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Catholic social justice

Published:Friday | June 8, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Peter Espeut, Contributor

As Jamaican Roman Catholics gear up to celebrate their 'Journey: 500 years for the Catholic Church, 50 Years for Jamaica', I thought I would share with you some of the high points of this journey, to emphasise the contribution the Catholic Church has made to our country.

Like all other Christian groups in Jamaica, the Roman Catholic Church has preached the Gospel of Jesus, founded chapels, baptised members and worshipped the Lord. When Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, went into the synagogue, he called for the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and read:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."

Because Jesus saw his mission in these terms, the Catholic Church takes seriously its own mission to promote justice.

The 1971 Synod of Bishops in Rome summarised it this way: "Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation." This means that we cannot separate proclaiming the Word of God from action for justice or liberation from oppression, since the redemption and salvation which Jesus offers are not just from sin, but also from poverty and injustice.

It is because of this theological and doctrinal position that the Roman Catholic Church in Jamaica has such a strong record in matters of social justice, of which we are very proud.

On September 12, 1941, the Catholic Young Men's Sodality at Holy Trinity Cathedral, led by Fr John Peter Sullivan, pooled funds totalling US$1.87 and gave birth to Jamaica's first credit union: the Sodality Credit Union. Many of the 14 founding members are household names today: Samuel Emmanuel (later the Most Rev Archbishop) Carter; Maurice (later the Rev Fr Maurice) Feres; Michael (later the Rev Deacon Michael) Thompson; G. Arthur Brown, governor of the Bank of Jamaica; George Washington Carter, of the Little Theatre Movement; Franklin George 'Frankie' Muirhead, scouter and attorney.

Paul Thompson, the first president, went on to found Mutual Housing Services Ltd, which built cooperative housing; Paul Chavannes went on to found the City of Kingston Credit Union. Aston 'Paddy' Bailey visited Port Royal along with Fr John Peter Sullivan, and in April 1943, 10 fishermen pooled their resources of US$150 to form the Fisherman's Credit Union: a year later membership had increased to 208 with total savings of US$6,000; by 1947, membership stood at 265, with accumulated savings of US$12,444 and a loan portfolio of US$27,750.

The credit union movement in the Caribbean - an important agent of economic justice - is largely the result of Catholic social action, of which we are justly proud.


To put control of sugar production in the hands of former slaves, in the 1970s the Jesuit Social Action Centre (SAC) midwifed 23 production (primary) sugar workers' cooperatives: 11 at Frome, seven at Monymusk, and five at Bernard Lodge; the former employees (cane cutters, watermen, fertiliser gang, etc.) were members. Michael Manley's democratic socialist government leased the farms to these primary cooperatives at peppercorn rates; the workers were now the managers, and hired their supervisors.

SAC, directed by Fr Arthur Kane with Rev Ronald Thwaites as his deputy, provided overall direction and coordination; Fr Dan Mulvey did the financial forecasts and planning; Fr James Schecher and I were in charge of the training of the co-operators; field coordinators were Fr Horace Levy at Frome, Fr Joseph Owens at Monymusk, and Neville Wong at Bernard Lodge. SAC organised secondary cooperatives at each of the three estates, and the United Sugar Workers Cooperative Council - a tertiary cooperative - to coordinate all three.

Although the initiative was officially supported by the PNP government, elements fought against it. The trades unions, who earned a lot of union dues from the workers, could not reconcile themselves to the fact that the workers were now the management, and therefore did not need unions. After the 1980 election, the new JLP government scuttled the cooperatives.

(Continued next week).

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to