Virgil Michel, Benedictine Co-Worker of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin: Justice Embodied In Christ-Life And Liturgy
FEBRUARY 1, 2000 BY MARK AND LOUISE ZWICK (Casa Juan Diego, Houston, TX)
“What blasphemy! As if there were anything really Christian about our modern capitalism.” This was Virgil Michel, O.S.B., responding in Commonweal in 1938 to an article in Catholic World which had called Christ “the first preacher of capitalism as the most workable thesis for society.” Michel had to respond to the neocons (Michael Novak, etc.) of his day, which he did very strongly.
As if he were writing today, Michel blasted the capturing of the imagination of the American people by the glorification of consumerism and the amassing of wealth, by a set of values basically hostile to the human spirit: “It is no wonder then that the culture of our day is characterized as being the very opposite pole of any genuine Catholic culture. Its general aim is material prosperity through the amassing of national wealth. Only that is good which furthers this aim, all is bad that hinders it, and ethics has no say in the matter.” (“Christian Culture,” Orate Fratres, Vol. XIII, May 1939, p. 299).
Writing in the midst of a world-wide depression, Michel strongly critiqued modern economics. He knew that economic disparities and injustices would not be adequately addressed as long as people’s imaginations were captured by what he called the bourgeois spirit (today known as consumerism, the seeking of comfort and social status) and individualism. He insisted that changing economic structures and changing hearts and minds of Christians to live in contradiction to the dominant consumer culture must be done simultaneously. Michel found it tragic that “many Christians fully endorsed the bourgeois spirit and structured their lives accordingly, without under-standing that it represented a vision of human life which was diametrically opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” He knew that the “bourgeois spirit of capitalism in American society had the power to reach into the very sanctuaries of Christian churches and influence the preaching of the Gospel and the celebration of the Eucharist.” (John J. Mitchell, “Virgil Michel, OSB: Eucharistic Economics,” Critical Voices in American Catholic Economic Thought, Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1989, pp. 82, 85).
Describing the moral challenges facing Americans, Michel wrote in 1937 in Orate Fratres,“so while many Catholic Christians mind their own business, the injustices suffered by share-croppers, the gross discrimination against Negroes (even at times within the walls of Catholic churches), economic oppression of all sorts, crying court injustices, violent vigilante antics based on the principle that might is right, etc., go on with hardly a prominent Catholic voice raised in protest. How the Church Fathers of old would have made the welkin ring with the righteous indignation of the Lord and with the incessant denunciation on the one hand and the guiding exhortations on the other. They knew of no compromise between Christ and the world.”
Antidote to Materialism and Individualism
Michel’s antidote to materialism, individualism, indifference to injustice, was the Body of Christ at worship. He insisted on a revival of this Pauline imagery, an idea in remission at the time. In the article quoted above he emphasized the formation that should take place at the liturgy (the Mass, the Sacraments, the Divine Office): “The liturgy is the ordinary school of the development of the true Christian and the very qualities and outlook it develops in him are also those that make for the best realization of a genuine Christian culture.”
If there was ever a happy wedding of ideas, it was that of Virgil Michel, O.S.B., brilliant philosopher, theologian, liturgist, publisher and social ethicist, and the Catholic Worker. One of the greatest losses to the movement was Michel’s untimely death in 1938. Dorothy Day wrote at the time of his death in Orate Fratres, the journal Michel founded and edited, about his friendship with the Catholic Worker and how overwhelmed they were with sadness at his death (Jan. 2, 1939). As she expressed it later in the Catholic Worker of 1953, “What a great loss we all suffered when this great priest died at the age of 48.”
Fr. Virgil was a friend of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day and a leader in the liturgical movement in the United States. This movement, part of the Catholic renaissance before the Second Vatican Council, understood the liturgy as the worship of the Body of Christ, inextricably linked with the Church’s teaching on service to the poor, charity and justice. For Michel and for the Catholic Worker, this was not only a theology, but a spirituality, a way of life.
