An Introduction to the Catholic Worker Movement
By Mark Engler
Published with permission from the author, this article originally appeared as an entry for the Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice (Sage Publications, April 2007).
The Catholic Worker, a movement of Catholic lay people founded during the Great Depression, has since served as one of the most significant forces on the Christian left in the United States. Largely identified with Dorothy Day (1897-1980), its co-founder and leading voice until her death, the movement combines religious conviction, a broadly anarchistic attitude toward the state, voluntary poverty, and a firm commitment to nonviolence. The Catholic Worker movement is known for its Houses of Hospitality, present in cities across the country, which provide food, shelter, and other material needs to the poor. Also well known is its newspaper, The Catholic Worker, published by the founding community in New York City. Catholic Workers have been influential in reviving the pacifist tradition in American Catholicism and have been leaders in the use of civil disobedience to advance struggles for peace, nuclear non-proliferation, labor rights, and social justice.
The Catholic Worker movement was born in December 1932, when co-founders Day and Peter Maurin (1877-1949) met in New York City. Day, a recent convert to Catholicism, was a left-wing journalist and veteran of Greenwich Village bohemian and socialist circles. Maurin, French by birth, was an itinerant laborer and public intellectual well read in Catholic theology. Having assumed a Franciscan embrace of poverty, he developed a program for the communitarian transformation of society through the implementation of Gospel teachings and Catholic social doctrine. He emphasized hospitality for the poor, regular study and prayer, and the development of agrarian communes. Day, seeking a more concrete way to integrate her radical convictions with the principles of her new faith, ultimately took responsibility for putting Maurin’s ideas into practice and administering the Catholic Worker movement.
The Catholic Worker newspaper served as the main vehicle for the early spread of movement ideas. The first issue was distributed at a 1933 May Day rally in New York’s Union Square Park. Publishing nearly monthly, with Day as editor, the circulation of The Catholic Worker grew from 2,500 copies of the first issue to 110,000 copies by May 1935, to almost 200,000 by 1939. The paper outlined the movement’s fundamental ideas in essays by Maurin and Day, as well as quotations from Church leaders. These appeared alongside articles on local labor campaigns and other current events. Over time, notable contributors would include Jacques Maritain, Michael Harrington, and Thomas Merton.
The movement was forced to relocate several times in its early years before settling in the Bowery neighborhood of Manhattan, where it established long-standing Houses of Hospitality. By 1936 Catholic Workers also founded their first satellite farm community. The movement grew rapidly, with communities formed in cities across the United States and Canada. By 1939, the Catholic Worker movement boasted 23 Houses of Hospitality, two farms, and 13 affiliate study groups in cities such as Boston, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Portland.
Philosophy and Principles
Although contemporary activists debate which beliefs represent the fundamental tenets of the Catholic Worker movement, commonly noted principles include personalism, hospitality, voluntary poverty, intentional community, prayer, and pacifism.
Personalism entered the movement through Maurin’s study of French philosophy, particularly the works of Emmanuel Mounier. Although often invoked in a philosophically imprecise manner, the concept emphasizes the dignity of every human person, especially those most marginalized by society. Implicit in personalism is a critique of statist Communism and the treatment of workers as an undifferentiated social class. In accord with personalist philosophy, Catholic Workers focus on taking personal responsibility for social problems and evince an anarchist distrust of state welfare structures. Many Houses of Hospitality refuse to seek tax-exempt status from the government, arguing that the works of charity and compassion should not be regulated by the state.
Hospitality, voluntary poverty, and intentional community combine in the ethos of the Catholic Worker houses, where volunteers live in solidarity with the poor. There they perform what are known as the Corporal Works of Mercy, which include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and harboring the homeless. Christian hospitality draws inspiration from the monasticism of St. Benedict, who instructed monks to view those seeking help as Christ himself. Catholic Workers subsist without salaries, living communally on donations and shunning material acquisition. This has helped to create small, tight-knit communities of individuals unusually committed to their work; many adherents are willing to make extraordinarily personal sacrifices, including spending time in jail for civil disobedience, to advance social justice aims.
Amidst the prevailing secularism of the American left, the Catholic Worker movement’s distinctive marriage of political radicalism and orthodox religiosity stands out. Dorothy Day attended Catholic services daily and confessed her sins weekly. A controversial figure for decades, Day became almost universally revered by the end of her life, and supporters within the Church have since pushed to have her canonized as a saint.
