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Catholic Re-Visions

“Wherein Justice Dwelleth:” The Catholic Worker Movement and Political Theology Today

This symposium brings Catholic Workers and scholars together to discuss the future of the Catholic Worker Movement and its political vision of personalist, de-centralized communities that practice the Works of Mercy to create a new world.

Dorothy Day did not want to be considered a saint. She relayed her thoughts on canonization to the Chicago Tribune in 1977: “If you’re a saint, then you must be impractical and utopian, and nobody has to pay any attention to you. That kind of talk makes me sick.”

On December 8, 2021, the Archdiocese of New York sent Dorothy Day’s cause for canonization to the Vatican in a mass celebrated by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. In his homily, Dolan skirted over Day’s politics and emphasized her “far from sinless life.” Martha Hennessey, Dorothy Day’s granddaughter, told a reporter after the mass that “[Dolan] has reduced her to ‘she lived a life of sexual promiscuity and she dabbled in communism’.”

The Catholic Worker Movement, which Dorothy Day (1897-1980) and Peter Maurin (1877-1949) originally co-founded as a newspaper in 1933, has a significant role in the history of American Catholicism, as well as Catholicism abroad. Sometimes scholars and Catholics risk putting Day on a pedestal. She can be invoked as an example of “social Catholicism” without much context or thought. In a response to Cardinal Dolan, Hennessey noted that instead of focusing on Day as a person, “we have got to focus on her practices.” This symposium on the Catholic Worker Movement considers what the practices of the Catholic Worker Movement offer to conversations about political theology today.

The Catholic Worker Movement presents a way for those interested in political theology to examine how theory and practice work together, on the ground, through a particularly Catholic lens. Through their writing, Day and Maurin describe an anthropology that emerges from Catholic papal encyclicals, French personalism, and anarchism. They construct a set of social practices that correspond to this vision and draw on their own experiences with the disinherited of their time. The Catholic Worker Movement is an example of political theology pedagogy through its social program which asks participants to practice voluntary poverty, perform the Works of Mercy, and critically engage with the world.

Political theology is broadly considered in this forum as the critical relationship between the political and religious realm—namely, how religious concepts can challenge political concepts and practices and vice versa. The Catholic Worker, as a movement founded to attune people to the fact that the Catholic Church has a social program—to let them know that there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual, but for their material welfare—fits well under this heading.

Through the practices that Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day developed, the Catholic Worker Movement has grown from a newspaper and one small house in New York to, as of today, 187 communities in a branched, decentralized network with many partners across the world and 20,000 subscribers. Though they recently have been experiencing a decline in community members, the Catholic Worker Movement continues to emphasize three components from Day and Maurin’s original vision: roundtable discussions, houses of hospitality, and farm communes.

Roundtable discussions are not only to hear what Catholic laypeople have to say about their everyday experiences and social conditions, but also to provide spaces for people from different backgrounds to come together and understand each other in love. As Day describes the practice, discussions would involve a meal and take place at different people’s apartments or the houses of hospitality. Community building through discussion and meals is essential to the work of the Catholic Worker—to love God and neighbor. Day notes toward the end of her life that, “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore.”

Maurin writes that roundtable discussions are needed to “keep trained minds from becoming academic.” In his approach to roundtable conversations, Maurin warns against the idol that is the academy. In another essay, Maurin notes, in his poetic language, that Catholic scholars:

have taken the dynamite

of the Church,

have wrapped it up

in a nice phraseology

placed it

in a hermetic container,

and sat on the lid.

Rice, The Forgotten Radical Peter Maurin, 21.

Day emphasized that the Catholic Worker is not a charitable organization. Instead, it might be recognized as a system of mutual aid. This aid is decentralized to attempt to realize the Catholic Worker’s vision – one that might be described with the political label of “anarchist,” the Catholic label of “subsidiarity,” or Peter Maurin’s preferred label, “personalist.” The houses of hospitality are spaces for people to live together, gather for roundtable discussions, and establish what needs remain unmet. Maurin urges that instead of the state providing support services, fellow members of the Mystical Body of Christ should; this is how Day and Maurin understood people’s relationships to one another (Long Loneliness, 210).

