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Published in Culture Wars  December 2006

Review of The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins

By Rosemary Fielding

We live in a post-Christian world.

Thoughtful Christians cannot long evade the question: how does one live as a Christian in such a world?

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the founders of the Catholic Worker, spent their lives trying to find answers to this and to put into practice whatever answers they found.  They recognized a post-Christian world long before many other Catholics did (in the 1930’s), and they wrote a kind of chronicle to fellow Catholics on the answers they found to the above question, the question that so many Christians wrestle with today.  With both words and actions, they outlined the Way of Christ in a world that had abandoned it.  They persevered on the front lines in the battle between the forces of materialism and the forces of radical Catholicism.

Radical in this case means “arising from or going to a root or source; fundamental; basic.” The Catholic Worker, founded  in 1932, was founded because Day and Maurin believed that Catholicism could change a very brutal modern world. But to do so, Catholics had to rediscover the root of Christ’s teaching, and that root was poverty. Now this statement needs much clarification and explanation, especially in a world where so many more than in the past are enchanted by abundance, and Day and Maurin published much in the way of such clarification and explanation.

They announced to the world in 1932 that the Catholic Worker had a two-fold mission. The Catholic Worker houses were to provide hospitality to the poor, and were to practice voluntary poverty and the Works of Mercy as they did so. And the Catholic Worker paper was to “popularize and make known the encyclicals of the Popes in regard to social justice and the program put forth by the Church for the ‘reconstruction of the social order.’” [Catholic Worker, May, 1933, the first issue]

From then until 1980, when Day died, she and Maurin (who died in 1949) expounded on their sources of inspiration.

Now, a new book systematically compiles and presents these sources of inspiration; it shows how these fervent Catholics took the truth that they found in books and put it into practice.  

Mark and Louise Zwick, founders of the Houston Catholic Worker House of Hospitality Casa Juan Diego, wrote The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins  to acquaint readers “with the richness of thought, contemplation, and action that has inspired and characterized the Catholic Worker movement.” They seek to reawaken others to “the great thought that had shaped and undergirded the Catholic Worker.” Catholic ideas “brought Peter [Maurin] and Dorothy to their role of transforming…the world.” 

The Zwicks are setting the record straight, so to speak, because they have found that in spite of the publicity given to Day’s radical positions, very few people have knowledge of the reasons for her taking these positions. (To many people, both those who esteem her for it and those who do not, she is mixed up, often incorrectly, with Communism, bohemianism, dissident Catholicism, extreme social justice ideals, and civil unrest.)  The Zwicks are arguing for the pure, unadulterated “Catholic” in Day, Maurin and the Catholic Worker.

At least one review of the book indicates that they have succeeded in setting the record straight.  Paul Likoudis wrote in The Wanderer that at one time he took the admittedly extreme position that Dorothy Day was a communist and a traitor. (He also admitted he knew nothing of her at that time.) “For those who know only the barest outline of her life, feeding the poor, demonstrating against war or on behalf of grape pickers,” he writes of the book, “the Zwicks’ book will open a vast new panorama, showing how Dorothy, and her mentor Peter Maurin, were not only great readers, but great thinkers and writers.”

The Zwicks open this panoramic view of the Catholic Worker with the spiritual and intellectual biographies of Day and Maurin.  Only by understanding their love for the Catholic Church does their lifelong dedication to their creation, the Catholic Worker, make sense.  Day and Maurin wanted the Catholic Church, i.e. Catholics, to transform the world with the truth.  Their lives together were dedicated to that end. Peter called that truth “the dynamite of the Church,” and called Catholics to “blow the dynamite.” He wrote, “If the Catholic Church is not today the dominant social dynamic force, it is because Catholic scholars have taken the dynamite of the Church, have wrapped it up in nice phraseology, placed it in an hermetic container and sat on the lid.  It is about time to blow the lid off so the Catholic Church may again become the dominant social dynamic force.”

The Zwicks show what Day and Maurin meant by such statements. The dynamite, of course, was essentially the Gospel of our Lord.  But over the centuries, Catholics have had to apply that Gospel to societies that have devised ever-new ways to subvert its teaching and to circumvent its truth. Day and Maurin turned to Catholic thought on how best to bring the Gospel into the modern world.  From the many writers and preachers to whom Day and Maurin referred in their articles and books, the Zwicks have selected several whom they present as the origins of the Catholic Worker movement. Some of these men and women lived in the modern world themselves; some were saints who lived centuries earlier. The book makes a very powerful case that Day and Maurin believed that the Catholic Church’s teaching reflected the “mind of Christ” and that they knew this Catholic thought profoundly and extensively.  Their book has convinced the former skeptic Paul Likoudis that Day and Maurin sought to respond to the modern world “in a way fully consistent with the Gospels.”