Benedictines Influenced Catholic Workers
Dorothy Day had been influenced by Benedictine spirituality long before she became a convert. She told in The Long Loneliness about reading Joris Karl Huysmans’ trilogy of novels, which she had come upon in the home of her friend Sam Putnam: “I read En Route, The Oblate, The Cathedral, and it was these books which made me feel that I too could be at home in the Catholic Church, without becoming a Catholic. They acquainted me with what went on there… I felt the age, the antiquity of the Mass, and here to find in Huysmans detailed instructions in regard to rubrics, all the complicated ritual, was a great joy to me, so that I went more often to the Cathedral” (The Long Loneliness, Harper San Francisco: 1952, 1981, p. 107). She had read about becoming a Benedictine oblate in Huysmans’ book; Dorothy herself later became one at St. Procopius Abbey, Benedictine Orient (Eastern Rite), Lisle, Illinois.
Peter Maurin’s program, and especially his philosophy of work, was heavily influenced by the Rule of St. Benedict. Writing in The Catholic Worker in October 1949 in an article called “Work,” Dorothy said that “Peter Maurin made manual labor and voluntary poverty the foundation of his teaching and these are our techniques of action… Always he quoted St. Benedict whose motto ‘Pray and Work’ was his also. He and Father Virgil Michel, the Benedictine, used to talk endlessly about work in relation to bodily and mental health and in his vision of the integrated life-a life in which man would be as happy as possible in his labors-he always talked of the necessity of our using our bodies as well as our minds.” She had already written in the September 1945 issue about Peter Maurin and Virgil Michel’s discussions of work and manual labor: “Peter enjoys manual labor. He used to tell Father Virgil Michel that if Benedictines had kept to their early ideal of manual labor, there would not be so many breakdowns from mental over-work. “We must use the whole man,” says Peter, “so that we may be holy men.”
The Catholic Worker was connected not only with Virgil Michel, but with the entire community of Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey at Collegeville, Minnesota. Correspondence published in the April-May 1995 issue of the Houston Catholic Worker includes letters between Abbot Alcuin Deutsch and Dorothy Day as well as correspondence with Virgil Michel. The letters indicate that it was his abbot who first brought the CW to the attention of Virgil Michel. In one letter Dorothy Day responds to Fr. Michel’s chiding her for not being at the Catholic Worker when he stopped by. One letter from the Abbot speaks of sending a free copy of each book published by Liturgical Press to the CW.
The Benedictine spirituality, related to hospitality and manual labor, to liturgical prayer and work, was a great influence on Catholic Worker spirituality emphasizing hospitality to the poor. In fact, Stanley Vishnewski later said, “I am sure that without the influence of the Benedictines that there would be very little in the Catholic Worker movement-For from the Benedictines we got the ideal of Hospitality-Guest Houses-Farming Communes-Liturgical Prayer. Take these away and there is very little left in the Catholic Worker program.”
In an account of her travels in 1935 Dorothy wrote about her visit to St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, where Virgil Michel was dean: “St. John’s College, in Minnesota, is a most impressive place… I was the guest of Fr. Virgil Michel there and yesterday morning he showed me all over the place. It started with just a few monks and now they have a tremendous plant. We visited the kitchens, where the German Franciscan nuns take care of the needs of the community and college, the flour mill, where the grain from their own acres is ground; the butcher shop and the herds of steers and pigs, and barns where there are eighty cows; and the Liturgical Press, which we make good use of back in New York. I spoke there to the students, seminarians and faculty, and they want Peter Maurin to come out and spend a week with them…. St. Benedict’s College for Women is just four miles away. The sisters here are also very appreciative of the work of Peter Maurin. I was able to promise them a visit from him in February.”
Dorothy wrote in 1953 in her “On Pilgrimage” column about a visit from Fr. Paul B. Marx, O.S.B., who was writing his dissertation on Virgil Michel, and who would later publish what has become the standard biography on Michel (The Catholic Worker, October 1953): “He spent five hours with us talking about the early days of the work and of the influence Fr. Virgil Michel had on Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker in general. Fr. Michel and Peter used to talk of liturgy and sociology, liturgy and community, liturgy and work until the early hours of the morning. It was Peter who brought the work of Emmanuel Mounier to Fr. Virgil’s attention and encouraged the translation and publication of The Personalist Manifesto by Longmans Green in 1938.”
