RCC Honors History Project

A Defense of the Knights of Labor

Posted by nrohr on April 27, 2009

In submitting to the Holy See the conclusions which, after several months of attentive observation and reflection, seem to me to sum up the truth concerning the association of the Knights of Labor, I feel profoundly convinced of the vast importance of the consequences attaching to this question, which is but a link in the great chain of the social problems of our day, and especially of our country.

In treating this question I have been very careful to follow as my constant guide the spirit of the encyclical letters in which our Holy Father Leo XIII has so admirably set forth the dangers of our times and their remedies, as well as the principles by which we are to recognize associations condemned by the Holy See. Such was also the guide of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in its teachings concerning the principles to be followed and the dangers to be shunned by the faithful, either in the choice or in the establishment of those various forms of association toward which the spirit of our popular institutions so strongly impels them.

And, considering the evil consequences that might result from a mistake in the treatment of organizations which often count their members by thousands and hundreds of thousands, the Council wisely ordained … that, when an association is spread over several dioceses, not even the bishop of one of these dioceses shall condemn it, but shall refer the case to a standing committee consisting of all the archbishops of the United States; and even these are not authorized to condemn, unless their sentence be unanimous. And in case they fail to agree unanimously, then only the supreme tribunal of the Holy See can impose a condemnation; all this in order to avoid error and confusion of discipline.

This committee of archbishops held a meeting toward the end of last October at which the association of the Knights of Labor was specially considered. To this we were not impelled by the request of any of our bishops, for none of them had asked it; and I must add that among all the bishops we know of but two or three who desire the condemnation. But our reason was the importance attached to the question by the Holy See itself, and this led us to examine it with all possible care. After our deliberations, the result of which has already been communicated to the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda, only two out of the twelve archbishops voted for condemnation; and their reasons were powerless to convince the others of either the justice or the prudence of such a condemnation.

In the following considerations I wish to state in detail the reasons which determined the vote of the great majority of the committee — reasons whose truth and force seem to me all the more evident after this lapse of time; nor will I fail to do justice to the arguments advanced on the other side:

1. In the first place, though there may be found in the constitution, laws, and official declarations of the Knights of Labor things that we would not approve, still, we have failed to find in them those elements so clearly pointed out by the Holy See, which would class them among condemned associations:

In their form of initiation there is no oath.

The obligation to secrecy by which they keep the knowledge of their business from enemies or strangers is not such as to hinder Catholics from manifesting everything to competent ecclesiastical authority, even outside of confession. This has been positively declared to us by their chief officers.

They make no promise of blind obedience. The object and laws of the association are distinctly declared, and the obligation of obedience does not go beyond them.

They not only profess no hostility against religion or the Church but their declarations are quite to the contrary. The Third Plenary Council commands … that condemnation shall not be passed on any association without the previous hearing of its officers or representatives. Now, their president, when sending me a copy of their constitution, declared that he is a devoted Catholic; that he practises his religion faithfully and receives the sacraments regularly; that he belongs to no Masonic society or other association condemned by the Church; that he knows nothing in the organization of the Knights of Labor contrary to the laws of the Church; that, with filial submission, he begs the pastors of the Church to examine their constitution and laws, and to point out anything they may find objectionable, promising to see to its correction.

Assuredly, there is in all this no hostility to the authority of the Church, but, on the contrary, a disposition in every way praiseworthy. After their convention, held last year in Richmond, he and several of the principal members, devout Catholics, made similar declarations concerning the action of that convention, the documents of which we expect to receive shortly.

Nor do we find in this organization any hostility to the authority and laws of our country. Not only does nothing of the kind appear in their constitution and laws but the heads of our civil government treat with respect the cause which such associations represent. The President of the United States told me personally, a few weeks ago, that he then had under consideration a proposed law for the amelioration of certain social grievances, and that he had had a long conversation on these topics with Mr. Powderly, the president of the Knights of Labor.

The Congress of the United States, in compliance with the views presented by President Cleveland in his annual message, is at present engaged in framing measures for the improvement of the condition of the laboring classes, in whose complaints they acknowledge that there is a great deal of truth. And our political parties, far from considering them the enemies of the country, vie with each other in championing the evident rights of the workingmen, who seek not to resist or overthrow the laws but only to obtain just legislation by constitutional and legitimate means.

These considerations, which show that in these associations those elements are not to be found which the Holy See has condemned, lead us to study, in the second place, the evils which the association contends against and the nature of the conflict.