The Zwicks call Matthew 25:31-40 “the mission statement of the Catholic Worker movement.” These Gospel verses recount the parable of the sheep and the goats.  It is here that our Lord tells us that “just as you did it to the least of these who are my members, you did it to me.” From this parable are compiled the Corporal Works of Mercy: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to ransom the captive, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick and to bury the dead.  The Spiritual Works of Mercy were taken also from the Gospels: to admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries and to pray for the living and the dead.

The Zwicks write that “Core to the implementation of the Works of Mercy was the embrace of voluntary poverty. ‘First of all,’ Peter used to say, ‘one must give up one’s life to save it. Voluntary poverty is essential.’”  Some of the most inspiring passages in Day’s own books and columns concern the Catholic Workers’  perseverance in the Works of Mercy.  The Zwicks (who also persevere in voluntary poverty and the Works of Mercy) excerpt several of these. “We have always pointed out that poverty is with us a means to an end, not an end in itself….” Day wrote. “Our poverty is not a stark and dreary poverty, because we have the security which living together brings. But it is that very living together that is often hard. Beds crowded together, much coming and going, people sleeping on the floor, no bathing facilities, only cold water. These are the hardships.  Poverty mans lack of paint, it means bedbugs, cockroaches and rats and the constant war against these.”

Saints have all practiced voluntary poverty, so the Zwicks find a rich vein in Day’s and Maurin’s writings from these saints, and devote a chapter in particular to St. Francis of Assisi, whom they call the “saint of voluntary poverty and nonviolence.”  But if the Gospel and the saints aren’t convincing enough, than the book offers plenty of other sources, including the philosophers and historians. Taken together, all the chapters point inexorably to something most Catholics today don’t want to hear---the Catholic teaching against worldliness and the kind of materialism that dominates the modern world, including the Church.  The Church got this teaching from Christ himself, so it is hard to argue with it.  Instead, Christians simply ignore his teachings.  Day and Maurin won’t let Catholics do that.   

They, unlike many Catholics, both clerical and lay, read our Lord’s words as the mandates from God that they are. Thus, they were convinced that this kind of poverty was essential to following Christ, which is perhaps one of the reasons they gained less and less popularity the more and more affluent Catholics became. They followed this path of voluntary poverty because it was, to them, the supernatural way to save others’ souls.  Day wrote that “Father Farina says that the only true influence we have on people is through supernatural love.  This sanctity (not obnoxious piety) so affects others that they can be saved by it.” In 1964, after thirty-two years of living in this kind of poverty, Day wrote, “The mystery of the poor is this: That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him.  It is the only way we have of knowing and believing in our love. The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love.”

With this as the core of the Catholic Worker, it had no other way to go then to become a fierce critic of the current “social order” and its economy. 

Nicholas Berdyaev, Jacques Mauritain and Emmanuel Mournier were among those philosophers who formed Day’s and Maurin’s thought in the criticism of the bourgeois.

This material is very strong stuff, for Western Catholics have become as much defenders and practitioners of capitalism as Calvinists, and for Catholics to extricate themselves from the system would entail huge sacrifices. Yet, this material is also very much informed by Christ’s own teaching.  In other words, it is bound to make many Catholics very uncomfortable.

Mournier, a French philosopher at the beginning of the 20th century, believed that the capitalistic system had created a distortion of Christianity, even a caricature.  Mournier wrote that it was this distortion that had moved Nietzche to ridicule Christianity with much scorn.  Mournier’s “anger was not directed at Nietzche, but at those Christians who had so adulterated the strength and joy of the Good News, that it could not but become the object of scorn…Nietzche’s scorn becomes Mournier’s exhortation: ‘Better songs would they have to sing for me to believe in that Savior; more like saved ones would his disciples have to appear unto me.’”

In the first issue of his magazine Esprit, the Zwick’s write that Mournier “critiqued the bourgeois who ‘sought the order and tranquility necessry to procure a mediocre contentment based on possessions.’  He went so far as to describe this phenomenon, which he called a moral rather than an economic category, as a subtle representative of the Anti-christ.”

