Chapter Two (4/8)

Worker emancipation: self-emancipation

Arizmendiarrieta did not intend to emancipate the workers. He wanted the workers to emancipate themselves.

As we have already seen, Arizmendiarrieta tried from the beginning to imprint a clearly social slant on Catholic Action of Mondragon. In doing so, he separated himself in no small measure from the general tendency of the hierarchy, not only because of its spirit of submission to the State, but following pontifical guidelines, he preferred during those years to see CA become a purely spiritual movement, far removed from any political or labor commitment.

Decisive for this orientation were the serious incidents which the Italian Church had had with Mussolini, who accused Catholic Action of subversive activities, and which led in the end to the official condemnation of fascism by Pius XI in 1931.1 The Church would end up backtracking. Only by giving up the public life of Catholic Action and by leaving all social activity to fascist organizations did the Church avoid a break between the State and the Church.2 Beginning then, it would insist that the proper role of this lay institution is of a purely spiritual character, the expansion of the kingdom of God. It should not meddle in social causes. It is only after the defeat of fascism that the Vatican would attempt to restart Catholic Action as a truly socially active movement, in good part in order to confront the communist threat, which did not give Pius XII a moment’s rest.

Under Franco, Spanish Catholic Action, under the direction of Mons. Zacarias Vizcarra, adopted the same spiritual attitude as its Italian counterpart.3 But this was more the result of its own lack of initiative than because of demands imposed by the regime. Franco would give it the special task of "re-Christianizing" society and of restoring the country with a notion of "victorious Christianity":4 exercises, mission work, retreats, etc. would be the means by which Catholic Action would support this goal, as has already been explained elsewhere. "Under current circumstances in Spain," wrote Ecclesia in an editorial in its first issue, "intensive work by Catholic Action is more necessary than ever. We have received a sad anti-Catholic inheritance, a legacy of liberalism and Marxism. A large segment of the Spanish people has been systematically de-Christianized. It is necessary to re-Christianize it, in order not to fall into the same dreadful tragedy again. The instrument of providence to help the Church and the State in this enormous task of re-Christianization is Catholic Action."5

Right from the beginning, Arizmendiarrieta demonstrates a very different view of the work of Catholic Action.6 It is not that he opposed the workers’ exercises and retreats, although it seems that he did not always agree with the way they were organized and carried out.[^ch2-59] But above all, he attempts to organize youth7, and he tries to instill in them a strong social conscience, so that they become an instrument both of reconciliation and of worker emancipation, not avoiding temporal commitments, but rather, confronting them decisively in all areas.

[ch2-59]: there is correspondence in the arizmendiarrieta archive from fall 1944 concerning a conflict on this issue with the House of Spiritual Exercises of Loyola. Apparently, Arizmendiarrieta had described the Exercises of that House as a "business." After that, with communication broken down, Arizmendiarrieta sent the Mondragon workers to Begona.

"The mission of Catholic Action, an organ of Catholic teaching and a providential instrument in whose effectiveness the Pope has trust, is to train men with a social spirit and awareness, capable of winning the trust of the masses, and at the same time, of promoting all social projects suitable for achieving the elevation of the proletariat, for which the Pope is calling. As of today, we do not have those men, or we do not have them in adequate proportion and number. Thus, as of today, we cannot harvest abundant fruit. Our action will be slow and it will take time to produce results. That should not concern us. Rather we should fulfill our mission in such a way as never to be branded as unfaithful to it. In order to carry out this mission, Catholic Action must endeavor to give its members broad social training, both theoretical and practical, which leads them to action consonant with circumstances and with necessities." 8

Arizmendiarrieta understands his own role as a board member of Catholic Action to be that of encourager and, above all, educator.9 [I know that I came across "consiliario" before. Check to see if I rendered it as board member then, which I think fits best rvb] He is decidedly against, as has been stated, the naming of factory chaplains (CAS, 135), an initiative launched by Mons. Lauzurica that created chaplaincies in the most important firms of Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya.10 And his brief experience as a labor religious advisor will end as a disappointment. Although we do not know the precise date, Arizmendiarrieta must have been named labor religious advisor some time after March 1949.11

Before the year is out Arizmendiarrieta will tender his resignation from this position in the following terms:

