Red Priests in Working-Class Blue

FRENCH FIRST WAVE WORKER PRIESTS

Perhaps the most stunning symbolic image of the first wave of Left Catholicism prior to Vatican II had been the activities carried out by no more than 100 French and a dozen Belgian priests in the 1940s and early 1950s, who voluntarily chose to become full-time blue-collar workers in the service of the missionary cause. Designed to reverse the tide of working-class de- Christianization by showcasing the commitment to working-class values by ordained priests exchanging their soutane for working-class blue, in fact this tiny number of worker priests in the end was far more adept at adopting the lifestyle and the political vision of their secular comrades than at attracting their co-workers to the Catholic fold. The radicalization of the worker priests, rather than the hoped-for conversion of blue-collar workers, became the headline news by the late 1940s and early 1950s. By 1954 (1955 in Belgium) the ecclesiastic hierarchy which, roughly ten years earlier, had sanctioned and encouraged the worker priest experience, cut short their authorization for ordained priests (and members of religious orders) to engage in full-time industrial and other forms of waged labour.

The shock of this command by the hierarchy was real, and all Belgian and roughly half of the French worker priests followed those orders. In fact, however, the impact was somewhat mitigated by the specifications stipulated in the admonition to quit full-time industrial labour. Part-time work up to three hours per day was still permitted, but of course this meant that the idea of priests sharing all trials and tribulations of their working-class comrades could no longer apply. Moreover, the new regulation also mandated that all trade union activities would henceforth have to cease, and the national coordinating body of worker priests, which in effect provided much concrete solace and support to them, would have to cease functioning. In fact, those priests submitting to the wishes of their superiors were effectively forced to quit their positions, thus cutting short contacts established by painstaking efforts over a period of quite some years.[1]

Virtually every single one of those fifty-four French worker priests who quit full-time posts by 1 March 1954 went back to work before long, though now restricted to part-time positions in, for the most part, small workshops. With certain bishops firmly on their side, all sorts of pretexts served to—slowly but surely—quietly subvert Roman instructions. Thus, Bernard Tiberghien, with the express permission of Cardinal Lienart, returned to work as a dock worker, as—in the words of Lienart—‘there are not enough ships to unload every single day; there is not always enough work for everyone. Thus, quite loyally, I can make this fit, as it corresponds to the formula of three hours per day: 6 x 3 = 18. You will no doubt rarely work more than 18 hours per week. Thus, I allow you to go there. It is part-time work.’[2]

Andre Depierre received the explicit authorization of Cardinal Feltin to join the workforce constructing the gigantic UNESCO World Headquarters in Paris as a full-time labourer. When the 220 workers employed at the site went on strike to protest the subminimal working conditions at this nonunion shop, Andre Depierre was chosen to be their spokesperson. Depierre asked his comrades to give him two hours’ time to let him decide whether to accept this position of responsibility. He used this reprieve to seek out Cardinal Feltin, who immediately gave Depierre his permission to become the official negotiator for the UNESCO building site workforce. Management, after some difficult negotiations, agreed to the workers’ demands, but under one condition: Andre Depierre would not be allowed back to continue work on the site. It took some diplomatic skill for Andre Depierre to convince his colleagues to give in to this demand. Depierre now went to the courts to obtain his rights, winning his case at the initial industrial tribunal and in the Court of Appeal.[3]

Thus, no strangers to controversy, the worker priests continued on their personal mission even after 1954, though under different overall conditions. In fact, Rome, having unilaterally imposed new restrictive standards, after 1 March 1954 took a passive approach. The warning shot having been fired, the curia was now content to tolerate the subsequent evolution of this experiment, turning a blind eye to the complicity of a number of bishops and even cardinals. Even those forty-odd worker priests who refused to heed the Roman command were never sanctioned by Rome for their continued defiance.[4] Even the definitive absolute ending of the worker priest experience by Cardinal Pizzardo in the summer of 1959, now outlawing even part-time industrial labour, which confounded those Catholics who had believed in a rapid aggiornamento of their church after the death of Pius XII, changed little in the daily routine of the ‘priests at work’, pretres au travail, as they were now officially called. Poterie and Jeusselin assert that ‘the French episcopacy did not modify its chosen course. Neither the bishops, indirectly concerned, nor the worker priests, who had gone back to work, appeared very rattled by this regrettable intervention.’[5]

  • [1] Of the wealth of sources describing the Abwicklung of the worker priest experience, perhapsone of the most concise analyses is Pierre Pierrard, L’Eglise et les ouvriers en France. 1940-1990(Paris: Hachette, 1991), pp. 271-95.
  • [2] Cited in the informative work by two second-generation worker priests, Rene Poterie andLouis Jeusselin, Pretres-ouvriers. 50 ans d’histoire et de combats (Paris: Harmattan, 2001), p. 133.
  • [3] Poterie and Jeusselin, Pretres-ouvriers, p. 134.
  • [4] Poterie and Jeusselin, Pretres-ouvriers, p. 132.
  • [5] Poterie and Jeusselin, Pretres-ouvriers, p. 136. On the controversy surrounding CardinalPizzardo’s hard-line document, see Gregor Siefer, The Church and Industrial Society. A Survey ofthe Worker-Priest Movement and its Implications for the Christian Mission (London: Dartman,Longman and Todd, 1964), pp. 91-104.
 
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