While many Catholic Christians mind their own business, the injustices suffered by migrant workers, the gross discriminations against black men and women (even at times within the walls of Catholic churches), economic oppressions of all sorts…violent vigilante antics based on the principle that might is right, etc., go on, with hardly a prominent Catholic voice raised in protest.
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 Quadragesimo Anno (Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on social teaching). The priest 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!
Now, before we go any further, and regardless of how you feel about the anecdote I just shared, let me share my source. Because, the above are not my words. These words were written 85 years ago, and appeared in a prominent Catholic journal. The journal is Orate Fratres (now Worship). The author is Fr. Virgil Michel, OSB.
The first two paragraphs of the above are excerpted (with a couple of edits for clarity’s sake) from Fr. Virgil’s first “Timely Tract,” a column which first appeared in Orate Fratres volume 11, issue 2, in 1936 (pp. 78-80). The series was meant to be pointed, evening pointing, raising difficult issues about how Catholics intersected with the times—and the issues of race, economic oppression and equity, and violent antics which riddled the United States and the world. Virgil believed these problems should rile Catholics to action, not complacency, compliance, or, even worse: righteous indignation.
Virgil died in November of 1938, less than two years after he wrote this first Timely Tract on social justice. The series would be continued by others, including the fearless Hans Anscar Reinhold. And, while I’ll need to corroborate this hypothesis with other historians of Orate Fratres/Worship, I believe that the pointed and poignant “Amen Corner,” composed for many years by Nathan D. Mitchell, functioned in much the same way.
Fr. Virgil’s passion for social action is well known, as is his ability to connect and inspire diverse leaders across the United States to animate the liturgical movement. What is perhaps equally well known is how we contemporary Catholics—perhaps even more so than our ancestors of eight decades ago—continue to fail to connect liturgical worship with social action.
In the United States, social issues are politicized to the point of immobility. Can you think of a social issue which hasn’t been trussed into silence by strangles of red and blue? Is it possible to speak of care for the poor, the marginalized, the other, without aligning yourself with somebody’s political “side”?
What would Virgil have done with a news item like that one?
We can talk about refusing the Eucharist to members of political parties. But if we’re choosing to do that, don’t you think we should talk about rescuing migrant families? Or renouncing racial bias? Or rejecting a minimum wage that hasn’t changed since 2009?
What would Virgil have done with news items like those?
I think that Virgil would have preached the Gospel, as he did, 85 years ago. And this is what he says: “Christ preached his gospel first of all to the humble, the lowly, the downtrodden, the poor. … Who can deny that we…have at times been guilty, all of us, of alienation of the toiling masses?” The “natural result” of such alienation, Virgil describes, is the exodus from Mass by these same persons.
Let’s take “toiling masses” to refer to all those laborers in the vineyard—be they children, women, men, black, brown, white, speak English or not, etc.—and ask how the Church, or its members, are alienating those same persons?
In Virgil’s moment of 1936—Communism, fascism, and agnosticism were growing threats. Now, we would add, among other things, a simple apathy—a confusion about why anyone would possibly need or want organized religion. It is easier to become a sheila. Or a none.
How to get beyond the polarization which freezes Catholic social action into silence? I know I don’t agree with the letter-writing “prominent parishioner” that Virgil recounted eight and a half decades ago. I want to hear the Church speak about religion—and social justice. Is not the liturgy the source of social regeneration?