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"The Catholic Worker Movement", by Mark and Louise Zwick

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The Wanderer
America's oldest, lay-edited national Catholic newspaper

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Considering Dorothy Day: A Review of ‘The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins’

Should a former Marxist journalist who had many lovers, an abortion, and a failed marriage be declared a saint and doctor of the Church? Mark and Louise Zwick, in their recent book on Dorothy Day and the origins of the Catholic Worker movement, explain why the answer is yes.

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Thirty years ago, if I were asked if Dorothy Day, a co-founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper and hospitality houses, was a saint, I would have responded, most likely, "she's a communist and a traitor."

Twenty years ago, if I were asked the same question, I would have answered, hopefully, a little more humbly, "I really don't know anything about her."

Dorothy was anything but saintly in her early years.
Ten years ago, then having spent more than 15 years in Catholic journalism, if I were asked the same question, I'd answer, "people I know like her, but I don't know anything about her."

Ask me the same question today, 25 years after her death in 1980, and I would answer: "Absolutely."

But a troubling question immediately arises: How is that a person—meaning myselfwho has been immersed in Catholic journalism for more than a quarter of a century, who has tried to read deeply in the entire arena of what is known as "Catholic social justice," who is a self-admitted disciple of the same people who inspired Dorothy—Dominican Fr. Vincent McNabb, the writers Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Penty, Christopher Dawson, Eric Gill, Robert Hugh Benson, et. al., who has studied 20th century Catholic social movements and social action in Europe and the United Stateshow can a person not have Dorothy Day cross his intellectual radar screen?

I think the only answer I can come up with is that in my formative years, I accepted uncritically the anti-Day propaganda prevalent at the time that the Catholic Worker Movement was a communist front.

As I began researching Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker several months ago, as a result of probing the increasingly acrimonious battle in the Catholic "blogosphere" between critics and defenders of influential Catholic "neo-cons," such as philosopher Michael Novak, Fr. Richard Neuhaus, economist Fr. Robert Sirico, Deal Hudson of Crisis magazine, among others—all Catholics who support both the U.S. war on Iraq and neo-liberal capitalismI came across the writings of Mark and Louise Zwick, which were posted on Stephen Hand's TCRnews.com website.

I was particularly struck by one piece by the Zwicks, who run the Catholic Workers' hospitality house in Houston and publish the Houston Catholic Worker, and I emailed Mark to thank him for his work. A day or two later, he asked me if I would be interested in reading his just-published book The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins (Paulist Press, 2005; $29.95).

The Zwicks' book, should it obtain the wide readership it deserves, can unite Catholics around the controversial pacifist and critic of industrial capitalism, for it situates Dorothy among the first ranks of the saints, especially those she modeled her life after: St. Francis, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catharine of Siena and St. Therese of Lisieux.

For those who know only the barest outline of her life, feeding the poor, demonstrating against war or on behalf of grape pickers, the Zwicks' book will open a vast new panorama, showing how Dorothy, and her mentor Peter Maurin, were not only great readers, but great thinkers and writers who constantly pushed themselves to read and know and understand the "signs of the times," but to respond to those signs in a way fully consistent with the Gospels.


Dorothy Day's cause for canonization was pushed by the late John Cardinal O'Connor from the moment he arrived in New York, and in 2000 he announced the Holy See had accepted her cause for consideration.

This past June, O'Connor's successor, Edward Cardinal Egan, addressed a gathering at the Catholic Center in Manhattan on the progress of her cause, formally initiated the Guild of Dorothy Day, and he paid her the following tribute:

"....[Dorothy] was anything but saintly in her early years: a statement that could be made with equal validity, for example, about St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Camillus de Lellis, and the saint who anointed the feet of the Savior with perfume and wiped them with her hair.

When she passed away in 1980 at the age of 83, she was among the most respected women in the Church and, indeed, in the world.
"However, once she discovered the Lord and His Church in 1918 through hours of prayer in St. Joseph's Church in Greenwich Village and Our Lady Help of Christians Church on Staten Island, Dorothy Day was 're-born' in the way that the aforementioned Savior told the proud and powerful Nicodemus he needed to be 're-born.' She went to Mass and Communion every day. She confessed her sins to a priest every week. She meditated on the Scriptures whenever she had a free moment. She prayed the Rosary with never-failing delight. And all the while, she handed herself over totally to the humble and courageous service of the poorest of the poor by fighting for their causes in her newspaper, The Catholic Worker, which published as many as 180,000 copies a month; by providing them food, clothing and shelter in her 'Houses of Hospitality,' which today number over 130 in urban centers across the nation; by demonstrating for them; by showering uncompromising love over even the most ungrateful of them; and especially by praying and denying herself even the most ordinary of pleasures and conveniences for them.

