Social Justice & Hell-Fire
FIFTY YEARS OF THE CATHOLIC WORKER MOVEMENT
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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