Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, while not the first social encyclical, was still a revolutionary document, albeit within the bounds of natural law and the Magisterium. Previous social encyclicals, beginning with Mirari Vos in 1832, had offered correct principles but were otherwise limited to condemning the evils of modern society.
While positive in intent, earlier letters were negative in the sense they told people what not to do. Sound teaching was presented in the form of general guidelines, not specific programs or plans of action.
People most in need of correction and instruction were thereby given a way out. They were able to dismiss the social encyclicals as pointless theorizing, reactionary rhetoric, or ignore them altogether as irrelevant.
All that changed with Rerum Novarum. What did not change, however, was the tendency to misunderstand what the Church teaches, reinterpret it to fit an agenda, or use it to justify deeply held, if mistaken, beliefs. Much of this confusion was due to the pervasiveness of the very error the social encyclicals were intended to counter and correct, the “New Things” of socialism, modernism, and the New Age.
The New Things v. the Church
Promoters of the various socialist schemes that spread rapidly in the early nineteenth century often gave detailed solutions to the problems of everyday life. None of them ultimately turned out to be very sound or even remotely feasible in the few instances where they were put into practice. That, however, could always be explained away or blamed on reactionaries and conspirators.
In contrast, the Church’s social teachings came off as weak and vague, e.g., avoid sin, do good, ignore the socialists, modernists, and New Agers who say they are trying to help you, and you will be rewarded in Heaven. To people faced with overwhelming problems, often with their mere survival in question, the Church’s initial response as articulated by Gregory XVI seemed not merely inadequate but denigrating and insulting. The Church, especially in the person of the pope, seemed out of touch with reality.
Matters did not improve when Pius IX added political reform to the mix. Reactionaries and radicals alike were suspicious of his personalist, “American” type liberalism. Radicals sabotaged the pope’s reform efforts in 1848 and got him branded a reactionary for refusing to go along with their extreme and collectivist version of liberal democracy.
Leo XIII continued Pius IX’s efforts, but with limited success. Then in 1886, the situation changed. Henry George, the agrarian socialist who authored Progress and Poverty, ran for mayor of New York City. Although supported by Fr. Edward McGlynn, a noted dissident priest, George lost the election.
Both George and McGlynn blamed corrupt politicians and the Catholic Church’s stand against socialism for the defeat, even though there was no evidence to support the accusation. Leo ordered McGlynn to the Vatican to explain his activities. McGlynn refused, and after several warnings, was excommunicated for disobedience. Over the next four years attempts to reconcile McGlynn to the Church were thwarted by McGlynn’s continued intransigence and his insistence that socialism is authentic Catholic doctrine.
Strictly speaking, since McGlynn had been excommunicated for disobedience and not for adherence to socialism, his claim that he was being persecuted for being a socialist were irrelevant. It did, however, divert attention away from the conditions for lifting the excommunication. These were that he apologize to the people he had insulted and travel to Rome as originally ordered.
After Rerum Novarum
By 1891 matters had come to a virtual standstill, with the irresistible force of Catholic discipline and teaching having met the immoveable object of McGlynn’s ego and obstinacy. Then in mid-May of that year, Rerum Novarum came out.
That the pope had been planning on a new encyclical on private property and socialism was hardly news. Everyone had known as early as January 1887 that something was in the works. It had been widely discussed in newspapers around the world, and not just among Catholics. Given the publicity generated by the McGlynn affair, there had been a great deal of speculation as to how hard the pope would come down on socialism.
What took everyone off guard in the new encyclical was not, therefore, the condemnation of socialism. The real surprise was the expansion of Church teaching far beyond what was considered proper for religion, especially in the United States.
This, however, was fully consistent with the original purpose of issuing specifically social encyclicals. When he released Mirari Vos in 1832, Gregory XVI was in a sense even more revolutionary than Leo XIII. By proclaiming that the Church’s moral authority carries over into both civil and domestic society when it involves matters of natural law, Gregory outraged those who would limit the Church’s role exclusively to spiritual matters.
