Virgil Michel, O.S.B – Social Injustices (1936)

Dom Virgil Michel, O.S.B

[Originally published as Timely Tracts: Social Injustices, in Orate Fratres, Vol. XI, December 1936]

Christ preached His gospel first of all to the humble, the lowly, the downtrodden, the poor. The early Christians came chieflly from the poorer classes. Where men of higher status and wealth joined their ranks, these were yet ‘‘poor in spirit’’ and the entire multitude were with one mind concerned about both the temporal and spiritual welfare of all their members without exception.

Hence St. Augustine, as His Excellency the Apostolic Delegate has reminded us, could point for one of the proofs of Christ’s divinity to the brotherhood in which Christ’s followers must be united—”a brotherhood that is not limited simply to sharing earthly advantages, but one that is raised to a supernatural plane.”

A brotherhood that is not limited to sharing in temporals, but also shares in supernatural goods! Would St. Augustine not have to turn the phrase around today and tell us that the Christian brotherhood must share not only in supernatural goods but also in temporals? What was for him a limit to which the brotherhood must not confine itself, is for us something that has been only too often quite forgotten.

As soon as the Church had been given public recognition and political status, it seems, men of wealth and worldly estate joined the ranks of the Church without being imbued so fully with the Christian virtue of “poverty in spirit.” Nothing else can be concluded from the incessant fulminations of the Church Fathers against those rich who did not distribute their superfluous possessions among the poor, and whose hearts were callous both to the needs of the latter and to the teachings and example of Christ.

So strong were the invectives of the Fathers that they have at times been accused of holding communistic doctrines regarding property. And so softly, it seems, have prominent and leading Catholics in these generations played the same tune as the rich in patristic times, that they are openly accused of siding with the plutocratic oppressions and injustices of our modern economic over- lords. No one has been stronger in his denunciation of this situation in its extremes than our Holy Father in his famous Quadragesimo anno, when he speaks of Catholics who practice such oppression and injustice and who, going a step farther “abuse religion itself, cloaking their own unjust imposition under its name. … Such men are the cause that the Church, without deserving it, may have the appearance and be accused of taking sides with the wealthy, and of being little moved by the needs and sufferings of the disinherited.”

An article in the Catholic World (March, 1936, p. 683) contained the following, which is perhaps not quite typical: “Never has the writer or any of his intimate friends heard a sermon on the practical application of the living wage doctrine, on the duty of distributing surplus wealth, on the protection of women and children in industry, on the obligation of employers and employees to cooperate, on the duty of the state to promote industrial harmony.”

I know of a recent instance where a priest did preach on social justice in one of our largest cities, and he shielded himself behind abundant quotations from the papal encyclical. He received a letter from a prominent parishioner, a most faithful church-goer, who told the priest he should stay with the preaching of religion and not meddle in economics, otherwise she would attend church elsewhere after this, and she was even ready to tell the pope the same if he did not mind his business better!

And so while many Catholic Christians mind their own business, the injustices suffered by share-croppers, the gross discriminations against negroes (even at times within the walls of Catholic churches), economic oppressions of all sorts, crying court injustices, violent vigilante antics based on the principle that might is right, etc., go on, with hardly a prominent Catholic voice raised in protest. How the Church Fathers of old would have made the welkin ring with the righteous indignation of the Lord and with their incessant denunciations on the one hand and guiding exhortations on the other. They knew of no compromise between Christ and this world. Why hesitate today, when we all know that the support of Church and school come not from the coffers of the wealthy but from the mites of the poor?

What the natural result of such aloofness from the poor and oppressed masses is for the Church herself, who incessantly calls upon us to do otherwise, we can see only too well today from the example of Spain. There “the masses of the working class have been lost to the Church. Say what you will about ‘Catholic Spain’ and its glorious history, the fact is too evident that these poor people follow, and are willing to follow, the leadership I have described” (i.e., of sympathetic communists). . . . “How account for this transformation of a once Catholic nation? It is due to two causes, both equally deplorable; the neglect, material and spiritual, of the toiling masses” (America, March 7, 1936, p. 516).

Who can deny that we, too, have at times been guilty, all of us, of a similar alienation of the toiling masses? Not infrequently the one bond of union between all the members of a diocese, where all without exception are spiritually integrated to one end, has been a general Church assessment. And the remonstrances of many poor families—yea, curses and imprecations—that have followed are legion. These are all entered, in accordance with their guilt, in the pages of the Recording Angel, but not in every instance is the entry made only against those who uttered them.

The future of the world undoubtedly belongs to the toiling masses, and so does the Church according to Leo XIII and Pius XI. Too long have prominent Catholics compromised between Christ and the world, thus deserving fully the scathing denunciation of Pius. The early Christians could not conceive of bringing a gift to the altar of God that was not to be shared with the poor and the needy; they knew this was the very desire of God himself. And they prayed to God “that, with Thee as ruler and guide, we may so pass through the good things of time that we may not lose those of eternity” (collect, third Sunday after Pentecost).

It was always their supreme endeavor to see that to each one was given according to his need. And they ever kept in mind the full significance of the fact that in Christ’s picture of the last judgment service of God is adjudged in terms of the works of mercy administered to the needy and the poor. “Whatsoever you do unto the least of these My brethren you do unto Me.”

V. M.