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The Troubled Origins of the Italian Catholic Labor Movement, 1878–1914

Sándor Agócs

History, Religion, Labor Studies, Open Access

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Paperback
Published: December 2017
ISBN: 9780814343302
Pages: 251 Size: 6x9
eBOOK
Published: December 2017
ISBN: 9780814343319

In his book, Sándor Agócs explores the conflicts that accompanied the emergence of the Italian Catholic labor movement. He examines the ideologies that were at work and details the organizational forms they inspired.

During the formative years of the Italian labor movement, Neo-Thomism became the official ideology of the church. Church leadership drew upon the central Thomistic principal of caritas, Christian love, in its response to the social climate in Italy, which had become increasingly charged with class consciousness and conflict. Aquinas’s principles ruled out class struggle as contrary to the spirit of Christianity and called for a symbiotic relationship among the various social strata. Neo-Thomistic philosophy also emphasized the social functions of property, a principle that demanded the paternalistic care and tutelage of the interests of working people by the wealthy.

In applying these principles to the nascent labor movement, the church's leadership called for a mixed union (misto), whose membership would include both capitalists and workers. They argued that this type of union best reflected the tenets of Neo-Thomistic social philosophy. In addition, through its insistence on the misto, the church was also motivated by an obsessive concern with socialism, which it viewed as a threat, and by a fear of the working classes, which it associated with socialism, which it viewed as a threat, and by a fear of the working classes, which it associated with socialism. In pressing for the mixed union, therefore, the church leadership hoped not only to realize Neo-Thomistic principles, but also to defuse class struggle and prevent the proletariat from becoming a viable social and political force.

Catholic activists, who were called upon to put ideas into practice and confronted social realities daily, learned that the "mixed" unions were a utopian vision that could not be realized. They knew that the age of paternalism was over and that neither the workers not the capitalists were interested in the mixed union. In its stead, the activists urged for the "simple" union, an organization for workers only. The conflict which ensued pitted the bourgeoisie and the Catholic hierarchy against the young activists.

Sándor Agócs reveals precisely in what way Catholic social thought was inadequate to deal with the realities of unionization and why Catholics were unable to present a reasonable alternative.

Sándor Agócs, a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester, is an assistant professor in the College of Lifelong Learning at Wayne State University. His articles on the Catholic labor movement have appeared in several scholarly journals. With this book, he presents an intellectual and social history of the then-nascent Italian labor movement, exploring the conservative Catholic hierarchy and Catholic activists. More fully than anyone else, he reveals in what way Catholic social thought was in adequate to deal with the new realities of unionization and why Catholics were unable to present a reasonable alternative.