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11.2: The Catholic Worker Movement

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    The way of right action in Christianity has found expression in many forms over the history of Christianity-sometimes as a way unto itself but most often alongside other ways of being religious and frequently subordinate to them. Many subtraditions have given prominence to the way of right action but in diverse manners: some have focused attention primarily on private conduct, others on roles or ministries within the Christian community, some on evangelical or missionary work, others on intentionally living a different but distinctly Christian form of social life, some on charitable works on behalf of individuals or whole communities, others on efforts to bring about peace and reconciliation between individuals or social factions, some on efforts within the existing social system to promote social welfare and combat evil, and others on efforts to change unjust social and economic structures. Certain subtraditions have given it virtually no emphasis at all. However, it is probably impossible to find a Christian subtradition in which no one at any time felt that his or her rapport with God in Christ did not hinge upon some form of action or effort to make some kind of difference in the mundane world.

    One example of a person who very definitely felt called to make a difference and in whom we can glimpse something of what a Christian expression of the way of right action might involve is Dorothy Day (1897-1980) and the Catholic Worker movement, which she cofounded with Peter Maurin in 1933. On the fiftieth anniversary of that founding, Sojourners Magazine, an ecumenical though largely Evangelical Protestant voice of Christian social activism that has in significant measure been inspired by the Catholic Worker movement, carried an article entitled "Thank God for the Catholic Worker," by Danny Collum.12 Part of it reads as follows:

    On May 1, 1933, in the depths of the great Depression, the first copies of the Catholic Worker were sold ... at a May Day demonstration in Lower Manhattan's Union Square. The major themes of that first Catholic Worker were the plight of exploited and unemployed workers and the surprising news that Catholic Christianity had more to offer them than the incessant nay-saying to communism that dominated the church in the U.S. In the months and years that followed, the Worker continued to develop those themes with extensive coverage of hunger, evictions, and strikes, and with Peter Maurin's "Easy Essays," which presented a down-to-earth alternative social vision drawn from Scripture and the teachings of some of the popes and Catholic philosophers.

    Even more remarkably, the paper's writers and editors put flesh on their ideas by starting soup kitchens and houses of hospitality, joining workers on the picket lines, and establishing a farm commune that they hoped would be a model of Maurin's agrarian society, where it would be easier for people to be good. The Catholic Worker paper soon became the Catholic Worker movement.

    Later in the 1930s, the Catholic Worker movement's consistent preaching and practice of Christian non-violence became a controversial witness that in itself presented an alternative program for a world at war. The Worker's pacifism cost it a lot of the popularity gained when it mainly emphasized the poverty and injustice of the depression.

    The problems began with the Spanish Civil War. The Catholic hierarchy was backing Franco's fascists, and the Catholic Worker's friends on the Left were sending off brigades to fight with the Republicans. The Catholic Worker backed neither side, insisting instead that Jesus' words to Peter, "Put away your sword," applied to both. As a result, many Catholic parishes that had been buying monthly bundles of the Worker cancelled their orders, and the paper's circulation plummeted. It of course dropped even further when the Worker maintained its advocacy of nonviolence and began encouraging and aiding conscientious objectors after the United States entered World War II...

    The Catholic Worker began during a time of historic crisis, and its rapid growth was a sure sign that it was offering a message that was badly needed. In the face of the oppression, misery, and war caused by the collapse of industrial capitalism, the Catholic Worker posed a vision of a society organized around respect for the person. It talked about a society made up of voluntary, self-sustaining communities of sharing and mutual aid. It would be a society where no one would starve or go homeless, and where authority would not be synonymous with violence or coercion.

    Much has been written about the influence of European syndicalism on Peter Maurin and about Dorothy Day's heritage in the American anarchist movement [before her conversion to the Roman Catholic Church], all of which is true enough. But the Catholic Worker vision was, and still is, first and foremost an attempt to imagine how we might live together in this world in closer accord with the gospel.

    In addition to a rough blueprint for a new society, the Catholic Worker offered an answer to the revolutionary strategist's question, "What is to be done?" The Worker's "strategy" said simply: begin now to "build the new society in the shell of the old." This meant that you begin to change the world by changing yourself and the lives of those around you. And it meant that society cannot be transformed by threats or violence but only by the moral force of example. And above all it meant that living justly and peacefully could not be postponed until after "the revolution" or the Second Coming.

