In the early 1930s, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day conceived of a newspaper called the The Catholic Worker. Dorothy Day was a radical anarchist who was heavily involved in the leftist political movements of the 1910s and 1920s before she converted to Catholicism, and she wedded her radical convictions to her new Catholic spirituality. Peter Maurin was a devout itinerant Catholic who disdained both capitalism and marxism, believing instead in an economic and political philosophy based on the Catholic Social Philosophy. As well as finding the Catholic Worker newspaper, Peter Maurin wanted to found Houses of Hospitality to care for the homeless and unemployed. Maurin’s vision of Houses of Hospitality combined with Day’s experiences with unions and social movements and soon Catholic Worker communities were formed all over the nation. Today, the Catholic Worker communities live on, advocating for the poor, for immigrants and against war.
Jim Forest wrote an article for The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History by Liturgical Press that summarized the form and purpose of the Catholic Worker movement today. Forest wrote:
Beyond hospitality, Catholic Worker communities are known for activity in support of labor unions, human rights, cooperatives, and the development of a nonviolent culture. Those active in the Catholic Worker are often pacifists people seeking to live an unarmed, nonviolent life. During periods of military consciption, Catholic Workers have been conscientious objectors to miliary service. Many of those active in the Catholic Worker movement have been jailed for acts of protest against racism, unfair labor practices, social injustice and war.
Catholic Worker communities have refused to apply for federal tax exempt status, seeing such official recognition as binding the community to the state and limiting the movement’s freedom.
With its stress on voluntary poverty, the Catholic Worker has much in common with the early Franciscans, while its accent on community, prayer and hospitality has Benedictine overtones.
“We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes,” Dorothy Day explained, “but there is strong faith at work. We pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our prayings and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”
It is unlikely that any religious community was ever less structured than the Catholic Worker. Each community is autonomous. There is no board of directors, no sponsor, no system of governance, no endowment, no pay checks, no pension plans. Since Dorothy Day’s death, there has been no central leader.
Today there are over 185 Catholic Worker communities all over the United States. There is a website of the directory of the Catholic Worker communities if you want to volunteer to help serve the poor or to work for economic justice issues. These communities often have their own newspaper that describe their work. They try to keep with the original purpose of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, to make the social justice aspects of the Catholic Social Encyclicals come alive for the community. As well as the directory, there is a link to the Catholic Worker communities with websites that you could look up in your community.
Here are three examples of Catholic Worker communities.
Founded in 1970, the Los Angeles Catholic Worker is a lay Catholic community of men and women which operates a free soup kitchen, hospitality house for the homeless, hospice for the dying, a newspaper, and regularly offers prophetic witness in opposition to war-making and injustice.
We believe that the Incarnation is the basis of the Christian message. We are called to make the Word of God flesh by responding to the suffering Christ incarnate among our poor and marginalized sisters and brothers. The homeless, the addict, the mentally ill, the AIDS victim, the infirm, the politically and culturally oppressed are the ones who Christ has told us will be first in His Kingdom. If we too desire to become citizens of His Kingdom, then we must live our lives in proximity to and in solidarity with those who are at the margins of our society.
Although we were founded as a service/activist orientated community we have learned over the years that it is necessary to strike something of a balance between service and prayer, between action and reflection. While we still definitely err on the side of activism, we have over the years tried to build a structure that forces us to take time for regular prayer, reflection, Bible study, and dialog because as Thomas Merton once wrote, “He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others.”
The L.A. Catholic Worker has a free soup kitchen called the The Hippie Kitchen that serves food on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday in the central city ghetto of L.A.’s Skid Row where over ten thousand homeless, poor and marginally employed residents live.
They also have a hospitality house called the Ammon Hennacy House of Hospitality. Hennacy House is a one hundred-year-old, fourteen bedroom, three story Victorian home located in the working class Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Members of the Catholic Worker live there and house eight to ten homeless guests. They also provide hospice care to the dying, especially AIDS victims.
The Catholic Agitator is the newspaper of the L.A. Catholic Worker community. It is produced by the community members and is published six times a year. The Catholic Agitator is a wonderful newspaper that expresses a radical progressive Catholic viewpoint.
