From Catholicism to Marxism
The Worker Priests
Trans, by John Petrie
Routledge, Kegan Paul (distributed by Macmillan). 220 pp. $5.00


No matter involving the Church has so shaken France in recent decades as the episode of the worker priests. Perhaps this is so because the conflict between the priests and the hierarchy refracted, as through a lens, so many of the agonies of French and Western society: the conflict and distance between the social classes, the subordination of man to machine, the institutionalized mockery of the ideal of human brotherhood. The affair can tell us much about life in our times, of the dilemmas of organized Christianity, of the ways in which spiritual dedication necessarily appears as something impractical, unwise, unbalanced—or revolutionary.

The facts, although obscured by polemic, recrimination, and denunciation, are clear enough in outline. During the last war, the late Cardinal Suhard of Paris began a program of missionary activity in the working class districts of Paris. To make contact with the workers, some of the missionaries took on full-time manual jobs. Finally, about seventy-five priests were at work in factories, mines, and docks throughout France. They held that previous historical forms of the priesthood were inappropriate to religious activity among the workers, and even obtained temporary dispensation from Rome for certain relaxations in their ritual obligations. They came to think of themselves, moreover, as workers as well as priests. They rejected much of their previous religious education, and their personal culture, as bourgeois. So considerable was their identification with the workers that they participated in their economic and political organization, even collaborating with the Communists.

The disquiet of conservative circles in French Catholicism grew, and was communicated to the Vatican. After protracted negotiations, considerable resistance from some of the French bishops and cardinals, and a bitter and quasi-public debate, the Vatican ordered the worker priests recalled. They protested that their recall was political in inspiration, that it was in effect an attack on the working class that would injure, for untold generations, the chances of Christianity with that class. A majority of the worker priests committed the supreme act of defiance: they refused to leave their jobs.



Such are the facts, as set down in a book produced by the defiant priests themselves and now translated into English. The book contains a brief, too brief, sketch of the background of the episode, a chronology, a certain amount of documentation (the correspondence between the priests and their bishops, for instance), some extracts from the press, and testimony by the priests. The latter is moving, noble and tragic.

It is only against the background of the Church’s encounter with industrial society that the episode is comprehensible. The Roman Catholic Church, especially in France, has not been invariably reactionary. Indeed, in the 19th century considerable opposition to the inhumanity of unrestricted capitalism in France came from Catholic social thinkers. Pope Leo XIII, in the famous 1891 encyclical De Rerum Novarum gave significant, if belated, Vatican recognition to these efforts. In the 20th century, Catholic social action in France has assumed more of a mass character. The noted movement for social reform, Sillon, the young Catholic workers group (Jeunesse Ouvrière Catholique), the Catholic trade union movement, and the left wing of the Mouvement Républicaine Populaire have to their credit both concrete achievements and the creation of an atmosphere in which Catholic intellectuals find it imperative to study social problems. Catholic research on modern French society is both objective and important, and Catholic intellectuals have for some time been honored allies of the secular ones in the struggle for social justice in France.

But Catholic reaction was and is real enough. One central tradition of thought and action in French Catholicism has continually sought to undo the French Revolution. The anti-republicanism and virulent anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus case, the authoritarianism of the Vichy regime, were expressions of this tendency. What we might term bourgeois Catholicism in France was surely terrified of the moral and social criticism of the Church made by the worker priests. Even non-reactionary Catholics must have been shocked by the worker priests’ rejection of the newly evolved forms of Catholic social and political action: the MRP and the Christian trade unions. And we can imagine the reaction of the propertied to the worker priests’ cooperation with the Communists. But I have said enough to show that the Church has experienced within itself the social conflicts rending the European body politic.



One reality, however, is basic to the episode of the worker priests: the alienation of the mass of the French working class from the Church. It was awareness of this that preoccupied the late Cardinal Suhard, a man of great moral and intellectual stature, and which led him until his death in 1949 to defend the worker priests in Rome. It was Suhard who encouraged them at the beginning, but his viewpoint was not an isolated one. The worker priest movement began as a response to a movement of self-examination and social protest in the clergy itself. Perhaps the single outstanding figure of this movement was the late Abbé Godin, whose book France, A Mission Field? had a printing of 100,000 copies. The Abbé declared that the Church seemed to turn the workers whom it reached into bourgeoisie and that this accounted for its inability to make contact with the great majority of them. His analysis was confirmed when a number of priests went, secretly, to Germany to serve as chaplains with the French forced laborers. One of them is quoted in this present volume:

I had gone to such and such a hut, determined to go straight to the point, to raise unequivocally the question of religion, and I had found myself completely tongue-tied, unable to put in so much as a word of uplift, let alone on spiritual matters. The temperature was not right: there was really no way of doing it. . . . Our way of living, our ceremonies, our touchiness in matters of etiquette, our literary and philosophical culture, are spotted with capitalism, bound to a bourgeois form of civilization.

This was precisely the reaction of the first missionaries to the working class districts of Paris. Their mission had first taken the forms we should expect: approaches to families, young people’s groups, religious associations based on the job or on the district, public preaching. These proved insufficient. Unfortunately, the authors do not analyze more precisely the results of these initial experiments, the sources of their discontents. The priests began to work, one applying to the Cardinal for permission in order to “slough off his bourgeois skin!”