At the same time, Gregory drew a clear distinction between the Church’s obligation to interpret natural law and serve as a moral guide in civil and domestic matters, and the imprudence of the Church attempting to rule State and Family directly. This refuted those who, like Félicité de Lamannais before his apostasy, exaggerated the Church’s authority beyond all bounds by asserting that the Church is the supreme temporal as well as spiritual authority.
None of this was reflected in the initial reactions to the new encyclical. In general, capitalists missed the implied criticism in Leo’s call for expanded ownership of a system that concentrates ownership of productive wealth. They assumed that the measures intended to improve things during the shift from a wage system to an ownership system — better pay, benefits, conditions, unions, and so on — were the pope’s main point. Treat people better, they assumed, and their moral obligations would be met. Ownership was relegated to prudential matter.
Socialists split on the issue. Hotter heads, such as Henry George, were outraged at the condemnation of socialism and the demand for expanded capital ownership. An avid marketer, however, George seized the opportunity to get back in the public eye. He went to work immediately and published a pamphlet, On the Condition of Labor.i The booklet, more than twice the length of the encyclical itself, carefully explained that the pope did not understand Catholic social teaching.
Wiser or craftier socialists, such as Marie-Eugène-Melchior, vicomte de Vogüé, acknowledged head of the Neo-Catholic/modernist movement, took the position that the pope was not condemning good socialism in Rerum Novarum, only bad socialism.ii This allowed de Vogüé to distance himself from the horrors of the Paris Commune of the previous generation and remain socialist and Catholic, at least in name. G.K. Chesterton characterized this as the worst sort of treachery, enemies of the Faith making it look as if the Church agreed with them.iii
Although the McGlynn affair probably triggered the issuance of Rerum Novarum, comment on George’s program was limited to a few brief allusions. Despite that, McGlynn at first followed George’s lead and took the position that the encyclical was a direct and personal attack on “the priest and the prophet.”iv
This greatly increased the pressure to reconcile McGlynn at the same time it made it vastly more difficult. Giovanni Cardinal Simeoni, who had worked with Cardinal McCloskey and Archbishop Corrigan dealing with the troublesome priest, added submission to Rerum Novarum to the other conditions for lifting McGlynn’s excommunication.
This played into McGlynn’s hands. He called a public meeting at the Cooper Union in New York City on the evening of Monday, November 27, 1891.
Before an audience that “greeted him with the wildest demonstration of enthusiasm,”v McGlynn asserted he had never insulted Corrigan or the pope and had never taught false doctrine. He then lashed out at Corrigan, Simeoni, and the pope, and —
. . . denied the infallibility of the Pope; criticised the policy of the Holy See, and said that the Pope was the arch-conspirator against the liberty and freedom of his country. He called the Propaganda a lot of “ecclesiastical shoemakers,” and said if bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes would mind their own business the cause of Christianity and Catholicity would be the better subserved.vi
Later, McGlynn reversed himself. He claimed Leo had always supported his, McGlynn’s, opinion.vii In a speech during another mass meeting at the Cooper Union he “frequently quoted the pope’s Novarum Rerum [sic] encyclical in support of his positions, and virtually declared that the acts for which he incurred Archbishop Corrigan’s censure were done in the spirit enjoined by the head of the church.”viii
McGlynn’s form of modernism became known as Americanism for its chauvinistic insistence that the Church must adapt to the special conditions in the United States, even at the doctrinal level. As a leading Americanist, McGlynn larded his speeches with grandiose claims of his own patriotism and declared no true American would ever put religion above country.
Politics and Religion in America
What may have encouraged McGlynn in his stand was his egregious misreading of the actions of leading American churchmen like James Cardinal Gibbons and Archbishop John Ireland. Both appeared at times to put politics before religion, but only if one ignored the facts.
