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Jacques Maritain’s Friendship with Dorothy Day

MARITAIN’S INFLUENCE ON THE CATHOLIC WORKER MOVEMENT

By Bemard Doering | December 1985
Bemard Doering is a professor of French literature at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Jacques Maritain and the French Catholic Intellectuals.

With the exception of three years he passed in Rome as France’s ambassador to the Vatican, Jacques Maritain spent two full decades in the United States, from January 4, 1940, to January 24, 1961. These were some of the busiest years of his life, and it was during this time that he reached the apogee of his renown, surpassing perhaps even the prestige he enjoyed in his own native land dur­ing the late 1920s and the 1930s. And his prestige was not confined to Roman Catholic circles. As a matter of fact, he was more sought after as a lec­turer and teacher at prestigious non-Catholic universities like Columbia, Princeton, Yale, the Uni­versity of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Hunter College than he was at Catholic colleg­es and universities.

Maritain’s influence also extended outside the academic community. For 20 years he was an un­mistakable presence, a pervading influence which extended in many directions. Many Catholic and non-Catholic groups working for the realization of political and social justice, racial equality, the dig­nity and rights of labor, and the alleviation of the sufferings of the poor, looked to Maritain for sup­port and inspiration, and he gave generously of his time and effort. One such group was the Catholic Worker Movement and its founders Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day.

Maritain’s influence on the Catholic Worker began long before he established his residence in the U.S. in 1940. This influence was both direct, through his own writings and personal presence, and indirect, through the movements and publica­tions founded by those on whom he had a very considerable direct influence. One such person was Emmanuel Mounier, in whose career Maritain took an immediate and very personal interest, and with whom he had helped found the review Esprit (with both advice and money). In his history of the Cath­olic Worker Movement, A Harsh and Dreadful Love, William Miller states explicitly that there were two sources of inspiration for the Catholic Worker Movement. They both came, he wrote, “from that body of thought produced in the years…after the First World War by a Paris group whose intellectual interactions touched on a com­mon conviction they called Christian Personalism. One of the two sources was Jacques Maritain, who had associations with the Personalist group and who influenced the Worker ideas by his views on the nature of the state, especially his advocacy of decentralized political institutions.” The other, says Miller, was Emmanuel Mounier. Indeed, it was Maritain himself who furnished the name “Person­alist” for Mounier’s movement.

Another source of Maritain’s influence on the Catholic Worker was the American Catholic weekly Commonweal, whose editors knew the Catholic Worker Movement very well and offered it their sympathy and support. As far as I know, Common­weal and The Catholic Worker were the only two Catholic periodicals that adopted Maritain’s non-aligned position on the Spanish Civil War, and to­gether suffered harassment and red-baiting as a consequence.

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