Monday, March 24, 2014

Before Rerum Novarum, I: The Setting


In 1886 the agrarian socialist Henry George ran for mayor of New York City as the Union Labor Party candidate.  His opponents were the reforming Democratic candidate, Abram Stevens Hewitt, and Theodore Roosevelt on the Republican ticket.  Hewitt won, George came in second, and Roosevelt finished a distant third.

Milk cartons, feh. Get your mug on a cigar box lid.
The day after losing the election, George announced that he was giving up politics in order to devote himself to journalism: “I shall buy a bottle of ink and a box of pens and again go to writing.” (Henry George, Jr., The Life of Henry George, Third Period: The Propagation of the Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1904, 482.)

This sounds innocuous enough, until we realize that what George intended to write about was all the people and institutions he blamed for causing him to lose the election.  Chief among these was the Catholic Church, especially as represented by Archbishop Michael A. Corrigan of New York.

McGlynn heroically staving off two popes, George and Leo XIII
One of George’s most active supporters during the campaign was Father Edward McGlynn, a priest of the New York Archdiocese.  McGlynn had been censured a number of times for his publicly expressed views on such matters as Catholic education, clerical garb, vows of obedience, and, especially, private property in land, the abolition of which was the cornerstone of George’s program.

Ironically, had McGlynn kept his opinions to himself, or made it clear he was speaking strictly as a private citizen and not a representative of the Catholic Church, nothing would have been done, at least publicly.  He insisted, however, on appearing in public in his capacity as a Catholic priest, and declaring that his views, not those of the popes or the bishops, were authentic Catholic teaching.  He was finally excommunicated in July 1887, not for his political or personal views, but for disobedience.  It seems Henry George talked McGlynn out of going to the Vatican to explain himself and his position, and present his own case. . . .

Archbishop Michael A. Corrigan
In any event, on November 27, 1886 Corrigan published a pastoral letter in the New York Catholic newspaper, the New York Freeman's Journal and Catholic Register, that, among other things, presented the correct Catholic doctrinal position on the natural right of private property in land. The letter was read in all the churches of the archdiocese.

George was not mentioned by name. It was, however, generally agreed that his concept of collective or communal ownership of land had called forth the document. (Henry George, Jr., The Life of Henry George, op. cit., 486.)

Unfortunately, because Corrigan focused on responding to George directly on the question of private property in land, the pastoral did not mention the rights of labor, except to note that owners were taking unfair advantage of propertyless workers.

Leo XIII
This gave George the opening he needed.  He claimed that by not stressing the rights of labor, Corrigan was actually oppressing labor.  He also went to great lengths (as he did a few years later when Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum) to explain very carefully why the Catholic doctrine regarding private property in land Corrigan defended was wrong, and he, George, was right.

It was at this point that Cardinal Simeoni at the Vatican issued an order for McGlynn to appear in Rome. As McGlynn’s superior, Corrigan naturally had to give permission for McGlynn to absent himself from the diocese, and consequently issued an exeat, official permission to leave the diocese.

Obviously not understanding the protocol involved, George took the exeat (permission to leave the diocese) as an order arbitrarily given by Corrigan. To George, Corrigan was knuckling under to a foreign prince and violating the rights of free Americans.  George also took Corrigan’s pastoral letter as an example of how organized religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, oppresses the poor.

Is that really what Corrigan did in his pastoral letter, however?  We’ll start to look at that question tomorrow — and post the relevant portions of the letter to see if you agree with George’s assessment.

#30#

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