Let’s Get Radical: Has the Catholic Worker Movement Betrayed Its Founders?

Liberals are too liberal to be radicals. To be a radical is to go to the roots. Liberals don’t go to the roots; they only scratch the surface. The only way to go to the roots is to bring religion into education, into politics, into business. To bring religion into the profane is the best way to take profanity out of the profane. To take profanity out of the profane is to bring sanity into the profane. Because we aim to do just that we like to be called radicals.

—Peter Maurin

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker in New York City on May Day 1933. Their vision embodied a radical interpretation and application of the Gospel based on their understanding of Roman Catholic social teaching. They and their followers fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, and clothed the naked; they rejected violence and worked for peace; they established farms to grow food and provide work and dignity for the unemployed; they opposed the injustice of totalitarian communism and fascism; they resisted the materialism and greed that often seemed to accompany the triumph of capitalism. In short, as Maurin wrote in his first “Easy Essay,” the Catholic Worker wished to “blow the lid off” Christian social teaching “so the Catholic Church may again become the dominant social dynamic force.”

Countless Catholic Worker communities across North America and around the world have continued to be influenced by Day’s and Maurin’s radically Christian ideas and program. Over the years, however, the movement as a whole has ceased to be radical in any meaningful sense of the word. This “de-radicalization” is directly linked to the movement’s deviation from its two distinguishing marks—Catholic faith and the championing of work and workers. Since Dorothy Day first stood in Union Square passing out copies of her fledgling Catholic Worker newspaper on May 1, 1933, the world and her Church have changed much. Through a renewed commitment to the founders’ original vision, combined with a redirection and updating of its efforts, the Catholic Worker can once again become a source of vitality and positive innovation within the Church and throughout American society.


A formidable obstacle to all serious discussions of the Catholic Worker as a movement is the absence of any official distinguishing characteristics with which one can judge individual Catholic Worker communities. This lack of common standards is partially offset by the writings of Day and Maurin, which act as authoritative records of the founders’ original intentions and ideas. Nevertheless, and despite vehement claims to the contrary, the movement does possess a de facto headquarters in the New York Catholic Worker, the direct descendant of Day and Maurin’s pioneer community. Virtually every active Catholic Worker receives a copy (or copies) of the New York house’s monthly newspaper, and many depend on it for inspiration and direction. In addition, the New York Catholic Worker regularly publishes a declaration entitled “Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker Movement”—a concise summary of the movement’s philosophy and goals. This declaration represents the best, if not the only, starting point for any critical examination of current Catholic Worker practices.

Heterodox Inclination

The declaration’s preamble begins by asserting that the “aim of the Catholic Worker movement is to live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ. Our sources are the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures as handed down in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, with our inspiration coming from the lives of the saints.” This statement highlights the movement’s first distinguishing mark: Roman Catholic faith and teaching. The Christian devotion exhibited by Day and Maurin, as well as most of the earliest Catholic Workers, can hardly be questioned. Most were daily communicants, and many displayed a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the rosary was commonplace at many houses. References to the church fathers, lives of the saints, and Scripture permeated the famed round table discussions which were so influential in crystallizing the Catholic Worker philosophy and agenda. Fidelity to Christ and His Church was at the very core of the original Catholic Worker movement.

Unfortunately, such fidelity and devotion are in short supply among the heirs to the Catholic Worker legacy. With notable exceptions (e.g., New York and Toronto), today’s active Catholic Worker communities have fostered and earned a reputation for being hotbeds of “progressive” Catholicism. This notoriety manifests itself most clearly in a widespread rejection of Church authority. Catholic Worker houses were never meant to be under the direct control of local ecclesiastical ordinaries, but insofar as individual Workers participated in the sacramental life of the Church, they were expected to submit to its decrees.

Today, however, it seems that the only religious authorities to which Catholic Workers will submit are dissenting theologians and liturgical innovators. From coast to coast, Catholic Worker communities are commonly at the center of rebellion against Catholic teachings and discipline. A good example is the Milwaukee Catholic Worker which allows women and non-ordained men to celebrate Mass for their community in complete defiance of archdiocesan reprimands. It is no accident that Catholic Worker houses tend to attract those who disdain the Church’s insistence on creedal Christianity and traditional morals. Vigorous examination of the Scriptures and Catholic tradition have been replaced by endless appeals to a malleable “spirit of Vatican II,” which usually turns out to be an amorphous, catch-all ethos vaguely resembling an adolescent I’m-going-to-do-whatever-I-want-and-you-can’t-stop-me syndrome.