Michel’s thought went together very well with that of the personalist thinkers such as Mounier. In addition to encouraging frequent reception of the Eucharist and active participation in the liturgy, the liturgical movement emphasized personal responsibility for carrying out Catholic social teaching. In 1933 Dorothy Day wrote in the Catholic Worker, “We feel that it is very necessary to connect the liturgical movement with the social justice movement. Each one gives vitality to the other.”
Fr. Michel founded Liturgical Press, where books and pamphlets of the blossoming liturgical movement were published, as well as the liturgical journal, Orate Fratres (now called Worship). Articles about the Catholic Worker and liturgy or by Catholic Workers also appeared in the pages of Orate Fratres.
In The Unread Vision: The Liturgical Movement in the United States of America: 1926-1955, (Collegeville, Minnesota, 1998) Fr. Keith Pecklers describes the philosophy and theology of the Catholic Worker movement, so related to Virgil Michel’s theology: “As Day and Maurin were convinced of the image of the Church as Christ’s body, they were equally convinced that liturgy was the heart of such a body and the fountain of social activism. When the CW was founded, therefore, it was not simply concerned about feeding the homeless, noble as those tasks were. Nor was its primary concern the social education of workers. It was to be an organic community, grounded in the liturgy. Day delighted in the common elements of the Eucharist-bread and wine. Such physical elements were earthy, real, connecting the material with the spiritual.” (p. 109). Among many, as one of his sources Pecklers uses Mel Piehl’s book, Breaking Bread: the Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982).
Pecklers emphasizes that the connection between liturgy, prayer and social action was very clear in the early Catholic Workr movement, quoting Nina Polcyn Moore who was impressed by the fact that “Dorothy Day insisted on one hour of prayer each day as a necessary and integral part of their picketing together.” (p. 202)
Virgil Michel and other Benedictine monks visited the Catholic Worker, introducing the Divine Office, the liturgy of the hours. Stanley Vishnewski, who joined the Worker at age 18, dedicated a chapter in his book, Wings of the Dawn (published by the Catholic Worker) to his experience of the influence of the Benedictine monks. Vishnewski tells about how the singing or reading of Prime and Compline became part of the daily schedule at the Worker, although participation was never required:
“It was Father Virgil Michel, OSB, then Dean of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., who came to us one afternoon and told us about the relationship of the Mystical Body of Christ to society. Father Virgil told us that the liturgical movement was the primary apostolate… He emphasized strongly the need for liturgical prayers-the recitation of the Divine Office by laymen so as to bring their minds and thoughts into harmony with the Church.
“As a result of Father Virgil’s visit the custom of reciting Compline was instituted in the Catholic Worker. He sent us a bundle of Compline booklets which had been published by the Liturgical Press. The Latin and English sections were printed side by side, making it easy for us to understand the Latin.
“Dorothy was much in favor of singing the hymns and the chanting of the Psalms. She quoted St. Augustine to us about the fact that he who sings, prays twice. ‘Don’t be afraid of singing,’ she said, ‘even if you have a weak voice.’
“Every evening at seven Margaret or Big Dan would start banging on a dishpan or a handy pot and its clamorous noise resounding throughout the store would summon us to the kitchen where, facing each other in two rows, we would recite the office of Compline. It gave me the feeling of continuity with the Church to realize that since the time of St. Benedict the Church has been offering up these beautiful liturgical prayers.” (Stanley Vishnewski, Wings of the Dawn, New York: The Catholic Worker).
