Charles Owen Rice, 1908-2005
Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, known as "Pittsburgh's Labor Priest," died Sunday in nearby McCandless Township at the age of 96, and I regret that I didn't get a chance to meet him.
From the 1930s through the 1990s, Msgr. Rice battled injustice -- not simply in the worker-vs.-bosses steel mill fights during the heyday of organized labor in Pittsburgh -- but against racism, intolerance and violence.
During the Depression, like Father Coughlin, Rice gave fiery radio sermons that mesmerized his parishoners -- but there the resemblance ended, for Rice's mission was to open his listeners' minds to grace rather than to inspire fear and distrust. Rice (whose Irish brogue was authentic, trained during his childhood in Ireland, where he lived from ages 4 to 11) not only used the radio pulpit to advance his cause, but was a front-line soldier whenever he believed the cause was just -- he marched in the picket lines; gave pep talks in the rain during strike rallies; urged the U.S. to aid England in its struggle against the Nazis; linked arms with Martin Luther King and marched with him to the United Nations in 1967; marched on the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War; and stood on the barricades as the steel plants were shut down in the 1980s. During much of that time, he also ran St. Joseph's House of Hopsitality, a Hill District shelter for the poor and homeless.
His columns for the Pittsburgh Catholic drew more mail than any other feature, much of it negative. One doesn't need to agree with Rice's advocacy of the union movement, however, to recognize the truth and integrity of his beliefs. His was the rare muscular moral voice of the Left, something today's Democrats still seem to struggle over finding for themselves:
'The Dynamite of the Encyclicals'
Last month some of the good Catholic people of Pittsburgh were startled to hear that a group of priests had been interested in organizing, of all things, a Catholic Radical Alliance. There was a general lifting of the eyebrows all along the line at the idea of Catholic Radicals . . . It might be reasonable to inquire, whom are we following? What prominent Catholics are radicals in this sense? Well, off hand, the first name that comes to my mind is that of Pope Pius XI, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, visible head of the Church. This program, by the way, is commemorating a radical document that he issued six years ago this very day; and it is commemorating another radical document that was issued forty years before that again: The Encyclical "On the Condition of Labor" by Leo XIII . . . The Popes issued these documents to the entire world, one of them forty-six years ago, and the other six years ago; but it is an annoying fact that the principles in them have not gotten around. Outside her fold the Church has the reputation, unfortunately, among all too many of being reactionary -- the friend of the rich rather than the poor; the friend of the bosses rather than the masses. And yet, if the plain facts of Christian principles and practice were known, it is just the opposite. The Church is the Church of the poor and must be. She is the friend of the oppressed against the oppressor . . . To be brutally frank, there are Catholics, many by no means obscure, who act not like followers of Christ, but like followers of the devil in their dealing with and attitude toward the problems of social justice . . .
Rice, PITTSBURGH CATHOLIC, May 20, 1937
'The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor! So should we.'
. . . Actually, there is a class war raging in this country, but it is being waged not by the poor, but against them. Those who would deny government relief to the poor but demand they find jobs, when all the jobs are hard to find and decent ones impossible, are waging class war.
Rice, PITTSBURGH CATHOLIC, July 14, 1995
More about Charles Owen Rice can be found in Fighter with a Heart: Writings of Charles Owen Rice, Pittsburgh Labor Priest, edited by Charles McCollester.