    . . . Today we have the encouragement and inspiration of 50 years of the Catholic Worker to rely on, as well as the companionship of the very much alive-and-kicking Catholic Worker of the 1980s.

    Reprinted with permission of Sojourners, 2401 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009.

    In the same 1983 issue of Sojourners, in a forum on civil disobedience, there appeared an article by Peggy Scherer,l3 then current editor of the Catholic Worker and worker in the New York City Catholic Worker house, from which the following excerpt is taken.


    Any newspaper on any given day reminds us that violence abounds in the world. The arms race, repression in Central America, homeless people in our own country, all call to mind that violence appears in many forms. Yet the causes, as well as the results, are interrelated. How can we respond to it? How can we strike at the roots of this pervasive evil?

    While there are many ways in which we might act, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and others have taught me through their lives and their words that civil disobedience is an important and at times necessary way to confront power when that power protects injustice. They have also taught me that such a step can be effective in a profound sense, whether or not it "works" in the world's eyes, if it stems from and contributes to a genuine search for truth and justice.

    Their witness teaches me that if we want a better world, we must act to build it. They teach, too, that the end is the result of the means. If we would build a society where justice and truth prevail, our efforts must be rooted in these qualities, not in those we reject.

    The many manifestations of violence stem from the powerful judging who is to live, and under what circumstances. If we oppose what is violent, we must also reject the greed, deceit, injustice, and judgment on which it is based. Self-sacrifice, honesty, justice, and respect for all people, even if we disagree with them, even if we challenge their actions, must mark our efforts.

    I think about these things because it is all too clear that the roots, if not the fruits, of violence are not only in the Pentagon and the Kremlin, but are also in all of us. Nuclear weapons and all the forms of violence that threaten and take life have not been developed in a vacuum. They exist to protect our way of life. They will not disappear unless we challenge and change the values and attitudes which justify them, as well as work to eliminate the weapons themselves.

    In Loves and Fishes, 14 Dorothy Day writes:

    The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us? When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers and sisters with that burning love, that passion, which led to the cross, then we can truly say, "Now I have begun."

    Many good things, some of them unexpected, can happen if we shape our lives, our homes, our work, as well as our demonstrations, to witness to our belief in a world where love is active and justice practiced. Such an example says more than any leaflet. A life of service and sharing is in itself a challenge to a greedy, materialistic society. Such a life offers a visible example of "what to do," an invitation.

    Changing our lives can break down some of our own fears and prejudices. I have seen in myself that my hesitation to perform civil disobedience comes perhaps more from my fear of the unknown, my fear of breaking my routines, of appearing foolish or ineffective, than from hesitation about breaking a civil law that protects or promotes injustice. Through embracing a life where people are more important than things, my perspective has changed. Living at the Catholic Worker house in New York City, I come into daily contact with victims of rampant injustice. This shows me a human face of the injustice I oppose. My need to act comes from the heart; the urgency of the situation is no longer academic, and silence is more clearly a luxury. Civil disobedience and other efforts signify a continuation of my work rather than a break in my routines.

    There is also a tempering effect in a life such as we live at the Catholic Worker. While our need becomes stronger to challenge and confront values and institutions, our daily life confronts us with our own weaknesses. Our life together has helped me see my own violent tendencies and self-righteousness, and has led me to be much more cautious about pointing a finger. Though our life is often rich and rewarding, revealing the possibilities of people of different backgrounds and points of view living in relative harmony, we are constantly reminded of the hard work and patience required for getting from where we are to where we want to be.

    Reprinted with the permission of Sojourners, 2401 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009

    In an earlier issue of Sojourners Magazine (January 1981) shortly after her death, the editor, Jim Wallis, published the following eulogy of Dorothy Day shortly after her death.15


    I always thought I would go to her funeral. I met her only twice, but no one affected me like she did. I was on the road when I heard, and it was too late to get to the service.

    The feeling of grief was overwhelming. She embodied everything I believe in. She, more than any other, made my faith seem real and possible to live. She took my most cherished visions and made them into realities. Now she was gone. It was like the end of an era.

