The Motherhood of the Church
Mission to the Poorest: Prayer and Practice
By M. R. Loew
Publisher: Christian Classics (in England published by Sheed & Ward)
Review Author: Dale Vree
This is a reprint of a 1950 classic. It is Fr. Loew’s account of his life and times as a worker-priest in Marseilles. Not only of historical interest, it is as contemporary as what is now called the “preferential option for the poor.” But just as that option has its excesses and pitfalls, so too did the worker-priest experiment in France.
Long ago it was recognized that France, especially its working class, had become de-Christianized. Indeed, Pope Pius XI said in the 1920s that, “The great scandal of the nineteenth century was that the Church lost the working-class” — or as John C. Cort has phrased it (in the April 1984 NOR), the Church “abandoned” the working class. Either way, while the Church nervously sided with the propertied interests in very real class struggles, Marxist atheists rather simultaneously took leadership of the cause of the workers.
Into this scandalous chasm stepped (among others) the French worker-priests, with the avowed purpose of re-Christianizing (or in certain cases, simply Christianizing) the working class. It was commonly understood that the laity (as represented, for example, by Catholic Action) had not quite measured up to the challenge, and that the priest — the very “image” of Christ — had to come out from behind the gentle comforts of his rectory and immerse himself in working-class life, as did Jesus the carpenter, if the missionary effort of the Church to the proletariat were to be credible and effective.
“The man with the white hands” — this was a common definition of a priest in France. If the priest were to overcome the counter-stigmata of the man with clean hands, if the Church were to transcend her image as a cuddly lapdog of bourgeois masters, then the Church would have to go beyond almsgiving, and the priest would have to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty (much as, in a different, American context, the priest in the classic film On the Waterfront came to realize).
But if one’s motives or priorities were askew, a priest could wind up doing more harm than good. For example, if one were hobbled, say, by guilt and a bourgeois nostalgie de la boue (nostalgia for dirt), the priest’s masochism could obliterate his missionary purpose. And so, what happened in too many cases was that instead of Christianizing communist workers, French worker-priests allowed themselves to be communized — de-Christianized. Happily, Fr. Loew was not such a worker-priest, for as he resolutely recognized, the worker-priest “has plunged into the water to save the drowning man. And if one danger lies in drifting apart from him, there is, too, the other danger of letting him drag you under.”
Fr. Loew, orthodox and ever loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, had a very clearheaded and balanced view of the strengths and ultimate weaknesses of the communist working class. In a very Catholic manner, he prudently asked himself if there were any “feelers” for the supernatural there — any “natural foothold for grace” from which to approach the problem — and he went through a list of possibilities.
For example: “Many militant workers feel very keenly the need for what they call ‘moral reforms,’ as a counter to the scandal of prostitution, and the primacy of money-making.” But, alas, their solution was merely a change in government, so as to become the material beneficiaries of a new system. Too elementary, too shortsighted. So, no “feeler” here.
The most ardent philosophical materialists are often far from materialistic (in the “vulgar” sense) in their personal lives. And so, as another possibility for grace to find a foothold, Loew recognized a “great spiritual upheaval…agitating the heart of the working-class movement,” producing — through struggle — its own “heroes, martyrs, saints.” Said Loew:
Re-read the story of the “Chicago martyrs,” who in 1887 originated May Day. Take up again the…letters of the [French] militants…shot during the [German] occupation. We find there much more than “feelers” for the supernatural; we are breathing its very air: “There is no greater love than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Thus, the most authentic aspirations towards the transcendent, towards a mystique, find their expression for non-Christians in Communism and syndicalism [i.e., militant trade unionism].
But, alas, here too crippling weaknesses intruded: the heroism of working-class leaders is a rare phenomenon, said Loew, while “the great majority” of workers “show little evidence of caring much about anything.”
Overall, the passion for social justice did not truly animate the working class; instead one found shapeless demands and hatred for outsiders and enemies mixed with a desire to “take it easy.” So, again, no real “feeler” for the supernatural.
