Book Review: The Catholic Worker After Dorothy

Why has the Catholic Worker flourished even after the passing of its founders? These communities have prospered, according to Dan McKanan, because Day and Maurin provided them with a blueprint that emphasized creativity more than rigid adherence to a single model.

The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation

By Dan McKanan

Publisher: Liturgical Press (March 1, 2008
Length: 240 pages
ISBN13: 9780814631874

“It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.” These words, which close Catholic Worker co-founder’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, open Dan McKanan’s welcoming and welcomed new book on the state of the movement today.  The Catholic Worker, founded in 1933 by Day and Peter Maurin, celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2008, and this exciting new book describes how today’s Catholic Workers live out Peter Maurin’s program of houses of hospitality for the poor, instruction on the social teachings of Christianity, and rural farming communes.  

A readable 236 pages, including endnotes by chapter and an index, McKanan’s book presents nuanced and vivid descriptions of Catholic Worker houses today, with particular emphasis on the increasing role of families in the movement.  As befits a theological scholar newly appointed to Harvard, McKanan’s thoughtful research includes interviews with individual Workers and much material from the CW Archives at Marquette University and often contrasts gracefully with existing literature on the movement.  Some scholars and even individual Worker houses inveigh against Catholic Worker diversity, but McKanan points out that the movement was never monolithic, even when the founders were alive, and that frequent communication, especially in the form of newsletters and national gatherings, provide cohesion and coherence.

He doesn’t neglect ongoing controversies, especially in the longest section, “Rules, Families, and the Church” where he asks: How “Catholic” is the Catholic Worker?  How do families fit in?  How do individual communities respond to the “Spiritual Works of Mercy,” which include instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, and admonishing sinners?  It is under these “works” that so many Catholic Worker houses take the lead in the nonviolent resistance to war that has always characterized the movement as much as its commitment to feeding and housing the poor.

His conclusions, presented without polarizing, are that while many individual Catholic Workers are either alienated from the specifically Roman characteristics of the Catholic Church or were never Catholic in the first place, all are animated by the Gospels and try earnestly to live them out according to changing locales, circumstances, and individual interests.  He doesn’t shy away from the “hot button” issues of women’s ordination, advocacy for gays and lesbians, and abortion, concluding that most (but not all) CW communities take an ecumenical view and identify themselves as inclusive.

McKanan describes several communities which have remained active since the founding days, illustrating that Dorothy Day’s travels to visit her large network of friends is replicated in the guidance this generation gives to  new CW houses.  While one might wish that he had been able to devote more pages to how Catholic Workers resist war, to the CW houses in other countries, and to the growing number of farms, The Catholic Worker After Dorothy is a wonderful introduction to contemporary Catholic Worker life and thought. 

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