Yesterday, I was at the Provincial Delegation of Labor Unions of San Sebastian and I would have liked to speak with you, but it was not possible because I was awaiting an interview with Don Jesus Los Santos and finally I had to return without speaking to him. I was able to meet with D. Jose Sanchez and I regret that we could not come to an understanding. It is clear that very narrow and poorly justifiable criteria, from the point of view of an authentic and integral sense of social and distributive justice, are still in force. I believe that a good-faith collaboration with these organizations is not viable. Perhaps I was under illusions, but the fact is that, today, the impression weighs on me that there is nothing more to do. Or rather, the best social work that can be done is to counter them, as long as it can be done discretely. You and all who know me know that I have been an enemy of negative and destructive attitudes and that I have a rule of not judging things a priori, but as they occur, with a view to their effectiveness and their rectitude. And it is precisely this point of view which forces me today to adjust my thinking about these organizations. The truth is that I am resistant to this decision, because I can see that at the moment there is no immediate possibility of doing anything else positive. But the reality of the facts overcomes my own desires. On principle, starting today, I want you to consider finding someone else if you intend to move forward with some of your plans concerning religious advisors. I have taken all I can take, and prefer to be out. In that way, I will be better able to serve the workers, and I will be closer to them, who today are more abandoned than ever, even though it is precisely this abandonment that is building up a wonderful solidarity among them, as we can see every day in a thousand details.

I know well that I am leaving myself open to charges of exaggerating my position, but I prefer to run any risk in order to remain faithful to my conscience and to my mission as a priest. I have never given in to risks because neither have I sought personal advantage. When I became a priest, I had the good fortune to embrace a life completely consecrated to an ideal, and I want to live it without further considerations.

One more thing: one cannot serve two masters, and even if all things were equally good, I would prefer to serve the most needy and lowly. And in view of certain matters, I have no doubts concerning my current position.

There is nothing more, dear D. Jose Maria. Do as you see fit, and you know that you will have in me a priest ready to serve the cause of the defenseless and needy. Yours sincerely.12

Between the years 1945 and 1955, Arizmendiarrieta was extremely active giving classes and lectures on social training, not only in Mondragon, but in the entire province and even outside the diocese. He spoke to young people and to the leadership of the J.A.C., to workers, to technicians, and to business owners, as well as to priests and to council members. He also participated in several National Assemblies. But he does not limit himself to just words. "It is not enough to teach or to preach the truth. Someone once said that the banner of truth which we Christians raise on high is a testament to our negligence and apathy if we do not turn it into reality. For this reason, our works must be an expression and testimony of our love of truth and justice…" (CAS, 143).

Years pass, and Arizmendiarrieta hopes that at long last, deeds will be born of words. He does not want talk without action. His overwhelming impression—that all the classes and conferences are, in the end, just talk, because no one wants or knows how to do anything—will lead him to withdraw from this field of action as well, to concentrate on building something real and positive, something concrete, in his own Mondragon. Thus, in 1956, the first cooperative is born. The Arizmendiarrieta Archive preserves a great deal of material that illustrates his progressive disenchantment. We will limit ourselves to reproducing a letter to D. Jose Arrue, on the occasion of his being named to the board of the male division of Catholic Action of Guipuzcoa:

I received your kind letter of the 19th of this month, and first and foremost, let me congratulate you on your recent nomination to the difficult position of Councilor of Catholic Action, Men’s Division, with which I work in social ministry, and which has left me with gray hair. We have a good roster of men, some well-seasoned and others in a period of gaining maturity. They have all been able to meet the demands of their respective consciences and rise to the level of circumstances. More than once I have been edified by their spirit of sacrifice and Christian brotherhood. In truth, so far, we have had no need to formalize this solidarity in an official constitution and with lapel pins of the Masculine [Male?] Branch of Catholic Action. If it is necessary, we will do so.

Having said this, I do not want to skip over some ideas which constitute a barrier in my mind. And I am going to explain them clearly to you, as has always been my custom: with my name and surname. In our eagerness to organize, we attempt to organize teams of activists to perform sincerely and loyalty in the field of social ministry, or to "play worker." I warn that men get tired of responding over and over again to our calls. The simple listing and proclaiming of doctrine contained in pontifical documents has little persuasive force, as long as men do not see more determination and solidarity to put it into action among those who call ourselves Christians, whether as shepherds or members of the flock. I observe that the doctrine is now well enough known that, without much critical sense, our bourgeois spirituality and our insincerity are revealed.