Oh, yes: “The common people are more capable of generosity than anyone. Nevertheless, one cannot count on this as a permanent characteristic of the masses.…”
Considering all the various possibilities, Loew concluded that there were no feelers for the supernatural among communist-oriented workers. “On the contrary, their souls are dimly aware of a great emptiness…. So we find nothing positive, simply a void.…” The only way the worker-priest could approach the problem was to fill the void by bringing in the Gospel in a radical way! Simple, but not so simple.
The Gospel is not only words and propositions — it is action and example. Frequently, when a communist worker discovered that the mate working beside him in some “hell-hole” was a priest, he would be incredulous, and then profoundly moved and impressed.
For example, one communist leader exclaimed after a lecture by a worker-priest that, “If it were possible today to win men to the ideas set forth by [this worker-priest], there would be no need for Communism. We should have social equality then.…” But the communist remained unconvinced of this possibility: “Can you think,” he said, turning to Loew, “of a Christian industrialist, lying snugly under three warm blankets, and hearing [of] these shelterless wretches wandering the streets, who would so much as get out of bed and give them one of his blankets? Certainly you can’t, in spite of your lectures. We Communists, we have a mission to fulfill.…”
As I said: not so simple. And herein lies the tragedy, a tragedy which indicts many Christians, me included.
Yet, one might wonder if all this is of any “practical” significance for Christians in America today. We are told that the economy is reasonably healthy, the New Left is dead, the unions are weak and workers are either content or sullen and dispirited, and the poor are but invisible and mute statistics.
So this is hardly France in 1950. We don’t know a militant working class and a massive Communist Party squaring off against a frightened bourgeoisie and an unpopular church. So you might say, “why bother with this book?” Why? Because candidly, much of Christian America risks surrendering its own “feelers” for the supernatural.
Lusting after the flesh pots of Egypt, those Christians wedded to the current spirit of the age — a spirit of consumerism and “I gotta be me” — make of themselves widowers in the next. No, we Christians dare not be smug and self-satisfied.
When Loew wrote, the Church had “lost the affection and attention of the common people” in France. This is not a mere problem of history or sociology — it is, or can become at any point in time, a problem of doctrine. When the Church abandons her maternal role de facto, says Loew poignantly, “her doctrinal role becomes intolerable.” Many churches, notably the Orthodox Church in Russia, have had to learn this lesson — and with great pain and bloodshed. How many more must follow?
So, let us consider what this maternal role is. It is, says Loew, “entering into the entire daily life of the masses…in all the practical details of day-to-day living: labour-contracting, wages, conditions of work, security and stability of employment, sustenance, lodging, etc.” — even, adds Loew, when this “involves defying the ruler” — in short, it is doing those things for which the American bishops are excoriated these days. Such a course will likely result in “lively opposition,” Loew notes. “But,” he adds perceptively, “would not that be a favorable sign?”
A good mother is not weak and passive toward her children — she cares and struggles on their behalf, as with the marvelous woman of Proverbs 31: 10-31. She teaches her children, but knows that her teaching will not be well received if she does not also love her children with a vigorous and generous love. And so too with Holy Mother Church.
The Church as nurturing Mother! This is an image particularly dear to traditional Catholics. Christ is the Bridegroom; the Church is the Bride, and the Mother of us all. Robustly heterosexual imagery, this. And because (among other reasons) the priest is to “image” Christ, he must be a he, lest the imagery of Bride and Bridegroom suddenly become strangely lesbian, and contradict the moral teachings of Christianity. To which must be added: the divinely ordained imagery of Church as Mother is truly credible when the Church visibly acts as Mother, as the advocate of her children, especially the poorest and most defenseless.
The Church is our Mother and our Teacher — not just one, not just the other, but both simultaneously. Neither role may be neglected. This is Fr. Loew’s message, and it is a perennial message. Read this book, at once profoundly traditional and profoundly radical.
©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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Ed. Note: Christopher Lasch, R.I.P., is a Contributing Editor of the NOR.
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