This statement indicates the level of criticism directed at the capitalistic system in which the Western world lives.  It is indeed radical, but many other profound Catholic thinkers echo such serious criticism. This criticism is repeated in all the Catholic philosophers presented in this book. Against this bourgeois system, Mournier articulates a philosophy of Christian personalism and communitarianism; Berdyaev, a Russian, writes of a human freedom on a different plane than that of hedonism and a will for power; Hillaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, A.J. Plenty and Thomas Aquinas expound on the common good vs. individualism; Jacques and Raissa Maritain remind the modern world that Catholics must have purity of means, no matter how much they desire a particular end; and Prince Peter Kropotkin (a Russian) and the English distributists advocate an economic order called distributism as economics much more “worthy of the human person” than capitalism.

The Zwicks ground the work of these Catholic thinkers in the lives and teachings of the saints, as well as in papal writings, so as to impress upon Catholics that these fierce criticisms of our modern world issue from Catholicism--not Communism, not Freethinking, not revolutionary atheism. Those who denounce the system that brings so much abundance and pleasure to some, and so much misery and want to many others, are devout, holy, and fervent Catholics who are willing to suffer much to bring Christ’s truth into this world.  The Zwicks once again are defending the Catholic worker against the ad hominem attack that so often dismissed the Worker’s criticism of capitalism: they’re Marxists. The Zwick’s point out repeatedly that each one of these philosophers, and Day and Maurin, denounced Marxism as well. 

“Pointing out the massive desertion of spiritual values by Christian people,” writes Michael Kelly in his book on Mournier, “[Mournier] denounced the extent to which the Church had compromised itself with the temporal forces of the world…Catholic doctrine, he continued, required obedience to temporal powers only so long as they did not constitute a tyranny.  Western capitalism did constitute a tyranny, he insisted, and only the possibility of a worse, Communist, tyranny should deter Catholics from entering into revolution.” (my italics)

For Day and Maurin, the philosophies of these Catholic thinkers receive their embodiment in the lives of the saints. St. Francis and St. Benedict especially influenced the way in which the Catholic Worker houses would be run.  The Zwicks point out, for instance, “Peter Maurin knew, of course, that the roots of communitarian personalism were much older in the Church than the twentieth century.  As Dorothy Day put it in her 1955 Catholic Worker article, ‘He [Peter] loved St. Benedict because he said that what the workers needed most was a philosophy of work.  He loved St. Francis because he said St. Francis, through his voluntary poverty, was free as a bird.  St. Francis was a personalist, St. Benedict the communitarian.’  However, the Catholic Worker is incomprehensible without an understanding of the influence of the thought and movements going on in France, and especially the ideas of Mournier and Berdyaev, in applying this ancient vision to modern times.”

The Zwicks write also about the great influence that St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of the Child Jesus, and St. Catherine of Sienna had on Day, Maurin and the Catholic Worker. 

Finally, the work of several Catholic priests greatly influenced the Catholic Worker. 

The Catholic Worker forged a strong relationship with Father Virgil Michel and the Benedictine priests at St. John’s Abbey at Collegeville, Minnesota.  These were leaders in the renewal of the Catholic liturgy, but it must clarified that this was the liturgical movement before Vatican II.  (Virgil Michel died in 1938.) Father Michel and the Catholic Worker were both passionate about renewing the social order.  Father Virgil taught that the formation of Christians to do so should take place at the liturgy.  “The liturgy is the ordinary school of the development of the true Christian, and the very qualities and outlook it develops in him are also those that make for the best realization of a genuine Christian culture,” the Zwicks quote him.  Father Michel, like many Catholic writers at that time, was essentially exhorting Catholics to practice the faith that they professed at Holy Mass. Catholics then, as now, were responding to the exigencies of the modern, secularized world by separating their faith from everything else they did in the world.  Father Virgil worked to erase that false separation.

It is no secret, and has been often expounded upon, that the Mass that ultimately followed Vatican II was quite different from the Mass that Father Virgil envisioned when he wrote of renewal.  The Zwick’s do not point this out, but do remark that even though Day and Maurin were deeply influenced by Father Virgil’s work on the liturgy before Vatican II, Day was bewildered by some of the changes that followed Vatican II.  “Dorothy…questioned some liturgical practices that had recently taken place at the Catholic worker in her absence, especially when instead of a chalice, a coffee cup was used at Mass. ‘I’m afraid I am a traditionalist, in that I do not like to see Mass offered with a large coffee cup as a chalice,’” Dorothy wrote in 1966.

Father Onesimus Lacouture and Father John Hugo were the other priests that had such a tremendous influence on Day, and therefore, on the Catholic Worker through her. French-Canadian Jesuit Father Lacouture founded a retreat, which Day went on to refer to in her autobiography The Long Loneliness as the “famous retreat.”  The retreat was given over the course of seven days of silence, at first to priests.  Later some of the priests began to give it to the laity. Father Hugo, a disciple of Father Lacouture, was the most renowned of the priests who gave it.  “Based on the scriptures, the spirituality of St. John of the Cross, and the first week (of four weeks) of the Ignatian Exercises, it was a liberating spiritual experience for Dorothy,” write the Zwicks.

