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The Anti-Antisemitism and Anti-Fascism of the Catholic Worker, 1935-1938
The English Catholic Worker (inspired by, but not to be confused with the longer-lived American newspaper of the same name), which was founded in June 1935 as the aptly named newspaper of the English branch of the Catholic Worker movement, provides a significant contrast to the other English Catholic newspapers of the time (such as the Catholic Herald and the Catholic Times). It was the only newspaper to focus primarily on representing the poorer working-class Catholics of England, addressing issues such as a just wage, workers’ rights, working conditions, and trade unions. It had a significant circulation of about 32,000 copies per issue during 1937, rivalling that of the Catholic Times, though falling short of the better-selling Catholic Herald (which had a circulation approaching 100,000 readers by 1936). Unlike the American Catholic Worker (which is still running), the English Catholic Worker ceased publication in 1959. For an account of the English Catholic Worker’s first year of existence, see Barbara Wall, “The English Catholic Worker: Early Days,” Chesterton Review, August 1984. For a discussion of the English Catholic Worker‘s discourse about Jews and antisemitism from 1939 to 1948, see Olivier Rota, “The ‘Jewish Question’ and the English Catholic Worker, 1939–1948,” Houston Catholic Worker, May-June 2005 [My thanks to Louise Zwick at the Houston Catholic Worker for providing me with the text for Olivier Rota’s article.].
During the 1930s, the Catholic Herald expressed ambivalence and at times sympathy for fascism and antisemitism, antipathy for liberalism (which it blamed for “destroying utterly the organic character of the western European States”), and suggested that Jews were a culturally “alien” presence in England that should be segregated as part of the reconstruction of a unified Christian society. The Catholic Times was even more sympathetic to fascism and antisemitism. In 1933, the paper asked whether one can be “quite certain that the alleged Nazi persecution of the Jews is quite what it is made out to be?” According to the editorial, “we cannot easily forget the part played by international Jewry in the present state of world-distress. Nor can we overlook the fact that Jews are at the back of much of the present widespread propaganda of irreligion and immodesty, two of atheistic Communism’s main lines of attack on that civilisation which Herr Hitler, for all his faults, has sworn to uphold.” According to the editorial, “Jewish Freemasonry is at the back of a world-wide persecution of Catholics far worse than anything that Jews have had to suffer in Germany.” The Catholic Times even suggested that it was the “international Jews” that were “persecuting the Nazis.” According to an editorial in 1938, “if Fascism is tolerated by us, … it is not because it is opposed to Bolshevism, but because in many respects it is a good form of government. The evil in it can be tolerated because it is far outweighed by the good. Bolshevism, on the other hand, cannot be tolerated, because it is fundamentally and essentially evil, because the evil far outweighs the good.” (See for example, “Fascism,” Catholic Herald, 17 August 1935, p.10; “The Future of Jewry,” Catholic Herald, 3 January 1936, p.8; “Mosely Goes Anti-Semite,” Catholic Herald, 27 March 1936, p.6; “And the East End,” Catholic Herald, 23 October 1936, p.8; “The Resistance to Jewry,” Catholic Herald, 22 January 1937, p.8; “Herr Hitler and the Jews,” Catholic Times, 31 March 1933, p.10; “Mr. Vernon Bartlett’s Broadcast,” Catholic Times, 27 October 1933, p.10; “Why Fascism is Tolerable,” Catholic Times, 14 January 1938, p.10).
Unlike the Catholic Herald and the Catholic Times, the Catholic Worker was consistently critical of all forms of fascism, rejected the concept of a “Jewish Problem,” and refuted antisemitic accusations and stereotypes. According to the Catholic Worker soon after its founding in 1935, “the troubles of Germany in the last three years have steadily grown worse, and the persecution of both the Jews and the Catholic population has increased in its severity. … the governors of Germany would seem to have become hopelessly drunk of the wildest dreams of nationality, and the exaltation of a mad racial obsession.” The paper had no confidence that “the Hitler gangsters” would honour the Concordat between Germany and the Vatican. (“Germany and the Vatican: A Reply to Nazis,” Catholic Worker, August 1935, p.1).
The paper frequently criticised racism and prejudice in all its forms, and excoriated the British Union of Fascists (the BUF), Italian fascism, and Nazism. According to the Catholic Worker, “the B.U.F. policy against the Jews seems to the ‘Catholic Worker’ unjust. The denial to them of rights of citizenship, the refusal to recognise them as full human beings (in one B.U.F. pamphlet they are called in all seriousness ‘sub-men’), are violations of Christian teaching.” The paper lamented that “it is very probable that many of those who have joined the B.U.F. are men and women who want a just social order, and think that Fascism is the only possible way of achieving it. … They are willing to stand by while Jews are denied elementary human rights because they cannot see any other way of achieving social justice for the multitudes.” (Editorial, Catholic Worker, February 1937, p.4; Stephen Deacon, “Fascism in Italy: Catholics and Fascism,” Catholic Worker, September 1937, p.7; R. P. Walsh, “‘Catholic Worker’ and Fascism,” Catholic Worker, February 1938, p.7).