I recognize that the real problems are very complex, but not so much so that those of us who bear responsibility for the souls of the present generation should be giving the impression that firm steps forward cannot be taken yet in this life, or not until profound changes occur in the current conditions of human existence. Let’s study the problems, let’s address them, let’s agree on something, and once we have decided to confront some real problem, that is when we should gather our sheep. But first we should be sure our own thought and action is in order. We must study and be clear about the goals of our Catholic Action, of our Hoac. I am referring to Guipuzcoa, to every town, and I would ask the same thing of each priest, of each council member. As to the answers we would receive, do you think there would be the most indispensible unanimity?

Returning to the subject of the letter, I will say that a representation of ours can go to said retreat week, but I do not see the necessity of creating any new "section" since a firm agenda may be sufficient to give the group cohesion. Perhaps patches, buttons, and rules will only serve to divide people. Is it not true that it is more critical to live out Christian principles than to brandish them for external effect? In any case, as for myself, I will do what I am ordered to do, and meanwhile I will continue to trust that good sense will prevail so that realities will matter more to us than simple appearances, and solidarity in ideas and feelings more than insignias and bright colors.13

The preceding lines might cause the impression that for Arizmendiarrieta, practice might have been the cause for his disenchantment with theory. Nothing could be further from the truth. Arizmendiarrieta, while recognizing the need for long years of training and study, made it clear from the beginning that study should not end with itself, but rather open itself in appropriate ways to social practice.

What he never thought is that said social practice should be the work of priests and councillors, as training might well be (CAS, 226-228). In his judgment, training should consist precisely in the complete empowerment of workers to act on their own. It should be they, the workers, who decide –once they are solidly trained– which fields and forms of work they judge most suitable. The worker cannot be emancipated; only he can and must emancipate himself.


  1. Alix, Ch., Le Saint-Siège et le nationalisme en Europe (1870-1960), Sirey, Paris 1962, 275.

  2. Libertini, L., "La politique du Vatican sous le règne de Pie XII," Les Temps Modernes, Nr. 155, janvier 1959, 1134.

  3. Urbina, F., op. cit., 19-21.

  4. Ib. 21.

  5. Ecclesia, Nr. 1, January 1941

  6. See PR, I, 10-94 and the entire volume of CAS.

  7. This will also lead to several problems for him, such as the prohibition by the Clergy of Saint Viator to organize within Catholic Action the youth of the Saint Joseph’s High School, because "in this school, a Eucharistic Crusade is organized." Furthermore, he is warned in a surly tone that "it is not within the competence of an organization outside the Colegio to get involved within it." Letter from X. X. (we omit the name), Clergy of Saint Viator, Colegio de S. José-Mondragon, to D. José María Arizmendiarrieta, 19 October 1943 (Arizmendiarrieta Archive).

  8. CAS, 19. Lecture given to the directors of J.A.C. of Guizpuzcoa, Villa Santa Teresa (San Sebastian), August, 1945.

  9. See: "The Priest and the Coach and Their Respective Role in the Promotion of Works of Social Assistance" (CAS, 131-150); "Professional Worker Training and the Mission of the Priest in the Apprentice Schools" (Ib. 151-162); "Concerning Social Ministry" (IB., 189-198); "The Active Presence of the Priest" (Ib., 207-216); "Social action, a Talk to Priests" (Ib. 223-230).

  10. Rodriguez de Coro, F., Colonización política del catolicismo, CAP, San Sebastián 1979, 358-359.

  11. D. José María Arrieta Miner, Ecclesiastical Advisor of the Provincial Delegation of Labor Unions of Guipuzcoa, in a letter dated 18 March 1949, asks the parish priest of Mondragon D. J. L Iñarra to name a priest who could serve as Regional Advisor: "His task would be to undertake social-moral work among the workers: handing out propaganda folders and leaflets, inviting them to and facilitating religious retreats and lectures at opportune moments. These tasks will be remunerated, albeit for the time being, modestly." In his reply on 23 March, the parish priest recommends Arizmendiarrieta for this task, noting that as a condition of his acceptance, Arizmendiarrieta’s’ services will be religious and moral in character and free of charge (Arizmendiarrieta Archive).

  12. Letter from Arizmendiarrieta to D. Jose Maria Arrieta, 11 February 1950 (Arizmendiarrieta Archive).

  13. Letter from Arizmendiarrieta to D. Jose Arrue, 21 June 1957 (Arizmendiarrieta Archive).

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