Whither the Catholic Worker Movement?

COMMENTARY: One cannot understand the movement unless one understands how central the totality of Dorothy Day’s Catholic faith was to the entirety of her vision, and sadly the movement has lost sight of it.

Dorothy Day.
Dorothy Day. (photo: Jim Forest via Flickr / (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

Contrary to a popular misconception in some Catholic circles, Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was not a political liberal or a socialist. Nor was she a theological liberal. And as the owner of a Catholic Worker farm myself I am constantly confronted with this misunderstanding. 

However, it would also be inaccurate to describe her as a political or theological conservative of a certain mainstream standard variety. She was indeed a kind of conservative Catholic, who radically sought to kick back against the notion that the call to live a life of holiness is reserved for the Church’s elites in religious life. 

Well before Vatican II called for a renewed emphasis on the universal call to holiness, she was preaching the message that the laity, too, are called to live lives of total consecration to Christ in accordance with the “Kingdom ethic” of the Sermon on the Mount. 

Furthermore, Dorothy Day was a thoroughly orthodox Catholic who accepted and embraced all of the Church’s teachings, even on hot-button issues relating to moral theology, such as the teachings on contraception, fornication and homosexuality. Indeed, her claim is that the kind of tepid and culturally accommodated Catholicism of our time — what Bishop Robert Barron later referred to as “Beige Catholicism” — is the biggest threat to the faith and that it represents a rejection of Catholic orthodoxy in its own right since it refuses at a very basic level to understand how radical Christian discipleship must be in the modern world. 

And when this radicality of the faith is covered over and “softened” in order to make it palatable to modern affluent Westerners, you end up with the theological superficialities latent within both “liberal” and “conservative” Catholicism, both of which have a largely legalistic understanding of the faith as largely an affair of adhering to a set of rules: Conservatives want to see the rules enforced with greater rigor, authority, and discipline, while liberals want the rules made easier with lots of loopholes granted by ecclesiastical authorities. But both sides agree that Catholicism is utterly compatible with the capitalist-consumerist way of life that governs modern social relations. 

For Day, therefore, the problem with the reduction of theology to either left-wing or right-wing stereotypes is not that these polarities are both too extreme, but that they are not nearly extreme enough. Or to put it another way, neither are radical enough and neither cut to the bone by getting to the christological provocation at the heart of the Gospel. 

It was her conviction that the full orb of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and the magisterial teaching that guides it, provides us with all of the resources we need in order to develop a truly radical Catholic approach to modernity that is deeply “political” in the broader classical sense of politics precisely because it is not political in the narrow sense. 

I know that is rather breezy but for my purposes here what I want to highlight is that for Dorothy Day the standard theologies of both the stereotypical left and right were merely differing iterations of the political domination of the Church by modern culture, and both were far too prone to co-optation by the various structures of power of both “right” and “left.” Furthermore, they are both accommodationist in their fundamental orientations and thus mute the radical provocation of the Gospel and the radical call of Christ to evangelical conversion as the heart and soul of the Church’s very raison d’etre. What was needed instead is a radical revolution of the heart and an embracing of the universal call to holiness and the evangelical counsels as a path meant for all and not an elite few. 

I am reminded in this context of a quote from Joseph Ratzinger, who, in his Introduction to Christianity, said:

In this sense the profession “There is only one God” is, precisely because it has itself no political aims, a program of decisive political importance: through the absoluteness that it lends the individual from his God, and through the relativization to which it relegates all political communities in comparison with the unity of the God who embraces them all, it forms the only definitive protection against the power of the collective and at the same time implies the complete abolition of any idea of exclusiveness in humanity as a whole.

This was the “politics” of Dorothy Day, as well. It was a politics that was only possible in the light of a robust faith in Christ that tosses the mighty from their thrones and “lifts up the lowly.” And by “robust” I mean without compartmentalized bifurcation between the Church’s “social justice teaching” and the Church’s teaching on, ... well ...  everything else. Or between the “institutional hierarchical Church” and the “Church of the people.”

It is a politics that understands that if “Christ is Lord” then Caesar is not. In other words, it was precisely her fierce theological orthodoxy that led to her radical call to discipleship. Therefore, I will be blunt here: If you do not understand this point about her Catholic faith, and how central the totality of this faith was to the entirety of her vision, then you quite simply have no idea who Dorothy Day was. 

Sadly, the Catholic Worker movement she created, along with Peter Maurin, has for the most part departed from this deeply Catholic vision and has embraced instead modern, leftist social ideology instead. And the movement’s departure from her deeply Catholic vision threatens its future precisely as a Catholic enterprise. I have heard from many devout Catholics who have worked in some Catholic Worker houses who tell me that they have been ridiculed for their faith and who eventually left those houses as a result. And when the leaders of these houses are confronted with the fact that Dorothy Day was a devout Catholic the response given is usually of three kinds. 

First, they will say that “Dorothy was a product of her time and her Catholicism was indicative of a more conservative era in the Church, but if she were alive today she would be a very liberal Catholic like us.” Second, “Dorothy was a product of her time and was the iconic foundress of our movement, but the faith she espoused is today completely moribund and not unacceptable.” And third, “I don’t care who she was or what she stood for. I am just here to fight for a cause.” 

Sadly, and to drive this point home further, the flagship newspaper of the movement, produced by the Worker House in lower Manhattan, has recently posted what it calls, “A Declaration of a Catholic Commitment to Trans-Affirmation” that is nothing short of a full-throated endorsement of modern transgender ideology. What is so disappointing about this is that for many years the New York paper had resisted falling into the pit of trendy leftist causes and had tried to maintain some semblance of a Catholic vision. But now it has apparently thrown its weight behind an LGBTQ movement that has gone way beyond its origins as a simple agitation for fair treatment in society and has now morphed into what can only be described as a counter-religion to the Christian religion. 

The statement completely ignores the fact that the “trans movement” is deeply harmful to children and that our society is currently caught up in a moral contagion of hysteria over the alleged need for hundreds of thousands of kids to receive “gender-affirming health care.” And this is, of course, a euphemism for hormone blockers, synthetic hormones, surgical mutilation and sterilization — with or without parental consent. 

I think that counts as a “vulnerable community” but the New York Worker house seems not to care for these endangered kids and has sacrificed their well-being on the altar of a trendy gender ideology. Compassion is one thing, but endorsement of the LGBTQ ideology is quite another. The former is demanded of us in charity. The latter is idolatry. 

However, there are pockets of hope in the movement. There are several young Catholic Workers in particular, whose names I will not mention lest they be tarred due to association with me, who are starting Worker houses and farms which seek to adhere to the Catholic vision of Day and Maurin. And their numbers are not negligible which is a sign that there is still green sap in those trees. 

But even here there is resistance. I once got an email about a year ago from an older Catholic Worker who complained to me that this younger generation of “orthodox” Workers were a blight on the movement since they did not engage in the kinds of political agitation that led to getting arrested. He complained that these Workers have “graduate degrees in theology” and are more at home on the farm and the lecture hall than in a jail cell. 

I could just dismiss this as the acerbic fulminations of a disgruntled old man. But it is far too emblematic of the fetishization in the movement of a ’60s-style form of political protest, where such techniques were indeed effective tools in the struggle for civil rights and other legitimate causes. But they did not then, and do not now, exhaust the full range of forms of political protest. And I suspect that the complaint about the lack of arrests among those younger Workers with graduate degrees has more to do with the fact that they are devout Catholics of a more traditional bent, than the fact that they aren’t out getting arrested in order to preserve our God-given right for drag queen lap dances for Kindergarteners. 

Servant of God Dorothy Day, pray for us.