The Worker‐Priest Movement in France Has Received New Papal Encouragement

Posted on August 15, 2018


PARIS — One of the most significant efforts bridging the historic gap between the Roman Catholic Church and the world of workers is being quietly renewed here by the so‐called worker priests — regular priests working in factories as regular workers. Were it not for a recent declaration by Pope John Paul II, they would still be going about their difficult business unbeknownst to most people.

The declaration came as a passage in John Paul’s first general message to his clergy last month, when he urged priests to devote special attention to improving the lot of the poor, the unemployed and the sick, and demanded that “the fumes of incense mix with those of industry.”

Churchmen immediately saw a link between that exhortation and the kind of activity already being performed by the worker priests, but they disagreed as to the actual message intended. Liberal churchmen in Rome saw “an opening toward the worker priests.” Some of their more skeptical Paris counterparts felt that the very vagueness of the message was an explicit reminder of the uncertain role permitted the worker priests.

The ambiguity of the message reflects the complex history of the worker‐priest experiment since it was launched in this country after World War II. The experiment was a direct consequence both of the church’s enhanced awareness of the importance of labor in the general scheme of things and the firsthand experience of many priests taken to Germany with French workers for forced labor in arms plants.

The priests’ experience convinced them that nothing quite equalled working side by side as a way of achieving spiritual closeness. In the words of Father Paul Jadot, the French church’s chief coordinator of activities among workers, the mission of the worker priests “consisted in bringing the evangel into the factories.” The undertaking, he conceded, was largely symbolic, because of the disproportion between the millions of French workers and the very few priests- “not quite 100” — initially involved.

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The worker priests soon enrolled in the then dominant labor union federation to defend the interests of their co‐workers. The result was trouble with church authorities in Rome. The Cold War was in progress, Father Jadot recalled, and the single union with any influence in France was the Marxist General Confederation of Labor, dominated, then as now, by Communists. Pope Pius XII found the association of priests with such an organization incompatible and, in 1959, ordered French bishops to recall all priests who were working in factories. It was the Pope’s view that Marxism bred atheism and that there was

1 too much risk that priests might lose their faith.

The worker priests retorted that siding with the poor was in the spirit of the New Testament. Father Jacques Loew, their spiritual leader, actually pleaded with the Vatican to rescind its order, but vain, although he had the backing of a number of French bishops.

It was an agonizing choice for the worker priests. “Many complied, some of whom have never overcome their sorrow,” Father Jadot recalled. Some left the priesthood. For a number, a compromise solution was invented, under which the worker priests became priests at work. This kept them out of factories, full‐time jobs and unions but let them remain close to the world of labor in part‐time jobs as male nurses, bus conductors and laboratory assistants.

The ban on priests as factory workers lasted until 1965, when it was abolished in the wake of the revolutionary Vatican II Council called by Pope John XXIII. However, the new authorization did not explicitly reject the arguments that had led to the interdiction. Since then, according to Father Jadot, the worker priest operation has quietly expanded. It now includes nearly 1,000 French priests, with lesser numbers active in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Canada and Latin America.

The worker priests do not like to be called “a movement,” because they do not want to be “different” from their non‐ecclesiastical co‐workers. (One union official recently said that workers are often unaware of a colleague’s identity as a priest.) At the same time they want to remain priests exactly like other priests, with the same prerogatives and duties. This is one reason for their discretion and aversion to publicity. Another reason is thought to be that too much publicity might offend conservatives in the church and renew the troubles of the mid‐1950s.

Whereas most worker priests would welcome continuing dialogue with their bishops, that apparently happens only in a minority of cases. As one church source put it, “Their personal experiences come from two different worlds, and so they have difficulty understanding each other. The bishops, too, wouldwelcome the dialogue, but. . . .”

What have the worker priests actually achieved? They have not drawn away any workers from Marxist views about the economy or history, because that was not their purpose. The worker priests themselves find leftwing political or union activity quite compatible with believing in God and reading Mass. Nor have they made significant numbers of converts in the factories.

However, they are widely credited with contributing to the most important psychological shift on the French Left in a generation. This is the shift among members of the working class toward a large measure of tolerance for the church, its priests and the faithful. Traditionally, the working class was hostile to the church as far back as the French Revolution and the early days of French capitalism, when Roman Catholicism generally was seen as siding with the rising bourgeoisie. That view was first eroded by the creation in 1927 of the fairly leftwing Catholic youth movement, and’ has now become largely obsolete.

The worker priests’ effectiveness, according to one union official, comes “whenever they impress their co‐workers by sheer personality.” The worker priests themselves think that their readiness to join union protest movements has been an essential element in the credibility they have established. Father Jadot ascribes their influence largely to “talking and the exchange of views.” For in the theological view, simple human contact by itself has intrinsic value.

Kay Harris

The Rev. Jacques Loew, the theoretician of the priest‐worker movement, with students for the priesthood.

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