Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Dr. G. S. French
Throughout the nineteenth century the Roman Catholic Church in Ontario was concerned principally with its growth as an institution in a rather hostile social environment. Hence its leader sought to develop the parochial structure and to promote the extension of the Separate School system. As a religious community whose members were often poor, and in many instances recent immigrants, it continued to rely heavily on the leadership of the clergy and in general was unsympathetic to new ideas.
In the Catholic Church at large, however, as in the Protestant Churches, there was increasing sensitivity to the need for redefining the role of the Christian Churches in society. This resulted in the promulgation in 1891 of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum and subsequently of Quadragesimo Anno in 1931. In these statements the Papacy presented a critique of contemporary society and a set of moral precepts designed to promote social harmony and justice without committing the Church to the endorsement of either liberal or socialist principles.
The first figure to introduce the Church's new social teaching in Canada was Archbishop Neil McNeil, who was appointed in 1912 as Archbishop of Toronto, the largest English-speaking diocese in the Canadian Catholic Church McNeil was instrumental in bringing to Canada, Henry Somerville, a young-self-educated, English-Catholic layman, an outstanding journalist who became the chief exponent of Catholic social teaching in the country. Somerville was an editorial writer for The Catholic Register, the principal English language Catholic newspaper, from 1915 to 1918. After a period in England in which he acquired a broader understanding of contemporary economics and social issues he returned, at McNeil's request, as editor of The Catholic Register, a position he held from 1933 to his death in 1953.
Somerville was principal adviser on social and economic questions to Archbishop McNeil and subsequently to Archbishop James McGuigan. In his writing, he sought to explain simply the teaching of the social encyclicals, to demonstrate its relevance to Canada, which, in his time, moved from boom to depression; to persuade the Catholic clergy and laity that the Church must support the development of secular labour unions and the passage of just labour legislation.
Distressed at the hostility of the Church towards the C.C.F. as a "socialist" party, he strove successfully to remove the hierarchy's restrictions which inhibited Canadian Catholics from joining the new party. Somerville was conscious that Canadian Catholics could not play an effective part in implementing in Canadian society the ideas he popularized unless the Church has an educated laity. Thus he encouraged the formation of study groups for working men, the strengthening of Catholic educational institutions, and greater exposure of the clergy to the importance of Catholic social teaching in resolving the problems of Canadian society.
Somerville's writings stand as testimony of the range and the quality of this efforts to alter the perception of English-speaking Canadian Catholics of the part which the Church should and could play in furthering the establishment of a just social order in Canada. To assess the extent of his achievement is an exceedingly difficult and elusive as to reach a similar judgment about any notable figure in Canadian intellectual and social history. The crucial fact is that Somerville was addressing a religious group which comprised altogether more than forty percent of the Canadian population. His words were read principally by English-speaking Catholics, and more particularly by Catholics in Ontario. That he was heeded by some important members of the Canadian hierarchy is clear. Subsequent events would suggest that Somerville's influence extended widely among clergy and laity. He may well have been a principal figure in setting the stage for the reception in the Church in Canada of the social ideas and changes which emerged from Vatican II.
Somerville and those who shared his views were limited throughout his career by the conservative traditions of the Church in Canada, the division between the French and English branches of the Church, and by the Church's necessary concern for simple survival as in institution. In effect, the study of Somerville's career provides an insight into a highly significant and yet little understood part of Canada's social and religious history.
Beck, Jeanne Ruth Merifield, "Henry Somerville and Catholic Social Thought" (1977). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 778.