Catholic Workers also wrote in Orate Fratres about the impact of the liturgical movement and particularly the Liturgy of the Hours, on life at the Catholic Worker. For example, Pecklers quotes Joseph McDonald of the early St. Louis Worker, who wrote in “A Liturgical Apostolate,” (OF 12 (1938), pp. 272-3: “The Catholic Worker unit here has been aware for long of the place and importance of the liturgy in its program. The reading of Compline at the meetings has been part of the regular procedure here for the past two years, just as in the center at New York. Now, however, with the opening of the coffee line over two hundred destitute men appear each morning, who offer a rich field for liturgical practice.” Speaking of Scripture reading each day during lunch and dinner, McDonald comments: “It penetrates our day in a peculiar way, and has carried a new kind of life into the shop and among the men on the coffee line. Seldom is one seen to leave before the end of the reading…each morning many of these men walk in a body to Mass before allowing themselves the coffee and rolls…”
Pecklers reports from an article in Orate Fratres about a national gathering of Catholic Workers which was held in Detroit September 3-5, 1938, “which began with the dialog Mass with general Communion, and focused entirely on the spiritual foundations of Catholic social activism. Topics included the Mystical Body of Christ as it acts liturgically; interracial justice, which included a ‘sacrifice-banquet’ with the black community of St. Peter Claver Church, Detroit; the issue of labor and the spiritual solution to the problem.” A report on that gathering concluded:
“We were especially struck by the number of those (laity) who made use of intermission periods to recite parts of the divine office; several of the younger members, we discovered, recite all of the hours whenever they can possibly do so. There are of course others who still can see little relation between, let us say, praying Compline and feeding the poor, but the general religious outlook is strongly liturgical among quite a number of the Catholic Worker groups” (p. 112).
William Gauchat of the Cleveland Catholic Worker, where each day was ended with Compline, wrote in Orate Fratres in 1940 about liturgical life there, emphasizing the appeal of the liturgy to the homeless people who came to them: “The poor who have nothing, and are despised by everyone for having nothing, can offer to God a gift of infinite value in the Mass. At Mass the poor are rich, and the rich are no more than the poorest of the poor. The Mass takes us from the humanity of Christ to his divinity, from earth to heaven. These are the ‘rejected stones’ of which we hope to build with God’s help a new spiritual edifice” (William Gauchat, “Helping the Hobo to God,” OF (1940) 386.
Virgil Michel had the inimitable skill of connecting social consciousness with the social nature of worship, especially the liturgy of the Eucharist. He believed that our responsibility for our neighbor, believer or not, flowed from the fact that we were connected to one another in the Body of Christ and the Eucharist.
In an article on “The Cooperative Movement and the Liturgical Movement,” Michel celebrated with Peter Maurin the way the early Christians lived and how their lives were transformed in contrast to the dominant culture: “What the early Christians thus did at the altar of God, in the central act of Christian worship, they also lived out in their daily lives. They understood fully that the common action of worship was to be the inspiration of all of their actions. They knew well that their common giving of themselves to God and to the brethren of Christ was in fact a solemn promise made to God that they would live their lives in this same love of God and of God’s children, their brethren in Christ, throughout all the day. Unless they did that, their action before God’s altar would be at best lip-service, a lie before God.” (Orate Fratres, Vol. XIV, February 1940, p. 156).
Emphasizing the unity between liturgy and life, liturgy and spirituality, liturgy and justice, liturgy and charity, Michel wrote: “A Christian, to be such, must be united with Christ spiritually and supernaturally; and he cannot be united with Christ by himself alone, or in total isolation from his fellowman. By his intimate spiritual union with Christ he is also most intimately united with other Christians. The two, union with Christ or with God through Christ, and union with all the brethren in Christ stand or fall together (“The Cooperative Movement and the Liturgical Movement,” p. 154).
Michel saw participation in the liturgy as a transforming action. One was to be changed by going to Mass, both personally and socially, as one opened one’s heart and mind to God’s Word from the Bible at Eucharistic celebrations. Like many liturgists he believed that people would flock to church if they had the opportunity to hear the Word proclaimed in English instead of Latin. However, according to John Mitchell, Michel also believed that “a proper celebration of the Church’s liturgy required the participants to be keen students of socio-economic realities…. Otherwise, liturgical worship can unhappily become a means of legitimating the social and economic injustices in society.” (Mitchell, p. 81.)
