Social Catholicism and remembering Paul & Barbara Misner

Mary Magdala Community

“Social Catholicism and Remembering Paul & Barbara Misner”(c)

3rd Sunday of Easter —  April 14, 2024

Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div., Ph.D.  —

Pastor,  Mary Magdala Community,

Paul and Barbara Misner played a large role in the decision Jean and I made to come to Wisconsin.  Barb and Jean were Servite Sisters who taught together in Omaha, Nebraska.  They were also good friends.  Barb married Paul Misner whose career took him to Marquette University in Milwaukee.  He was a historian and faculty member in the Theology Deparment.  When Jean told Barb that I was interested in a doctorate in theology with a focus on social ethics, she encouraged us to come and look at what Marquette has to offer.  So we did.  We came and we stayed.

Sadly, Barb died a few years later from a very aggressive cancer.  Our journey took its own turn which meant leaving Marquette for another doctoral program.  Jean and I kept up with Paul, though not often enough.  He introduced us to Three Brothers, the Serbian restaurant in the Bay View neighborhood on Milwaukee’s southeast side.  Earlier in our community’s history Paul worshipped with us several times.

Paul’s perspective as a church historian was notable due to his love for and ever deepening knowledge of social Catholicism.  His book, “Social Catholicism in Europe: from the onset of industrialization to the First World War,” lays out in great detail the persons and groups who acted on and/or resisted the belief that the message of Christ is rightly applied to the proper working of democratic government.  In particular he focused on this movement as it unfolded in Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy.  He loved Germany from his student days and ever afterward.  Barb told Jean, “Paul thinks in German,” and that came in pretty handy during his lifelong scholarship.

Social Catholicism, as I read him, became for Paul the apt descriptor of how to effectively and accurately connect the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (especially papal encyclicals and exhortations) with its confrontation with Modernism.  This movement had caused difficulties for the church in the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.  Paul examines those who were caught up in the confrontation.  One of the deepest challenges required a self-examination that exposed the Paternalism that was so ingrained in the institutional church.  Paul is able to identify the successes of those who furthered democratic views and structures despite Paternalism’s hold.

These successes were inspired by themes such as human dignity and solidarity which became standards of papal teaching, starting with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891.  We are indebted to Paul for his understanding that this teaching continues into our time as a counter weight to the view of the church as that perfect communion which is impervious to change.  This teaching grows and expands so long as there exists people who carry on the heritage of thought and action, individuals like Felicite Lamennais, as well as those conservatives who also recognize the plight of the working class (but the structure of whose plight has little or nothing to do with the unchanging institution whose interest is the worker’s immortal soul.)

Clearly, this papal teaching continues to show vitality in the writings and leadership of Pope Francis.  In an article by Anthony Annett, titled “The Future of Social Democracy,” in the April issue of Commonweal magazine he acknowledges Francis’ contribution.  He writes that in addition to the categories of solidarity, subsidiarity, and human dignity Francis has offered a new category that he calls “integral ecology.”  This is meant to include the relation between human action and creation, as Francis says we must care for our common home.

We are the inheritors of both a teaching and action that sustains the intersecting challenges of the church-state relationship.  In Europe this became a founding of political parties that identify as Christian Democrat.  In the United States, rather than creating a political party, we experience the surfacing and resurfacing of this relationship at work when relevant issues emerge.  Whether the issues pertain to the welfare state or workforce democracy, or other socio/economic issues, our American context operates more as need and collective action arises.

In his book on social Catholicism, Paul points out the emergence of these issues.  One in particular he writes of in this way:

“The notion of human solidarity emerged out of the struggle for a humane outlook

   on the political economy.” (324)

We should be thankful to Paul for this imagery of emergence, because it carries with it the recognition of those who spend years holding on to such values.  Persons committed to this social teaching of human dignity and the value of labor, who are convinced of the correctness of the welfare state and of workplace democracy hold these truths in a submerged state.  We look forward to the day when our ongoing discussions will emerge into effective actions to implement such truths.  And they sometimes do.  As we know it can take years and only hope keeps them alive.  But when they emerge in the light of acknowledgment, it is then that the years in submersion can be seen as preparation.  You have to be alert for this emergence and thankful to historians like Paul Misner who explain what happened during that time of preparation.

I believe an example of this living, social teaching emerged in the Appalachian Bishops’ pastoral letter, “This Land Is Home to Me.”  In 1975, despite decades of inaction on the part of the institutional church with regard to social negligence on the part of government and the mining industry, in particular, the bishops had this to say:

“Without judging anyone, it has become clear to us that the present economic

  order does not care for its people.  In fact, profit and people frequently are

  contradictory.  Profit over people is an idol.”

Talk about something emerging!  And from a source, the bishops, not known for standing up against socio/economic institutions.

This view on social teaching with a faith perspective comes by way of tribute and thanks to Paul Misner.  He has educated us on the themes of human dignity and solidarity.  As well, he has offered sound advice on the patience required before new action and solutions emerge in our social reality.  May we, like Paul, always honor the Teacher whose social message remains submerged until it is called to action.

With thanks and love to Paul and Barbara

“Social Catholicism in Europe: from the onset of industrialization to the First World War,” Paul Misner  (Crossroad, NY, 1991)

Prayer (JR)

  We bless you, all Holy and Gracious One, who gathers us to prayer.

            Jesus, your Son – our brother, invites us to love one another and so fulfill

the Law.  This Law reaches beyond obligation and exists for the sake of building community. 

  May our hearts, our minds, our spirits participate in this Eucharist as one people

              loved by the Creator, joined in Mission, and hopeful of our own Resurrection.  


Litany of Resurrection –  Reader 1

R1:       Jesus, you are the fulfillment of the Law and the realization of the Covenant.

All:       Jesus, Risen One, bring us to Life.

R1:       Your Message is the command to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

All:       Word of God, Teacher, show us the Light.

R1:       You are alive within and among us, present in all creation.

All:       Jesus, Emergent One, inspire and motivate us to care for Earth,  our common home.

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