Finally, farming communes originally provided housing and labor opportunities for those who were unemployed because of the Great Depression. Day saw a return to farming as an inevitability within the capitalist system, writing that, “People will have to go back to the land. The machine has displaced labor, the cities are overcrowded. The land will have to take care of them.” Through this program, Maurin, an early proponent of the “green revolution,” encouraged Catholics to move from a focus on thought and analysis toward an emphasis on reflective action.

The Catholic Worker Movement has adjusted its aims and scope over time, but it still follows its founders’  vision of personalism, decentralization, and a “green revolution.” The decentralized structure allows for houses and farms to focus on the needs of local communities. As Lincoln Rice, a contributor to this symposium, highlights, the Casa Maria Catholic Worker House in Milwaukee works with families that are separated by child protective services while Philadelphia’s House of Grace runs a health clinic to meet immediate needs of people suffering from homelessness or the opioid epidemic.

Protest has always had a place in the Catholic Worker, even though  Day was ambivalent about the “fury” of some fellow Catholics like the Berrigan brothers. Catholic Workers, including Brenna Cussen Anglada, another contributor to this symposium, have performed direct actions against injustices, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline and the holding of nuclear weapons. Catholic Workers have also started to lament its own role in sustaining white supremacy and to explore how the Movement can be oriented toward anti-racism.

These practices envision and prefigure a new earth where God’s will reigns, as in heaven. Catholic Workers attempt to create a new world “out of the shell of the old.” Day asserts, “Even here, right now, we can have that new earth, wherein justice dwelleth!”

This symposium brings together Catholic Workers and scholars from differing fields and backgrounds to discuss the future of the Catholic Worker Movement and its relationship to political theology. We intend to provide Catholic Workers a space to reflect on their practices and ideas, and to reach a new audience. For readers of Political Theology and this website, the symposium provides an avenue to consider the approaches, worldviews, and histories of Catholic Workers and their vision of social change. The symposium also examines theological ways to challenge the state from a tradition, Roman Catholicism, that has had its share in complicity with state power.

Brenna Cussen Anglada, founding member of St. Isidore Catholic Worker Farm in Wisconsin, offers an updated theory of revolution for Catholic Workers, centering active resistance to the police and work toward police abolition. Drawing upon Maurin’s insights and a nonviolent understanding of Jesus, Cussen Anglada deepens Catholic Worker approaches regarding the possibility of coalition building and the necessity anti-racism trainings.

In considering Day and Maurin’s Christian anarchism in light of systemic racism, Lincoln Rice, an expert on the work of Peter Maurin, considers the Movement’s struggle with anti-Black racism, in its structure and in its political actions. Rice argues that an anarchism that takes seriously the distinction between formal and material cooperation when considering non-participation can assist Catholic Workers in their pursuit of justice against the state. Stopping the disproportionate separation of Black families compared to white families by child protective services offers a case study to probe this distinction.

Peace activist Henrietta Cullinan reflects on the day-to-day world of the London Catholic Worker and its creation of domestic spaces – home – for many different peoples. In this way, Cullinan opens the world of Catholic Worker spirituality, and she reflects on how this spirituality, that is so dependent on encounter, can be maintained, even through pandemic lockdowns.

Finally, Catholic studies scholar Jack Downey describes the FBI surveillance of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement motivated by the perceived Communism and Russian infiltration of the Movement. Downey connects this historical example to the splintering of the calls for police abolition after the George Floyd uprisings. Downey warns of those who make solidarity convenient and easily accept the rhetoric of the state, for the difference between friend and enemy is not always clear.

Symposium Essays

Updating Our Theory of Revolution

Catholic Worker practices of living among and listening closely to the voices of the most marginalized in our society, as well as its radical political analysis and dedication to ongoing clarification of thought in the form of anti-racism training, have motivated Catholic Workers to act against police violence towards People of Color.

Catholic Worker Anarchism at a Crossroads: The Difficulty of Addressing Anti-Blackness

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, specifically when dealing with the state.

The Catholic Worker at Large

The London Catholic Worker creates the physical and intellectual spaces in which to practice radical hospitality and explore Christian anarchism. As these spaces can be transitory, easily destroyed or abandoned, the Catholic Worker must draw on its personalist and anarchist roots to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Moscow Mary: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Surveillance Ecosystem

This essay reflects on intra-Catholic antagonisms and state-sponsored surveillance throughout the McCarthy era as a tool for considering the hazards of allowing the state to define categories and respectable means of political dissent.