Virgil Michel would be very upset, especially now that the liturgical renewal has been implemented and the Mass is in English, if people do not make the connection with participation in the liturgy and changing their lives to live the Gospel, entering into these mysteries to be transformed more and more, putting on Christ and reaching out to others as the Lord himself did, as they work to create a more just social order. He knew that one participates in the liturgy to be converted, rather than simply to have an experience of beautiful music and be uplifted. Because the liturgy has focused so much in recent years on having an uplifting experience-with parishes even paying liturgists unheard of salaries-instead of being a conversion experience, the liturgy has sometimes been reduced to an empty shell, missing the core elements of what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ. Excellent organization, perfect order and good music is not sufficent. It cannot replace worship that calls people to Gospel values-to give up all, especially materialism and consumer lifestyles, to follow Jesus. Certainly, beauty is very important in worship, reflecting the glory of God and the heavenly liturgy with the angels and saints all worshipping and adoring, but the message of the Gospel and the unity of all members of the Body of Christ, especially the suffering, must never be obscured.
How did Virgil Michel get that Way?
One might wonder how a brilliant scholar like Virgil Michel could become such a friend of the Catholic Worker, even defending the movement against those who called it an “eyesore and a scandal,” as Michel put it in an article in Orate Fratres in 1938 called “Catholic Workers and Apostles.” He wrote: “…believe-it-or-not, the old slanders are still believed, even by some priests. Isn’t the Catholic Worker group ‘a bunch of communists’ boring from within? And what about worse things, such as should not be mentioned by word?-So all the old dirt is still going the rounds.” But Michel defended, “You are indeed an eyesore and a scandal even to Catholics, but usually only to such as revel in their self-complacency, whose religion is one of asking from God and knows not the blessedness of giving. If you are a stone of scandal to the self-righteous, so was Christ.”
A brief sketch of his background may help to explain.
Michel’s deepening in liturgy and theology began early in his life. As a young graduate student at the Catholic University of America, he chose as the topic of his doctoral dissertation, “The Critical Principles of Orestes Brownson.”
Brownson, a convert to Catholicism, wrote on the relationship between Catholicism and culture. Brownson’s own commitment to justice and lay activism had a deep and lasting effect on Michel. Brownson argued, just as Peter Maurin did, that the Church was a dynamic, lived reality (Pecklers, pp. 125-126).
Michel received no discouragement from his religious community regarding his interest in the wedding of liturgy and social reform. His abbot, Alcuin Deutsch, apparently sent him to Europe to be exposed to liturgical leaders and centers of liturgical renewal. Deutsch shared with Michel Romano Guardini’s Vom Geist der Liturgie prior to Michel’s departure for Europe. This book was the beginning of Virgil Michel’s interest in the liturgy.
In Europe, Michel met Fr. Lambert Beauduin, secular priest turned monk, who was inundated with the concept of the Mystical Body of Christ and was at the heart of Europe’s liturgical renewal. He spent many hours with Beauduin and soon began to recognize that a community transformed by its worship could ultimately be instrumental in the transformation of society. Michel, as a young priest, saw the liturgical movement as a means of countering the secularism and individualism of his day.
Mitchell recounts that “While in Europe Michel also studied the work of Emmanuel Mounier and other advocates of Christian Personalism. He was deeply influenced by their thought and its relationship to his own interests. Encouraged by the understanding of St. Thomas presented by Mounier and others, Michel found a home within contemporary American society. His studies of Thomas’ understanding of ‘social justice,’ ‘common good,’ ‘property rights’ and the ‘human person’ remain meaningful instructions in the area of Catholic social and economic ethics today…. He “relished the wisdom he found in the Middle Ages, especially the spirit of community and solidarity reflected in its social and economic life. He dedicated his talents to incorporating the best of the social vision of the Middle Ages into the social fabric of American society.” (Mitchell, pp. 78-79).
Dark Night of the Soul
After his return from Europe, Michel worked day and night to make liturgical renewal a reality. Here was a man who was “all things to all men,” who had been an English and philosophy professor, dean of St. John’s University, a violinist in St. John’s orchestra, a baseball and tennis star, a coach, translator and had written on every subject possible, besides writing a novel.
