Founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day (1897 - 1980) and Peter Maurin (1877 - 1949), the Catholic Worker newspaper has been published ever since. Peter Maurin was the intellect behind the effort, but the legs (and most of the credit) go to the amazing Dorothy Day. By comparison, The Militant was first published in 1928, and apart from a brief, early interruption, is also still around.
The CW movement sponsors houses of hospitality, that today we might recognize as homeless shelters. In the 1930s, however, at the depths of the depression, many otherwise working class people needed assistance.
Dorothy was a Leftist before she was a Catholic. She had close friends in the Communist Party in her early years. She wrote for the Daily Worker, and also for The Masses. I don't believe she seriously encountered Trotskyism, and I think she would have seen it as equivalent to Stalinism.
So here is my understanding of what CW represents, in bullet points.
- They are principled pacifists. Dorothy distinguished herself from Communists saying that she was "a pacifist even in the class war." CW is long associated with people like A. J. Muste (a former SWP comrade), Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan.
- They accept the Marxist meme: We're poor because the rich people stole all the money. That led to Dorothy's sympathy for Stalin, Mao, and Castro, among others. But unlike the Communists, she never forgave them for their mass murder and persecution of religion.
- CW is resolutely Catholic. While they have disagreed with the Church on individual issues (just war theory, for example, as that conflicts with their pacifism), they subscribe to Catholic morality. They oppose abortion. I think many of them oppose birth control. Dorothy from her own personal experience deeply opposed the "free love" movement, and accordingly took issue with much of second-wave feminism. I recall some years ago reading the reminiscences of a long-time Leftist who spent his early years around CW. He eventually fell away, finally realizing that they were really serious about their Catholic faith, which he didn't share. The name wasn't (and isn't) just a historical artifact.
- They believe that physical labor is essential to humanity. They assert the dignity of the working man and woman. Dignity is a stronger reason for full employment than the wage (though that's important, too).
- Most important, they subscribe to personalism, i.e., the essential purpose of good works is made at the level of the individual. Not for them is the mass movement, nor are they concerned about changes in GDP. The Catholic Worker newspaper frequently features extended obituaries of homeless people, often mentally ill.
For CW, the most important words of Jesus are these:
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’I have just finished reading Ross Douthat's book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. One of the heresies he discusses is that of the social gospel, i.e., elevating the quoted Bible verses above all others. In America the social gospel as a heresy was founded by Walter Rauschenbusch in the early 20th Century, and rewritten for our own time by Harvard's Harvey Cox. Many Protestant denominations and Catholic orders fell for it, subsuming the entire Christian faith into those short verses, and gradually rendering themselves irrelevant in the process. Mr. Douthat offers the Jesuits as an example.
But by hewing closely to the rest of Catholicism, Dorothy Day and CW has managed to avoid that heresy. They have successfully combined the social gospel with a vibrant, durable Christian faith. She resolutely rejected the notion of founding a religious order, though as a movement it had a charism that emphasized care of the poor and physical labor. But charism and heresy are two different things. Dorothy never dispensed with the rest of Catholicism.
I first heard of the Catholic Worker (CW) movement from a comrade in Portland when I was a new member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Curiously, I don't recall a single mention of the Catholic Worker movement ever in The Militant, nor in any of its latter day offspring.
That oddity is the subject of this essay.
To my knowledge, no CW house was located in Portland in the early 70s, and so I never encountered CW directly until much later in life. In those days, CW appealed to the counterculture and attracted some hippies. Much to Dorothy's dismay, some houses tolerated pot and sex. Each house was independent--there was no overarching hierarchy, and accordingly wide variations in house rules. So the Catholic part of the mission was occasionally lost and the house degenerated into a hippie commune. Somehow Dorothy managed to keep enough of them on the straight and narrow to maintain the integrity of the movement.
The SWP regarded CW as irrelevant--we would have called them Jesus freaks. Given CWs aversion to mass movements (that they regarded, correctly, as incipiently totalitarian), we never encountered them at antiwar demonstrations. They preferred nonviolent terrorism, such as breaking into military bases and spilling red paint onto ICBMs. Still, in a larger sense, they would have been part of the antiwar coalition that the SWP led in the early 1970s.
The political role of CW was anarchism. In this they are very much like Marina Sitrin, recently described in a piece in Socialist Action (see here). Ms. Sitrin obviously does not share CW's Catholic faith, but in most other respects her political point of view is identical. They both subscribe to the Marxist meme, they both reject "state power," and they both believe in social change from the bottom up.
But CW is a more durable, truer face of anarchism. The only reason to care about the poor is for moral or spiritual reasons. From any standpoint of practical economics, the poor are irrelevant. The contribution of sub-Saharan Africa to the world economy is negligible. Fortunately, the moral and spiritual motivates lots of people (and not just Leftists), and so much effort is devoted to helping the poor. The difference between CW and Marina Sitrin--and, for that matter, the SWP and Socialist Action--is that CW explicitly recognizes the moral and spiritual dimensions of poverty. They quote a Bible verse to prove it.
By any reasonable measure Dorothy Day has been phenomenally successful. Arguably, Pope Francis is an adherent to the Catholic Worker movement, with his emphasis on voluntary poverty, help for the poor, and his devotion to the Franciscan tradition. Far from being a voice in the wilderness, CW now has the ear of the Vatican establishment. They're not exactly happy about that, and they are resisting the canonization of Dorothy Day.
I take issue with CW on two things. Recognizing the spiritual and moral necessity of helping the poor is one thing, but it is not necessary to throw out everything we know about economics. Their adherence to the Marxist meme is destructive and does not help the poor. Capitalism helps the poor, partly because most capitalists want to get through the eye of that needle, but mostly because it makes everybody richer. As we've mentioned, today's homeless are not at all the same population as the poor people in Dorothy's depression era. In the way Dorothy understood it, there simply aren't any poor people in the United States today.
The second thing is faith. I'm a practicing Catholic (because of my wife), but not a believing one. I don't have faith. She put it this way.
I had a conversation with John Spivak, the Communist writer, a few years ago, and he said to me, "How can you believe? How can you believe in the Immaculate Conception, in the Virgin birth, in the Resurrection?" I could only say that I believe in the Roman Catholic Church and all she teaches. I have accepted Her authority with my whole heart. At the same time I want to point out to you that we are taught to pray for final perseverance. We are taught that faith is a gift, and sometimes I wonder why some have it and some do not. I feel my own unworthiness and can never be grateful enough to God for His gift of faith.I, sadly, do not have that gift of faith. But I admire people who do. I admire Dorothy Day.