Friday, February 12, 2021

Social Reconstruction - A Century Ago

On this date in 1919, the Administrative Committee of the National Catholic War Council (the precursor of the present United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) published its Program of Social Reconstruction. World War I had just ended. "But the only safeguard of peace," the Bishops' Program proclaimed at its outset, "is social justice and a contented people." In contrast to the much more wordy style of so many magisterial documents, the entire Program is less than 17 pages - a short and easy read, well worth the effort even now 102 years later. Primary authorship of the 1919 test is traditionally ascribed to Monsignor John A. Ryan (1869-1945). Ryan (photo) was sarcastically called "the Right Reverent New Dealer" during the 1936 election campaign by anti-FDR priest Charles Coughlin. (Ryan did indeed endorse FDR in 1936 and gave the Benediction at FDR's fourth Inauguration in 1945.) 

The Bishops' 1919 Program reflected its historical context, the aftermath of the disruption of World War I. The Bishops did not expect "as many or as great social changes" in the U.S. after the war as were expected in Europe, and they dismissed the belief that "Things will never be the same after the war." But, of course, every calamity brings both expected and unexpected changes in its wake. And we may safely suggest that things will never be quite the same after the pandemic, especially given the way the pandemic itself has unveiled so many fundamental and long-standing social ills.

Given the belief that imminent social change would be limited, the 1919 Program was primarily practical rather than comprehensive. That said, the Program unabashedly made the case for what was called a living wage. This, they insisted, "is not necessarily the full measure of justice. All Catholic authorities  on the subject  explicitly declare that this is only the minimum of justice." They also argued, in language reminiscent of more recent arguments about raising the minimum wage, that the demand produced by higher wages and purchasing power "is the most effective instrument of prosperity for labor and capital alike." The Program also promoted labor's right to organize and bargain collectively, and "hoped that this right will never again be called in question."

The document's ostensibly limited, practical orientation did not preclude an analysis of the prevailing economic system's serious defects, which were identified as "enormous inefficiency and the production and distribution of commodities; insufficient incomes for the great majority of wage earners, and unnecessarily large incomes for a small minority of privileged capitalists." What does it say about our society and its ostensible moral leaders that a full century later, the same description still applies - and maybe more so than it did less than half a century after the document was first issued?

Regarding the problems of production and insufficient income, the Program repeated what was earlier said about "universal living wages" and "harmonious relations between labor and capital on the basis of adequate participation by the former in all the industrial aspects of business management." Regarding the third evil of "unnecessarily large incomes for a small minority," the Program proposed "adequate government regulation" and "heavy taxation of incomes, excess profits, and inheritances." Such ideas were apparently less heretical then than now. They were mainstream ideas when I was growing up at mid-century in what was perhaps the most egalitarian and prosperous period in American history. They became hopelessly heretical after the disastrous election of 1980, which inaugurated the political cycle that thankfully may now be drawing to its close.

The Program ended by recalling "the long-forgotten truth that wealth is stewardship, that profit-making is not the basic justification of business enterprise." Now as then, that "long-forgotten truth" is something of which we all need to be reminded.

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