So convinced of the value of the liturgical movement to transform American Catholicism, he jumped in very intensely in accomplishing this. However, he was forced to admit before long that “the possibilities of doing good are almost overwhelming us” (Pecklers, p. 127).
According to Fr. Pecklers, he was suffering from complete exhaustion and finally suffered a nervous breakdown: “What followed was two months of hospitalization, an experience of “the dark night of the soul,” where he suffered from severe headaches, was unable to sleep, unable to read, and unable to celebrate Mass. For most of the two following years, Michel was unable to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and so was assigned three rosaries as his daily prayer. Upon leaving the hospital in June 1930, he was sent to the Chippewa Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota to rest and engage in a minimal amount of pastoral ministry (Pecklers, p. 127).
Michel did what one would expect of a man of his stature at the Indian Reservation. He did not accept the defeat and humiliation of mental problems and do nothing because he was a so-called mental case, but used the opportunity of living (literally) with Native Americans to know their culture and develop ways of integrating it with the idea of the Mystical Body.
Despite his continued suffering from insomnia, headaches and depression–he frequently signed his letters In Passione Domini (In the Passion of the Lord)-he learned the language of the Native Americans, hunted and fished with them, ate their food, worked and recreated with them and sought them out in bars to invite them to Mass.
Michel’s suffering became redemptive. He began to be aware of the many injustices which consumed the poor Native Americans each day. In Europe he learned about worship and the Mystical Body. At the Indian Reservation he filled out the whole picture of the Mystical Body-and he never forgot it, as is clear from his writing on justice and the common good for the rest of his life. Perhaps it was there that he understood that general talk about social programs would not truly transform a society.
Michel’s approach to the social order was similar to Peter Maurin’s in its simplicity, its rejection of bureaucracy, and its basis in the dynamite of the Church understood as the Body of Christ. Michel said, “Not paper programs, not high sounding unfulfilled resolutions once renewed the world, but new and living men born out of the depths of Christianity” (Paul B. Marx, O.S.B., Virgil Michel and the Liturgical Movement (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1957, p. 208).
Liturgical Social Ethics
Michel explained from papal teaching his famous thesis or syllogism about the link between liturgy and social responsibility, building a society based on the unity of all in the Body of Christ, in an article in Orate Fratres in 1934-35 called “The Liturgy the Basis of Social Regeneration.” He put together the ideas of two popes: “Pius X tells us that the liturgy is the indispensable source of the true Christian spirit; Pius XI says that the true Christian spirit is indispensable for social regeneration. Hence the conclusion: The liturgy is the indispensable basis of social regeneration.”
Michael Baxter, C.S.C., former Catholic Worker and currently professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, speaks of the legacy of Virgil Michel in an article in Communio, Fall 1997, “Reintroducing Virgil Michel: Towards a Counter-Tradition of Catholic Social Ethics in the United States.” Baxter emphasizes that Michel was the “leading intellectual light of the liturgical movement that grew up around the Benedictine community at Collegeville in the late twenties and thirties.” He mentions that Michel’s name has appeared regularly in liturgical journals for the past six decades and liturgists still speak of him “in reverent tones appropriate to a founding father in liturgy classes, conferences and workshops…” However, “among Catholic social ethicists, his name was virtually unheard of until recently, and even so, his impact has been almost nil.”
Baxter attributes this lack of understanding or acceptance of Michel’s social ethics to the dualism of the neo-scholastic paradigm related to nature and grace, where “it was generally assumed that ‘Catholic social ethics’ flows from philosophical principles grounded in reason alone.”
This dualism is almost like the modern-day doctrine of the separation of Church and state, where religion is relegated to the privacy of one’s home with curtains drawn. It is like the famous Irishman, O’Connell, who said, “My religion from Rome, my politics from home,” and never the twain shall meet. The dominant factor became Holy Mother the State and precious little from Holy Mother the Church. Michael Novak, for example, supports this concept by his idea that you can’t take your religion to the marketplace.