Gibbons, for example, as Archbishop of Baltimore and de facto head of the Catholic Church in the United States, was a southerner who had sympathized with the Confederacy but sided with the Union.ix He had the challenging task of reconciling Catholics in a country where they were often regarded with deep suspicion and open hostility, and who only a few years before had been on opposite sides in the war. His bestselling The Faith of Our Fathers, published in the centennial year of 1876, was in part intended to prove that his co-religionists were good citizens as well as good Catholics.
For his part, Ireland was faced with integrating different groups of immigrants into the American Church as well as into the surrounding culture. Making this difficult was the fact that native-born Catholics often resented all immigrants, while the different groups of immigrants were often at odds. Usually this was between “Irish” (English speaking) and “Germans” (non-English speaking), the latter demanding separate parishes and priests who spoke their languages. Ireland tried to avoid commenting on anything, such as the McGlynn case, that could make it look as if he was taking sides between immigrants and native-born Americans.
Gibbons had protested McGlynn’s excommunication, which along with Ireland’s silence McGlynn took as an endorsement. He was badly mistaken. Both Ireland and Gibbons believed McGlynn richly deserved excommunication.x Gibbons, however, given the political situation in the United States and the general animus against Catholics, thought it was not prudent.xi
McGlynn and George also misinterpreted Gibbons’s successful effort to prevent George’s Progress and Poverty from being put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”).xii Although McGlynn and George took this, too, as an endorsement, Gibbons stated in an interview: “So far as Mr. George proposes to carry his theory into immediate practice . . . he is a mere visionary and the practical sense of the American people can be relied upon to reject his proposals. It is therefore prudent to let such absurdities die a natural death and not incur the risk of giving them an artificial importance by the intervention of church tribunals.”xiii
Reconciliation of a Sort
After Rerum Novarum matters again reached an impasse. McGlynn had insulted Archbishop Corrigan and the late Cardinal Simeoni, Prefect of the Congregation for Propagation of the Faith, too many times for any progress to be made. Leo XIII therefore sent Francesco Cardinal Satolli to the United States with explicit orders to reconcile McGlynn to the Church if at all possible.
This put Satolli in a difficult position. Corrigan insisted that McGlynn renounce socialism as a condition for lifting the excommunication. As he argued, if McGlynn was restored without disavowing socialism, it would be taken as a change in Church teaching and a de facto endorsement.
McGlynn, however, had been excommunicated not for socialism, but for disobedience and insulting behavior. Satolli agreed with Corrigan, but it would be unjust to insist on McGlynn’s abandoning socialism when it had nothing directly to do with the case. Satolli’s orders were to reconcile McGlynn. Adding new conditions would likely render that impossible.
Fortunately, Satolli was an experienced diplomat and had not been personally insulted or attacked by George or McGlynn. He was able to position himself as a moderating influence to calm things down and get the matter resolved as quickly as possible.
Even so, Satolli’s task was not easy, although this was due to McGlynn’s habit of grandstanding, not to alleged interference by Corrigan. Although the newspapers presented him as hostile to Satolli, Corrigan was both cooperative and helpful.xiv On the other hand, “[McGlynn] intimated that if he should be restored it would be his triumph and the downfall of Archbishop Corrigan, who was not a patriotic American.”xv
As the negotiations dragged on, McGlynn shifted from attacking Corrigan, to condemning the presumed evils of parochial schools. He only alluded indirectly to matters related to Georgism.xvi Finally, however, McGlynn submitted a written statement to Satolli agreeing to the conditions for reinstatement.xvii
Still, McGlynn’s compliance was far from straightforward. He appended a lengthy codicil to his submission explaining his views on land ownership. This again put Satolli in a difficult position. He had no authority to judge McGlynn and was required under canon law to presume him innocent of anything not specifically mentioned in the excommunication. He could only demand that the priest apologize, agree to travel to Rome, and submit to Rerum Novarum. Satolli therefore disregarded McGlynn’s additional statement.
