DURING the fall and winter of 1953-1954, the case of the French priest-workers, or the "priests of the worker mission," created much controversy in France and considerable interest abroad. It illuminates the deep divisions which plague French political and social life and some of the perils which confront those who seek to struggle against Communism within its strongholds in the working class world. Above all, it suggests the enormous power which the combination of misery and Marxism has in France.

Early in World War II, a Paris priest, Father Godin, came to the conclusion that most of the workers in France were pagan and that their attitudes and ideas reflected a spiritual and intellectual vacuum. Godin recognized that these developments derived from the long-term decline of Christianity in France, but he concluded that the de-Christianization of the country was greatest among the workers, many of whom had grown up in a tradition which had for several generations been completely divorced from any knowledge of or interest in religious faith. He and a few associates discovered, for example, that some churches in the industrial suburbs of Paris had no parishioners, that only four of 19,000 men employed in one industrial complex were practising Catholics, and that in some port and mining cities virtually none of the workers were Catholic. Godin wrote a book in 1943 which stated that France was so de-Christianized that it should be declared a mission country, with missionaries sent to live and labor among the workers in particular. He believed that the workers were beyond immediate conversion, but that they would make the first steps back toward Christianity if priests worked in the ports, mines and factories, dressing as the workers did, living in workers' homes, and demonstrating that the clergy were willing to share the workers' hardships. At the same time, the priests were to celebrate Mass, read the office, and otherwise live a priestly life, though they were to have no parish duties. They would, in other words, serve as living examples of Christianity among the workers, who were not so much anti-Christian as simply divorced from and ignorant of Christianity.

Cardinal Suhard, the Archbishop of Paris, independently reached the same conclusions as Father Godin. Father Godin's book brought the two men together and led in July 1943 to the assignment of 25 volunteer priests to factories in the Paris "Red Belt." Later, missions to other port, factory and mining cities were established, and a seminary was opened at Lisieux (this was later moved to Limoges) to train priests for these missions. By 1953, there were about 150 secular and 25 regular priests, the latter mostly Dominicans and Jesuits, involved in this operation, and the Limoges seminary was training about 200 students in a special five-year program. This campaign caused considerable enthusiasm among French Catholics, especially those in the center and on the lively left wing, who saw it as the glorious beginning of the revival of Catholicism, as proof that the Church was returning to the French workers, and as an alternative to international Communism.

By 1951, there were signs that many conservative Catholics, a few members of the French hierarchy, and some Vatican officials were becoming alarmed about the priest-worker movement. Many conservatives were persuaded that some of these priests were neglecting their spiritual duties and that many were coming to believe that political and social reform were as important as their goal of evangelism. These conservatives were also impressed by the radical economic and social programs advocated by the lay Catholic journals which supported the priest-workers, notably Esprit, Témoignage Chrétien and Quinzaines, which had strong Marxist tones. They were alarmed by the fact that the priest-workers had shown great sympathy for the workers and even for the Communists, and that they were critical of the government and of French employers for tolerating the conditions under which the workers lived. Some of these priests were officials in the Communist-controlled trade union federation, the C.G.T., and as union officials made strong public statements criticizing the government, French industrialists and French capitalism and supporting political and economic changes which were advocated by the Communists. Since some of these statements had a very radical and even a Marxist tone (it is sometimes difficult to distinguish a Marxist tirade from even a papal encyclical), many French conservatives came to believe that these priests had been heavily and even fatally influenced by the environment in which they were living and working and that they had indeed become Marxists, if not Communists. They concluded, in other words, that the workers were influencing the priests more than the priests were the workers.

These worries increased in 1952 when one priest-worker left the Church, when two were arrested for participating in the anti-Ridgway demonstrations, and when numerous others signed Communist "peace" petitions and attended "peace" congresses in France and abroad. In April 1953, 16 priest-workers signed an appeal for the release of Benoit Frachon, a Communist leader who had been arrested. In August 1953, 11 supported the C.G.T. strike, while five defended the C.G.T. as "faithful to the real interests of the proletariat" and denounced the Catholic trade-union federation, the C.F.T.C., as a tool of the capitalists and a traitor to the workers' interests.