2. That there exist among us, as in all other countries of the world, grave and threatening social evils, public injustices which call for strong resistance and legal remedy, is a fact which no one dares to deny — a fact already acknowledged by the Congress and the President of the United States. Without entering into the sad details of these evils, whose full discussion is not necessary, I will only mention that monopolies, on the part of both individuals and of corporations, have everywhere called forth, not only the complaints of our working classes but also the opposition of our public men and legislators; that the efforts of monopolists, not always without success, to control legislation to their own profit cause serious apprehensions among the disinterested friends of liberty; that the heartless avarice, which, through greed of gain, pitilessly grinds not only the men but even the women and children in various employments, makes it clear to all who love humanity and justice that it is not only the right of the laboring classes to protect themselves but the duty of the whole people to aid them in finding a remedy against the dangers with which both civilization and social order are menaced by avarice, oppression, and corruption.

It would be vain to dispute either the existence of the evils or the right of legitimate resistance or the necessity of a remedy. At most, a doubt might be raised about the legitimacy of the form of resistance and of the remedy employed by the Knights of Labor. This, then, is the next point to be examined.

3. It can hardly be doubted that, for the attainment of any public end, association — the organization of all interested — is the most efficacious means — a means altogether natural and just. This is so evident and, besides, so conformable to the genius of our country, of our essentially popular social conditions, that it is unnecessary to insist upon it. It is almost the only means to public attention to give force to the most legitimate resistance, to add weight to the most just demands.

Now, there already exists an organization which presents innumerable attractions and advantages, but with which our Catholic workingmen, filially obedient to the Holy See, refuse to unite themselves; this is the Masonic Order, which exists everywhere in our country and which, as Mr. Powderly has expressly pointed out to us, unites employers and employed in a brotherhood very advantageous to the latter, but which numbers in its ranks hardly a single Catholic. Nobly renouncing advantages which the Church and conscience forbid, our workingmen join associations in no way in conflict with religion, seeking nothing but mutual protection and help, and the legitimate assertion of their rights. Must they here also find themselves threatened with condemnation, hindered from their only means of self-defense? …

Among all the glorious titles which the Church’s history has deserved for her, there is not one which at present gives her so great influence as that of “Friend of the People.” Assuredly, in our democratic country, it is this title which wins for the Catholic Church not only the enthusiastic devotedness of the millions of her children but also the respect and admiration of all our citizens, whatever be their religious belief. It is the power of this title which renders persecution almost an impossibility and which draws toward our Holy Church the great heart of the American people.

And since it is acknowledged by all that the great questions of the future are not those of war, of commerce, or of finance but the social questions — the questions which concern the improvement of the condition of the great popular masses, and especially of the working people — it is evidently of supreme importance that the Church should always be found on the side of humanity — of justice toward the multitudes who compose the body of the human family. …

In our country, above all, this social amelioration is the inevitable program of the future, and the position which the Church should hold toward it is surely obvious. She can certainly not favor the extremes to which the poor multitudes are naturally inclined; but, I repeat, she must withhold them from these extremes by the bonds of affection, by the maternal desire which she will manifest for the concession of all that is just and reasonable in their demands, and by the maternal blessing which she will bestow upon every legitimate means for improving the condition of the people.

6. Now let us consider for a moment the consequences which would inevitably follow from a contrary course — from a course of want of sympathy for the working class, of suspicion for their aims, of ready condemnation for their methods.

First, there would be the evident danger of the Church’s losing, in popular estimation, her right to be considered the friend of the people. The logic of the popular heart goes swiftly to its conclusions, and this conclusion would be most pernicious, both for the people and for the Church. To lose the heart of the people would be a misfortune for which the friendship of the few rich and powerful would be no compensation.

There would be a great danger of rendering hostile to the Church the political power of our country, which has openly taken sides with the millions who are demanding justice and the improvement of their condition. The accusation of being un-American — that is to say, alien to our national spirit — is the most powerful weapon which the enemies of the Church can employ against her. It was this cry which aroused the Know-Nothing persecution thirty years ago, and the same would be used again if the opportunity offered. To appreciate the gravity of this danger it is well to remark that not only are the rights of the working classes loudly proclaimed by each of our two great political parties but it is not improbable that, in our approaching national elections, there will be a candidate for the office of President of the United States as the special representative of the popular complaints and demands.