"Dorothy Day sought no accolades. She dismissed any suggestion that she was a saint, though she took extraordinary delight in studying the lives of the saints. She accepted the rejection of certain women's groups who could not forgive her condemnation of abortion, just as she accepted the rejection of a great number of her followers who could not understand her uncompromising commitment to peace. She told Church leaders in no uncertain terms when she thought they were mistaken in matters of social policy, but stood foursquare with them in matters of faith and morals.

"When she passed away in 1980 at the age of 83, in the little 'House of Hospitality' she shared with the poor and abandoned on Staten Island, she was among the most respected women in the Church and, indeed, in the world, honored by editorial writers, civil rights leaders, labor unions, universities, and in a way that meant the world to her, by Pope Paul VI, who had her come to Communion at one of his Masses after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.

"Will Dorothy Day ever be declared a saint by the Church of her beloved Savior? I, of course, do not know. Still, in my own mind, she is marvelously saintly...."


In their new book, Mark and Louise Zwick illustrate just how "marvelously saintly" Dorothy was, as well as the man who inspired her, the French-born Peter Maurin, whom she met on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1932, when they agreed to launch The Catholic Worker.

As the Zwicks explain, the Catholic Worker Movement "has roots in the New Testament, the philosophy of Christian communitarian personalism, the writings of the early Church Fathers, the charisms of the founders of the great religious orders, the theology of the mystical body of Christ and the common good, and the thought of those who sought economic alternatives to both monopoly capitalism and socialism.

"The philosophy of personalism, as expressed by such writers as Emmanuel Mounier and Nicholas Berdyaev, especially shaped the movement. The French personalists emphasized the tremendous dignity of the human person, together with a profound understanding of each person's vocation in freedom and personal responsibility. Personalists and Catholic Workers challenged the priority of economics and consumerism in daily life, what at the time was called the bourgeois spirit, and insisted instead on the primacy of the spiritual and generosity in living out one's faith. As Peter Maurin put it, the personalist is a 'go-giver,' rather than a 'go-getter.'

"Dorothy and Peter believed," write the Zwicks, "that while the perspective of a Christian is always beyond time, the Lord meant that things should not be so difficult for so many here on this earth. They wanted to present a renewed vision, a Catholic vision, where hearts and minds would be changed as well as the social order. They and others in the Catholic renaissance and renewal movements before the Second Vatican Council insisted on beginning with a conversion of the heart and on a unity of faith, liturgy, contemplation, and action...."

Ironically, it was in the Church that Dorothy found freedom, the freedom to engage the whole world.
The Zwicks detail Dorothy's journey into the Church, which began in her pre-teen days when she decided on her own to become an Episcopalian, was side-tracked in college and in her "bohemian" days in New York where she was studying journalism, and her final decision to enter the Church, inspired by the poor immigrant women she would see in Greenwich Village filing into church for the 5 a.m. Mass after a night of cleaning office buildings.

"When Dorothy became a Catholic," the Zwicks write, "she did so with her whole heart, soul and mind. Her life was changed forever. Dorothy was a full-blown Catholic. She accepted the Roman Catholic Church hook, line and sinker. Some, including her brother, could not understand how she could stand to be a member of a Church they considered to be extremely authoritarian. Ironically, it was in the Church that Dorothy found freedom, the freedom to be a personalist, to engage the whole world with her faith, to address persons in an impersonal, fragmented world, and especially to meet Christ in the persons who came to her. It was in the Church that she found the spiritual weapons of which she later spoke so often...."


Interested in the great social issues of her day from the time she was a young girl, now that she was a Catholic she determined her plan of action, as a Catholic person, was to fully live out the Works of Mercy every day, which she, following St. Thomas Aquinas, listed as follows:

"The Spiritual Works of Mercy are: to admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead.

"The Corporal Works of Mercy are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to ransom the captive, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick, and to bury the dead."

This radical commitment to devote one's life to the Works of Mercy was both inspired, and sustained, by Dorothy's deep reading in the Fathers of the Church, especially the Desert Fathers, and that modern Desert Father, soon to be beatified, the French missionary to the Muslims, Charles de Foucauld.

Other major influences on Dorothy were the Russian Orthodox poet and philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, the novelist Dostoevsky, and she was close to the Eastern Catholic Benedictine monks of St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Ill., whom she counted on to lead retreats for herself and her Catholic Worker associates, and in 1955, Dorothy became an oblate of the Benedictine Abbey in Lisle.

