic, toys of sensitive and tired intellectuals who became its weakness and danger in other countries.

They practiced to excess that “gentleness towards the supporters of reactionary doctrine” of which the great successor of Cardinal Verdier speaks. Their enthusiasm -for the liturgy was often based on old family traditions whose unconscious victims they were, or on “lazy egotism which prevented them from seeing the crying injustice in the present-day distribution of wealth.” If we take our faith in the cultural Mysteries of Christ more seriously and become possessed with a longing to carry them out in their fulness, how can we help getting nearer to Christ’s full gospel, since we are getting nearer to Him? Such an approach is more direct than the one through man-made devotions and devotionettes, little religious pills and sure-fire prayers that obscure Him by interposing our own image of Him; should not then our Christian obligations likewise come to us more directly, more nakedly and essentially than to our forbears?

“Silence would be treachery,” says the Cardinal, amplifying a statement of Pius XI. Therefore capitalism is condemned and must disappear — that capitalism which sticks tenaciously to its doctrines and maintains its erroneous spirit: unshackled and savage jungle capitalism. And with it, we Christians demand that its astute brother likewise disappear who enslaves the world by creating super-persons and super-enterprises in cartels and trusts with almighty lobbies. In the end these things resemble, twinlike, any people’s commissariat and become equally voracious, bloody and inescapable.

Every decent newspaper and every half-way intelligent orator tells us that our great dilemna is security versus freedom; the happy, well-fed slave of a cartel or a government office versus the imperilled, rough and incertain man in anarchic society ruled by anonymous, invisible power behind the window-dressing of democracy and its beautiful trappings. We can all see these two extremes personified in one or the other existing state on this globe. The majority of Christians have tried very long to find a quiet corner and to get along in the house of the latter. Now we see tens of millions of Christians being absorbed into the house of the other fellow, where they will have a hard time looking for a sheltered corner and hoping for an approving smile of their new master.

But do things have to turn out this way? Is such the role assigned to us as the salt of the earth and the city on the mountain?

The pluralistic society, as analyzed by Jacques Maritain, is in spite of our romantics, aristocrats and anti-liberals a fact. We cannot devise a short-cut in the name of the liturgy or Church history and proclaim a “Holy Empire”—with an anointed king and a policeman at the church door, the movies kept clean by a board of anointed censors and the press using up a whole line of print to mention the name of one church dignitary. In such an empire that never existed the poor all love poverty and the rich are ashamed of their riches and the frivolous sit in the last pews of the church crying over their hopelessness and asking the good and the stern to pray for them. Its name is Utopia V. Its lord and king is Sta-Hit-Muss-Fran-tain.

While we all know that the liturgical movement is a task and a hard one, we do not all seem to know that the new social order is part and parcel of this our task. We do not seem to realize that when we brave the jokes of a whole row of jolly» confreres in lace-curtain abominations of surplices as we try to sneak in with our long linen garb, we must brave an equally long row of jolly and comfortable people making much nastier remarks about our plain garb of words concerning the problems of “Black Boy,” the “No Japs” campaign on the West coast, and the advocacy of a new, structurally different society built on the image of God incarnate in our brother.

That is what these princes of the French Church tell us. Their language is clear as befits Frenchmen and blunt as befits Christians. Seen for what it really is, it is liturgical language.

[Reinhold, H. A.(Hans Ansgar). “Timely Tracts: A Radical Social Transformation Is Inevitable.” Orate Fratres, vol. 19, no. 8, June 1945, pp. 362–368.]