Voices from The Catholic Worker

Compiled and edited by Rosalie Reigle Troester
Temple University Press, 597 pages, $22.95 paperback

Richard W. Kropf

Years ago, when I was first studying theology, THE CATHOLIC WORKER was one of several Catholic periodicals rather conspicuously banned from our library reading room. Our seminary's rector let it be known that he considered it too "radical", questionably Catholic, and probably a Communist front. Naturally, I subscribed as soon as I heard about it, but prudently had the "Worker" sent to my folks' address. A book like this, an oral history compiled from over two hundred recent interviews of past and present CW members, would have caused our rector (God rest him) to do a double flip.

This book's leading subjects, of course, are the various recollections, by those who knew them personally, of Dorothy Day, the heart and founder of the movement, of Peter Maurin, the emigre French Catholic philosopher who was, in a way, its brains, and of Ammon Hennacy, a blunt-spoken activist from Wisconsin who typified, perhaps more than anyone, the movement's guts. Each of these characters, and many more, gave the movement a spontaneity and sense of life that has continued to keep it going through some very rough days even until now. (A directory compiled in 1992 and printed in the back of this volume lists almost 140 Catholic Worker hospitality houses, farms, or other centers associated one way or another with the movement.)

Nor is the story one of complete harmony, even among those early "big three". New York born Day, a journalist, a former Communist, and a single mother, had turned Catholic when everything else in her life had fallen apart. Still passionately concerned over the plight of the unemployed poor, she started her first "house of hospitality" in the Bowery district back in 1933, at the height of the great depression. Others soon joined her, and still others collaborated her (like Catherine DeHueck with her Friendship House in Harlem), or went out to found new houses, but others eventually left, including even Maurin for a year or so, unable to buy completely Day's unwavering demand that all CW members be pacifists as uncompromising as she. Although all three of them believed in a kind of Christian "anarchism", Dorothy (as one in-house joke went) always insisted that she be chief anarchist.

Maurin's own philosophy centered more around the kind of European Catholic "personalist" theories of labor that believed that first and foremost one must drop out of the overall social-political system that is the source of the evils and replace it, in one's own way of living, with something new. For this cause, Maurin toured the county, often hitchhiking his way, giving lectures on college campuses or anyplace people were willing to listen to his heavily accented pleas for society to return to the simple joys and independence of rural life. If this really sounds like a kind of conservatism in another guise, it is because, as he always insisted, true radicalism must always begin from and return to the original "roots" (radices in Latin) of anything.

Hennacy was the movement's most passionate and demanding anarchist of all. He'd become a Catholic, he would later claim, only because of his love for Dorothy. Other than that, his Christian beliefs were bare-boned Sermon on the Mount, with no quarter given to those who pleaded the necessity of compromise. He was in jail even more often than Day.

How Catholic was and is the CW movement? One chapter takes this topic up. Cardinal Spellman tried to pressure them to drop the denominational title, and Maurin even agreed -- for his own definition of "Catholic" was much more all-embracing (and thus more traditional) than the Archbishop's ever was. But Day held her ground. She had the grudging approval of many in the church for her work, even if others were suspicious of her pacifism. Hennacy, on the other hand, probably couldn't have cared less -- he even named the Salt Lake City CW house after Joe Hill, the martyred labor organizer who was an atheist!

Other chapters (there are thirty-one in all) cover every topic from the early days of the movement to the latest debates within the movement over such issues as homosexuality, abortion, feminism, and, of course, the Church. Looking at it all, and the failure of such idealism to change much, other than elicit our compassion and to heighten our awareness that all these problems continue to exist, I'd say this book will be an invaluable source of wisdom and sobriety for those who must face the disappointment of finding out that there are no simple solutions in this complex world.

R W Kropf, 3-4-94

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