Since its very first issue, the Catholic Worker has featured articles on anti-Black racism. Although the Catholic Worker movement has always denounced explicit forms of racism, a more serious and critical appraisal of how racism infects every aspect of U.S. culture has been absent until very recently. As the Catholic Worker movement confronts anti-Black racism more earnestly, questions arise about whether taking an active anti-racism stance can be reconciled with Catholic Worker anarchism.
This article will begin with an examination of the anarchist thought in the writings of the Catholic Worker co-founders. The section that follows analyzes the nonparticipation aspect of Catholic Worker anarchism. The last section will explore the ways in which the Catholic Worker has attempted to address racism in the past, how its traditional anarchism has limited its creativity in actualizing racial justice, and suggest a path forward.
Anarchism & the Founders
Peter Maurin never once used the word “anarchism” in his writings, though Day later referred to him as a “philosophical anarchist.” In the Catholic Worker movement, personalism is often a catchword for anarchism. Personalism stresses the interpersonal relationships that should be at the heart of a society, as opposed to the impersonal face of the government that often interacts with people in desperate situations.
Nevertheless, Maurin wrote of his support of Poland’s March Constitution of 1921, which instituted three branches of government. Its strong legislative branch had the aim of protecting Poland’s ethnic and religious minorities. The protection of minorities and the empowerment of local communities in this “pluralist state” were likely Maurin’s reasons for admiring their constitution.
Dorothy Day wrote later in life that she had been an anarchist in 1917 when she was arrested with women suffragettes outside the White House. In a 1945 article, she referred to Maurin’s “anarchistic nature,” but it was not until an October 1950 article that Day referred to the “anarchism” of the Catholic Worker. She grounded her view in Christ, who washed the feet of his disciples and stated that the one wishing to be great would be a servant (Mark 10:42). Day also evoked St. Paul’s sentiment that he had made himself a servant to all (1 Cor. 9: 19). Despite her espousal of anarchism, Day provided qualified support for Castro’s Cuba and wrote about the needs for “dialogue” and “concordances” with one’s opponents.
Catholic Worker Anarchism & Nonparticipation
A key aspect of Catholic Worker anarchism is its technique of nonparticipation, which had a theological foundation promoted by Fr. Paul Hanly Furfey in his book The Fire on the Earth (1936). As Furfey explained, the Christian needs to practice nonparticipation in certain instances (118). Furfey differentiated between willfully cooperating with evil (formal cooperation), which is always sinful, and circumstances that force one to cooperate against one’s will (material cooperation), which is permissible. For a material act of cooperation to be permissible, the reason must be “serious enough to overbalance the evil involved” (119-20).
Furfey grounded his view in the teaching of Christ: “If thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (135). Furfey was not an anarchist. Nonetheless, he boldly critiqued the American law and justice system in which the rich were not held accountable and in which the poor and African Americans were treated to “daily injustices, the petty persecutions of the police, and the unfairness of our whole judicial organization” (82, 84-85).
Regarding their interactions with local, state, and federal governments, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement have largely adopted a stance of nonparticipation with few exceptions.
When Catholic Workers wish to promote a change in government policy, their most common methods are protesting by holding signs in public, public fasts, as well as writing articles in their newspapers and newsletters. Through the influence of Catholic Worker anarchist Ammon Hennacy, civil resistance—arrests for trespassing and disorderly conduct—became a prominent feature of the Catholic Worker movement beginning in the late 1950s. During the 1960s, some Catholic Workers were involved in the destruction of draft files. Beginning in the 1980s, some Catholic Workers became involved in the plowshares movement, in which military weaponry is damaged. Beginning in 2003, Catholic Workers in the Midwest began holding an annual spring Faith and Resistance Retreat, which normally includes acts of civil disobedience to raise awareness of an injustice. Through these methods, the Catholic Worker movement has promoted its views without directly engaging in the political process.
The Catholic Worker & Racial Justice
Despite the Catholic Worker movement’s critical analysis of capitalism and war, its examination of racism in the United States has been sorely lacking. This is surprising considering the obvious racial divisions in urban houses of hospitality where the staff of almost completely white and the guests are almost completely people of color.
I believe the primary reason for the tepid response of the Catholic Worker movement to anti-Black racism has its origin in racial liberalism—a mindset that does not tolerate “overt bigotry,” but leaves institutional or structural forms of racism largely unaddressed. This viewpoint underestimates the compounded wealth and privileges that white people have accumulated through centuries of Black slavery and anti-Black discrimination, believing that the elimination of overt discrimination alone is an adequate response to racism without any need for restorative policies.
I will provide two examples: First, Dorothy Day promoted a colorblind mentality for teaching children about racism, which actually increases the likelihood that a white child will become ingrained with racial prejudices. Second, Day stated in the 1960s that more would have been accomplished for racial justice if civil rights activists focused less on political rights and more on creating financial and societal infrastructure for African Americans. This argument ignores history, which is replete with examples of successful Black entrepreneurs being intimidated, lynched, or having their businesses destroyed. The worst instance of this was the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which resulted in whites burning down thirty-five square blocks in the successful Black area of the city and killing approximately 300 African Americans. Black financial and societal infrastructure provided scant shelter from white supremacy in the United States.
As the Catholic Worker moves forward, Day’s disparaging comments about Black political action bring Catholic Worker anarchism to a crossroads. Day wanted to believe that African Americans in the United States could improve their lives without any political involvement. History indicates otherwise. By 1970, Day’s own optimism about improving racial injustice dissipated. She plainly admitted in a diary entry that she saw no simple or forthcoming solution to address racism in the United States (485).
In 2010, the Casa Maria Catholic Worker in Milwaukee, Wisconsin began supporting Black families that come into contact with child protective services (CPS). African American children are twice as likely to be deemed victims of child abuse and four times as likely to be placed in foster care compared to white children. This leads to more Black families being permanently separated as parental rights are terminated and the children are adopted out—often to white couples in suburban areas. Traditionally, to combat an injustice, Casa Maria would protest with signs outside of an organization and perhaps write letters to the appropriate civil authorities. In this instance of obvious systemic racism, however, such options seemed too limiting. Instead, in 2015, they began meeting with elected official, lawyers, and judges. Their cooperation with civil authorities and the promotion of certain policies has ameliorated some of the suffering. If we simply counseled parents to not cooperate with the state, those parents would lose their children.
Can more sustained interactions with civil authorities be reconciled with Catholic Worker anarchism? Must we decide between protesting certain racial injustices even when it has no effect or capitulating to American politics? I believe there is a way forward that does not sacrifice the insights and legitimacy of Catholic Worker anarchism. Furfey’s distinction between formal and material cooperation is significant here.
Casa Maria has increased their interactions with state officials and the court system without condoning the present form of government. These Catholic Workers are interacting with officials precisely because the system is so utterly corrupt. These actions appear to be among the few ways forward that can increase the likelihood of preserving Black families. Such actions are an example of material forced cooperation, not formal cooperation.
As the Catholic Worker nears its ninetieth anniversary, I believe it would greatly benefit from a reexamination of its anarchism in light of the insights provided by the concept of material cooperation, which is not ideal, but could lead to more successful racial justice campaigns.