THE 1974 GENERAL ASSEMBLY IN ROME

The December 1974 General Assembly of the MMTC met once again in Rome. But the proximity of the Vatican did not temper spirits in the least. The Four-Year-Plan agreed upon in Rome included the following telling passage under the heading ‘Overall Objectives’:

A) Together with all other workers, to pursue the construction of a new society. The latter emerges out of the daily lives of workers, from the fundamental values and aspirations of workers which we share. We would like to stress that it is by means of concrete action at the point of production that this new society will advance. We wish to place particular stress on the importance of organized collective action. This action is the privileged location where we can encounter, get to know and share Jesus Christ. B) To awaken, develop and sustain at all levels of the Movement a veritable workers’ political consciousness, to be reached by means of actions which develop in the various facets of workers’ lives. C) We know that the militant action of workers proceeds in the context of an economic, social, cultural and political system which dominates and crushes the working class. This situation calls for redoubled efforts to ensure that this learning process takes on a truly international dimension, so that the solidarity and true liberation which are part and parcel of the fundamental aspirations of humankind may become reality.[1]

Most national sections of the MMTC were now centrally involved in all major and minor working-class battles which appeared to be possible harbingers of the much-invoked ‘new society’, whether in factories or mines or in working- class neighbourhoods over issues such as housing or education. A statement by one of the Flemish organizations belonging to the MMTC, the KWB, prominently noted: ‘Some of our local sections have been involved in concrete actions against the strategy of multinational enterprises, such as Ford-Genk, Akso, Enka-Breda, and above all in Ghent where activists from our movement have participated in the occupation of the ACEC-Westinghouse plant, following the example set by LIP (France).’[2] Similar accounts were penned by MMTC members from across Europe.

Perhaps the most telling proof of the fundamental change of course undertaken by the MMTC since its founding in 1966 can be gauged from a letter by MMTC chaplain Agostinho Jardim to a fellow priest in October 1974 during preparations for the Rome Assembly of 6-10 December. For each day of the assembly, a priest was chosen to hold Mass and celebrate the eucharist as part of the proceedings. On 4 October 1974, Father Jardim approached a Quebe- $ois colleague, Father Lorenzo Lortie, to prepare the celebration on the opening day of the congress. ‘As far as you are concerned, we have “designated” you to be responsible for 6 December, for a celebration to be held in French, which should address the following topics: to celebrate a number of events which have occurred during the past four years which have found an international echo and which have engendered intensified working-class solidarity: the struggle at LIP, Chile, the Paris Peace Accords on Vietnam, the decolonization of territories under Portuguese domination, the events in Quebec ...’[3]

Small wonder that relations between the MMTC and the various Catholic national bishops’ assemblies and the Vatican hierarchy rapidly went from bad to worse. It did not help matters that, in full flight towards new and unexplored horizons, the MMTC chose as their new General Secretary a Belgian activist from Ghent, Luc Vos, president of the KWB, whose organization had, back in 1968, publicly criticized the highly controversial papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae. For a period of time diplomatic relations between the MMTC and the Vatican came to a complete halt and financial support by the Holy See was cut off. When, by the mid-1970s, the MMTC made efforts to reopen channels of negotiation, concrete links improved, but the root causes of the mutual alienation did not disappear overnight. A protocol of a 1977 discussion between a visiting MMTC delegation and a leading representative of the Vatican Secretary of State’s office provides elegant testimony to the tense atmosphere which continued to cast a shadow over such conversations.

The MMTC spokespersons had laid out their overall strategic approach, which had not changed significantly since their radical turn at the onset of the decade. Giovanni Benelli, who had made his visitors wait for two hours in his antechamber despite an agreed-upon appointment, listened carefully, thanked his interlocutors, but then launched his counterattack. ‘As to the identification with the workers’ world, that is all well and good. But this identification must not be complete, it cannot be total, or there will be nothing Christian left. This is not possible. We must be the yeast in the dough, but not adapt completely to the workers’ world. The working class is socialist, socialist in the Marxist sense of that term. We cannot accept this. Socialism is opposed to Christianity. First of all because socialism means division; Christians strive for unity. [... ] If the Christian workers’ movement adulterates itself, then it is not worthy of its existence. Your specificity as Christians is to contribute something Christian, to promote the Word of God [... ] The need for justice—there is nothing wrong with it; but it must be fought for also with love, patience, pardon and all the other virtues [... ] As to your insistence on autonomy: the Church is like a mother, and your Movement is the child. The mother cannot abandon her responsibility [... ]’

At this point the MMTC’s Luc Vos interjected the following comment: ‘And if the child becomes a mother one fine day?’ Giovanni Benelli immediately retorted: ‘This is impossible. There will always remain a difference in levels of authority. It is the Good Lord himself who has arranged things in this manner. Even the Pope cannot do anything about this.’ Luc Vos now almost lost his cool: ‘I do not think that it was Jesus Christ who drew up the regulations which are supposed to govern the internal affairs of our organization!’ Giovanni Benelli shot back in this conversation which had been conducted in French: ‘Stop these wisecracks, Monsieur ,..’[4]

  • [1] ‘Plan de travail de quatre ans du MMTC’, in ‘Documents de Travail. Assemblee GeneraleMMTC 1974’, pp. 2-3—MMTC 1.3/11.
  • [2] ‘KWB Belgique. Reponse au Questionnaire: Conversations internationales. 1974’, p. 2—MMTC, 4.3. For the remarkable wave of working-class radicalism in Belgium in the early-to-mid-1970s, see Rik Hemmerijckx, ‘Mai ’68 und die Welt der Arbeiter in Belgien’, in BerndGehrke and Gerd-Rainer Horn, 1968 und die Arbeiter. Studien zum ‘proletarischen Mai’ inEuropa (Hamburg: VSA, 2007), pp. 231-51.
  • [3] Letter by Agostinho Jardim to Lorenzo Lortie, 4 October 1974—MMTC, 1.3/8. Themention of ‘events in Quebec’ refers to a series of social movements which gripped thefrancophone province in Eastern Canada in the early 1970s, which made Quebec into a hotbedof radical activism in North America, comparable to countries in Mediterranean Europe.
  • [4] ‘Visite du Bureau a Mgr. Benelli, Secretaire d’Etat, le 13 mai 1977’—MMTC, 2.3/11.
 
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