Peter Maurin: A Fool for Christ

“For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men.  We are fools for Christ’s sake . . . . To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands.  When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things.” (1 Corinthians 4: 10-13).

On December 7, 1932, a young, female reporter spent the day spent the day covering the national “Hunger March” held in Washington, D.C. to protest the failure of government to address the worsening conditions of the Great Depression.  A former communist and recent convert to Roman Catholicism, she had been struggling for several years as to how to integrate her concern for social justice with her new-found Catholic faith.  Upon returning to her apartment following the march, she found waiting for her the man that would provide this longed-for integration.  The woman was Dorothy Day.  The man was Peter Maurin.  In May of 1933, the two began publication of The Catholic Worker, a newspaper dedicated to promoting a Catholic vision of the reconstruction of society.

Dorothy Day went on to become one of the most famous American Catholics of the twentieth century.  Though not without controversy, she has earned the admiration of Catholics across the political spectrum:  Martin Sheen starred in Entertaining Angels, a film based on her life, while the late Cardinal John O’Connor promoted her cause for sainthood.  Peter Maurin, the role Sheen played in the Day film, has received far less recognition.  Day herself considered him the holiest man she ever knew, yet conceded he was something of an eccentric. Still, she remained convinced that he was a truly Christian eccentric, a holy fool in the tradition of St. Paul, or more specifically, St. Francis.

Maurin embraced and promoted holy poverty in a modern industrial age that presented new challenges to the Church’s understanding of wealth.  Whereas St. Francis had stood against a greed and decadence acknowledged by the moral authorities of his age as a sin, Maurin set himself against a capitalist modernity that held up the pursuit of wealth as a positive virtue in itself.  This new attitude toward material gain presented the additional challenge of fostering new inequalities of wealth even as it destroyed the traditional social bonds that had softened and humanized the old inequalities of traditional European Catholic societies.  Secular critics of capitalism accepted the passing of traditional society as a positive good and focused on equalizing the distribution of wealth created by capitalist modernity.  Maurin decried the poverty that he saw in the slums of the urban, industrial West, but saw both reformist and revolutionary plans for wealth redistribution as simply the democratization of greed.  Against the modern alternatives of material poverty and material wealth, Maurin sought to lead the modern poor from their current, negative state of destitution—which combined material deprivation with social dislocation—to a future, positive condition of poverty, which allowed for the satisfaction of basic material needs but sought true wealth in communion with God and man.

Needless to say, this vision was a difficult sell in 1930s America.  At a time when many American Catholics were still trying to achieve basic sustenance within the modern industrial system, Maurin was calling for a rejection of that system and a return to the traditional, rural communal life that had sustained the Faith in the pre-industrial age.  Like Wendell Berry in our own time, Maurin was dismissed by many as a nostalgic dreamer.  Also like Berry, Maurin knew the world of which he spoke.  Born in the southern French village of Oultet in 1877, Maurin spent his childhood living as traditional a Catholic peasant existence as was possible in that place and time.  Like many a rural youth faced with declining prospects within traditional rural society, Maurin eventually left his native village to attend school.  Intended to improve his chances for success, education simply made Maurin more discontented with the modern developments he saw inexorably transforming the world around him.

Refusing to become a “boomer” and unable to remain a “sticker,” Maurin instead became a vagabond.  He traveled the world working any number of industrial and agricultural jobs, all the while trying to imagine a humane and Catholic alternative to industrial capitalist modernity.  A voracious and eclectic reader, he found his greatest inspiration in the social encyclicals of the popes, most especially Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.   Maurin was more skeptical than the popes on the possibility of Christianizing the industrial system through piecemeal reform, but he affirmed and developed their insistence that true harmony and the proper ordering of society would only come by drawing on the traditional philosophical and social principles that had sustained Catholic life in the pre-industrial age.

Maurin used The Catholic Worker to evangelize the working class in an authentic Catholic vision of society.  Day and Maurin chose the title of their paper as a direct challenge to the communist Daily Worker. Much like Fulton Sheen, they believed that the collapse of the capitalist system left the modern West with a choice between Moscow and Rome.  Still, Maurin articulated this Catholic alternative in an idiom likely to unsettle the average devotee of Sheen’s Catholic Hour. Maurin’s representative mode of expression was the playfully cryptic-yet-didactic prose poem he called the “easy essay.”  Consider the following:

“Blowing the Dynamite of the Church” 

Writing about the Catholic
Church,
a radical writer says:
“Rome will have to do more
than to play a waiting game;
she will have to use
some of the dynamite
inherent in her message.”

To blow the dynamite
of a message
is the only way
to make the message dynamic.

If the Catholic Church
is not today
the dominant social dynamic
force,
it is because Catholic scholars
have failed to blow the dynamite
of the Church.

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. 