The retreat pulled everything together for Day—her Catholicism, her social action, her spiritual life, and her work with the poor.  Father Lacouture and the Lacouture priests, Day wrote, “taught us ‘how to die to ourselves, to live in Christ.’’  Their “teachings on the love of God so aroused our love in turn, that a sense of the sacramentality of life was restored for us, and a new meaning and vigor was given to our lives.” 

The retreat gave Day the inner strength to live her life of poverty, for it taught the long-ignored doctrine of Christian “detachment” from the world.
Because the retreat so invigorated her to live the life of sacrifice she had chosen, Day made it some twenty times and called it the “bread of the strong.”

“‘This is what I was looking for in the way of an explanation of the Christian life,’ she exulted during a retreat with Father Hugo.  ‘I saw things as whole for the first time with a delight, a joy, an excitement which is hard to describe. This what I expected when I became a Catholic.’  Dorothy believed that the retreat was crucial to the development of sanctity meant for all Christians.”

Finally, the book deals with Dorothy Day’s pacifism. The Zwicks call Dorothy Day “the spiritual leader of American Catholic pacifism.”  Once again, Day’s reasoned her position on Catholic pacifism from orthodox and traditional Catholic teaching.  Day herself drew much fire upon her movement because of her pacifism, and the Zwicks, no doubt, realize they are writing for a very skeptical Catholic people.   They argue her position extensively and well. 

The Zwicks’ book seems especially helpful now because Day’s and Maurin’s vitally important work is somewhat mixed up in controversy. Someone who might initiate a study of her work and writing may find (for reasons given below) that he can become confused as to her exact position on Catholic things.

The controversy involves the two major subgroups in the Church. On one hand, the politically conservative suspect that Dorothy never really abandoned her Socialist/Communist leanings, and therefore find her generally unacceptable as an orthodox Catholic.  This completely mistaken view of Day endures largely because the Catholic Worker houses portray such divergent examples of Day’s “legacy.”
The Wanderer columnist James K Fitzgerald writes that Day’s critics continue to call her a “‘pinko’ with a ‘sleep around past.’”   Fitzgerald himself is not sure what to think, but the reason for his confusion is not Day’s writings (which he admits to not reading), but the impression made by Catholic Workers.  He writes that on a recent visit to a Catholic Worker house, “it was what I found inside the Catholic Worker building that got my goat. The entire hallway wall was covered by a mural. I can’t remember all the details, but I can come pretty close. There were a few biblical passages about caring for the least of our neighbor…but the dominant theme was a string of flattering portraits of people like Chairman Mao, Malcolm X, Che Guevara and Bob Marley.” Fitzgerald reasonably asks if the Catholic Workers are just “glorifying proletarian class struggle and the benefits of socialist economy?”  “What would Dorothy Day have said about the mural?” Fitzgerald asks, implying that the answer would help to clarify whether Dorothy remained a “pinko” Catholic even after her conversion. 

On the other hand, dissident Catholics may accept her political views, but can’t accept the claims that Day remained until her death an orthodox Catholic; that she regarded obedience to the Magisterium as essential to Catholicism; that she was the “faithful daughter of the Church” that she claimed she was.

The first debate is easily settled. Day’s life and writing show that she completely repudiated Communism. But the second debate is not so easily settled because it rages with the Catholic Worker itself, and it rages around the hypothetical question of the position Day would take (if she were alive) in the liturgical, catechetical, gender, and sexual morality wars within the Catholic body.  Battling Catholics battle it out over Day’s legacy as they battle it out over everything else.  Which side in the divided Church that now exists would Day be on?  Would she continue to uphold Tradition or would she uphold the revolution within the Church?

Tradition was what Day lived most of her life, but she lived to see some of the results of the revolution (she died in 1980).  What she saw was not the change in social order according to Catholic teaching that she had worked for. She saw, instead, the Enlightenment, the enemy of Catholicism, making further conquests, and one of its conquests was certain governing and teaching offices within the Church.  Thus ensconced, the Enlightenment’s “controlling idea” exerted great influence on Catholics.  The “pedigree” of that idea can be traced to “ a view of authority  that has variously been called the Protestant principle, the anti-dogmatic or anti-hierarchical principle, or liberalism.” (Anne Roche Muggeridge, The Desolate City: Revolution in the Catholic Church)

Catholic Workers who have been won over to the “Protestant principle”  claim, that Day, would have crossed over, too, and, if she were alive, would give her nod to all sorts of heterodoxy, whether concerning doctrinal or moral teachings.