By contrast, Virgil Michel said that social justice is a virtue by which individual and groups “regulate all their actions” in proper relation to the Common Good.
Relegating religion to the privacy of one’s home is supposed to allow responsible people to create a just social order by reason and common sense-which hasn’t happened yet.
According to Baxter, a key to understanding Virgil Michel is to know that for him, “social ethics is also grounded in theological truths as well, truths not ascertained through an autonomous reason but through a reason that operates to its full capacity only when shaped by the liturgy of the Church…. Michel insisted that an adequate account of social regeneration must dispel any notion of ‘pure nature’ in favor of a nature dynamically oriented toward the supernatural, a nature that is supernaturalized. As de Lubac and others associated with the nouvelle theologie would eventually show, the notion of “pure nature” should not be traced back to Aquinas but to his neo-scholastic successors, Cajetan and Suarez in particular, who actually distorted Aquinas’ (Augustinian) vision of humanity as moved by a single, natural desire for God. What we have in Michel’s work is a remarkably lucid, albeit undeveloped, version of this later critique of the neo-scholastic two-tier, nature/super-nature paradigm.”
However, as Baxter points out, in the United States, “the critical edge of Michel’s work was blunted by the very neo-scholastic categories he was calling into question, categories which classified his liturgically-shaped account of social life as a form of ‘liturgics,’” thus assuring that concepts of justice based on liturgical transformation would remain in the church sanctuary and discussion groups and never see the light of Day. This located Michel’s thought “at the margins of what qualified as ‘social ethics’ or, as it was called at the time, ‘sociology.’” (Baxter, p. 518).
This dualism would seem to be the key to understanding how neoconservatives in the United States could endorse in the name of Catholicism the neoliberal economy (back to the old economic liberalism, by whatever name) which has done so much harm in the developing world. It may also explain why to some, social justice means taking your old clothes to a shelter or to others, having courses on or dabbling in social justice without seeing the necessity of transforming our lives. It also explains the difference between the work of Msgr. John A. Ryan and that of Virgil Michel.
It is worth quoting here at some length Baxter’s analysis of Ryan’s work, which has become the basis of much of Catholic social theory in the United States, later built upon by the work of John Courtney Murray. These theorists took a very different approach from that of Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day, and Virgil Michel. Because Michel and the Catholic Workers rejected dualism and insisted on Christian life and society rooted in the liturgy and the Mystical Body of Christ, a life and society where everything flows from the life and love of Christ, those who have followed Ryan and Murray have sometimes tried to dismiss them as sectarian or even accuse them of trying to reinstate a theocracy. Nothing is further from the truth; however, they did not believe in the “principle of expediency” invoked by Ryan in order to make Catholic teaching adaptable to the American society at large. Baxter writes:
“Working out of the dominant neo-scholastic paradigm, Ryan held that the ultimate norm of morality is the divine reason or essence, but that this reason or essence is mediated through human nature and can be ascertained on the basis of reason alone without the aid of the healing and restorative power of the sacraments. He was therefore able to pursue an overall project which attempted to apply general ethical principles, known intuitively through the inclinations of human nature, to social and economic problems. This project had remarkable currency in the pluralistic social setting of the United States. Grounded on a ‘universal’ reason, Ryan’s social ethics could appeal to everyone apart from specific ecclesial beliefs and practices, which meant that its principles could be applied directly in formulating public policy. Moreover, Ryan invoked what he called a ‘principle of expediency’ to argue that the Church should even support some economic and social reforms that fall short of its own ideal moral norms, thus ensuring the immediate relevance and applicability of Catholic social teaching to the policy making problems of the day. So it is not surprising that Ryan was a key player in extracting principles from Rerum Novarum and translating them into the policy recommendations that appeared in the form of the Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction in 1919. Nor is it surprising that a decade later he extracted principles fromQuadragesimo Anno to show how they translate into the economic reforms of the New Deal. His ethical method was designed to make precisely this kind of contribution. As a result, Ryan is normally seen as the central figure in Catholic social ethics of his generation, the one who brought Catholic social teaching to the so-called ‘wider society,’ to the ‘public’ sphere, to the nation.