At a time when many were advocating a violent overthrow of the capitalist system, such rhetoric could appear incendiary.  Maurin was, however, a committed pacifist.  “Strikes don’t strike me,” as he was fond of telling Day.  Maurin proved most controversial in his stand against even the most mainstream peaceful strategies for achieving social justice for workers.  He rejected collective bargaining because he believed it conceded too much to the status quo and simply turned workers into capitalists, trying to carve out for themselves a bigger slice of what was at heart a poisoned pie.  For Maurin, labor unions were as impersonal as corporations.  The social crisis was a spiritual crisis, and the solution was the re-establishment of small communities capable of sustaining truly human, personal relationships.

Sadly, it was Maurin’s vision as much as his mode of expression that struck many, even some within the Catholic Worker movement, as foolish.  In defense of Maurin’s vision, Dorothy Day wrote:

“Catholics are too apt to take the line that we must follow the lesser evil, as though there were no other choices. . . . Is there no choice but that between Communism and industrial capitalism?  Is Christianity so old that it has become stale, and is Communism the brave new torch that is setting the world afire?  Strange commentary that when Catholics begin to realize their brotherhood and betake themselves to the poor and to all races, then it is that they are accused of being Communists. . . .  What chances are there for mass   conversions these days when Statism has become a heresy that is engulfing even Catholics so that they do not realize that they are as materialistic as any Marxist?”

When Peter Maurin died on May 15, 1949, the New Deal order of welfare capitalism was ushering in an unprecedented period of prosperity that promised to satisfy every imaginable material desire.  Catholics benefited materially from their support for this order, yet lost the family stability and communal solidarity that had marked them as a people apart in an earlier era. Twenty-five years later, when New Deal “statism” could no longer deliver the goods, many Catholics simply changed partners and danced to the tune of modern materialism’s other siren song, capitalism  At present, we appear to be at the end of this second cycle of prosperity.  As we ponder our next economic option, we might consider why it is that family and community structures that endured through centuries of material poverty have not been able to survive two generations of material prosperity. Which is more foolish:  to think that social stability requires the subordination of material to spiritual ordering principles, or to affirm that social stability and spiritual renewal are compatible with the constant expansion of opportunities for material self-advancement?  In reflecting on this question, few guides could be more reliable than Peter Maurin.

Sources:

Dorothy Day, with Francis J. Sicius, Peter Maurin:  Apostle to the World (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2004).

Christopher Shannon

By

Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996) and, most recently, Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010).

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  • http://twitter.com/Conservotop Kevin

    Interesting piece still digesting when do freebie handouts by Church act more like a Heroin addiction and a person won’t fend for themselves

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JUCUO56CCKTX2GACFO7R4IZTS4 Wurde

    Day and Maurin:* were nurtured on a Socialist ideology,* campaigned with
    active Communists and their travelers,* unfailingly supported Communist
    teachings and activities,* attended conferences organized by Communists in
    the USSR,* promoted Communist writings and propaganda,* advocated worker
    strikes that were started by Communist-infiltrated unions,* denigrated cash
    given by capitalists but accepted it willingly from socialists,* defended
    the use of violence and class warfare to achieve joint ownership of property and
    the forcible redistribution of wealth,* maintained a posture of hatred for
    Western democracy and admiration for Leninist and Stalinist
    totalitarianism,* weakened the West in its defense against Communist
    aggression in the name of pacifism,* praised Garibaldi in Italy, Castro in
    Cuba, and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam — men who used armed force to brutalize and
    murder their enemies,* refused guidance from orthodox Catholic clerics,
    and* re-interpreted the Gospels and papal encyclicals to support their
    radicalism.

    No thanks.

    • Gina

      Source, please?

    • Chris

      Yeah, source?

    • Katie

      I myself am an orthodox, magisterium-submitting Catholic. And I love Dorothy Day. I encourage you to read Dorothy’s own thoughts (e.g. Dorothy Day: Selected Writings). Before she became Catholic, yes, she had Communist leanings. Once she became Catholic, however, she very consciously relinquished Communism because of its godlessness. However, her love for the poor, which had originally been her reason for engaging in Communist activities, was as strong as ever. She saw a void within the Church that, I believe, God was calling her to fill. Instead of ranting against that void, she humbly worked for the poor under the guidance of Cardinal Spellman. She loved obedience to the Church, saying, “[G]ratitude alone…is enough to bind me in holy obedience to Holy Mother Church and her commands.” Some of her coworkers were not in agreement with her fidelity to the Church, but she allowed them to work side-by-side with her, giving them a chance to work with Christ in the poor. Servant of God Dorothy Day, we’ll pray for you. Please pray for us!

      • helena

        Dear Katie, thank you for you opinion. I am from Prague, Czech Republic interested in Dorothy´s legacy for more than 10 years. Here we lived in post-communist era. I would like to say that reading Dorothy Day´s writings would be inspiring for our contemporary situation.

        • ubiPetrusEst

          Helena, Reading Dorothy Day in “a post-Communist era” might be as surprising as inspiring. The most important thing may be to read Day’s writings, some of which are quoted in my reply to Katie.

      • ubiPetrusEst

        Source, please?

