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.