Now, to seek to crush by an ecclesiastical condemnation an organization which represents more than 500,000 votes, and which has already so respectable and so universally recognized a place in the political arena, would, to speak frankly, be considered by the American people as not less ridiculous than rash. To alienate from ourselves the friendship of the people would be to run great risk of losing the respect which the Church has won in the estimation of the American nation and of forfeiting the peace and prosperity which form so admirable a contrast with her condition in some so-called Catholic countries. Angry utterances have not been wanting of late, and it is well that we should act prudently.

A third danger — and the one which most keenly touches our hearts — is the risk of losing the love of the children of the Church and of pushing them into an attitude of resistance against their Mother. The world presents no more beautiful spectacle than that of their filial devotion and obedience; but it is well to recognize that, in our age and in our country, obedience cannot be blind. We would greatly deceive ourselves if we expected it. Our Catholic workingmen sincerely believe that they are only seeking justice, and seeking it by legitimate means. A condemnation would be considered both false and unjust and, therefore, not binding. We might preach to them submission and confidence in the Church’s judgment; but these good dispositions could hardly go so far. They love the Church, and they wish to save their souls; but they must also earn their living, and labor is now so organized that without belonging to the organization it is almost impossible to earn one’s living.

Behold, then, the consequences to be feared. Thousands of the Church’s most devoted children, whose affection is her greatest comfort and whose free offerings are her chief support, would consider themselves repulsed by their Mother and would live without practising their religion. Catholics who have hitherto shunned the secret societies would be sorely tempted to join their ranks. The Holy See, which has constantly received from the Catholics of America proofs of almost unparalleled devotedness, would be considered, not as a paternal authority but as a harsh and unjust power. Surely these are consequences which wisdom and prudence counsel us to avoid.

7. But, besides the dangers that would result from such a condemnation and the impracticability of putting it into effect, it is also very important that we should carefully consider another reason against condemnation, arising from the unstable and transient character of the organization in question. It is frequently remarked by the press and by attentive observers that this special form of association has in it so little permanence that, in its present shape, it is not likely to last many years. Whence it follows that it is not necessary, even if it were just and prudent, to level the sole condemnations of the Church against so evanescent an object. The social agitation itself will, indeed, last as long as there are social evils to be remedied; but the forms of organization meant for the attainment of this end are naturally provisional and short-lived. They are also very numerous, for I have already remarked that the Knights of Labor is only one among many labor organizations.

To strike, then, at one of these forms would be to commence a war without system and without end; it would be to exhaust the forces of the Church in chasing a crowd of changing and uncertain specters. The American people behold with perfect composure and confidence the progress of our social contest and have not the least fear of not being able to protect themselves against any excesses or dangers that may occasionally arise. Hence, to speak with the most profound respect, but also with the frankness which duty requires of me, it seems to me that prudence suggests, and that even the dignity of the Church demands, that we should not offer to America an ecclesiastical protection for which she does not ask and of which she believes she has no need. …

Now, as I have already indicated, out of the seventy-five archbishops and bishops of the United States, there are about five who desire the condemnation of the Knights of Labor, such as they are in our own country; so that our hierarchy are almost unanimous in protesting against such a condemnation. Such a fact ought to have great weight in deciding the question. If there are difficulties in the case, it seems to me that the prudence and experience of our bishops and the wise rules of the Third Plenary Council ought to suffice for their solution.

Finally, to sum up all, it seems to me that the Holy See could not decide to condemn an association under the following circumstances:

When the condemnation does not seem to be justified, either by the letter or the spirit of its constitution, its law, and the declaration of its chiefs.

When the condemnation does not seem necessary in view of the transient form of the organization and the social condition of the United States.

When it does not seem to be prudent because of the reality of the grievances complained of by the working classes and their acknowledgment by the American people.

When it would be dangerous for the reputation of the Church in our democratic country, and might even lead to persecution.

When it would probably be inefficacious owing to the general conviction that it would be unjust.

When it would be destructive instead of beneficial in its effects, impelling the children of the Church to disobey their Mother and even to enter condemned societies, which they have thus far shunned.

When it would turn into suspicion and hostility the singular devotedness of our Catholic people toward the Holy See.

When it would be regarded as a cruel blow to the authority of bishops in the United States, who, it is well known, protest against such a condemnation.

Now, I hope that the considerations here presented have sufficiently shown that such would be the effect of condemnation of the Knights of Labor in the United States.

Therefore, I leave the decision of the case, with fullest confidence, to the wisdom and prudence of Your Eminence and the Holy See.


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