Celebrating 75 years of the Catholic Worker

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 45, Pentecost 2008

Jim Consedine

It was in the midst of the Great Depression. Tens of thousands were destitute and homeless, sleeping rough in New York and every other city in the US. It was time for action. On May 1st 1933, a single mother and new convert to Catholicism, Dorothy Day, and a small band of supporters took to the streets of New York and distributed their newspaper, The Catholic Worker, at a workers’ rally in Union Square celebrating May Day. This year marks the 75th anniversary of that historic first step in the building of the Catholic Worker movement.

Dorothy and co-founder Peter Maurin quickly recognised that to write about things was one thing – but you actually had to practise what you preached if you were to be authentic. And so they turned rented accommodation into the first ‘house of hospitality’ for the homeless. Thus was born what has become the primary thrust of the CW into the area of hospitality for the poor – providing food, accommodation, medical care, advocacy and friendship to these most needy and most precious of God’s people. They focused on the poorest and the homeless, so many of whom found themselves on the streets with no access to resources, much less a permanent home.

Within a short time the now familiar Catholic Worker programme of radical analysis and social action was in place built around its major aims of urban hospitality, clarification of thought, farming communes and decentralised government to challenge the combination of ‘big government’ and the economic power of multinational corporations and conglomerates. And always its public voice: the monthly, The Catholic Worker, with a circulation at its peak of 150 000. The price, then as now – 1c per copy.

The new movement created a challenging mixture, especially when they drew on the best of Church social teachings and divine authority. Sitting at the heart of the CW vision were the Beatitudes of the Gospel coupled with the Corporal Works of Mercy, seen as an everyday practical programme for living the Christ life. So feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned and sheltering the homeless became simply the Christian response to community need.

Some of the most radical teachings of the saints of former times were added to the brew. Voluntary poverty, whereby people lived simply and shared what they had with the needy, was one such increment. This was inspired by the life and teachings of St Francis of Assisi, though stretching beyond them back to St Basil the Great, who said in the 4th century that ‘what you own over and above for the necessities of life, does not belong to you but to the poor who have nothing.’ And St John Chrysostom in the same century called for ‘every family to provide a Christ room for a stranger in need of shelter.’ These ideas quickly became part of Catholic Worker teaching and praxis.

The pacifism of the early Church whereby, prior to Constantine in the 4th century, Christians would not take up arms and kill their fellow human beings was another primary platform for the growing CW movement. They viewed with suspicion the Just War theory, seen as an unacceptable compromise with the State. Added to that were the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi who was living, writing, teaching and confronting the all-powerful British Empire in India with non-violent direct action. One had a powerful teaching on non-violence and pacifism at a time when the winds of war were blowing across Europe.

The third leg of the original vision concerned Peter Maurin’s idea of farming communes ‘where scholars could become workers and so the workers could become scholars.’ This was coupled to the vision of the ‘green revolution’ which has evolved in such a remarkable way through environmental concerns in our own time.

As the recognised moral head of the CW, Dorothy showed remarkable leadership and insight in the 1930s based on her analysis and her commitment to the non-violence of Jesus and the social teachings of the Church. She refused to back the Franco-led monarchist/Church alliance in Spain in its war against republicans who had won the election in 1936. She frequently wrote critically of the dangers of the Nazi rise to power in Germany, often focusing on the immorality of anti-Semitism. And she opposed the entry of the US into the war against Hitler after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in 1942.

The latter was a very unpopular stance. It split the Catholic Worker. In the space of a few months three-quarters of its houses closed, reduced from 40 to 10. Some key Catholic Workers signed up for the military, others sought CO status and others refused to register and faced imprisonment. Yet Dorothy held firm in the face of the huge nationalistic fervour and jingoism which grew out of Pearl Harbour and the US entry into the war. She was adamant: one could not be a Christian and go to war and kill other people, no matter who they were or what they were doing.

As a US citizen and a nationally known Catholic, Dorothy suffered hugely from the stress that such a public position placed her under. FBI director J.Edgar Hoover targeted her and she was spied upon and kept under surveillance for much of her life. That is how subversive the Gospel can be when contextualised and seriously applied to the events of the time.

However the most common witness of the CW even during wartime remained its Houses of Hospitality. Peter Maurin was a great believer in them. He described them as ‘houses of sacrifice’ and also as ‘houses of Christ.’ This was based on his experiences of having lived in flophouses and communities of the poor all over America for half a century. He saw human dignity under attack in such places. He saw the difficulties and the possibilities that each day would bring in sharing one’s home with the homeless. But for him it was Christ’s work and an opportunity to allow each guest’s humanity to be recognised. In so doing, he believed he was actualising Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. There are now 185 houses in about ten countries.

After the war, Dorothy Day set about rebuilding the movement. The context now was the Cold War and the McCarthy witch-hunts. In the 1950s, after the death of Peter Maurin, she and many other CWs were often jailed for their opposition to the arms build-up and the stockpiling of nuclear weapons. Ammon Hennacy, a long time pacifist, became a prominent leader in the CW during this period in New York, and had huge influence both on Dorothy and the movement.

In the 1960s, aided by a renewed vigour from Vatican II, mounting opposition to the Vietnam War, the rise of student protest to the draft and the advent of people like Dan and Phil Berrigan, Elizabeth McAlister, Thomas Merton, Jim Forrest, Tom Cornell, Jim and Shelley Douglass and prophets like Martin Luther King Jr helped confirm the CW identity around issues not just of hospitality, homelessness and civil rights but also in opposition to war, racism and the arms race. Clearly another principle central to Catholic Worker thinking and practice had emerged. That is the idea of non-violent resistance to tyranny, to militarism, to war and want and to global inequality — to what John Paul II later condemned as ‘the social structures of sin’.

This tradition has been carried through succeeding generations into our own time. It seeks to ‘expose evil to the light of the Gospel.’ The recent action by three Catholic Workers – Sam Land, Adi Leason and Fr Peter Murnane OP – performing a Ploughshares witness at the Waihopai spy base near Blenhiem is a continuation of that tradition.

The latest Nuclear Resister newsletter (April 2008) indicates that a large portion of people currently engaged in actions against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are from Catholic Worker communities. None of them are famous like Dorothy Day. But they are as committed in this time and place to the ideals she sought to instil in the movement in her time. Resistance to state terror and injustice is now a central part of CW thinking and of CW spirituality.

It is interesting to reflect that this most disorganised and unstructured movement, which has no nominated leaders, no legal entity per se, and which has defied the rules of sociology and not disintegrated upon the death of its founders, has survived and still breathes the Spirit of the Risen Christ in our age – and arguably is stronger than ever.

Conclusion

We can take pride in our own history of nearly 20 years of CW witness in Aotearoa. Beside our three houses in Christchurch and little farmlet near Leeston, there is a growing CW presence in Auckland, Otaki, Palmerston North and Wellington and an extended community in the Hokianga. Our free quarterly paper The Common Good is now 11 years of age and maintains a circulation of 3700, while The Radical Christian from the Hokianga is in its fifth year.

We should rejoice that some in Aotearoa/New Zealand have chosen and been privileged to walk part of these 75 years with our CW brothers and sisters from around the world. It is a journey that takes us always to the margins of society, to the poor, to their situations of injustice where their dignity is impinged, and the Reign of God denied. It is a journey in which we also continue to confront global capitalism, its wars and injustices and seek to plant the seeds of the Kingdom of God in our time.

(For more information – contact the Catholic Worker, Box 33-135, Christchurch, or email Kathleen at doygalpress@yahoo.com).

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