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At 90 Years, Where is the Catholic Worker Movement Going?

The CW “no longer follows in Dorothy Day’s footsteps,” some complain, but I am confident that if on the day I arrived at the CW in New York almost 50 years ago I told Dorothy that I had come to follow in her footsteps, she would have immediately put me on a bus home.

Founded on May 1, 1933, by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the CW movement is still here!

In 2016, when I was cited to appear as a witness in the diocesan inquiry of “the Cause for Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God Dorothy Day” in New York, the fathers seemed keenly interested in the Catholic Worker movement’s durability. It was as though the question of Dorothy’s sanctity depends on whether the movement that she cofounded with Peter Maurin is a flash in the pan, here today, gone tomorrow, or if it is an institution built to last the centuries. The question did not interest me at the time.

Thomas Merton, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, said, “The obsession with institutionalism and organization is something that the Church has doubtless caught, to some extent, by contagion with modern pragmatism… (Jacques) Maritain points out with good reason that this spirit of efficiency has many grave disadvantages, and reminds us that ‘efficiency’ and ‘success’ are not necessarily signs of the Holy Spirit. Or rather the success that is work of the Spirit is not identifiable with the quantitative results verifiable in statistics.”

“The Holy Spirit is not at work only in durable institutions which last through the centuries, He is also at work in ventures that have no future, which have always to be begun again,” Maritain says in Journal de Raisssa.

Merton replies, “Obviously, there must be ‘durable institutions’ and there must be organization. But love is more important than organizations and a small, apparently insignificant and disorganized circle of friends united by love and a common venture in Christian witness may be of far greater value to the Church than an apparently thriving organization that is in reality permeated with the frenzies of activistic and ambitious willfulness.”

“Yet herein lies the key to the Catholic Worker’s endurance: it has never really tried to endure,” Dan McKanan wrote in his book, The Catholic Worker after Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation in 2008.  Dorothy, he says, “consistently took more interest in the people who were drawn to her movement than in the preservation of the movement itself.” The CW was never intended to be a formal institution but rather an organic network of relationships and as such it endures and thrives. Paradoxically, it is precarity—the state of existing on the brink of extinction—that is feared and fended off at all costs by most institutions and movements that has proved to be the natural and healthy condition of the CW.

In recent years, however, there have arisen a variety of less precarious and potentially more durable institutions in the CW. Some are bolstered by the approval and sponsorship of Catholic Church authorities that Dorothy repeatedly insisted in “no uncertain terms” was unnecessary. Many have secured the government non-profit charity status that our founders rejected. “We repeat–we do not intend to ‘incorporate’ the Catholic Worker movement,” Dorothy insisted in 1972 when threatened by the IRS with the seizure of St. Joseph House in the city and the farm at Tivoli unless the Catholic Worker in New York agreed to either pay war taxes or “structure itself” so as to be exempt. “We are afraid of that word ‘structure,’” she wrote, “we refuse to become a ‘corporation.’”

While these church- and state-approved and board-administered CW houses certainly have more resources for their missions and some are even able to hire social workers and executive directors at professional salaries, something is lost. Before she founded the CW, Dorothy was unimpressed with the Catholic Charity of the time: “I felt that it did not set its face against a social order which made so much charity in the present sense of the word necessary. I felt that charity was a word to choke over. Who wanted charity? And it was not just human pride but a strong sense of man’s dignity and worth, and what was due to him in justice, that made me resent, rather than feel proud of so mighty a sum total of Catholic institutions.” The Catholic Worker newspaper is published, in the words of its first issue, “to protest, to expose, to complain, to point out abuses and demand reforms.”  Many CW papers and newsletters keep true to this calling, but some now are simply fundraising appeals, even in this most critical and dangerous age and devoid of any social critique. “If we lose the vision, we become merely philanthropists, doling out palliatives,” Dorothy warned.

To the question, “Where might the Catholic Worker be going?” some insist that the death of Dorothy Day in 1980 has left the movement in a crisis of leadership. As early as 1939, however, Dorothy lamented that so many in the CW looked to her rather than to themselves- “I feel bitterly oppressed, yet confirmed in the conviction that we have to emphasize personal responsibility at all costs. It is most certainly at the price of bitter suffering for myself. For I am just in the position of a dictator trying to legislate himself out of existence.” The CW “no longer follows in Dorothy Day’s footsteps,” some complain, but I am confident that if on the day I arrived at the CW in New York almost 50 years ago I told Dorothy that I had come to follow in her footsteps, she would have immediately put me on a bus home.

With the CW’s 90th anniversary in 2023, a year of climate catastrophe and unprecedented threat of nuclear annihilation, it is not only the future of our movement and of every human institution but the whole of life on this planet that is in question.  If there is to be a future for anything, it is most likely that there will be more “Saint Dorothy” centers, well-endowed charities integrated to a greater or lesser extent into the non-profit industrial complex, where the poor will be fed and housed efficiently and without disturbing the filthy rotten system.

“But love is more important than organizations” and the CW witness will continue to flourish in disorganized and precarious circles of friends as it is today.

This essay first appeared in The Sower, the newsletter of Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker.

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