The working class problem

Talking about the “working class” has gone out of fashion.

In part, it’s no doubt due to the decline of factories employing thousands of workers in one place.

It’s perhaps also a consequence of the end of the defeat of communism and the end of the Cold War more than 30 years ago.

But Cardijn always spoke about the working class. What did he mean by it? Why was it important to him?

Let’s see how he explained it in this 1947 to French YCW chaplains.

Stefan Gigacz

The Working-Class Problem in the World To-day

Address to the Y.C.W. Chaplains of France, September, 1947

How must we consider the working-class problem in the world to-day? No one can understand the Y.C.W., no one can build the Y.C.W., without seeing the movement in the light of this general and essential problem.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a new economic system was brought into existence by the discovery of modern machinery and the growth of Capitalism, under the inspiration of materialistic “liberalism.” It was inevitable that there should be an increase in the number of “wage-earners,” of those workers who labour for a wage during the whole of their lives, who each morning leave their home, their wife and children, to go and work outside. The inevitable development of mechanised work, with its incredible progress, demanded an ever-increasing number of labourers. Millions of men and women, young and old, would every day of their lives, leave their home, often a slum, to work by day, by night, on Sundays, in an environment of work which had inevitable repercussions on their personal, family and social life.

This system, which at first developed in Western Europe, is now spreading over the whole world. In the colonies, in the three Americas, in Australasia, in Asia, everywhere millions upon millions of workers leap several centuries in a few years. From one day to another they find themselves in the grip of industrialism.

We must face this problem fairly and squarely; masses of workers, working families of every race, of every colour, of every tongue, live under a system that has become international. Conditions of work in one continent have their repercussions in all the others; a strike or unemployment in one part of the world reacts upon the rest.

We must look positively at all the problems that are facing this mass of millions of human beings. To-morrow more than half the human race, more than one thousand million men working under this system, will be asking themselves these questions: What is the meaning of my work? What is its value? Am I just a piece of machinery? What is my wage worth? What is my relationship to the anonymous direction of my firm? What is this law of competition that decides everything? Is it inevitable that according to economic hazards I may be condemned to unemployment or disablement; that I may, with my children, be condemned to a life of insecurity?

The mass of the workers are faced by all these problems. They must be enabled to give a positive answer that will bring into their lives a sense of working-class pride, honour and responsibility. “What are the effects of my work? of my wage? of conditions of work on my family? What is a working-class family? Is it like a middle-class family, or something different? What do husband and wife undertake in marriage? What are their responsibilities towards their children—towards their future? What are the effects of the present system on the family life of the worker? What is our place in society? Is it true to say that we are excommunicated from the social and cultural community? Are we really Godless? Has the Church, has the parish really a place for us? Who are we? Where are we going? What must we do?”

The fundamental problem is not the existence of Communism, it is the existence of this system of work and life which is daily becoming a world system, affecting millions of men, women and working-class families, who are influenced by this system in the essentials of their physical, intellectual, cultural, professional, social, family, moral and spiritual life.

Go to Africa, go to Australia, to South America, which is being utterly transformed at the present time; go to Asia or to Japan, everywhere you will find the same problem; millions of men who all at once and for the whole of their lives become wage-earners, proletarians.

The Church and the Problem of the Workers.

In facing this world fact of proletarisation, we must remember another: all these men have an immortal soul, an eternal destiny. The life of that soul, the achievement of that destiny is the most fundamental right of every human person and therefore of every worker. This life and this destiny must not merely be ensured after death; it is to be begun now here below.

Religion would be the opium of the people, Marx would be right, if the Church said to the working masses: “You will be happy after death.” No— “Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth! From the moment of their conception, from the start of their earthly life, which has an eternal import, which is the preparation of eternity, which is eternity in gestation, establishing here below the reign of God in faith, to foe fulfilled one day in the beatific vision.

These millions of men, these workers are marked here – below with the Divine seal. They have a right to the recognition of their dignity on account of their divine origin, on account of their divine destiny. And they have the right to ask the Church: “What must we believe concerning our life, what is the meaning of our work, of the conditions of our work; what is the meaning of our family life, so that here below we may achieve our destiny of love, our destiny of beauty, our destiny of greatness? “

To achieve its destiny the working class needs the Church; it needs her doctrine, her life, her authority, her influence. But the Church herself needs the workers. Without the working class, the Church would no longer be the Church of Jesus Christ. We must fully realise this; a Church of the rich, a Church of capitalists, a Church of the powerful could not be the Church of Christ. The touchstone is; “When you did it to one of the least of my brethren here, you did it to Me Christ has identified Himself with the poorest: I am the poorest, the most forgotten; I am the weakest little child, the poorest of the young workers.