The French hierarchy generally seems to have had a sympathetic understanding of the priest-worker problem and not to have been seriously alarmed by these developments, although in 1951 it decided not to increase the size of the incoming classes at Limoges. However, some important officials in the Vatican apparently became seriously disturbed. There are indications that some lay and clerical French Catholics sent private reports to the Vatican concerning these priests' "transgressions." To the Vatican, the priest-worker movement and some of the ideas advocated by the program's defenders probably appeared a kind of social and economic modernism,[i] an offspring of the theological doctrine condemned 50 years ago by Pius X. In addition, since the movement operated outside the regular channels of the church organization, it attracted the attention of those who would have been suspicious of any irregular program. Finally, in modern times, there has been a great deal of suspicion in Rome concerning intellectual developments among French Catholics, who are considered the most lively and "dangerous" in the Church.

In any case, in the summer of 1953, apparently on orders of the papal nuncio, Monsignor Marella, the Limoges seminary was closed "temporarily," the seminarians were forbidden to work in the summer in industrial installations as they had in the past, and recruitment for the Paris mission was ended. After Cardinals Liénart, Feltin and Gerlier made a dramatic trip to Rome in November 1953, it was revealed that the French hierarchy had been under heavy pressure from the Vatican throughout the fall to end the priest-worker program and that the three Cardinals had made their almost unprecedented trip to salvage at least part of the program. A compromise agreement was reached at Rome. This agreement declared: (1) All priest-workers were to be selected by their bishops. (2) Each candidate would receive prolonged special spiritual and doctrinal training. (3) No priest-worker could work more than three hours a day. (4) No priest-worker could become either an officer or a member of a trade union. (5) Each priest-worker was to live in a parish or a religious community and to live a normal parish or community life.

Since it is almost impossible for a worker to obtain industrial work in France for only three hours a day, and since most jobs require trade-union membership, this agreement in effect ended the priest-worker movement.

The November agreement was followed by a series of other acts carried out from Rome. In December 1953, the ten Dominican priest-workers were ordered to abandon their mission work, the Dominican provincials in Paris, Lyon and Toulouse "resigned" their offices, and four prominent liberal Dominican publicists were removed from Paris and ordered to cease publication. These moves against the Dominicans caused particular dissatisfaction to French Catholics, because the Dominicans have provided the chief spark for Catholic intellectuals since the 1840's. The seven Jesuit priest-workers were recalled in January 1954. Late in January, the November 1953 agreement was confirmed by the assembled French bishops, and the priest-workers were ordered to accept the agreement by March 1, 1954.

Seventy-three of the priest-workers signed an open letter on February 13 which, in language resembling that of the Communist Manifesto, denounced the order and declared that it was dictated by conservative political interests. (This was categorically denied.) A series of sincere and moving published letters between groups of priest-workers and their superiors followed, with both groups presenting their arguments and appealing to each other and the public for support. As March 1 approached, it became obvious that a good many of the priests would not submit before the deadline. It is clear that the hierarchy adopted a conciliatory line, and that few if any threats of canonical punishment were made. Approximately 35 priests had not submitted ten days after the deadline, and apparently eight or ten were still holding out three weeks after March 1. By late March, it was impossible for the public press to obtain information concerning these priests. One priest (Father Gouttebarge in Saint-Etienne) defied the order and was elected to a high regional post in the C.G.T. There may have been other intransigents, but probably almost all submitted.

These events created a considerable stir throughout France and elsewhere on the Continent. Most of the Catholic press, lay as well as clerical, was extremely critical of the order and defended the priest-worker program, and the radical Catholic press was particularly outspoken in its comment. Papers such as Le Monde and Figaro gave great prominence to the issue, and Gallicanism for a while again became popular. The Communist press supported the priest-workers, and Humanité sought to persuade them to refuse to obey the order. The issue attracted little attention in the United States, but it does have considerable significance.