Trinity House Catholic Worker was started in 2005 in Albuquerque, New Mexico to help the homeless get off of the street and to care for them. They feel compelled to take a stand against war and nuclear weapons due to the effect that these have on the poor. They focus on food recovery and redistribution for the poor. There is a strong critical stance against the flaws of capitalism, in keeping with the philosophy of the papal encyclicals, especially Pope Paul VIs encyclical Populorum Progressio, which writes:
But it is unfortunate that on these new conditions of society a system has been constructed which considers profit as the key motive for economic progress, competition as the supreme law of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right that has no limits and carries no corresponding social obligation. This unchecked liberalism leads to dictatorship rightly denounced by Pius XI as producing ‘the international imperialism of money’. One cannot condemn such abuses too strongly by solemnly recalling once again that the economy is at the service of man. But if it is true that a type of capitalism has been the source of excessive suffering, injustices and fratricidal conflicts whose effects still persist, it would also be wrong to attribute to industrialization itself evils that belong to the woeful system which accompanied it. On the contrary one must recognize in all justice the irreplaceable contribution made by the organization of labor and of industry to what development has accomplished.
The Des Moines Catholic Worker Community was founded in 1976 to respond to the Gospel call to compassionate action as summarized by the Sermon on the Mount. In the first floor of the Bishop Dingman House these Catholic Workers help those in need of food, clothing, bedding, and a shower. They also provide a cup of coffee and conversation. Like all other Catholic Worker communities, the Des Moines Workers engage social justice work. They serve food on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 6 p.m. and provide canned food, clothing, bedding, and toiletries. On Thursdays, they take part in a weekly vigil in downtown Des Moines from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to end the wars in Iraq and Afganistan and bring their troops home.
Many Catholic Workers hold a Christian Anarchist philosophy. A good definition of the Christian Anarchist philosophy is found in the Free Dissent website:
hristian Anarchism is a left-wing variation of modern Christian thought. Its followers put forward the idea that their philosophy arose directly from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth concerning non-violence, anti-imperialism, and human equality. First of all, what is Anarchism exactly? Anarchism is the social philosophy that opposes all forms of domination, all forms of exploitation, and stratified hierarchy. Anarchism puts forward the ideal that all affairs in society should be undertaken by individuals and voluntary associations instead of using brute force and social control measures. The philosophy of Anarchism leads individuals to oppose the State (also know as the formal government). Also, anarchists oppose the highly stratified hierarchy present in organized religion. In addition, they oppose the vertical nature of control present in the economy under the regimes of traditional feudalism and monopoly capitalism. A large majority of anarchists, including most Christian Anarchists hold to a labor based theory of just ownership, specifically concerning land. Those who work the land, ought to own it exclusively which is in direct opposition to feudalistic land rent and government taxation.
A prominent figure within Christian Anarchist circles is the late Russian philosopher Leo Tolstoy. Leo Tolstoy believed the supposedly “Christian” ideals of pacifism and non-violence. From his pacifist and non-violent stance, he was forced to fully embrace anarchism since maintaining a non-violent lifestyle is only possible if you oppose the violent enforcement and monopolization of the political state. Most Christians that embrace anarchism do so because of the “Christian” principles of non-violence and egalitarianism. Leo Tolstoy even defended the idea that Jesus himself was an anarchist. Jesus called for absolute equality among humanity, represented the downtrodden, was the so-called prince of peace, was persecuted by the religious establishment of the time, and was eventually executed by the Roman State. Jesus was also an opponent of the Roman Empire, the state-supported merchant class, and the cultural elitism pushed by the religious authorities. Leo Tolstoy based the majority of his philosophical stances on the famous Sermon on the Mount given by Jesus. One of my favorite quotes from Leo Tolstoy is “In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful.”
I end this blog with a link to a documentary on Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker. The documentary is called Dorothy Day: Don’t Call Me a Saint by Claudia Larson. It is a good introduction to the life of this radical social activist and devout Catholic.