      • ubiPetrusEst

        Day rejected the godlessness of Communism, but continued to express her belief in the Marxist concepts of class warfare and revolution (which she “hoped” would not be violent when it occurred) . In Day’s “Selected Writings,” which you recommend, Day declares on pages 301-302:

        “We are certainly not Marxist socialists nor do we believe in violent revolution. Yet we do believe that it is better to revolt, to fight, as Castro did with his handful of men, than to do nothing.
        “We are on the side of the revolution. We believe there must be new
        concepts of property, and that new concept is not so new. There is a Christian communism and a Christian capitalism, as Peter Maurin pointed out. We believe in farming communes and cooperatives and will be happy to see how they work out in Cuba…. God bless the priests and people of Cuba. God bless Castro and all those who are seeing Christ in the poor. God bless all those who are seeking the brotherhood of man because in loving their brothers they love God even though they deny Him.”

        Robert Ellsberg edited this book, and he abridges entries without indicating his omissions with ellipses. In the above entry he has done this; the full version is in “About Cuba,” “Catholic Worker,” July-August 1961.
        Years after her conversion, Day was able to express admiration for Communist dictators and murderers in the February 1969 CW. Go to page 179, where she writes, “What attracts one in a Che Guevara and a Ho Chi Minh is the hardship and suffering they endured in living their lives of faith and hope. It is not the violence, the killing of one’s enemies.”

        As for Day’s acceptance of Cardinal Spellman’s “guidance,” her obedience was limited to matters of faith and morals. She refused to change the paper’s name in the 1950s, as her chosen biographer William D. Miller relates in “Dorothy Day: A Biography” (1982, pp. 427-429). The issue kept attracting attention. Go to page 334 of “Selected Writings,”, where Day wrote in December 1965:

        “Whenever this question of conscience comes up, the question of obedience immediately follows, obedience to Church and State, even when commands are not personally directed at us lay people, nor obedience exacted of us, as it is of the clergy. We have pointed out again and again the freedom the Catholic Worker has always had in the Archdiocese of New York. We have been rebuked on occasion, when we advised young men not to register for the draft; when we spoke of capitalism as a cancer on the social body … and on only one occasion, for our use of the name ‘Catholic.’
        “This last reproach came up again in a news report recently, and we can
        only repeat what I said to our former chancellor, Monsignor Gaffney,
        (God rest his soul) that we have as much right to the name Catholic as
        the Catholic War Veterans have.”

        Carol Byrne (“The Catholic Worker Movement: A Critical Analysis, 2010, pp. 205-208) reveals that the issue of the Catholic Worker’s name came up more than once–despite Day’s statement that it was “only one occasion.” Byrne points out that the Catholic War Veterans had obtained permission from their bishop to use “Catholic,” but Day did not. In her “Supplementary Notes” (available at “Dorothy Day Another Way), Byrne quotes Day’, who said, “I: started ‘The Catholic Worker’ at the instigation of Peter Maurin, I did not ask permission – I did not discuss it with the chancery office..[Three priests] advised me to launch out, but not to ask permission. (“Catholic Worker,” July-August 1964).

  • CarlDiederichs

    I think this was the wrong magazine to speak about a man who practiced social justice, distributive justice, a real prophet.  I will pray to Peter Maurin at Mass today.

    • Brad

       So, curiously, I am wondering if you are implying that without a focus on “social justice and distributive justice”, a prophet is unreal i.e. invalid?

      Please remember, brother, to pray for the repose of a soul who has never been declared by the Church to be definitely in heaven, before you pray to that soul.

  • geoffrey b. gneuhs

    Thank you for your fine essay on Peter Maurin. The philosophical and spiritual influences for him and Dorothy were many, but first Christ and the teaching and tradition of the Church.
    Then too, Berdyaev, Chesterton, Belloc, Bloy, Peguy, Jacques Maritain (a personal friend of theirs).

    No other Catholic journal at the timein America advocated personalism (cf. Mounier), decentralism, worker ownership, economic democracy, and so on.

    He, and she, were prophets:  they spoke the Truth.

    Geoffrey Gneuhs,
    former associate of the Catholic Worker
    coauthor of A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker

  • Tom Cornell

    It’s been almost 60 years since I first read Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays and I’m still trying to digest them.  Thanks for this fine article.  BTW, Peter could bend toward Dorothy Day’s more pro-labor union view, e.g. he supported the UAW strike against GM in Flint, Mich. because he thought the sit-down strike a genuine example of Gandhian nonviolence.

  • Dave

    A USPC member anyway (FFCA),  I found this site attempting to find out if “FFC” as in “FCC work”or FFC Worker  has gained a recognize abbreviation status,particularly as relates to wikipedia.  It has not according to Google and W, but considering  the “do it anyway” risk attitude necessary to do some of what I have and am it seems to me it should.  I’m not a fan of T shirt labels (as such the T should be a cross), but it seems to me it is a good abbreviation.  But I confess I’ve been wrong before.
    You seem like a formal academic bunch (FFFC or AFFCA?) to an IFFC, so it is just a suggestion.  Joy to you.
    Dave

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  • TheAbaum

    “When Peter Maurin died on May 15, 1949, the New Deal order of welfare
    capitalism was ushering in an unprecedented period of prosperity that
    promised to satisfy every imaginable material desire. ”

    That is nonsense.

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