SOCIAL TEACHING INCARNATE AT ICI
By Tom Walsh
Many miracles and wonders were being done through the apostles, and everyone was filled with awe. All the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions, and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed. Day after day they met as a group in the temple, and they had their meals together in their homes, eating with glad and humble hearts, praising God, and enjoying the good will of all the people. And every day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved." (Acts 2:43-47.)
Fr. Harvey Steele, the founder of the Interamerican Cooperative Institute (ICI) in Panama, says that for too long justice has been forgotten in the Roman Catholic Church. He feels that it was only with Pope Leo XIII's encyclical in 1891, "The Condition of Labour” that the Church once again occupied itself with the work of justice as so clearly described in the Acts of the Apostles.
"The Christians of the first three centuries lived the ideal form of socialism," says Fr. Steele. "It was their means of survival under the tyranny of the Roman emperors. They lived by sharing all their possessions - a cooperative way of life." He goes on to say that this cooperative way of life came to an end when Emperor Constantine, in 312 A.D. made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. "Once this happened, Church leaders veered away from their roots and began to adopt attitudes not unlike those of the emperors. The emerging church adopted a double standard, one for the poor, the other for those ruling, much like most Communist and Capitalist societies of today. The church imposes a kind of socialism on many of its dedicated servants while those holding power (men) control a vast organization strongly laced with and tied to Capitalism and as well without much democracy."
Fr. Steele has dedicated his life to social justice and the social teachings of the Church. There were a number of reasons for this, he says. "In my teens and earlier I lived in a coal mining area of Eastern Canada where foreigners owned the mines, exploited the people and at one time forced us to live under martial law. Later, as a missionary priest, while waiting 18 months to go to China, it was my good fortune to work in a parish neighbouring the parish of Fr. Jimmy Tomkins. Much of my time was spent with Fr. Jimmy. We built the first co-operative housing groups in Canada. He inspired me to believe, and I still do, that religion without justice is a sham."
Fr. Steele was also profoundly affected by his experience in China, "seeing the incredible poverty and the exploitation of the people by corrupt leaders and the wholesale slaughter of innocent people under the powerful Japanese war machine. All this added to my belief in justice."
Small wonder then that this same priest, inspired in Christ and the Church's social teachings, founded a school that for 27 years has dedicated itself to training cooperative leaders from Latin American agricultural communities. From the beginning the concepts of "Latin American unity" and "Social justice" were guiding principles for the educational and organizational work of the Institute. Fr. Steele's conviction that the Church had a duty to be socially active went beyond the traditional roles of charity and paternalistic work, believing that it was not these that the poor were looking for. He knew from his experience that the poor wanted the construction of new structures in society which might generate human liberty and proscribe exploitation.
Cooperatives, which organize a group of people into a jointly held business where the members are able to provide themselves a service by uniting their talents and money, became the appropriate vehicle for doing adult education with the poor. From these economic grassroots organizations, Latin Americans of every creed, race and colour gather under the one ICI roof for three month periods of intensive sharing and learning. Community and society problems are examined and their causes analyzed from a Latin American perspective. Farmers, both women and men, organized in cooperatives, come to a clearer understanding of the role they can play in creating the just society they long for. Management training, project planning, and organizational development skills learned at ICI are useful tools for the participants upon returning to their respective countries.
In Latin America's violent social reality the commitment to community development is a struggle that some graduates of ICI have paid for with their lives. They have become the martyrs of today's Church, Christ's apostles who, with their blood, inspire hundreds of others to work for social justice. Fittingly, homage is paid to them in the dining room of the Institute where their pictures can be found.
For Fr. Steele, quoting the wise and witty Chesterton, 'Christianity has not been tried and found wanting...It has not been tried: "I think the same may be said about socialism," he says. "Good socialism must be built on trust and cooperation among people. Capitalism has a big advantage in that it is built on greed and selfishness - the survival of the fittest. Unfortunately, these characteristics are strong, stronger in many of us than the will to cooperate and to trust. Christ's teachings call for 'superpeople' not superpowers. 'Be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect, He told us. Our world community must be built on His teachings."
Tom Walsh is a Scarboro lay missioner now in Canada working in our Department of Lay Association. Prior to this he served in Panama as coordinator of ICI. Since that time ICI has been run by Scarboro missioner Fr. Jack Lynch.
After many years of service with Scarboro Missions beginning with China in the 1930s, Fr. Steele is now retired and residing at our community in Scarborough, Ontario. His life and work is documented in the video Padre Pablo: Fighter For Justice. See our video ad on the back cover.