Day’s devout Catholicism, which has carried on as a hallmark of the movement, frequently helped to dispel tensions between Catholic Worker houses and the Church hierarchy. Many Houses of Hospitality operate with open support of local Bishops. While stressing Church doctrine on peace and justice issues, many movement activists also take positions on abortion and sexuality that stand in line with traditional Catholic teachings.
Resuscitating a tradition of Catholic pacifism, which previously was virtually unknown among American Catholics, has been one of the movement’s foremost contributions, and likely its most controversial. In 1936, The Catholic Worker advanced an editorial stance of pacifist neutrality regarding the Spanish Civil War. The position cost the newspaper many subscribers, angering both leftists who supported the anti-fascist Spanish Republicans and American Catholics who saw Franco as a defender of the Church.
Resolute Christian pacifism proved even less popular during World War II, when Day led the movement in taking an unyielding stance of conscientious objection. Many supporters and subscribers grew increasingly alienated by Day’s antiwar position, and the circulation of The Catholic Worker dropped during the war years to 50,500. By 1942, over a dozen Catholic Worker houses had closed, and by the war’s end only 10 remained.
The movement began a gradual rebound in the 1950s, receiving renewed public attention after the 1952 publication of Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness. Through the era of McCarthyism, however, some attention was based on critical suspicion. The FBI closely monitored the group’s activities, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover suggested that Day be placed in custodial detention in cases of national emergency.
From 1955 to 1961, in order to dramatize resistance to the nuclear arms race, Catholic Workers in New York began organizing civil disobedience against the annual air raid drills mandated by the Civil Defense Act. Day was arrested in several consecutive years for her refusal to take shelter during annual simulated attacks, and she served jail sentences as long as 30 days.
Another leader in the civil defense protests was Ammon Hennacy (1893-1970), a long-time radical who had been imprisoned for draft resistance during the First World War. During his tenure with the Catholic Worker, Hennacy also became known for his penitential fasts and pickets in front of tax offices and U.S. military installations in protest of Cold War militarism. His example helped to inspire more militant acts of nonviolent direct action in the movement.
In the 1960s the movement experienced a resurgence fueled by opposition to the Vietnam War. Catholic Workers were represented among the first young people to publicly burn their draft cards. A new cohort of volunteers helped organize the Catholic Peace Fellowship to promote religious conscientious objection; Catholic Workers also helped to found Pax Christi, USA. The brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, two priests renown for raiding draft boards in Catonsville, Maryland and burning the draft cards as acts of civil disobedience, maintained close ties with the Catholic Worker, and movement activists were responsible for similar raids.
Renewed youthful interest in the Catholic Worker movement continued throughout the 1970s, even as Day, advancing in age, became more reclusive, limiting her writing and travel before her death in 1980. The circulation of The Catholic Worker grew from 65,000 at the start of the 1960s to near 100,000 by 1980, where it has remained. In the 1970s and 1980s, Catholic Workers were active in the Central American solidarity and nuclear disarmament movements, maintaining a particularly strong presence in the Plowshares civil disobedience actions inspired by the Berrigan brothers.
Today there exist over 150 self-identified Catholic Worker communities in the U.S., as well as a smaller number abroad, facilitating works of mercy and acts of resistance. Many of the communities produce their own publications in the tradition of the original Catholic Worker. Having no formal organizational structure and no clear leader since Day’s death, the movement’s autonomous houses exhibit considerable variety, especially in their relationships with the clerical hierarchy and their levels of emphasis on overt religiosity. Agrarianism has faded in importance for the movement in the decades since Maurin’s death. Many communities devote the bulk of their energies to providing hospitality for homeless populations that include individuals with serious mental illness and chemical addictions. Political action supported by the movement continues to tend toward individual acts of moral witness, often resulting in jail time, rather than the organization of mass campaigns.
Further Readings and References
Coy, Patrick, ed. A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker (Philadelphia: Temple, 1988).
Miller, William D. A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement (New York: Liveright 1973).
Roberts, Nancy L. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker (Albany: SUNY Press, 1984).
Zwick, Mark and Louise. The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins (New York/Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2005).