In March 1938, the paper observed that “it seems as if the wave of anti-Semitism is to reach world-wide importance.” The paper noted that “the fate of the Jew in Germany is too well known to need further comment,” and that antisemitic publications are on the increase in Italy. According to the Catholic Worker, “Poland, with all its Catholic population, is notoriously against the Jews.” Closer to home, the paper noted that “without any doubt, Mosley makes headway in England, and with him progresses the anti-Semitic movement in this country.” The paper lamented that “very many Catholics are numbered among Mosley’s followers,” and are thus exposed to the BUF’s antisemitic rants. In September 1938, the paper published a lengthy article on the menace of antisemitic nationalism. According to the article, “already in this paper we have had need to criticise the dissemination of doctrines of race prejudice among Catholics. The editorial post-bag makes in this matter depressing reading. Not content with that colour bar which is the peculiar pride of the Englishman …, correspondents who claim to be Catholics are urging us to join them in vituperation of the Jews.” The paper cited the litany of complaints that the antisemite brings to bear: “Always it is the Jews. The Jews have a stranglehold on finance. … The Jews are the great capitalists. The Jews are the sweaters of the workers. The Jews are the principal agents of Communism. Strangest accusation of all, the Jews are teachers of atheism. … According to our correspondents, one of whom has the nerve to sign himself, ‘In the name of the Divine Fascist,’ the Jews are all this. But over-riding all other accusations is the supreme fault – The Jew is not British.” The paper classified all these accusations as “Stupidity!” The Catholic Worker concluded that “we need to remind ourselves of what is true. That Jews do not preponderate in the City of London, and that the Jews who do labour in that temple of finance are at least as honest and capable as the rest. That while some Jews have great wealth, others have none at all, and that Christian sweaters of labour are as hateful and more numerous than Jewish. … most of the Jews in this country are as British as the people who slander them. Nor would it matter two-pence if they were not.” (“Catholics and Jews: What are our duties?,” Catholic Worker, March 1938, p.4; “The Menace of Nationalism,” Catholic Worker, September 1938, p.5; Let us be warned in time,” Catholic Worker, September 1938, p.5).
Despite its sustained solidarity with Jews, it may be noted that the paper did, occasionally, allude to traditional religious narratives about how Catholicism was superior to, and the fulfilment of, Judaism. For example, in one of the articles that defended Jews, the Catholic Worker did state in passing that “the Jews have an even greater problem of leakage than have we, and that is not indeed surprising since the Jews have not the true Faith [my italics]” (“The Menace of Nationalism,” Catholic Worker, September 1938, p.5). And in another article that defended Jews, the paper stated that “as a Jew, true to his faith, imperfect and mistaken though it be [my italics], and following the commandments of God so far as they are known to him, he is a man to be praised highly, a candidate for heaven” (“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” Catholic Worker, November 1938, p.4). Another article that rejected antisemitic “Jew-Baiting” nevertheless cited the annual Good Friday prayer as part of its defence of Jews, and whilst it clarified that “perfidious” meant “without faith” rather than “treacherous,” it nevertheless revealed more than a trace of supersessionism: “Yearly the Church bids us pray ‘for the perfidious (i.e. without faith, not faithless in the sense of treacherous) Jews, that our God and Lord would withdraw the veil from their hearts: that they also may acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ. … Surely Christians … should themselves show such charity towards the Jews of their own day as to do their part to remove the veil” (Annie Somers, “Our Brother the Jew,” Catholic Worker, June 1938, p.6). Nevertheless, despite these and other occasional slips, it seems clear that any hint of superciliousness was incidental, unintended, and outweighed by the consistent criticisms of antisemitism.
Whilst antisemitic myths and stereotypes were a prominent feature of English Catholic newspapers, literature and intellectual discourse during the latter decades of the nineteenth and the early decades of the twentieth century, it is important to note that the ordinary working class Catholics of England (the largest social group within English Catholicism) often rejected or ignored such narratives. They also tended to be unsympathetic towards fascism. Significantly, as Ulrike Ehret has also noted, the Catholic Worker, the main newspaper that addressed the working class Catholics of England, consistently opposed fascism and rejected antisemitism. Another consistently anti-fascist English Catholic magazine was Canon Francis Drinkwater’s and Father Gosling’s The Sower. (See Ulrike Ehret, Church, Nation and Race: Catholics and Antisemitism in Germany and England, 1918-45, Manchester University Press, 2012, pp. 38, 47, 75, 211-214. For the Sower, see Tom Villis, British Catholics and Fascism: Religious Identity and Political Extremism Between the Wars, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 205-209).