“This is how Ryan is depicted by historians of Catholicism in the United States. For example, in ‘Sufficiently Radical’: Catholicism, Progressivism and the Bishops’ Program of 1919, Joseph McShane depicts Ryan as the hero who forges a bond between the Leonine natural law tradition in Catholic social teaching and the progressivist or reformist tradition of social theory in the United States. Likewise, in The American Catholic Experience, Jay Dolan (who draws on McShane’s book) describes Ryan as a ‘genius’ for ‘formulating a system of social ethics that was both very Catholic and very American. Henceforth, the natural law tradition would become the keystone of American Catholic social thought.’ For both McShane and Dolan, Ryan’s work marks a turning point in Catholic social theory, the first successful attempt to break out of the Catholic ghetto and into the progressivism of the U. S. mainstream where Catholicism can make a genuine contribution to the life of the nation. Ryan is portrayed as an early representative of a tradition that would be built upon by later Catholic social theorists, especially Murray, whose work was dedicated to providing the United States with a public philosophy…. (p. 519).
“In order to unfold the way they do, these historical narratives require a conceptual scheme structured along the lines of the neo-scholastic division between the natural and supernatural, with ‘nature’ posited as a fixed plane upon which a ‘foundation’ for social ethics could be laid, one based on an autonomous reason and therefore capable of appealing to groups with different religious convictions or none at all….
“While virtually all post-conciliar Catholic social ethicists put forth an integrated construal of the nature/grace relation that is diametrically opposed to the pre-conciliar, two-tier construal of nature and grace, they nevertheless work within the same strictures when it comes to social theory, strictures in keeping with the exigencies of a pluralistic society. The result is thus the same: a social ethic evacuated of specifically Christian content. In both the pre- and post-conciliar eras, therefore, theology is limited to functioning as a kind of conceptual reservoir providing ideals, principles, and themes to be applied to the policy issues facing the larger public called ‘society.’”
The contrast with the thought of Virgil Michel is striking: “For Michel, ‘justice’ is not derived from the Christ-life. It is embodied in the Christ-life…. Virgil Michel’s understanding of justice…does not fit well into the faith/justice dichotomy that structures the discourse of the field.” (Baxter, pp. 519-524).
Those who insist that Michel must have been thinking of some corporatist state, have not been sufficiently acquainted with his theology and with his close connections with the Catholic Worker, worker co-ops, agrarian reform movements and “other communal movements dedicated to developing a common life consonant with the Mystical Body of Christ.” As Baxter concludes, “his supernaturalist social theory was not linked to any one account of ‘the state.’ Approaching social theory from a personalist perspective, he devoted his energy toward imagining a non-state-centered society, one regenerated by the Christ-life, not through the bureaucratic organization of secular power, but through small-scale, practice-based communities…. What Michel’s social theory does call for is the creation of an alternative space from which the Body of Christ can mount a critique of the debilitating life-forms produced by capitalism (both laissez-faire and state capitalism) and the nation-state and at the same time generate forms of life exemplifying the true nature and purpose of God’s creation” (524-525).
Michel’s book, Christian Social Reconstruction, published in 1937 (Milwaukee: Bruce), describes also today’s challenge for Christians: “Thence we have the ideal of free competition extolled to the skies in such glowing rhapsodies down to our own day. Yet it is this free competition in its unlimited and individualistic form that has justified the use of the phrase “cutthroat competition” and has made of the economic life of mankind a veritable jungle in which the jungle law of a bitter struggle for existence, or rather for amassed wealth, and a survival of the fittest, has prevailed. Is there any surprise that Christian ideals could find no place in this life and that social justice has become a completely unknown entity?” (p. 10).
At the Houston Catholic Worker, Casa Juan Diego, where the tragedies of “free” cutthroat international competition arrive each day, Michel’s vision of a society based on the supernatural love of the Gospel and renewed in the Church’s liturgy appeals much more than that of self-interest economics. It is a vision that inspired Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the early decades of the Catholic Worker movement and continues to inspire today.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XX, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 2000.