Finally, after due consideration, Satolli declared that McGlynn’s statement of submission “was judged not contrary to the doctrine constantly taught by the church and as recently confirmed in the encyclical rerum novarum.”xviii McGlynn was therefore reinstated Saturday, December 24, 1892.xix This, however, implied nothing about the orthodoxy of McGlynn’s Georgist views, judgment of which Leo XIII had reserved to himself.
Rome and Recantation
Succeeding generations have not appreciated either Satolli’s delicate position or his extremely nuanced diplomacy that finally reconciled McGlynn to the Church. McGlynn’s submission and the extraneous material he added gave the erroneous impression that Satolli’s acceptance constituted a reversal of Church teaching on socialism and a de facto endorsement of Georgism when it was nothing of the sort.
McGlynn’s subsequent behavior suggests that he was himself unsure of his position, exhibiting an offensive bravado more defiant than convincing, and more than a little misleading, not to say untruthful. Two weeks after his reinstatement he held another mass meeting in which he declared Satolli’s acceptance of his submission was a capitulation by the Church and a vindication of socialism as authentic Catholic teaching.xx Just before leaving for Rome, he reiterated his position in yet another blustering diatribe — “The highest authority next to the Pope has said our teachings were not antagonistic to the doctrines of our holy religion, and we need not retract. [Applause.] And we have not retracted. . . . We do not repent. . . . I will go to Rome if I want to. If I don’t want to I won’t.”xxi
Despite his bombastic posturing, the meeting at the Vatican with the pope was not the triumph McGlynn predicted. As Archbishop-Bishop of Perugia, Leo XIII’s manner of dealing with erring seminarians and priests was to ask them leading questions to induce them to recognize and admit their faults without his having to point them out; “he was careful not to use toward them anything like harsh words or bitter reproofs.”xxii
McGlynn was not prepared for Leo’s methods. He not only expected an aggressive and confrontational interrogation, but he was also utterly incapable of admitting a mistake.
By his own account, McGlynn gave evasive answers to every one of the pope’s questions.xxiii
Quickly realizing he would get nowhere with McGlynn, His Holiness dismissed him as having met the letter of the conditions for reinstatement and without rendering judgment. Effectively admitting defeat, Leo told him, “Well, you may abound in your own sense,” i.e., do as you wish.xxiv
Suggesting that Leo ordered McGlynn not to present socialism as authentic Catholic teaching, on his return to New York McGlynn carefully refrained from saying anything that implied the pope had endorsed socialism. Even after Corrigan refused to give him an assignment, McGlynn only made vague statements that Corrigan opposed him while Satolli supported him. He seemed at loose ends; “To every question as to his future movements Dr. McGlynn has given evasive answers.”xxv
Although the media took little notice of him,xxvi McGlynn continued to attack the parochial school system.xxvii Still laboring under the misimpression that Satolli supported him, he did his best to drive a wedge between Corrigan and the Cardinal.xxviii Finally, after years of declaring that he would never recant, McGlynn made a full public retraction on Wednesday, December 19, 1894:
The Rev. Dr. Edward McGlynn has made a complete recantation. He is no longer an apostle of the doctrines for preaching which he brought on himself the ban of excommunication from the Roman Catholic church. . . . Archbishop Corrigan will soon put him in charge of a parish.xxix
Almost immediately, however, McGlynn began issuing statements to the effect that he both had, and had not, recanted.xxx He also agitated for a parish closer to the action instead of one in the outer reaches of the diocese. Corrigan sought Satolli’s counsel, and was advised, “Do not let him be a Rector in New York [City]. In that I will sustain you in Rome.”xxxi
McGlynn never surrendered his allegiance to socialism. In his last letter, dictated the day before he died, he declared that his views on Georgism were the same as they had always been.xxxii
• Related at CWR:
• “The Story of the First Social Encyclical” (July 19, 2022) by Michael D. Greaney
• “The road to Rerum Novarum and the evolution of Catholic social teaching” (August 24, 2022) by Michael D. Greaney
i Henry George, The Condition of Labor: An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII. New York: Doubleday & McClure Co., 1891.