The personalist is a ‘go-giver,’ rather than a ‘go-getter.’
In 1957, she wrote in the Catholic Worker: "Now I am a professed oblate of the St. Procopius family, and have been for the last two years, which means that I am a part of the Benedictine family all over the world, and a member of the Benedictine community at Lisle. Every month a newsletter comes from St. Procopius, from the pen of Fr. Richard, oblate master. My special love for St. Procopius is because its special function is to pray for the reunion of Rome and the Eastern Church. Their monks can offer Mass in the Eastern or Roman rite and when Fr. Chrysostom came to give us retreats at Maryfarm, we sang the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. St. Procopius is also to be the shrine of the Eastern saints in this country."

The "work and pray" tradition of the Eastern monks (thousands of whom were men seeking sanctuary in monasteries at times of forced conscription) inspired Dorothy, and laid the ground for the theology of labor she endorsed.

As the Zwicks point out, Dorothy quoted at length from Fr. Rembert Sorg, OSB Eastern Rite, regarding the Desert Fathers and also his pamphlet, "Towards a Benedictine Theology of Manual Labor."

In the October 1949 Catholic Worker, she wrote: "In the whole study of labor and of work there is usually an acceptance of our capitalistic industrial system and the acceptance of the machine as the means to do away with human labor. But here is a book by Father Sorg which is of exceptional interest to all in the lay apostolate which has more than a philosophy of labor, it has a theology of labor.

"Father Sorg's treatise goes back to St. Anthony of Egypt who rejoiced in never having been troublesome to anyone else on account of labor of his hands. The great rules of St. Pachomius and St. Basil both called for manual labor. St. Jerome said that the monasteries of Egypt would accept no monks who would not do manual work and in St. Basil the strict rule of manual labor is inculcated.

"Father Sorg's book is utterly delightful and he has chosen a wealth of quotations from the early Fathers. St. John Chrysostom writes: 'The sun being risen, they depart, each one to their work, gathering thence the Lords supply for the needy.' In St. John Chrysostom's Homilies, 'almsgiving is the love of Christ. The manual labor of monks a sacred spiritual thing and a Holy Communion'....

"The third purpose of the monks' labor was ascetical. 'In avoiding the sweat of the face, the drudgery of the thorns and the thistles, all of which are the punishment of sin, and which induce sloth and atrophy, the rich shirk work itself, which is not a punishment of sin, but a glorious pleasurable exercise of human nature's God-given faculties'...."

Among her many writings, Dorothy also wrote a book about St. Therese Lisieux, and mined the meaning of her "little way," as the Zwicks explain:

"Dorothy's embrace of the Little Way was spiritual, but also extended to fields like economics and war and peace. Dorothy did not hesitate to connect the decentralization of Distributism in economics with the spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux. In the December 1965 Catholic Worker, Dorothy wrote that the Little Way could be applied to economics, that it was the way of the poor:

"Newman wrote: 'Let us but raise the level of religion in our hearts, and it will rise in the world. He who attempts to set up God's kingdom in his heart, furthers it in the world.'

'And this goes for the priest, too, wherever he is, whether he deals with the problem of war or the problem of poverty. He may write and speak, but he needs to study the little way, which is all that is available to the poor, and the only alternative to the mass approach of the State. Missionaries throughout the world recognize this little way of cooperatives and credit unions, small industry, village commune and cottage economy. And not only missionaries.'

"Therese's approach to spirituality," the Zwicks continue, "resonates with the philosophy of Christian personalism, which emphasizes putting into action one's belief in the Gospel and the importance of taking personal responsibility. The Gospels proclaim the freedom of the children of God, a freedom that might in this world almost be called anarchism, as it sometimes was in the Catholic Worker movement. Therese's Little Way is much more compatible with personalism than with bureaucracies and government agencies, and thus with the Catholic Worker movement.....

Dorothy’s embrace of St. Therese’s Little Way was spiritual, but also extended to fields like economics and war and peace.
"Believing that Christians should work to transform the social order in order to come to the biblical vision of a new heaven and a new earth, wherein justice dwells, they were trying to say with action, 'Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.' Peter and Dorothy were driven by the Gospel and believed in striving together with others toward the common good—rather than by the invisible hand of the market or by imposing one's views with violence. People say this does not work, but it really worked for Francis of Assisi, who changed the face of the earth with the methods of the Gospel...."

Mark and Louise Zwick's The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins, not only presents a very persuasive case that Dorothy Day was a saint, but her writings, abundantly presented in this volume, will persuade many that Rome should proclaim her a Doctor of the Church.

If the day should ever come, the acrimonious debates now in the Catholic blogosphere on Dorothy Day and her negative judgments on war and the rapacious capitalism that causes it will come to an abrupt, and timely, end—and she will then be a Saint for Catholic Solidarity!

January 6, 2006

PAUL LIKOUDIS is news editor for “The Wanderer”, America’s oldest, lay-edited national Catholic newspaper. For subscription information, call 651-224-5733, or go to thewandererpress.com.

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