Celebrating 75 years of the Catholic Worker

National Hui, Rapaki Marae, 24-27 April 2008

Jim Consedine

Next Thursday, May 1st, the Catholic Worker will celebrate its 75th birthday. For it was on May 1st 1933 that Dorothy Day and a small band of supporters first took to the streets and sold their newspaper, The Catholic Worker, in Times Square, New York, at a workers’ rally celebrating May Day. There are a variety of planned events to commemorate and celebrate this historic birthday. Our hui is one such event.

Back in 1933, the first major thing that Dorothy and Peter Maurin and their small group did as a collective was get a newspaper out. The spreading of the word has remained a high priority for the movement ever since, so that today there are numerous publications emerging from CW houses in every country it has been established. Each is an independent voice. Each has a slightly different focus. Some are large publications written in two languages and published monthly. Others are simple A4 sheets published intermittently.

Dorothy and Peter 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 their rented accommodation into the first ‘house of hospitality’ for the homeless. And so was born the second great 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 immigrant groups and the homeless, so many of whom found themselves on the streets with no access to resources much less a permanent home.

It was the era of the Great Depression. Thousands were destitute. Within a short time the now familiar Catholic Worker programme of radical analysis and action was in place built around its primary focus 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.

It was a challenging mix, especially when they added to it the best of Church social teachings and divine authority. At the heart of the CW vision was the idea that the Beatitudes of the Gospel coupled with the Corporal Works of mercy were an everyday practical programme of living the Christ life – so feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned and sheltering the homeless was 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 and St Clare of Assisi, though stretching beyond them back to St Basil the Great, who said, ‘Are you not a robber, you who consider your own that which has been given to you solely for others? This bread which you have set aside is the bread of the hungry; this garment you have locked away is the garment of the naked; these shoes which you let rot are the shoes of him who is barefoot; those riches you have hoarded are the riches of the poor.’ His teaching in the 4th century was 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 Chrysosdom in the same century called for ‘every family to provide a Christ room for a stranger in need of shelter.’ These ideas held great appeal for both Dorothy and Peter Maurin and 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. Added to that were the teachings of Gandhi who was living, writing, teaching and confronting the all powerful British Empire in India with non-violent direct action while the CW was developing in the US and one had a powerful teaching on non-violence and pacifism at a time when the winds of war were blowing across Europe. The Spanish Civil War between 1936-38 pitted republicans and socialists against capitalists, monarchists and the institutional Church in Spain and caused a great deal of anguish to Dorothy and her friends. The rise of Nazism in Germany, using the terminology of national Christian socialism but which in fact was racist, violent and fascist was sending shock waves throughout the world. The war by Italy in Ethiopia and subsequent alignment of Mussolini with Hitler – both nominally Catholics from traditional Catholic countries – also caused a huge challenge to a newly baptised Catholic like Dorothy.

The third leg of the original vision concerned Peter Maurin’s idea of farming communes ‘ where scholars could be workers and workers scholars.’ This was coupled to the vision of the ‘green revolution’ which has taken off in such a remarkable way through environmental concerns in our own time – but was prefigured by Peter Maurin and the CW from the 1930s.

As the moral head of the CW, Dorothy showed remarkable leadership and insight based on her analysis and her commitment to the non-violence of Jesus and the social teachings of the Church in refusing to back the monarchist/Church alliance in Spain in its war against republicans who had won the election there in 1936. She also totally opposed the Nazi rise to power in Germany despite the muted response of the official Church there, and wrote many articles 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, with the loss of three-quarters of its houses in the space of a few months. Catholic Worker houses shrunk from 40 to 10 at this time. Yet Dorothy held firm in the face of the huge nationalistic fervour and jingoism which grew out of Pearl Harbour and directly led to America’s involvement in the war.

Some key Catholic Workers signed up for the military, others sought CO status and others refused to register and faced imprisonment. But Dorothy 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. It was not a popular stance and she suffered hugely from the stress that such a public position placed her in as a nationally known Catholic and as a US citizen. J.Edgar Hoover and the FBI were on to her from their earliest days and she was spied upon and kept under surveillance for much of the latter part of her life. That is how subversive the Gospel can be when contextualised and seriously applied to the events of the time.

But 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.

After the war, Dorothy Day set about rebuilding the movement. In the 1950s, she and many other CWs were jailed for their opposition to the arms build-up, to the development of the Cold War 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 later started the Joe Hill CW. He actually collapsed and died on the picket line.

Rising opposition to the Vietnam War, the rise of student protest to the war and the draft and the advent of people like Dan and Phil Berrigan, Elizabeth Macalister, Thomas Merton, Jim Forrest, Tom Cornell, Eileen Egan and Jim Douglass and prophets like Martin Luther King helped confirm the CW identity around issues not just of hospitality, homelessness and civil rights but clearly in opposition to war, racism and the arms race. Clearly now another principle central to Catholic Worker thinking and practice had emerged. That is the idea of non-violent resistance. Resistance to tyranny, resistance to war and want, resistance to global inequality.

This tradition has been carried through succeeding generations into our time by such leaders as Catherine Morris and Jeff Dietrich at the LACW, Kathy Boylan in Washington DC, Scott and Claire Schaffer-Duffy in Worcester, MS, Jane Sammon, Carmen Trotter and Roger O’Neill in New York, Frank Cordaro in Des Moines, the remarkable Protestant CWs Ed Loring and Murphy Davis in Atlanta, GA, Ciaron O’Reilly, Martin Newell and Susan Clarkson in the UK, Jim Dowling and Anne Rampa in Australia to mention only a few.

Looking recently through the latest Nuclear Resister newsletter (April 2008) which has faithfully recorded those arrested and jailed for peace and justice activities for the past 25 years, 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 in its variety of forms is now a central part of CW thinking today and of CW spirituality.

Finally, we can take pride in our own history of nearly 20 years of CW witness in Aotearoa. It is difficult to single out individuals. Francis Simmonds and Kathleen Gallagher were there on day one. Lynette and Graeme White also committed at an early stage, and I want to acknowledge Graeme who has tragically died since our last national hui. He was unique among us, inspired by that spirit of St Francis whom he often looked like as he pedalled around the city or stood as he on the picket line playing his trumpet. May he rest in peace. In the Far North, the extended CW community led by Catherine and Joseph Land is extending its wings with great effect. There are now a growing CW presence in Auckland, Otaki, Palmerston North and Wellington.


As branches of the vine which is Christ, we have been privileged to be part of these remarkable 75 years. Its time now to reflect on the remarkable fact that the Catholic Worker, this most disorganised and unstructured movement, which has no nominated leaders, which has no legal entity per se, which has defied the rules of sociology and not disintegrated upon the death of its founders nor totally institutionalised as most other Church movements have, has survived and still breathes the Spirit of the Risen Christ in our age. It is possibly stronger and more diverse than ever.

We should rejoice that in Aotearoa/New Zealand, we have been privileged to walk part of these 75 years with our CW brothers and sisters in Christ 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 continue to confront global capitalism, its wars and injustices and seek to promote peace built on justice. It is a journey which continues to take us to the margins where, as Jesus taught, ‘we find life and find it in abundance.’ Long may our journey continue.

on the margins

on the margins

where Christ prowls

sheltering with the homeless

out of it on drugs

eating from dumpsters

depressed by day

locked behind bars

asleep under bridges

scarred by pain

fearful of the future

on the margins

scorned by the masses

God dwells

under cover

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