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Kok Hou Chia

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The Catholic Worker: Translating Doctrine Into Practice

Posted: 09/21/11 06:17 PM ET

In the winter of 1932, Dorothy Day was covering the Hunger March in Washington D.C. as a reporter for a socialist publication. She had recently just converted to Catholicism. As she watched the protesters march past her, demanding a solution to their economic woes, Day would never forget the bitter disappointment she felt then at the lack of Catholic leadership in social activism on behalf of the poor. When she met the French priest, Peter Maurin, not long afterwards, they started The Catholic Worker, a Catholic social publication. The first issue appeared in May 1933 -- during the depths of the Great Depression. Their vision was to reform the political, social and economic aspects of the social order based on Christian principles and ethics.

The Catholic Worker movement "radicalized" Catholicism. At a time when the popular perception of American Catholicism was that of an "otherworldly" faith with no real social consequences, the Catholic Worker struggled to bring Catholic doctrine to bear on social issues. This could be seen, for instance, in its staunch advocacy of racial justice in the 1930s. The Catholic Worker not only published regular columns and articles from other interracial publications that opposed the economic exclusion and lynching of African-Americans, but consolidated Catholic support for racial justice as its circulation steadily increased during the early years of its publication. Black Chicago physician and civil rights leader Arthur Falls, for instance, saw the Catholic Worker as an unprecedented ally in his campaign to combat racial discrimination and challenge the status quo of race-relations within the American Catholic Church (which for centuries had practiced segregation in the churches). Most significantly for Falls, the Catholic Worker proved his point that it was not Catholicism per se that was racist, but that racism was the result of the failure of Catholics to live up to true Catholic doctrine. Though the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ proclaimed the universal brotherhood of all men, secular conventions, Falls believed, nevertheless impelled Catholics to think and act otherwise.

The Catholic Worker promoted social activism amongst Catholics through an action-oriented spirituality rooted in an ethic of poverty and the individual practice of the works of mercy. During the Depression era, the social indifference of the Catholic Church had disillusioned many young Catholics. As a result, they found the gospel radicalism of the Catholic Worker spiritually revitalizing and more importantly, faithful to biblical witness. To serve Christ, according to the Catholic Worker, meant to take seriously -- and literally -- the Savior's precepts to feed the hungry, relieve the thirsty and shelter the homeless. Thus, the works of mercy were practiced on a daily basis in the houses of hospitality.

The houses of hospitality were, in an important sense, an embodiment of the personalist philosophy of the Catholic Worker i.e. taking individual personal responsibility to effect social change. It was the belief that social revolution would come about only if individuals took personal responsibility to alleviate the suffering of their neighbors instead of relying on the bureaucratic charity of "Holy Mother State." In the Catholic Worker context, this often entailed self-sacrifice, such as the sharing of one's private property for the benefit of the community.

Llewellyn Scott, Helen Caldwell Day and Mary Frecon each started a house of hospitality to meet different but equally desperate human needs; Scott to cater to the needs of socially ostracized African-American men in Washington D.C., Frecon to provide a social avenue for neglected black children in the slums of Harrisburg, and Helen to serve the needs of black women who could not afford day care for their children. However, their immediate communities for the most part did not look highly upon their philanthropy. Nor were their communities impressed by the undeserving "street bums" who frequented these houses of hospitality and whom Catholic Workers piously elevated to the status of the "Ambassadors of God."

Therefore, running a house of hospitality was more often than not a lonely, socially isolating endeavor. Sometimes, Catholic Workers even provoked public outrage and invited social ostracism through their activities, as when Helen deliberately breached a social taboo and convened an interracial discussion group in segregated Memphis with the goal of overcoming racial prejudice in the South. Through these individual acts of solidarity with the poor, Catholic Workers sought to transform the values of public life by living out the commands of Jesus as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. Religious faith was to serve as the basis for social action.

One integral feature of the early Catholic Worker movement was its ethic of poverty. To be sure, the Catholic Worker recognizes a distinction between voluntary poverty and involuntary poverty. While the former could be "good and dignified," and could conceivably be adopted as a way of life, the latter was understood to be a consequence of social injustice and should be opposed. Voluntary poverty was akin to Gandhian simplicity, or the notion that it was a lower standard of material living, not higher, that could lead to spiritual liberation and human freedom. To live in poverty was to embrace the principle of non-accumulation and to contribute to the common good through sharing one's private resources. In this way, voluntary poverty was intricately linked to Catholic Worker notions of love, justice, charity and empathy.

But early Catholic Workers had not always found it easy to embrace a lifestyle centered on radical poverty. In the twentieth century pre-Civil Rights era, there were actually few leaders in the Catholic Worker movement who were African-American. After all, voluntary poverty must have seemed like a self-defeating ideal for a historically marginalized race. Indeed, Helen's family objected to her acceptance of poverty as racial masochism. Helen herself was initially perplexed by the Catholic Workers' way of life. However, during the course of her stay at the St. Joseph's house of hospitality on Mott Street, she experienced a spiritual transformation. Seeing the compassion and forbearance that Catholic Workers brought to each human encounter amidst the daily chaos, she began to understand the essence of living a Christ-like life. Between 1935 and 1967, Llewellyn Scott, another African-American, also contributed most of his time, income and energy to maintaining a house of hospitality in Washington D.C.

In the final analysis, the Catholic Worker activated the core of Catholic spirituality at a time when the Church was seen as socially lethargic, bringing Catholicism out of the zone of private morality and merging it with the public sphere of human values.