The Zwicks present Day as one who held and would have continued to hold to the “Catholic idea.” Roche defines this idea as the “the hierarchical principle, the belief that moral authority derives from God and is exercised in the Church by the direct commission from Christ and through the apostolic succession.” The  book argues persuasively that their view of Day’s legacy is the true one.

They make Day’s views on Catholic things clear and fixed.  Clarity is necessary in this debate because the Catholic Worker houses and their newspapers have always been autonomous and therefore some have not always reflected what Day herself thought (which would help to answer one of Fitzgerald’s questions.) Fixed is necessary because writers—whose revisionist accounts often rely on questionable hearsay—continue to revise Day’s ideas into those of a modern, dissident, Catholic who was really a champion of the revolution which took place in the Church after Vatican II (in spite of what she wrote and said in interviews). 

The Zwicks’ documentation provides a formidable barrier to these attempts to remake Dorothy into a sixties’ political and ecclesial revolutionary.  (It also makes clear that Dorothy completely renounced Communism.)

Nonetheless, Catholic Worker Brian Terrell wrote a particularly hostile review in the Via Pacis: The Voice of the Des Moines Catholic Worker.  His complaint is that the Zwick’s book shows “a disturbing pattern that goes further than a natural bias: thinkers, writers, activists and others who have had a profound influence on the movement but whose thoughts, words, and actions do not support the suppositions of the authors find no place in their book.  Likewise, those who would support those suppositions are given an exaggerated place in their version of the movement’s history.”

Terrell goes on to revise the Zwicks’s version.  He creates the impression that Day could not have loved the Church.  He quotes those who had rejected the Church, eg. Italian writer-activist Ignazio Silone and bitterly anti-Catholic and one-time Catholic Worker Ammon Hennacy. He then argues that Day’s respect for some of their work shows she had more in common with them than the Catholics that the Zwicks discuss in their book.

In dismissing those whom the Zwicks claim as important to the Catholic Worker,  Terrell is particularly disparaging about a priest, Father John Hugo, perhaps because he so clearly represents Church authority and traditional Church teaching on the spiritual life. Terrell devotes a significant portion of his article to dismiss the retreat of Father Hugo and Father Onesimus Lacouture.

Basically, Terrell is arguing against the Catholicism of the Catholic Worker movement. His alternative presents Day as a woman whose strongest points were precisely those that were not Catholic. Thus, he writes: “In any case, the distinction between the secular and the sacred that seems to be at the heart of the retreat and the theology of Father Hugo was a question that Dorothy found tiresome and irritating by that time.  ‘You keep talking about secular idealism,’ she told Robert Coles, ‘but I don’t draw that distinction in my mind between secular idealism and an idealism at the service of God…I think we have to be very careful with words like secular and religious; you distinguish between them when you ask me your questions…The longer I live, the more I see God at work in people who don’t have the slightest interest in religion.’

The weakness in Terrell’s book is that he cannot argue away the quotations that the Zwicks have compiled from Day’s and Maurin’s own writing,  from her authoritative biographer, William D. Miller, and from others whom she talked to. The Zwicks offer a great weight of evidence, all referenced in footnotes, to argue their case. Terrell does neither.  For instance, there is no way of checking the above quotation attributed by Robert Coles to Dorothy Day, because Terrell doesn’t cite his sources.

In another example of this lack of evidence, when Terrell criticizes Father Hugo and the “famous retreat,” he is compelled to use the words of other Catholic Workers, since Day never criticized Father Hugo. Two of these assessments of  Father Hugo are wildly divergent from many others who made the retreat, including Day herself. 

One only has to read the Zwicks’ chapter on the retreat, Day’s autobiography, and numerous biographies to know that Terrell is on very weak ground here. Both Hugo and Day knew that the retreat rubbed some Catholic Workers the wrong way. But there is no doubt that Day herself greatly esteemed the retreat. Thus, Terrell is forced to project onto Day his own disdain for the retreat and its traditional Catholic teaching: “While Dorothy was always a loyal friend to Father Hugo, I think that by the time I knew her she had grown to be more whole, more Benedictine.”  Since Father Hugo was educated in both the minor and major seminary of the Benedictines at St. Vincent Abbey in Latrobe, PA, it is hard to know precisely what Terrell means by this. And, he doesn’t tell us

Terrell gives every indication that he finds the Church so much a scandal that he would rather take his teaching from those outside it. Yet, he is a “Catholic” Worker. In this, the Catholic Worker simply reflects the division within the Catholic Church.