    Slowly the grief gave way to gratitude. We were richly blessed to have had her among us, if only for a while. She was an ordinary woman whose faith caused her to do extraordinary things. The gospel caught fire in this woman and caused an explosion of love. We will miss her like a part of ourselves.

    Dorothy Day died on Saturday night, November 29, 1980. She was 83. Dorothy died in her room at Maryhouse, a place of hospitality she founded for homeless women on New York's Lower East Side.

    It was in the Depression year of 1933 that she and Peter Maurin founded The Catholic Worker. They sold the first copies of the newspaper on May Day for a penny each. "Read The Daily Worker," shouted the communists selling their paper to the unemployed in Washington Square. "Read The Catholic Worker daily," answered back a little band of Catholics who said their faith had made them radicals.

    For 47 years their paper has been the voice of a movement that has always concentrated on the basics of the gospel. Dorothy's grasp of her times was profound, but it was the simple things that captured her imagination and commitment-like the gospel being good news to the poor and the children of God living as peacemakers.

    She always spoke of the "works of mercy" as the center of it all: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, comforting the lonely. For the cause of Christ, she literally spent her life on the side of the suffering and the afflicted, while relentlessly attacking the institutions and systems which lead to oppression and war.

    In so doing she became an institution herself, and the Catholic Worker movement has served for almost half a century as the heart and conscience of the American Catholic Church and, for that matter, of American Christianity. Dorothy helped to found more than 40 houses of hospitality and about one dozen farms which became rare places that the poor could call home.

    The poorest of the poor were Dorothy's constituency. Shunned by everyone else, they knew they could trust this woman. Streams of poor people from her Bowery neighborhood showed up at her funeral, mingling with the famous and powerful, but knowing that Dorothy belonged to them.

    The voluntary poverty, service to the poor, and radical pacifism of the Catholic Worker kept the movement small, but influenced many over the years. For most of the volunteers, life at the Catholic Worker became a kind of school, an intense training ground in compassion that would shape the rest of their lives. The number of people touched by Dorothy is beyond counting.

    This evangelical boy from the Midwest was one. I grew up being taught that the Bible should be taken literally. Dorothy Day is one of the few people I've ever met who actually did. She took the gospel at face value and based her life on it. Dorothy did what Jesus said to do. She was the most thoroughly evangelical Christian of our time, though the movement by that name never claimed her as its own.

    Like any radicalism that endures, Dorothy's was rooted in very traditional soil. Her unswerving loyalty to the teachings and traditions of the church often caused consternation among her more progressive friends. But it was the strength of that very commitment to the gospel that made Dorothy such a radical. And it was this radical traditionalism that proved troublesome to the church she loved.

    That same combination of conservative religion and radical politics is the energy behind Sojourners and became a point of strong solidarity between ourselves and the Catholic Worker movement. Probably the nicest thing anyone ever said about us was when some of our friends at the New York house of hospitality called Sojourners a "protestant Catholic Worker."

    Much has been said about Dorothy Day and much more will be said. But perhaps the most important thing we can say is that she taught us what it means to be a Christian. She was a follower of jesus Christ who fell in love with his kingdom and made it come alive in the most wretched circumstances of men and women. Dorothy believed that, in the end, "love is the measure." The following postscript is from her autobiography, The Long Loneliness:

    We were just sitting there talking when Peter Maurin came in.

    We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, "We need bread." We could not say, "go, be thou filled." If there were six small loaves and a few fishes [the reference here is to the story in the Gospels of Jesus' miraculous feeding of thousands from a few loaves and fishes], we had to divide them. There was always bread.

    We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded.

    We were just sitting there talking and someone said, "Let's go live on a farm."

    It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened.

    I found myself, a barren woman, the joyful mother of children. It is not easy always to be joyful, to keep in mind the duty of delight.

    The most significant thing about The Catholic Worker is poverty, some say.

    The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone anymore.

    But the final word is love. At times it has been, in the words of Father Zossima [a character in Dostoyevski's novel, The Brothers Karamazov], a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried by fire.

    We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread [a reference to the Christian rite of Holy Communion], and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.

    We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

    It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.

    The doctors said that she died of heart failure. But Dorothy's heart never failed us.

    Reprinted with the permission of Sojourners, 2401 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009.

    This page titled 11.2: The Catholic Worker Movement is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.

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