Closely allied with such casual disregard for the authority of the Church is the movement’s drift away from a core commitment to orthodox Christian faith (again, with notable exceptions). Although it is certainly true that Catholic Worker communities have always numbered non-Christians among their ranks, leadership positions were until recently reserved for practicing Catholics, and one could assume that most houses were flavored by traditional Catholic piety. Nevertheless, today’s Catholic Worker communities lend their support to the most outlandish heterodox opinions. Feminist theology and inclusive God-language frequently surface at Catholic Worker gatherings, and it is not uncommon to hear prayers addressed to goddesses and “God the Mother.” One midwestern Catholic Worker newspaper printed a series of articles exploring the pagan roots of Catholic faith and practice, with the clear implication that Christianity was merely a common but useful mythological attempt to transcend mortal existence (a la Joseph Campbell). This is a far cry from the days when Catholic Worker activists were shunned by others for their Christian zeal.

Voluntarism or Statism?

The second part of the Catholic Worker declaration’s preamble shifts the focus from the movement’s aim to its means: “This aim requires us to begin living in a different way. We recall the words of our founders. Dorothy Day who said, ‘God meant things to be much easier than we have made them,’ and Peter Maurin who wanted to build a society ‘where it is easier for people to be good.’ ” These words highlight the movement’s second distinguishing mark: its efforts on behalf of workers and social reform. Traditionally, this meant a commitment to organized labor, a passionate dissemination of Catholic social teaching, and the promotion of Christian alternatives to Marxist revolution. The early Catholic Worker enthusiasts joined forces with communists and anarchists in pushing for more humane treatment of workers. All the while, however, they propagated and defended the tenets of Thomistic social theory, focusing on Aquinas’ doctrine of the common good, and advocating voluntary sacrifice and Christian charity as the only ways to change the world. Moreover, Catholic Workers espoused a radical embrace of total non-violence and devoted themselves to seeking peaceful solutions to every form of conflict.

Nowadays Catholic Worker communities generally show greater enthusiasm for state-sponsored solutions than for conscientious self-sacrifice. Although Dorothy Day and her earliest disciples were averse to any type of political involvement (to the point of refusing to vote and forgoing tax-exempt status), most Catholic Workers of today actively or passively support politicians who pledge themselves to expanding governmental programs. While it is true that Catholic Worker houses often provide shelter and food for the homeless, the movement’s association with those who lobby for increased federal aid diminishes its “personal sacrifice” rhetoric. Moreover, many individual Catholic Workers receive training in social work and pursue careers in welfare bureaucracies.

These trends represent the antithesis of the Catholic personalism which Day and Maurin tried so hard to instill in their followers. In fact, it is a tremendous irony that while these latter-day Catholic radicals are demanding increased governmental services, a Republican president is spreading his vision of a national network of volunteers who will serve their needy neighbors, and shine across the nation “like a thousand points of light.” It appears that conservatives have a better grasp of personalist theory than today’s supposedly personalist Catholic Workers.

Back to Violence

The least attenuated connection between today’s Catholic Worker movement and its origins is in the area of peace and nonviolence, but even here one is confronted by disturbing inconsistencies. The denunciation of every form of violence and oppression is basic to Catholic Worker thought. Curiously, however, Catholic Worker communities seem to be infatuated with liberation theology’s synthetic coupling of revolutionary Marxism and socialist readings of the Gospel. Many regularly journeyed to Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua so that they might lend their support to a totalitarian regime which gained power through violence and maintained it at the expense of true democratic freedoms. (Doubtless, the southward flow of Catholic Workers will slow to a trickle now that the Sandinistas have been repudiated by “The People.”)

Along with this bizarre “nicaraguaphilia,” the Worker movement also appears to have a soft spot for certain continuing armed struggles, and one cannot help but notice that communist guerrillas are favored. The unofficial “approved armed struggles” list includes insurgent groups active in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, South Africa, and even Israel. By contrast, Catholic Workers have been relatively quiet regarding struggles for freedom in Eastern Europe and other communist countries, aside from an occasional warning to the emerging democracies of the evils of capitalism. One would think that the Catholic Workers would occasionally bend their pacifist principles in favor of those who battle atheistic dictatorships, but such compromises are usually restricted to abetting those who wage war on Western-style democracy and economic freedom.

Call to Action

The Catholic Worker movement can reclaim its radical heritage only through a radical return to its roots, that is, through a return to the vision of its founders, Day and Maurin. Such a re-radicalization would have to include two key elements: a reaffirmation of Catholic identity and a reappraisal of how best to serve today’s laboring poor. What better guidance toward those ends can be found than that which was provided by Day and Maurin themselves? It is to them and to their example that the Catholic Worker must turn if it wishes to continue to build a better world “in the shell of the old.”

As a model of Christian fidelity, Day’s life stands out in stark relief against the vacillations in today’s progressive Catholic camp. She unabashedly affirmed the truth of Roman Catholicism, reveled in the sacraments (including frequent confession), and pointed to her faith as the wellspring of all that she accomplished. In addition, she defended the Church’s moral teaching and resisted any attempts to introduce variant lifestyles in the Catholic Worker. Her uncompromising rejections of fornication, divorce, homosexual activity, abortion, and birth control were unpopular among Catholic Workers even before she died, but she remained steadfast, and in a 1972 column she wrote that the “teaching of Christ, the Word, must be upheld. Held up though one that is completely beyond us—out of our reach, impossible to follow. I believe Christ is our Truth and is with us always.”