If Terrell wishes to argue that “the Zwicks have obscured and confused the historical record,” he will have to write a book marshalling just as much evidence as they do to prove this is the case. It remains to be seen if he can.

Finally, before leaving this discussion of the debate over Day’s legacy within and without the Catholic Worker, it must be said that Day’s own writings may confuse the issue. She was a chronicler, not a philosopher or theologian, and she often speculated in her writings on the things happening around her.   Her feelings often influenced her reasoning.  For this reason, she sought spiritual direction from priests.

Also, if she did, indeed, say the above to Robert Coles, it directly contradicts her words, repeated many times, that only supernatural means would change the world. It is completely out of line with much of what she wrote, and one wonders why she would say it. 

Her assessment of current events was dependent on correct information, and sometimes it seems as though she believed the wrong information.  For instance, she seems to have little idea of the full extent of the evil machinations of the Communist party.  She was one of the many deceived Americans who became a Communist because she believed it was the party of the poor.

The Zwicks write, “As John Mitchell points out, her association with the Socialist Party and with Marxism before her conversion to Catholicism was ‘more principled than doctrinaire.’ As he puts it, ‘[The Marxists] appeared to her to be the only people in America committed to improving the conditions of the poor and the victims of bourgeois capitalism.’”

Does Mitchell mean she based her decision to the join the Communist more on impressions and feelings, than on actual knowledge of the Party? If so, even her later writings indicate some of that ill-informed feeling remained. It appeared that Day never fully recognized the extent to which the Communist party deceives the low Party members as to the true intent of their mission.  Bella Dodd, a contemporary of Day’s, rose to the upper ranks of the Party. Like Day, she “had regarded the Communist Party as a poor man’s party, and thought the presence of certain men of wealth within it accidental….Now I saw this was only a façade placed there  by the movement to create the illusion of the poor man’s party; it was in reality a device to control the ‘common man’ they so raucously championed”  The presence of wealthy men was not an accident, Dodd wrote, because two forces were colluding: “the Communist with their timetable for world control, and certain mercenary forces in the free world bent on making a profit from blood.” (School of Darkness, 1954) Historian Rebecca West, herself a disillusioned socialist, notices the widespread naïve understanding of Communism in England during the 1950’s, and writes that Communism is “an organization which has no other aim than to seize political power against the will of the majority through the use of fraud.”

But Day seemed never to recognize this. Her friend, Catholic writer and psychologist, Karl Stein, once wrote her, “I do not agree with you on your stand in the question of the Communist trial in the last C.W. I think that I can realize that you have never lived under a dictatorship and also somehow you still identify Communism today with the work of a Carl Liebknecht, a Rosa Luxemburg… and a Henri Barbusse.  But believe me, several of my friends who were Communists and were in Russia, told me that people who have not lived under Hitler (as we have) cannot imagine that inferno of cynicism, cruelty, etc. ”

Day expressed sympathy for the Rosenbergs as they were led to execution and were about to leave their children as orphans.  Others have written about the horror of that moment.  But then she went on to brand incorrectly their treason as being something else. They were not “spies for Russia” as she wrote in what seems to be almost a justification for their acts.  They were clearly traitors, quite a different line of work than spying, as West makes clear in her book The New Meaning of Treason. Day, in this meditation, seems unaware of the evil consequences of the Rosenberg’s traitorous acts.  As Dodd wrote, the Communist party was working “to place the colossal strength of America at the disposal of the Soviet Union.” (Day wrote about the event in the Catholic Worker, quoted in Miller’s book.)

Perhaps it was Day’s failure to come to recognize that the Communist Party was the opposite of what it claimed to be, and that it was a unadulterated evil for the world, that accounts for the socialist sympathies and leaning of some Catholic Workers and houses of hospitality today. 

Her misconception of Communism may also explain her misjudgment of Judaism which is sometimes evident.  Her early years as a Communist gave her many Jewish friends. (Miller, 317) Her embrace of a Jewish perspective is perhaps best seen in the case of her opposition to Father Charles Coughlin.  Father Coughlin, like Day, was firmly anti-war, firmly for social-justice, and he was so because of Catholic teaching.  But Day fell for the lie that he was anti-Semitic.

In one of his radio addresses that opposed the U.S. government’s march toward war, Coughlin had looked at the fact that “irreligious Jews had played a disproportionate role in the establishment of the Soviet Communist regime” and then, in a radio address, pleaded that Jews and Christians unite to end all types of persecution, both those under Communism and those under Hitler. (“When Is Church Burning Not a Crime?  Jewish Lightning Hits Father Coughlin’s Shrine,” Thomas Herron, Culture Wars, November 2002, pp 25, 26) He also warned, among other things, in his radio address that many Jews (such as international bankers) and certain groups of Jews were atheistic and irreligious and thus their influence on the world’s events could clearly oppose the influence of the Church. 

