The church below the church


Miguel Cifuentes, presente!

It was a female Mexican theologian who told the story about walking in the shadow of the cathedral in her town when her granddaughter asked her if that church was their church. “No,” she said, “We belong to the church below the church.”
That was the congregation which met to say goodbye to Miguel who had escaped the death squads in Guatemala and landed in Toronto where he met and married Trish a Catholic teacher who had a similar liberationist  worldview. Over the years Miguel continued his work in the union movement with those on the margins of Canadian life. The union UNITE  represented many lowly paid hotel workers and every year they were a big part of the Labour Day parade.
At  one time Labour was close to the heart of the institutional church. We cobbled  a strong social teaching based on the dignity of the working person. Leo Xlll driven by the Marxian critique of exploitative capital  finally jumped into the fray in 1891 with his encyclical Rerum Novarum
“Wealthy owners of the means of production and employers must never forget that both divine and human law forbid them to squeeze the poor and wretched for the sake of gain or to profit from the helplessness of others.” (#17
The  US bishops in 1940 wrote: “A wage so low that it must be supplemented by the wage of wife and mother or by the children of the family before it can provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter together with essential spiritual and cultural needs cannot be regarded as a living wage. Furthermore, a living wage means sufficient income to meet not merely the present necessities of life but those of unemployment, sickness, death, and old age as well.
John XXlll in his encyclical Mater et Magistra (1961) continued:
We therefore consider it our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful.
John Paul ll’s powerful encyclical Laborem Exercens (1981) ratified these sentiments.
The right to unionize and collectively bargain was vigorously promoted by the Church and this created stable communities and secure families based on living wages. Sadly the last 30 years have seen market fundamentalism and movable capital shred organic communities and facilitated a race to the bottom.  “Labour priests” began to disappear. Ordinands in these  new religious orders knew nothing about this tradition.
Miguel gave his life in resistance to the ongoing degradation of labour. In the “most religious country of all” the USA minimum wage laws are scandalous. 
What is the point of all this?
All too often unions and working people in the last decades have not seen the institutional church dramatically raise its voice on behalf of labour.  “Pro life” never seems to extend beyond the fetal stage. The actual lives of of working people  were left to the church below the church. These  were the people who march in solidarity in  the Labour Day parade and these were the people at Miguel’s funeral.






  1. 1

    Amen, and amen.

  2. 2
    mushafta Says:

    I still find it incredulous today in 2014 few if any Catholics know a thing about encyclicals on social justice. Those last four words are like a foreign language to many priests, never mind Catholics! What in the name of heaven went wrong? The real gold nuggets in this church lie deeply hidden in this great vault of hidden-from-the-laity papal letters.

  3. 3
    wmgrace Says:

    Here’s Billy Bragg singing about the UK miners strike in 1984-85. The video images do a lot to contextualize the idea of the union struggle for economic justice: they sum-up how, in reality, it all works. The enormous power of the state, the ever-present rich man’s army, the corporate army, and the corporate worlds are often able to batter and control the labour movement, when push comes to shove in a real strike.

    The video clearly describes a violent conflict. As you know, this has been the overwhelming history of the labour movement in most countries, and without these bloody confrontations of ordinary unarmed (mostly) workers against the well-trained armies of their industrial masters, there would not be in our lives, the same high level of economic and social justice.

  4. 4
    mushafta Says:

    A great post WM Grace! Fully agree! And a wonderful utube post!
    The great thing about Ted is that he can pull things together. Unlike the secular media, and most unlike the vast majority of Catholic media- Ted brilliantly connects all the scriptural, economic, social realities of the day and makes a reflection from a Christian perspective. His penchant for social justice is clear and persistent- and thank God it is not singularly focused!

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