Day accepted the authority of the Church and never questioned the magisterium’s competence to judge in matters of faith and morals. Indeed, she is known to have said on numerous occasions that she would have closed down the Catholic Worker if Cardinal Spellman had directed her to do so, an anecdote often ignored or explained away by contemporary Catholic Worker devotees.

This is not to say that she always agreed with the Church, nor does it mean that she didn’t work for change. In reference to her conversion, Dorothy wrote that she “loved the Church for Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me. Romano Guardini said the Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from His Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church.” Nevertheless, Day sought change only through example and exhortation, not through open defiance and aggression. She lived and died a loyal daughter of the Church, and those who would seek to imitate her devotion to peace and justice would do well to imitate her devotion to God.

Alongside Day’s example of Christian fidelity stands Peter Maurin’s ardor for work and authentic support for workers. While Maurin was no fan of capitalism, he was also deeply opposed to any form of statist economics or bureaucratic centralization. He wrote that people too often “go to Washington, asking the federal government to solve their economic problems, while the federal government was never intended to solve men’s economic problems. Thomas Jefferson says that the less government there is, the better it is. If the less government there is, the better it is, then the best kind of government is self-government.” Rather than toiling for broadened state action, Catholic Worker communities should be fighting against it. Instead of seeking additional government handouts to the poor and the homeless, Catholic Workers should be actively pursuing the transformation of welfare recipients back into functioning workers.

Maurin pushed farming communes as the most productive training arena for workers; one hopes today’s Catholic Worker communities can develop other innovative approaches. Some Worker houses have established small, locally operated businesses, such as bakeries, which provide job training and income for the unemployed. Additional ventures of this kind could be nurtured through the organization of Catholic Worker credit unions, although one must grant that this would run against the grain of Maurin’s renunciation of money lending. Still, a network of Catholic Worker credit unions could accomplish a great deal by facilitating the retention of capital in poor neighborhoods, the financial empowerment of wage earners and entrepreneurs, all of which should lead to the multiplication of locally owned small businesses. By so doing, the Catholic Worker would make it possible for low-income and poor individuals to provide not only for themselves, but for their needier neighbors as well, thereby expanding the benefits of the original charitable work.

Laborers and the poor require succor not only in the workplace but in their homes as well. The American family is under severe attack in this era of relativism, and nowhere are the consequences worse than among the poor. A re-radicalized Catholic Worker would be a tremendous ally in the Church’s battle against the vacuous and amoral spirit of the age. With the lessening of international tensions and with real progress in arms reductions on the horizon, Catholic Worker communities ought to consider redirecting some of their public protest away from weapons and war, and toward the massacre of the unborn—a heinous attack on innocent human life which is taking place right in their own neighborhoods.

The Catholic Worker declaration of aims and means makes it clear that the movement is opposed to the “deliberate taking of life for any reason” and refers to the “spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting, and non-cooperation with evil” in order to combat violent practices. Although the declaration does not mention abortion directly, one must assume that the document’s framers had it in mind. Perhaps in future drafts Catholic Worker leaders will choose to condemn and decry explicitly our society’s wholesale slaughter of pre-born children and will place the Catholic Worker in the vanguard of the Catholic pro-life alliance.

Saint Dorothy?

In November this year, many throughout the world will mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day. Since her death, an emotional debate has ensued concerning her possible elevation to the status of saint. Day eschewed such suggestions during her lifetime, but her remarkable achievements and courageous fidelity to Christ and His Church have made her an obvious candidate for canonization. Generally, active Catholic Workers reject the idea on the grounds that an official stamp of approval would undermine Day’s insistence that all Christians are called to live out the dictates of the Gospel. Those stumping for canonization see in Day a contemporary model for lay holiness and charity, and rightly view her example as worthy of emulation. But no matter how one perceives the relative benefits and liabilities of Day’s possible canonization, and no matter the outcome, the process itself will lead to a sharp increase in attention paid to the Catholic Worker movement in the coming decade.

Day ended her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, with a poignant reflection on the capriciousness of the entire Catholic Worker enterprise:

We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, ‘We need bread.’… We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us…. We were just sitting there talking and someone said, ‘Let’s all go live on a farm.’ It was as casual as all that, I often think…. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.

Today’s Catholic Workers must revive such talking and risk-taking if they are to sustain the radical Christian commitment that is their heritage. They must adopt new ways of applying that heritage if they are to challenge the wisdom of a status quo that increasingly denies the value of true charity, freedom, and Christian faith. Only through such a re-radicalization will today’s Catholic Workers be the heirs to what Peter Maurin called “a very old philosophy,” that is, a Christian philosophy of voluntary, sacrificial love, “a philosophy so old that it looks like new.”


At the time this article was published, Richard P. Becker, a former member of the Chicago Catholic Worker community, was a graduate student in medieval history at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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