ii Vicomte Eugène Melchior de Vogüé, “The Neo-Christian Movement in France,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, January 1892.
iii G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”. New York: Image Books, 1956, 93.
iv Stephen Bell, Rebel, Priest and Prophet: A Biography of Dr. Edward McGlynn. New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1937, 29.
v “Mr. M’Glynn Refuses to Comply,” The Hartford Weekly Times, November 29, 1891, 3.
vii Cf. Rev. Edward J. Cahill, S.J., The Framework of a Christian State. Dublin, Éire: M.H. Gill and Son, Ltd., 1932, 301-306, 534-535.
viii “Still a Single Tax Man: Dr. McGlynn Reiterates the Views that Unfrocked Him,” The Day, January 2, 1893, 1.
ix Allen S. Will, Life of James Cardinal Gibbons. New York: John Murphy Company, 1911, 11-12.
x Marvin R. O’Connell, John Ireland and the American Catholic Church. St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988, 244.
xi John Tracy Ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1952, I.570-571.
xii Bluffington Chronicle, May 24, 1888, 1.
xiii “Henry George: Cardinal Gibbons Does Not Believe His Writings Call for Any Action on the Part of the Catholic Church,” The Lewiston Wednesday Journal, February 1, 1888, 1.
xiv Michael A. Corrigan, Private Record of the Case of Rev. Edward McGlynn, ms. cir. 1895, 417-418.
xv “McGlynn Assails Parochial Schools at New York,” Meriden Daily Republican, December 19, 1892, 3.
xvii Submitted by McGlynn December 1892, reprinted in the New York Freeman’s Journal, February 6, 1904.
xviii “United States Nuncio: Monsignor Satolli Made Permanent Delegate,” Baltimore Sunday Herald, January 15, 1893, 1.
xix “M’Glynn Makes His Peace: The Noted Recalcitrant Priest Has His Authority Restored,” Aurora Daily Express, December 24, 1892.
xx “Still a Single Tax Man: Dr. McGlynn Reiterates the Views that Unfrocked Him,” The Day, January 2, 1893, 1.
xxi “Dr. McGlynn Sails Out on the Stormy Atlantic and is Given a Rousing Reception in Which Archbishop Corrigan is Hissed,” Lewiston Evening Journal, February 9, 1893, 6.
xxii Rev. Bernard O’Reilly, Life of Leo XIII, From an Authentic Memoir Furnished by His Order. London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co., 1903, 155-156.
xxiii Bell, Rebel, Priest and Prophet, op. cit., 249-254.
xxv “Archdiocese to be Divided,” Argus Daily News, July 3, 1893, 1.
xxvi Bell, Rebel, Priest and Prophet, op. cit., 254.
xxvii “The Toppling Parochial School System,” The Boston Evening Transcript, September 12, 1893, 4.
xxviii “Another Setback for Corrigan,” The Boston Evening Transcript, April 10, 1894, 4.
xxix “Parish for M’Glynn: He Recants and Will Soon Be Completely Forgiven,” Meriden Daily Republican, December 19, 1894, 3.
xxx “M’Glynn’s Restoration: Rev. Dr. Burtsell Makes a Statement Regarding the Matter,” Indianapolis Journal, December 21, 1894, 1; cf. Alexandria Gazette and Advertiser, December 20, 1894, 2; Boston Evening Transcript, December 24, 1894, 4; “Dr. M’Glynn in His New Parish,” The New York Sun, January 7, 1895, 7; “Dr. McGlynn Indorses George,” The New York Times, October 28, 1897.
xxxi Corrigan, Private Record, op. cit., 462.
xxxii Sylvester L. Malone, Dr. Edward McGlynn. New York: Dr. McGlynn Monument Association, 1918, 53.
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