The Gentle Catholic Radicalism of Peter Maurin

January-February 1988By William D. Miller

William D. Miller, Emeritus Professor of History at Marquette University, resides in Lloyd, Florida. He is the author of A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, and Dorothy Day: A Biography (widely regarded as the definitive biography of Dorothy Day). His most recent book is All is Grace: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day.

On more than one occasion Dorothy Day (who could never be accused of extravagant statement) called the French peasant-philosopher Peter Maurin a “saint and a genius” and “most truly the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.” Since Peter, widely regarded as a “radical,” gave her the social philosophy which she believed expressed the character of her Catholic faith, he, perhaps, could be called a source of inspiration for the social disposition termed “Catholic radicalism.” For those who like catchy labels, the phrase will do, but not if it is taken as indicating a revision of his Catholic orthodoxy in favor of the enthusiasms of journalistic poll-takers or academic liberals and “neo-Marxists.” Rather, Maurin’s idea synthesis, in its brevity and directness, is the one clear radical idea that has light in today’s lowering darkness, and it is, moreover, profoundly of the Church, for it reaches up and brings into life mystic areas of human longing, freedom, and community.

When, in the opening months of 1933, he gave his program of instruction to Dorothy Day, he began with what he called his “outline of history.” His “outline” was fashioned around the question, “What does it mean to be human?” and his judgment of history was made with reference to the value of life which had been registered by Christ and affirmed by the Church. Dorothy did not immediately understand what he was talking about, but when she did, she was passionately drawn to what she regarded as the rightness of his idea and of its applicability to her life.

The central postulation in Maurin’s “outline” was that the history of the Western Christian era had followed a slow process of human refinement over its first 1,500 years, but had then veered onto a cataclysmic course, the malevolent character of which had begun to erupt in the 20th century, seen especially in a perversion of the spirit of community as this spirit manifested itself in racial and ideological frenzies.

Maurin, of course, was not alone in holding this view. That history would undergo an apocalyptic crisis had existed as a presentiment in the folk mind of the Western world ever since St. John wrote Revelation. But, at least at the upper levels where social theory was being formulated, that expectation changed, and by the 20th century the most audible voices were hailing the Western world’s march down the road of progress to glory.

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