Cardinal Gibbons and the Knights of Labor

Monday, September 3, AD 2012

 

 

This Labor Day I recall an episode in both the history of labor in the United States and in the history of the Catholic Church in America.  The last half of the nineteenth century was a time of labor strife, as businesses grew larger, the fruit of the ongoing Industrial Revolution, and workers fought for improvement of working conditions that by any standard were frequently abysmal.  Prior to the Civil War apologists for slavery often argued that the average slave in the South was better fed, better housed and better clothed than the average industrial worker in the North.  This of course overlooked the entire question of liberty, but there were enough terrible examples of wretched working conditions in the North to give the argument facile support.

Unions sprang up to represent workers.  One of the largest in its day was the Knights of Labor founded in 1868.  Successful in several large strikes, by 1886 the membership totaled 700,000, perhaps a majority of whom were Catholic.  In 1886 the Archbishop of Quebec condemned the Knights in Canada based upon the secrecy that attended the meetings of the organization and forbade Catholics to join it.

The American hierarchy voted 10 to 2 against condemning the Knights.  Archbishop James Gibbons was going to Rome in 1887 to receive his red hat as Pope Leo XIII had made him a Cardinal.  While there he took the opportunity to submit a lengthy letter in support of the Knights.  Although the letter bears the name of Gibbons, it was probably written by his friend Bishop John Ireland of Saint Paul, who had long been active in support of the rights of workers.  The letter did the trick and the Vatican announced that the Knights were not to be condemned.  The arguments made in the letter had an impact on Pope Leo XIII and helped lay the groundwork for his historic encyclical  Rerum Novarum (1891) in which he defended the rights of workers to organize to seek better working conditions.  Ironically the subject matter of the letter, the Knights of Labor, was in decline, too many of its strikes having involved violence which the leadership of the Knights condemned, but which tarnished the Knights in the eyes of the public.  The Knights would cease to operate as a labor union in 1900, newer unions taking the place of this pioneering organization.

The letter of Cardinal Gibbons stressed that Catholic workers in America who belonged to labor organizations were not hostile to the Church as often occurred in Europe where Unions were organized by Leftist and Anarchist groups.  In America most Americans supported the workers in their struggle to improve their lot, with both major political parties vying to pass legislation aiding workers.  In short, the letter explained American labor and political conditions to the Vatican and how these differed substantially from those existing in Europe.  The letter and the decision of the Vatican were good examples of effective communication between American ecclesiastics and Rome.  Here is the text of the letter:

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12 Responses to Cardinal Gibbons and the Knights of Labor

  • History lessons such as these illustrate how Catholic Social Teaching by the Bishop of Rome and European bishops needed to be interpreted for and by US pastors. Same went for “separation of Church-State,” democracy, conscience freedom and such. Ironically, they are all back on the front burner with the new atheism and hostility to Natural Law

  • By one of those ironies of history, in the mid-19th century, one finds deeply conservative Monarchist bishops and clergy in France supporting workers’ rights, inspired by their inveterate hatred of the French Revolution and all its works, including, of course, the Allarde Decree of 17 March 1791 and the Le Chapelier Law of 14 June 1791.

    It was not until the law of 25 May 1864, under Napoléon III that workers regained the right to associate and to strike.

    Père Henri-Dominique Lacordaire OP, who restored the Dominican order in France in 1850 and who was the most celebrated preacher of his day was an early champion of the rights of labour. An admirer of Lord Shaftsbury’s Factories Acts in the UK, he famously remarked, “Between the weak and the strong, between the rich and the poor, between the master and the servant, it is freedom which oppresses and the law which sets free.”

  • Donald,

    Thanks for posting this article and letter. The late 19th Century (bleeding into the early 20th Century) was one of the most outstanding times in human history for technological growth, and the improvement of the lives of all people. But, it was not without some pain, especially felt among the workers who became little more than “wage slaves”.

    Ultimately, work places were made safe and salaries rose. While there certainly was violence and blood, what is amazing is that the antagonism, and anarchy, that marked European labor movements did not take hold as deeply nor as long here in the US. This was due (IMHO) to the influence and true interest of Catholic Church leadership here, as compared to the European model.

  • JP 11 championed the sacred dignity of the worker, who made labour sacred, and thus stole the Commie thunder. Leo X111 started with the FACTORY OWNER etc and asked for trickle down as it were, whereas JP11 reversed that and showed where the HUMAN’s SACRED VALUE entered in. That kind of moral evolution is crucial and is the kind of revolution that the late Cdl MARTINI called for in updating the Church being 200 years out of date. Clericalism, bishops addressed and some/many living as lords and Kings with almost untrammeled power. Clericalism needs to be stripped so Servant Leaders take over after 2i00 years as JESUS demanded

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  • Rerum Novarum is actually quite positive about Trade Unions, and was influenced by the ideas of Henry, Cardinal Manning (Archbishop of Westminster) whose intervention in the London dock strike of 1889 made him a hero in the eyes of working men. Unions were given full legal recognition in the 1870s, and Margaret Thatcher actually removed some of the rights which had been granted by her Conservative predecessor Benjamin Disraeli over a century before.

    The anarcho-syndicalism prevalent on the Continent was indeed largely absent in Britain and America. This is due less to the influence of the Church than to a tradition of effective representative government which militated against revolution.

  • John, Cardinal Gibbons considered his victory re: the Knights of Labor to be greatly helped by Manning. Gibbons wrote to him: “I cannot sufficiently express to you how much I have felt strengthened in my position by being able to refer in the document to your utterances on the claims of the working man to our sympathy and support.” Gibbons in later years recalled with amusement a cartoon which had Manning on one side of Pope Leo, and Gibbons on the other, with Pope Leo exclaiming that he must watch himself between two such foxes!

  • John,

    Thanks very much for the information. This is one of the reasons I love TAC so much; unlike many other blogs, the correspondents here (excepting myself) have so much knowledge that the comboxes are actually a great continuation of the excellent posts.

  • John Nolan

    Anarcho-syndicalism, in the tradition of Sorel and Proudhon, has deep roots in the Latin distrust of government, as such. Its main appeal was always in Italy, Spain and France south of the Loire, places in which the political class is held in deep and, often, well-merited contempt.

    In Britain, trade unionism and the Labour party had strong roots in the Nonconformist tradition, especially Methodism in England & Wales and the Covenanter legacy in Scotland.

  • Cardinal Manning was a very great man, but his indignation at wrongdoing sometimes betrayed him into remarks more acerbic than was becoming in a clergyman, as when he said of Lord Palmerston (the Prime Minister) that his character was below his talents.

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