The Traditional Catholic Worker Movement

January 2008By Thomas Storck

Thomas Storck is the author, most recently, of Christendom and the West: Essays on Culture, Society and History.

The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins.  By Mark and Louise Zwick. Paulist. 358 pages. $29.95.



Most Catholics, I daresay, know little about Dorothy Day (1897-1980) and the Catholic Worker movement and The Catholic Worker newspaper she and Peter Maurin (1877-1949) founded in 1933. The Catholic Worker is one of the authentic Catholic movements to have originated in the Church in this country, and we need not agree with every jot and tittle of Dorothy Day's thought to recognize that this movement is a solid expression of traditional Catholicism, rooted not in any political ideology but in the spirituality and thought of the Church.

The first thing necessary in examining the Catholic Worker is to jettison the common notion that all ideas and movements can be placed in one of two categories: liberal or conservative. So far from the truth is this that the liberal/conservative prism, through which so many view the world, in fact distorts the world and forces us to distort people's ideas and actions to conform to this shallow way of looking at things. The thought of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, even when it might accidentally coincide with that of liberal secular thinkers, was always rooted in an essentially spiritual vision of reality, in a knowledge of the existence of God and of the revelation that He made in Jesus Christ and in His Church.

In this book, Mark and Louise Zwick, founders of Casa Juan Diego, the Catholic Worker house in Houston, Texas, detail the various persons whose lives and thought influenced the founders of the Catholic Worker. Included are: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Catherine of Siena; several notable Catholic intellectuals: Dom Virgil Michel, Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier; and two Russian Orthodox writers: the famous novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and Nicholas Berdyaev. Other influences include medieval Irish and Benedictine monasticism and, of course, the social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. The Zwicks devote a chapter to each of these chief influences, quoting from both Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin's own writings, as well as from secondary sources about the Catholic Worker movement.

Many who have heard of Dorothy Day know her only as a pacifist; others have heard that she is a "radical," perhaps a communist. Both of these charges deserve discussion. Dorothy Day certainly was a pacifist, and here I admit that she departed from the central tradition of Catholic thought, which includes the teaching that a war of defense may be just. As someone who accepts this doctrine of the Church that a just war is theoretically possible, I was impressed when reading this book that Dorothy Day's pacifism was not so much an ideological position as a radical and personal embrace of the Gospel. That is, the words of Jesus Christ about love of enemy and accepting the injustices that others may impose on one made such an impression on Dorothy Day's heart that she was moved to a total rejection of war. When a young Catholic Worker asked her for a "clear, theological, logical pacifist manifesto," she could only reply: "I can write no other than this: unless we use the weapons of the Spirit, denying ourselves and taking up the Cross and following Jesus, dying with Him and rising with Him, men will go on fighting, and often from the highest motives, believing that they are fighting defensive wars for justice and in self-defense against present or future aggression." Dorothy Day's response was akin to that of a monk who might run out between the battle lines, calling upon each side to stop killing those created in God's image. Her pacifism was part of her response to following Jesus Christ, indeed part of her own love for the person of our Blessed Lord.

This brings us to an aspect of the Catholic Worker that struck me as I read this book. Although Catholic Workers do not embrace the consecrated life, they do have a special vocation within the Church, a vocation which, like that of religious, stands as a witness to the radical demands of the Gospel, the call of our Lord to perfection, to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and see Jesus Christ in the smallest of His brethren. As such, this specific vocation, though not meant for everyone, is one of the charisms that enriches the Body of Christ and, like the religious life, represents a radical living of the Gospel.

As for the charge that Dorothy Day was a communist, this is easily disposed of. Her economic thought, like that of Peter Maurin, was rooted in the papal social encyclicals, in the English distributists G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and in the critique of modern economics made by so many Catholic thinkers in the first half of the 20th century. Simply put, it is in the mainstream of Catholic thinking, and if it seems radical and dangerous to many American Catholics, this only shows how little authentic Catholic social thought is known and embraced among us. Peter Maurin liked to talk about "blowing the dynamite of the Church." By this he meant making known the Church's social doctrine, a revolutionary and radical doctrine in the truest sense of the words. I challenge anyone to read carefully Pius XI's encyclical Quadragesimo Anno and see if that document does not call for profound changes in the social order and in our way of life. Indeed, the encyclical's formal title, "On Reconstructing the Social Order and Perfecting It Conformably to the Precepts of the Gospel," is surely a lifetime task for any Catholic.

Both Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin were thoroughly traditional in their spiritual outlook and piety. It is true, however, that even in Dorothy Day's lifetime some Catholic Workers departed from their founders' vision and became themselves victims of the liberal/conservative prism. Dorothy Day herself protested against these abuses, and the Zwicks recount the famous story of her dismay, upon returning from a trip, to discover that during her absence a priest had used a coffee cup for a chalice in celebrating Mass. She promptly buried the cup to prevent it from being used again. Also noted is her complaint about the many who receive Holy Communion but the few who go to Confession beforehand. Some, indeed, have criticized her for not doing more to keep her movement more firmly within the orthodoxy from which she herself never deviated. But if this is so, then the Zwicks' book is all the more important, for by calling attention to the real spiritual and intellectual roots of the Catholic Worker, to the saints, to traditional and undoubted Catholic thinkers such as Chesterton and Belloc, this book ought to be an aid to the many who look to Dorothy Day as someone who lifted Catholic life above a simple routine of going to Mass while otherwise conforming to the materialism and hedonism that characterize life in the Western world today. Thus, it is not Marx or Mao, but Catherine of Siena and Francis of Assisi, who were Dorothy Day's mentors.

The Zwicks have written a book that covers a fascinating period of Catholic intellectual history, the last part of the Catholic intellectual revival, a revival that ended tragically and suddenly after the Second Vatican Council. The Catholic Worker can be understood only in the context of the richness of Catholic social thought of the 1930s and 1940s, a context in which traditional piety and "radical" social thought often went hand in hand. But this has always been characteristic of the best of the Catholic tradition, from St. Francis's decisive rejection of the bourgeois life of his times to Chesterton and Belloc's distributism. In their efforts to apply that social thought to the real world, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded a movement that is well worth our continued study.



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Please read "The Catholic Worker: Is it still Catholic?" by Ann O'Connor in the March 1994 issue of New Oxford Review. Posted by: macroom2
December 13, 2011 12:28 PM EST
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