The working class does not only need a doctrine; it also requires a movement, an organisation. To expect the working class to work out its salvation with a doctrine alone is an impossible suggestion, and it would be ridiculous to think it possible. A doctrine must not just become incarnate in individuals, it must also become incarnate in institutions. This is an indispensable condition at the present time; and furthermore, these institutions must be to the scale of the world, since the problems of the working class have to be faced to the scale of the world.

Furthermore, the working class needs leaders who will promote this doctrine of life, the incarnation of this doctrine of life, the victory of this doctrine of life in the working class, through working class institutions, through the workers’ movement.

Without those three elements; doctrine, institutions, leaders, the working class cannot live the divine life to which it is entitled.

When I met the Holy Father for the first time after the Liberation, he expressed to me all his anxiety: ” The greatest danger to the Church to-day is that the working masses know nothing, absolutely nothing, of the social doctrine of the Church.” The greatest danger is not Communism: that is but a consequence. The greatest danger is the ignorance of the working mass which needs this truth, which needs the incarnation of this truth, which needs apostles of this truth.

How can you explain this mystery; fifty-six years after Rerum Novarum, so many years after Quadragesimo Anno, after Divini Redemptoris, the working class of the world knows nothing, absolutely nothing, of the social doctrine of the Church? There lies the problem of the workers, the problem that the Church must solve positively if she is to fulfil her redemptive mission.

The Problem of the Young Workers.

It is in the light of this problem, in the perspective of this problem of the working class of the world, that we must situate the problem of working youth. We are not inventing anything, we are not devising something peculiar or fanciful. We are not concerned with the young workers merely to have them around us. Our task is to concern ourselves with them in the perspective of a problem of life on which depends the temporal and eternal future of millions of men, a problem which grows daily in depth and extent.

It is in the light of that problem that we must situate the problem of working youth. Each year, twenty million young people leave for the first time their family, their parish (where there is one), their school, to begin their working life away from their family, their school, their parish. And not for one or several years, but for their whole life.

These young people are at the decisive age of life, the age of education; the age when the boy becomes a man, the age when all the problems of life appear before a lad’s intelligence, before his conscience and his heart, when these problems have to be solved personally and freely by the lad himself; the age between school and marriage.

These adolescents are faced with the choice of a profession, a choice of vast importance in their working life. They must find means of learning this profession, not only its technicalities, but also its sense of professional duty, of professional pride. At the outset of their working life they must become aware of professional and Trade Union problems, they will be in danger of accidents, of occupational diseases, of overwork, of immorality in the environment of work.

There are in the world over two hundred million young workers of every race and colour who, from the time they leave school, must prepare for marriage under certain conditions of life; who must prepare themselves for the family life which will determine their happiness, the happiness of their wife, their children, the happiness of the working class. A working class without family life is like a herd of cattle.

All these young people are faced likewise with the problem of leisure and culture, of health and holidays. To-morrow they will be citizens with social and civic responsibilities; these are of the utmost importance, since we areliving at present in truly revolutionary times, when the basis of all things is put into question, and the most contradictory solutions are put forward.

These young people are to be found in all the countries of the world. It was most striking at Montreal1; the delegates from all countries, the delegates from China, India, Australia, all say the same thing. The problem we know in our own country faces millions of young people on the threshold of life, with their youth’s ideal, their youthful ardour and freshness.

Before these problems, the young lad asks himself: “What am I? Am I a machine, a beast of burden? Is my work a punishment, a curse? And my boss, and the foreman, and my wage? And the girls, my companions at work; are they just toys to play with? And what is love? At my age I feel its need. Is it just a passion, a lust? Is it simply a selfish quest? Or is it something holy, something sacred, of infinite value for each man and for the whole of humanity? What does it mean to court a girl, to become engaged and to prepare for marriage?” All are faced with these problems. They are not the problems of exceptions, of a chosen few, but the problems of the mass, of the whole mass without any exception.

Consider then all the difficulties that arise as-the aftermath of war; a sense of frustration, an escapist outlook; young people who have no hope for the future, who dope themselves with ‘fun’ at the dance halls and the pictures, who ‘couldn’t care less,’ who are unwilling to accept responsibilities; and there you have the problem.

When fifty years ago I entered the junior seminary, my schoolmates went out to work. They were intelligent, decent, God-fearing. When I came back for my holidays they were coarse, corrupted and lapsed from the Church-—whilst I was becoming a priest. I started to make enquiries, it became the the obsession of my life. How did it come about that young lads brought up by Christian parents in Christian schools should be lost in a few months?

