2012: Cooperatives and Catholic social teaching

Last night on ABC News 24’s The Drum, the president of the International Cooperative Alliance said Australia has more cooperatives per head of population than other countries in the English speaking world including the UK. Dame Pauline Green is visiting Australia for Wednesday’s launch of a stamp to commemorate the International Year of Cooperatives, which is on sale alongside a commemorative one dollar coin (pictured).

Church Resources – the publisher of CathNews – was inspired by the cooperative model. It’s unfortunate that many Australian Catholics, including Church Resources members – are not aware of the link between cooperatives and Catholic social teaching and some of the highly successful overseas models.

“Why is the Church in the English speaking world so largely silent about the Mondragon cooperatives’ success in bringing to fruition the long struggle in the cause of its social teachings?” asks former federal and Victorian state MP Dr Race Mathews in a recent Eureka Street article.

It’s a relevant question for Catholics in the International Year of Cooperatives and it’s one that I have been asking myself since I first learned about the Basque worker cooperatives thanks to a  BBC documentary The Mondragon Experiment that screened on Four Corners during the early 1980s.

In 1983, I travelled to Mondragon, which is known in Basque as Arrasate, and is located at the western end of the Pyrenees that divide France from Spain. I went with Bernadette McEvoy who was the Australian YCW president of the time and we were accompanied by two Korean YCW leaders.

Our guide and translator from Spanish to Korean to English was a local missionary priest who had worked for many years in Korea (and who incidentally thought that Korean was the language that came closest to resembling the Basque tongue).

Founded in 1956 by the Catholic priest Father Jose Maria Arizmendiarrietta, Mondragon already comprised close to a hundred industrial worker cooperatives at that time although it had not yet taken on a genuine national let alone international dimension. 

The tour that we made of the Mondragon administrative complex quickly impressed on me the key role played by the Caja Laboral cooperative bank in funding the growth of the corporation. That lesson was reinforced soon after I returned to Australia and when a group of us tried to start a housing cooperative only to be refused a bank loan simply because we were planning to establish as a cooperative!

However, I also remember thinking to myself that the real test of the Mondragon model would be how it survived the worldwide economic slowdown of the 1980s. The stunning answer of course was that the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation has since grown into one of Spain’s largest conglomerates, with over 80,000 workers, and over 75 subsidiaries in some 17 countries.

True, it has had to make some compromises in its expansion often finding it difficult to implement its model of worker ownership in other countries. This offers another clue as to the difficulty of replicating Mondragon. Indeed, the Mondragon people predicted as much in 1983, telling us that its success was predicated on local factors including a historically strong local cooperative culture. 

Moreover, as the Mondragon staff also told us, in Franco’s Spain, the Basque region had supported the Republican side during the Spanish civil war, leaving the region starved of capital and with no alternative except to generate business investment funds locally.

Nevertheless, these factors don’t explain why the Church has failed to promote the Mondragon model more through its social teaching.

One issue may be the fact that, to the extent that it has been taught, Catholic social teaching has often been presented as a “body of doctrine”, i.e. taught in a theoretical manner.

Also significant may be the lack of the necessary mechanisms that would allow for better sharing of positive experiences of working to solve social problems on the basis of Catholic social teaching.

Indeed, it was not until very recently that I discovered – through Race Mathews – that Father Arizmendi had been a YCW chaplain strongly influenced by Joseph Cardijn and who in fact launched the cooperatives with leaders from the local Catholic Action movements.

In this context, I was particularly struck recently by finding in Cardijn’s papers in the Belgian Royal Archives a proposal that he developed during Vatican II for a “Roman Secretariat on the Lay Apostolate”.

Cardijn wanted a Vatican structure that would act “not as a superstructure” or as “a secretariat of the hierarchy for controlling or supervising the laity” but rather as an peak body for international lay apostolate movements and which would be organised around key issues, such as “youth”, “mass media”, “social and economic life”, etc.

The aim would be “to establish an ongoing dialogue and collaboration between all organisations in order to better understand the range of issues, to better unify the efforts and search for solutions, and to better extend their influence to the mass of peoples.”

Cardijn died in July 1967, less than two years after the end of Vatican II, and therefore had little chance to work for the implementation of this vision.

And if the tag cloud on its home page is any indication, Cardijn’s vision is a long way from the pre-occupations of the current Pontifical Council for the Laity, which was eventually established in the wake of Vatican II. 

Race Mathews notes that the origins of Mondragon “stem directly from the unswerving adherence by Arizmendiarrieta to formation in the ‘see, judge, act’ or ‘inquiry’ study circle mould, as developed within the Young Christian Workers unionist movement”. 

Perhaps, the secret for the spread of the Mondragon model may lie in applying the same method on a global scale.

Stefan Gigacz Stefan Gigacz is researching a history of the impact of Marc Sangnier’s Sillon (Furrow) movement on later Catholic lay movements.


Cooperatives and Catholic social teaching (CathNews CathBlog, 20/12/2012)