The very small numbers involved should not obscure the importance attached to the experiment by the French clergy. Thousands of priests in other positions followed its progress avidly. The authors of the book invite us to consider, in ways quite different than Bernanos in his Diary of a Country Priest, the discouragement of the French clergy, its immersion in a round of parish activities, its sense of failure of spiritual contact with either the working class or, indeed, the ordinary bourgeois parishioner.

The worker priests, by contrast, developed an acute sense of engagement. The comradeship of the work group, the dignity and skill of the workers affected them deeply. In short, they entered a world hidden from bourgeois eyes (and held, especially in certain Western European countries, and among them France, in unjustified and arrogant contempt). They assumed responsibilities in unions and in political activities. Their identification with those they had been set to convert changed their initial conception of their mission. “We are a group of Catholic priests whose aim and mission is to take part with all our strength in the human and spiritual liberation of the proletariat. The spirit of the Gospel and of Christianity compels us to work thus, towards the unity of all men achieved by the pursuit of charity and justice. It has seemed to us impossible to do so effectively unless our life is linked, in a total community of destiny, with that of the working class.”

The first denunciations in Rome followed quickly after the publication of pronouncements of this order. The head of the Inquisition (now renamed the Congregation of the Holy Office), Monsignor Ottaviani, took the matter personally in hand. The affair attracted public attention when, in 1952, two worker priests were arrested and brutally beaten by the police after participating in the demonstrations against General Ridgway. Among the denunciatory materials available to the bishops and the Vatican were, incidentally, dossiers on the worker priests collected by the French police.

What had happened to the worker priests? They had gone to convert the workers; instead, they were converted themselves. They write of a change in their very being, their assumption of the culture and attitudes of the working class. Many of them had, however, come from working class backgrounds, from the Jeunesse Ouvrière Catholique. But the contents and tone of this book do not bespeak an advanced Social Catholicism. Its language is the language of Marxism, at times of Stalinism. One of them, for instance, was rebuked by another for “bourgeois” attitudes: for observing that many workers were interested in economic matters but not in the politics of the “militants,” that is, the Communists.

The book is not quite clear as to how the authors fuse their new-found beliefs with their old ones, but some sentences are suggestive: “What religious values are there for the sake of which it is possible to demand abandonment of sacred human values, of a communion involving the whole of life?” In effect, the worker priests were challenging the traditions and central doctrines, as well as the organizational structure, of the Church.



This, at any rate, was Rome’s conclusion. In 1954, at the orders of the Vatican, the French Episcopate sent the priests an ultimatum. They were to give up their jobs, their union memberships, and attach themselves to parishes. The experiment was to be continued, but “in another form.” The Episcopal letter makes an unworthy impression. It combined cajolery, sentimentality, and threats. It is the sort of appeal to loyalty made to those whose loyalty is very seriously in question, and it may be possible that the bishops had very guilty consciences.

The priests’ reply was dignified and resolved; and writing in the same tone after having defied the hierarchy, the worker priests ask in this book of the Church: “How far are her current forms of existence ordered for a social role that should not, however, be confused with her mission? Is it solely out of ignorance of religion, and because of the interests she supports, that so many men today reject the Church? Or is it because they can no longer see their own likeness in the reactions and the behaviour of those who stand for the faith?”

The Church responded to this demand for a new conception of its existence by accusing the worker priests of failing in their duties as priests. In terms of the traditional definition of this function, Rome was surely right. As a sacerdotal figure, as a person in possession of powers magical in nature, the priest cannot approach prosaic routine too closely. The worker priests write of the meaninglessness of this conception of the priesthood to the workers, of the intelligence and realism born of the workers’ contact with the material of their daily lives, material in the literal sense of the word. What the priests may have learned in the factories, and what they expressed in their fascination with Marxism, was the contradiction between industrial life and magical thinking.

It is difficult to see how the hierarchy could have acted other than as it did. The Church claims to be universal: it must minister to all the social classes. The bourgeois character of the priesthood is a consequence of that accomodation to society which implements the Church’s universal pretensions: the bourgeois in fact dominate the culture of Western industrial societies. The worker priests characterized the Church’s efforts for social peace as a betrayal of the workers. We attain some insight into the difference between their position and that of ordinary Catholic social reformers when we note that they cite a pronouncement by Monsignor Montini, now Archbishop of Milan, presumably as evidence of the class-bound social ethic of the Church. Yet Montini is supposed to be the leader of the “left” party in the Church, and the opponent of the worker priests’ enemy, Ottaviani!

This book is, at once, depressing and profoundly moving. The worker priests did experience the profound abyss that separates the workers from the other classes in modern European society. It is possible that a general rise in living standard will erase this difference: the evidence is still inconclusive, even from America. The priests began a mission to the workers, but they learned that respect for human dignity demanded that they become workers. Whatever we may say in analysis of the episode, it remains a striking testament to the institutional limitations on human brotherhood in our society. And the priests’ conversion, from Catholicism to Marxism, points to aspects of contemporary politics in western Europe not accessible to the usual modes of observation. It suggests, if in a dramatic and curious form, that spiritual conflict is still a political reality.


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