The only solution.

To achieve a fine destiny, to face the demands of life, young workers above all need education. They must discover the problems of their life in their family, in the district, at work, in their journeyings, in their leisure. They must judge and weigh up these problems in the light of their Christian vocation, of the beauty of their life, of their responsibilities. They must have the will to win their comrades to this view of life.

United together they will form a workers’ movement of young workers, lads and girls, which undertakes to be responsible for the entire working-class problem—but it must be by young workers and for young workers.

They will create services of every kind, for without these education is ineffective and emancipation impossible. They will build a permanent, powerful, conquering organisation; a real institution which will lead to conquest, organised education and services, and undertake the representation of working youth before all the social authorities.

The Y.C.W. must train working-class leaders for every establishment, every district, every institution in which the interests of the workers are involved. In a number of countries of the world to-day many of the workers’ leaders are Communists. Christian leaders are lacking because they were not trained, because, at the decisive period of their lives, from fourteen to twenty-five,’ nothing was done for them.

The children of the middle-classes are not neglected at fourteen. If they were neglected they would get nowhere, in spite of their money. The working class has to-day come of age. It is becoming the greatest force in the world, it will determine the civilisation of to-morrow. It will need many competent leaders. It is from the age of fourteen to twenty-five that they must be trained. Afterwards it will be too late.

Basic Action.

On the international level the Y.C.W. already enjoys considerable influence, especially with the great world organisations like the I.L.O., U.N.E.S.C.O., U.N.O.

In countries where it has already existed for several years, the national organisation could easily be nothing else but a facade, a deception. In Belgium, for example, with our vast ‘Centrale,’ we could pretend outwardly to considerable influence, we could deceive the Government, public opinion, the Communists.

We could also deceive working youth itself, because the essential strength of the movement is not at the top but at the basis, in the life of the district, the parish, the factory, the environment of work. It is there that they are trained to see, to judge and to act. It is there that they are in contact with the masses; it is from thence that must arise the militants and leaders for the building-up of the movement.

The militants, working in team-fashion in real, daily life, in direct contact with the masses, build up the Y.C.W. in each country, thus creating the real Y.C.W. International, ensuring the liberation of youth and of the working class.

The Y.C.W. is a pyramid. Its strength comes from the solidity of its basis; it would be catastrophic to place it on its apex.

The Y.C.W. front is made up throughout the world by the local sections leading the offensive. They consitute not only a national, but an international chain of which no link can be broken.

I began the movement in a parish. For thirteen years I worked quietly, training that first local nucleus, with young working lads and girls.

Later on, other Brussels parishes started up. Then slowly, the movement spread throughout French-speaking Belgium and the whole country. Then it went beyond the frontiers. To-day, in countries where the movement is being launched, the start must be made at the basis, by the building up of real local sections.

The Chaplains.

The problem of the international Y.C.W. is in the hands of the local clergy, in the hands of our local chaplains who are, on the spot, the chaplains of the international liberation of the youth and the working class of the world. That is what we must understand and make others understand.

The chaplain must enable the young workers to discover the problem; how many are leaving school in the parish? How many are beginning work? What happens to them at work? Who are their companions, what are they like? What are your responsibilities? These responsibilities are magnificent, and you are capable of fulfilling them.

What can I do to-day, and to-morrow? Not the creation of a Y.G.W. International in the air, but showing these lads and girls their definite responsibilities in this world-setting. It will fill them with excitement, they will live an epic story, they will become enthusiastic in spite of difficulties, crises, failures.

Our study-circles, our meetings, do nothing else. Together they undertake responsibility for everything by the revision of life, the revision of influence, but always in relation to their life, their daily life, in the district, with their comrades, with their parents, with the sick, in the environment of work. And naturally, since practice makes perfect, they will become working-class leaders through the fulfilment of responsibilities.

In one big industrial firm, where strong Communist influences are at work, there are about 10,000 workers, and only 50 are affiliated to the Y.C.W. But they have such an influence over their non-Christian workmates that, at the last election of the Works Council, when the workers were given the opportunity of freely electing their own representatives, twelve Y.C.W. were chosen out of a total of twenty delegates.

That is what I mean by the Y.C.W. It is an apprenticeship in responsibility, for the workers’ problems and the workers’ apostolate. The chaplain’s task is to supernaturalise all this, to Christianise it, to bring about in it the incarnation of Christ.

