The Catholic Worker at 77

IssueMay 2010
Feature by Tom Cornell

The Catholic Worker is a paper. It’s a house of hospitality for homeless people. It’s a communal farm. It’s a soup kitchen. It’s a movement. It’s radical, pacifist, anarchist, and Catholic. It’s 77 years old as of May Day 2010.

Dorothy Day meant to start a labour paper to announce to the unemployed of the Depression era that the Catholic church has a body of social teaching capable of re-shaping society along the lines of justice and peace. Little did she know what she was in for.

Peter Maurin, Dorothy’s mentor and, she insisted, the real founder of the movement, faulted modern society for marginalising religion.

Separation of church and state is good for the state and even better for the church, but separation of religious insight, values and discourse from the public square is a drastic error, he taught. Peter believed that advances in bureaucratic management and in technology were well on the way to pitching a soulless society into a “New Dark Age”.

He proposed a new society based upon “the gentle personalism of traditional Christianity,” and a new synthesis of worship, literature and the arts and labour based upon the land.

Peter called for round-table discussions and a newspaper for “clarification of thought” to help people realize a “theory of revolution.” The paper would call for city “houses of hospitality” where those in need might come to meet those prepared to help them in a personal face-to-face relationship within community, and for communal farms where the unemployed might work and scholars join them, workers becoming scholars and scholars becoming workers.

Peter had left France for Quebec in 1909, drifted south across the US border and worked as a manual labourer and a French language tutor. He fell away from Catholic practice, but experienced a religious conversion at some point (he was sparing in details of his personal life) and started working for his keep at a Catholic boys’ summer camp 80 miles north of New York City in the 1920s. There he began to develop his analysis of the modern predicament epitomised by the great Depression and perduring to this day, and to envision its cure.

Dorothy Day was a radical of the American Left, a fixture in the literary circle in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1920s, a journalist with one published novel. Her first job was at The Call, a socialist daily, where she interviewed Trotsky before his return to Russia to lead the Red Army. From there she went to The Masses and The Liberator, radical revolutionary publications. Though of middle-class origin, Dorothy entered the revolutionary movement out of personal, direct observation of human misery in the meat-packing industry in Chicago and in the slums of New York City. She read Russian literature voraciously, not Bakunin, Lenin and Trotsky, but Kropotkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

At the birth of her daughter of a common-law marriage, Dorothy experienced a profound religious conversion out of joy and gratitude. She had her daughter baptised and was herself received into the Catholic Church, at the cost of her lover.

Then came a period of self-recrimination, fear that she had abandoned the struggle for justice for the poor and working people. She prayed with tears of anguish in Washington, DC, after a Communist-led mass demonstration for jobs and workers’ rights, a prayer that God would open a way for her to use her talents for the poor and the working people once again, but now as a Catholic Christian.

On her return to New York, she found Peter Maurin waiting for her. Peter had the idea. Dorothy had the skill.

First came the paper, then a house of hospitality, then a farm, then a soup kitchen, then a movement. It all happened “as we sat there talking,” Dorothy wrote in The Long Loneliness, her autobiography.

Peter died in 1949, Dorothy in 1980. A movement that coalesces around charismatic personalities either dissipates or institutionalises after the death of its founders, so we are told. The Catholic Worker has done neither. But after 77 years, a certain incoherence has set in.

We have no franchise system. There is no authority to certify that this or that is an authentic Catholic Worker position or house or community or paper. There is no board of examiners to issue and renew licenses. A little incoherence is a small price to pay for the freedom we enjoy to interpret the tradition as we will.

There are now over 150 communities in the US which identify as Catholic Worker, and others in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands.

As with any movement, we have left-wing infantile deviationists and right-wing revisionists. But the broad middle holds, with a presence to the poor, the marginalised and workers. The movement in its many incarnations continues to adhere to Christian pacifism, to active peacemaking through the works of mercy and nonviolent resistance to unjust social and political structures and to war by means of protest, non-co-operation, direct action, obstruction and for some (and this is problematic) destruction of government property.

These days more than ever the young are drawn to simple living, voluntary poverty and ecological responsibility. They keep on coming, wonderful young people. They read Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays and Dorothy Day’s works. They take the homeless in, they cook, clean, beg, protest and pray and it happens. It’s still going on.