Day opposed Coughlin because she believed without question the charges of anti-Semiticism made against him.  (Miller, 318)  She did not see through the liberal smears.  She did not discern the character assassination in this instance, though she had seen it in other instances when the press had destroyed others’ reputations. The Catholic Worker joined other leftist organizations in blaming Fr. Coughlin for inciting anti-Semitism. 

Day had clear sympathies for Jews simply because they were Jews and therefore, in her eyes, “special people. ‘To be a Jew, singled out, a priestly people, unique—to be a Jew is something sacramental.’”  (Maurin, having never been a Communist and being French, not American, did not seem to share this idea with Day.) (Miller, 317)  Miller said that she was, “in a social sense, practically Jewish.”  Even so, she couldn’t easily explain away the remarks of a prominent Jewish woman at a luncheon of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The women had said that “we would have to get rid of the Cross before there was a better attitude toward the Jew.  She advised more aggressive attitudes and even knocking people about a bit.” (Miller, 321) Miller says the remark offended Day, and it seems that she had her first inkling of the Jewish animosity against Christianity. She also saw its fruit when Christians appease it with the practice of self-hatred. For she was further upset when the president of Vassar had said that the woman’s comment was the most significant at the luncheon.

Day showed ignorance of the fact a great many Jews shared this attitude.  She seemed to look at Jews through somewhat rose-colored glasses, being more used to the Jews living in neighborhoods on the East Side, who were religious, not atheistic, and furthermore, did not display a hatred of Christianity as this woman did, though the hatred most likely was there. And being much governed by her feelings, Day could have let her friendships with her Jewish friends blind her to the truth in Fr. Coughlin’s assessment.

In seems that although she was fully aware of some kinds of propaganda, she did not bother to question other types. Miller writes that “when Dorothy made up her mind about something, there was little point in trying to change it by recourse to a higher and finer logic.  She already had the answer and, determined to have her way, she could strike out wildly.”  Perhaps, she was operating under this kind of blindness when faced with facts that contradicted the deep current of emotion in her thinking that attached her to a particular, and sentimental, view of both Communist and Jews.  Unlike with other areas, she did not seem to bother to investigate the truth of the matter.

Given the above debate within the Catholic Worker, and the questionable discernment in some of Day’s own writing, the Zwicks’ book is important.   That is because if Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin were not Catholic in the full sense, then their work and their thought will simply lose its power to do what they themselves set out to do: to reconstruct the social order according to the teachings of the Church. Catholics will reject their proposals, for these proposals, based on dying to self, are too difficult to live for a false cause. They only gain their authority to guide Catholics if they are indeed Catholic, if they are indeed the teachings of the Lord whom we profess to follow. 

The force of this book lies precisely in the argument that Day’s and Maurin’s thinking was more fully Catholic than that of most modern Catholics, including the clergy. (Both Father Hugo and Day were very critical of the worldliness of priests.)  All the evidence they have compiled—from Day’s initial conversion to her last days—indicate that she lived the Catholic faith and taught Catholic doctrine. She and Maurin set out to “get down to the roots” of the Catholic faith.  (Day’s piece in the May 1977 Catholic Worker).  “First of all we are Catholics, children of our holy Father Pius XII in this temporal order. First of all we are Catholics—then Americans, Germans, French, Russian or Chinese.  We are members of the Body of Christ or potential members. We are sons of God.” (quoted from Dorothy Day: A Biography by William D. Miller)  What can be more profoundly Catholic than that understanding of the Church?


The most powerful argument for Day’s orthodoxy is that she has been made a Servant of God.  The Holy See accepted the cause for her canonization in 2000. But in this day of vast confusion in the Church, Dorothy’s legacy is wrapped up with the ongoing witness of the Catholic Worker, and this witness can be very confusing indeed. The Catholic Worker houses give expression to markedly different forms of Catholicism. So Ann O’Connor can write in 1994 in New Oxford Review an article entitled “Is the Catholic Worker Still Catholic?” Ann is a co-founder of the Syracuse Catholic Worker, so she has some claim to know the extent of the heterodoxy within the movement.

The Zwicks’ book makes a powerful argument for the essential and fundamental Catholicity of the Catholic Worker, no matter how much its current manifestations reflect the heterodoxy and dissent that infects the Church at large.

