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Social Justice & Hell-Fire

FIFTY YEARS OF THE CATHOLIC WORKER MOVEMENT

By John C. Cort | December 1983
John C. Cort, formerly a union official and past President of the National Catholic Social Action Conference, is a freelance writer in Massachusetts. The above is derived from a talk he gave at Catholic Worker headquarters in New York City a few days before its 50th anniversary this year.

Back in the 1930s, I spent over two years at the Catholic Worker (CW) house on Mott Street. I was never considered ideologically pure, however. I was neither a pacifist nor an agrarian, and I did not share the profound distrust of the state that any orthodox CW was expected to feel. I even insisted on voting in the election of 1936, and I’ve been voting ever since.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin could not sell me on pacifist agrarianism with an anarchist twist, but they sold me on other things that are more im­portant. What they sold me, what my whole CW experience sold me, and what has been the founda­tion of my “socialistic” views of political econo­my, are two things. The first is the Works of Mercy, which I am currently concerned to see renamed the Works of Justice and Mercy. In this I am mere­ly following the implications of Peter’s favorite quote from St. Basil: “The coat that hangs in the closet belongs to the poor,” a conclusion shared by Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Gregory the Great. Gregory spelled out the rationale for my campaign as fol­lows: “When we furnish the destitute with any necessity we render them what is theirs, not bestow on them what is ours; we pay the debt of jus­tice rather than perform the works of mercy.”

The name of “mercy” should apply only to the giving of those things that are not superfluous, that is, when we share our own necessities.

Like Dorothy, I am conservative in questions of theology. You might even say reactionary. I ev­en believe in hell. And I think it important to re­member that the Works of Mercy — excuse me, the Works of Justice and Mercy — originated in a hell-fire sermon that Jesus preached as a final summary of his teaching, a sermon reported in the 25th chapter of Matthew.

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