To begin with, the failure of the priest-worker campaign marks the end of another of the promising attempts to reform France which began during and after World War II. This attempt, it should be noted, lasted longer than most of the others, but it failed. It reflected some of the same forces and ideas which led to the establishment of the M.R.P., the Mouvement Républicain Populaire, which began under the German occupation as a movement for spiritual and social reform and at the close of the war became a political party almost accidentally. The M.R.P. and the strong postwar influence of Catholic democrats in France derive from the small but vital prewar democratic stock provided by the C.F.T.C., the Catholic Action groups, and the Démocrates Populaires and the Jeune République, the small but genuinely progressive democratic Catholic parties of the 1930's. They sprang also from the splendid Resistance rôle of Catholics and of Catholic organizations. However, at the time of liberation, the M.R.P. was small and poorly organized, and lacked even plans for its future. Although in August 1945 it had only 100,000 dues-paying members, it polled 4,500,000 votes and elected 150 deputies in the October elections to the First Constituent Assembly. This party, the party of Bidault and Schuman, which has played a critical rôle in the past ten years, has sought to resolve the political and economic problems which have divided France, to end the old quarrel between les deux France, and to have France lead Western Europe to renewed strength and unity.

The growing conservatism of the M.R.P. and the cancellation of the priest-worker program reflect the decline, if not the failure, of the Catholic political and social left. While the majority of French Catholics now appear reconciled to the Republic, it seems likely that the M.R.P. will become just another conservative party. Moreover, the reform spark which remains among Catholics will probably come under the influence and control of neutralist groups, such as those which publish Esprit and other radical Catholic publications. The neutralist plague-on-both-your-houses line of these groups has become gradually more anti-American, and they are at least as critical of the U.S. as of the U.S.S.R. Thus, this splendid zeal for social reform may not only be frustrated, but may even be turned against the West in general and the United States in particular.

Godin's program was a step toward solution of the problem he saw, but in ten years the Church devoted less than 200 priests to the mission, and then cancelled it. While the priests had some successes and did stimulate hope that the workers might ultimately be won away from Communism, their superiors concluded that the mission was a failure on the ground that the workers were exerting more influence upon the priests than the priests were upon them. While many consider the decision to end the program a mistake and a tragedy, it is clear that there was considerable evidence to justify the action. Probably never before has a mission been closed because the missionaries were being influenced to this degree by the people to whom they had been sent.

The interpretations given the failure are probably more important than the fact of failure itself. Generally, Frenchmen have interpreted it as proof that the Church has turned its back on the workers and has recognized the working class "world" as one in which it can have no influence. (This interpretation ignores the other efforts made by the Church, including the Catholic Action program, which for years has been quietly seeking to overcome the de-Christianization of France. It was also refuted by the April "Doctrinal Statement" of the French hierarchy, which asserted that the French Church does not intend to drop the social problem or to cease seeking a workable solution.) Many feel that the Church's surrender is an indication of the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of breaking the Communist grip over the workers. This interpretation in particular may have profound meaning, regardless of the small number of men involved in this program.

The priest-workers were carefully selected and trained, and they were thought to be reliable anti-Communists. Even so, many of them denounced the economic system in France and advocated radical changes. Some of them were so shocked by the workers' lives and so influenced by the ideas they encountered in the trade-union meetings and in their other contacts with the workers that they came to admire and to coöperate with the Communists and to adopt the Marxist vocabulary and some Marxist theses. In other words, misery and Marxism together conquered this missionary effort, and misery and Marxism will continue to represent dual threats to France and to the West.

The recall of these dedicated men does not merely demonstrate the way misery and Marxism team up together and indicate the magnitude of the effort which will be required to win the French workers back into the French community. It also shows that the eradication of Communism in Western Europe will require more than economic recovery, political stability and military strength. A battle is being fought for men's minds on a field which we do not yet comprehend, and on which we are not yet prepared to struggle. A third conclusion would seem to be that the American public, and American policy-makers, should pay increasing attention to ideas and intellectual developments, especially in Western Europe, which is still an intellectual center for the West and an area where ideas play a great rôle.

[i] Modernism has been defined as a body of methods and tendencies in the field of Scripture, apologetics, dogma, history and ethics seeking to adapt the teachings of the Catholic Church to the conclusions reached by modern scientific and critical research. Pius X, who was recently canonized, condemned it for substituting purely subjective criteria in matters of faith and morals for the authority of the Church.

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  • ROBERT F. BYRNES, Director of Research, Mid-European Studies Center; formerly Professor of History, Rutgers University.
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