The most important reason for the Zwicks’ book is that the Church needs the body of thought and its application that Day and Maurin have given her. If not yet canonized saints, they are saintly people, whose courageous and sacrificial Catholicism is very seldom seen in the world today.  As such, as those who truly follow the Gospel of Christ, they deserve to be listened to.

The challenge to living a Catholic life today is huge. Try to live a life in keeping with the Gospel today, and see the obstacles that the current “social order” puts in one’s path.  Need an income? Most occupations today offend the consciences of Catholics.   Medical, legal, and business practices are often unhinged from morality.  Teaching in schools has become an exercise in social engineering on behalf of an ungodly group of “invisible governors.” And so on with most occupations. Universities will continue to destroy the religion of our children, but we will continue to send them because they will not get a job without a college degree.

Try to live free of usury.  Try to live free of debt. Try to fight the increasing extension of surrogate motherhood because of the enslavement to debt.  Child care services continue to be extended through state efforts so that women can leave their children and work. Religious sisters now provide it as a new line of business without, it seems, a second thought.

Can anybody who reads the Gospel and Catholic teaching say we have a “good” economy, good in God’s sense, not Madison Avenue’s?  Day and Maurin (among many others) taught that Anglo-American economy was based on Protestant interpretation of Scripture, not on Catholic.  The consequences of following one or the other interpretation have made a huge difference in the life of mankind. Medieval life had a Catholic economy; modern life has a Reformation economy. So, how can a Catholic, seeing the evil of the system, not comply with it?

Try to escape the vast intrusions of the state into its members’ lives.

Count the Catholics and Catholic groups that show a consistent understanding of the sanctity of life. Catholics have become indifferent to the horrors of both warfare and abortion. Catholics support an unjust war, and show no concern that their complicity has unleashed a great evil. They accept unconditionally the Protestant esteem for the military, and seem to have forgotten the Church’s earlier wisdom that knew that military service was more often an occasion of corruption, not edification. Catholics shrug off the legal killing of the unborn.

Try to find Catholics whose mind is not colonized by television, their favorite Talking Head, or a blog,  but who instead read books that demand thinking.  Try to find Catholics who are aware that they’re being socially engineered.

Try to find Catholics who understand the traditional teaching of the Church on following Christ through interior and exterior poverty.  Try to find Catholics who live by faith, living sacrificially, pursuing holiness, and not kidding themselves by serving both God and Mammon. Look for the Catholics who will not compromise faith, morals, or truth for the attainment of wealth and comfort, entertainment and pleasure, big cars, fine homes, status, success or security.  As St. Augustine said of the Romans, so it can be said of Catholics: “They are more ashamed of a having a bad villa, than a bad soul.”

Try to find support and guidance from fellow Catholics, priests, or parish programs in pursuing holiness and in rearing your children to do so by following the traditional teachings of the Church on detachment, renunciation of the world, mortification, simplicity, and mental prayer.

The truth is, Catholics generally live like everyone else.  As a Church, we seem to have given up on offering an alternative to the world’s way, let alone evangelizing it.  All the preaching, all the papal encyclicals, all the conventions, World Youth Days,  public relations programs, won’t do it.  We can’t even keep our own.  Only Catholics living a life that is completely in keeping with the Gospel in every way will do it.   

Day and Maurin sought out an alternative to a kind of pseudo Christianity that follows the world’s thinking and not Christ’s.  Their alternatives reject the worldliness and materialism that permeates the Church. Their proposed “social order” is grounded first in the Gospel, then in the Tradition of the Church and the teaching of her saints, and finally in the thinking of brilliant men and women, philosophers who love Christ and His Church, and seek to find a way for the modern world to follow Him.  Their alternatives address the problems of a post-Christian world at its very roots, just as they said they would.

Day and Maurin ended up looking very different from the world. Our Lord said that would be exactly the case if we followed Him.  “If the world hates you, be sure that it hated me before it learned to hate you. If you belonged to the world, the world would know you for its own and love you; it is because you do not belong to the world, because I have singled you out from the midst of the world, that the world hates you.” (John 15: 18-20) Can we modern Catholics, who look like we very much belong to the world, get used to that idea?   

The Zwicks’ book argues that Day’s and Maurin’s alternatives reflect the true beauty, power and divine nature of the Church our Lord established, and inspires the hope that Catholics, simply by being true Catholics, could change the world to its very core for the better.  For a post-Christian world, the teaching of Day and Maurin, as presented in this book, may, in fact, prove to be the alternative Catholics must press into service if we want to escape an increasingly evil “social order” in order to follow the Gospel, for the salvation of our souls, and others’.   

Copyright © Rosemary Fielding, 2011

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