I have too much respect for the proletariat, I have too much ambition for it, to be content with a sort of ‘laicised’ religion, a sub-religion for the working class. Religion means the life of Christ in us, the influence of Christ within.

The chaplain must bring about this discovery. He may take time over it, but that must be his final aim. His task is a priestly one, he must give these sacred, these divine things which link each working lad and girl to the Divine Plan, to this life of Christ, to this life in Christ.

Within these Catholic, missionary perspectives we rediscover the whole of working life, the whole of social life, leisure, culture, courtship, marriage, love, all the problems of the working class and of working youth. I cannot give a general formula; every priest must seek for himself. One cannot do with Europeans what one does with Chinamen; but it must be done with them and by them, and one cannot do it without them. There lies the problem!

After years of efforts there is a danger of escapism, for all of us, for me as well as for you. Maybe we tried for three or four years and it didn’t succeed. Or else we thought we had succeeded, we had thirty or forty lads with a Y.C.W. label and in fact we were mistaken. . . .

The most generous are in danger of wanting to substitute a priestly apostolate for a workers’ apostolate. But however much a priest may try, he will never be a worker, he can never be anything better than an ersatz worker precisely because he is a priest. The Church needs a working-class laity which is a hundred per cent, worker, taking over working-class responsibilities which the priest has renounced. The laity is responsible for the whole of that life of uncertainty, of insecurity, which the priest can never get to know thoroughly, because at any moment he is able to withdraw. But the worker is committed for life.

Another danger lies in directing the young workers towards an escape from working-class realities. Of course, they prefer to go camping, to dance, to go scouting, to roam the countryside, to sing . . . but is that going to give the working class its leadership, a workers’ movement?

And there is another danger still, the practice of a kind of pietism; one can become contented with spiritual things for their own sake, with devotion for devotion’s sake, without seeing its necessary incarnation in personal and social life, without putting the leaven in the paste. This means separating our people from reality. Perhaps we shall have workers with a fine piety, with an exemplary eucharistic life, but what will be their influence over working-class problems, what will be their influence in the environment of work?

All the Clergy Together.

The problems of the post-war period are to be found everywhere. I have travelled in America, in England, in Germany, in Austria, in Italy. Everywhere one meets the same problems and the same difficulties.

Woe to the local chaplain who would try to face all these problems alone! He is lost, as the isolated young worker is lost. We must work in team-fashion. It is all the more necessary at the beginning of this decisive phase of the international Y.C.W. We need teams of chaplains who tell one another the conquests made by the militants, who share their difficulties and their experiences, who build up that priestly and apostolic friendship, that priestly mutual aid in facing the greatest problem of modern times, the problem of the working class laity.

The greater part of the clergy does not see clearly enough the problem of the salvation of the working class. On the parochial front it is not just a question of the parish church and the parish organisation; it is the problem of all the souls, all the flock, in an apostolic and missionary spirit.

The Y.C.W. chaplain must meet with the understanding, the fraternal and enthusiastic assistance of his colleagues, of the Parish Priest, of the Dean. If they do not understand, if they are not concerned, then no solution is possible. Woe to the Church if on account of the clergy she is absent, she abdicates, she allows her enemies, the ‘children of darkness’— and they are many—to play their game!

I beg you not to believe in a solution by violence. At present two extreme camps face one another in growing opposition. If these two camps brought about another world war, with the modern weapons at their disposal, with all the fury they are trying to excite, we would be faced with the greatest catastrophe in history. Not a half, but three-quarters of the human race would be lost and, on whatever side victory could be claimed, the true solution would be retarded by a hundred years.

To-day, more than ever, the world needs a mediator between God and humanity, and a mediator between men, to prevent them hating one another, killing one another. Christ alone is that Mediator, that Redeemer, that Saviour, that Liberator. There can be no other.

Read once again the encyclical against Nazism, in which Pius XI denounces those who would substitute a man or a system to the only Mediator. Our task is to give that Mediator to the world, to the working class, to working youth. The love of Christ must beat in the heart of the masses. That is working-class Catholic Action; that is the Y.C.W.

In the hands of the clergy: Without you, the mandatories of Christ, there can be no solution. The clergy can, with Christ, through the laity, save the working class, the working class of the world.

Joseph Cardijn


Joseph Cardijn, The Church and the young worker, Speeches and writings of Canon Joseph Cardijn, Collection Young Worker Library No. 1, Young Christian Workers, London, 1948, 74p. at p. 63-74.



1The International Y.C.W. Study Week held at Montreal in the summer of 1947.


Stefan Gigacz, May Day March, Lille, France, 1 May 2023