Why Peter Maurin Matters

Peter Maurin’s influence on the Catholic Worker Movement is often overlooked, even in Catholic Worker circles. But he was the intellectual author of the movement, and gas much to teach the movement even today. A talk by Paul Magno presented at the Dorothy Day Centenary Conference, Marquette University, October 10, 1997.

Peter Maurin is an important, but highly under-appreciated voice from our past and for our future. Our society doesn’t have a clue who he was or what he had to say, which is a pity at the moment, a moment of contentious discourse on the direction of society, a moment of ponderous moralizing, and a moment, for all that, of tremendous spiritual and intellectual barrenness. America, for what it’s worth, could use a Peter Maurin. But he is also barely known among the social or political radicals, secular and religious, who ought to be better informed, and among Catholics, among whom his name should at least be recognizable. Scholar and worker, these days, are oblivious to Peter Maurin, and much diminished for it.

I am concerned, too, that he’s a bit of a relic and curiosity to the Catholic Worker movement as well. Some of the folks in the movement are doing very admirable work with his “back to the land” idea and, while I recognize that, I am not going to dwell on it here.

But I seldom see him cited authoritatively to the extent that Dorothy Day is, or the Scriptures are. How often do we hear someone in our discussions weigh in with, “Dorothy said this…” or “Dorothy would not agree…” or “the Gospel calls us to …” or “Jesus said that….” Much less often do we hear “Peter said,” or “Peter Maurin would have advocated this.”

1. He is the intellectual author of the Catholic Worker Movement and Dorothy Day’s primary teacher.

One is tempted, especially in a conference such as we’re holding here at Marquette, to identify the Catholic Worker movement exclusively or predominantly with Dorothy Day, or with whatever version of Dorothy we might be partial to. I’m aware that some folks speak only of Dorothy’s piety, or only of her devotion to the poor or only of her loyalty to the church, or only of her radicalism, or only of her fire & brimstone denunciation of the “filthy, rotten system.” Dorothy Day is not so easily caricatured, I think, and the movement’s origins and identity likewise defy simplistic presentation. I propose that there is no getting around the significance of Peter Maurin as the intellectual author of the Catholic Worker, by virtue of the program he propounded, which Dorothy Day amplified through the newspaper and other forums for years while Peter was alive and held up as the movement’s agenda and purpose for many, many years after his death. There is also the small matter of her insistence that it was Peter who educated her as a Catholic, and who significantly influenced her intellectual growth and development. I believe it is a mistake to dismiss her deference to Peter as a kind of caginess on her part in order to compensate for the disadvantages of being a woman, a convert, a social radical. Her habitual affirmation of “Peter’s Program,” was too enduring and too pervasive to warrant such skepticism. The fact that she advocated his program so staunchly, and arguably with greater fervor after his death than before, has to be appreciated by us. If we cherish Dorothy Day, and respect her wisdom, then we need to trust her judgement in embracing the program Peter Maurin called the Catholic Worker movement to.

In going through some of Dorothy Day’s writing in the Catholic Worker, especially in the 40’s and 50’s, we find that often as not in the anniversary issue of the newspaper, she makes it a point to emphasize Peter’s name and the agenda he promulgated. I would posit, too, that in the early decades of the newspaper, it’s style and focus gradually moved more in the direction of what Peter envisioned. For example, where the thirties saw a great deal of reporting and involvement in labor activism–strikes and organizing and the like–later decades saw more reflection on the meaning of work.

2. He articulates a substantial critique of modern society and a vision of what society could be instead.

Peter spoke and wrote in the thirties and the forties at a time when great social calamities, the Great Depression and the second world war engulfed our society. As these totalizing social phenomena seized us, Peter warned, in vain, against totalizing institutional answers. The society turned anyway to what Dorothy Day came to call “Holy Mother State.” Peter’s warnings against dependency on mass institutions were prescient then and they’re relevant now. It’s taken our society until the 1990’s to tire of Big Brother and it’s taken the political right no time at all to effect a shallow mimicry of Peter. Today, our political leaders join Peter in saying that “the Federal Government was never intended to solve men’s economic problems,” and many a voice would get airtime to lament that “modern society has separated the Church from the State,” but no one’s going to be caught following that lament by adding, “but it has not separated the State from business.” When Peter Maurin tells us that when “the bank account is the standard of values, the class on top sets the standard,” and “cares only for money, … not for culture,” he’s diagnosing the 90’s even though he wrote that in the 1930’s.

When Peter goes to town on of his favorite economic questions, the lending of money at interest, we see the difference a coherent philosophy makes. Not only does he call us back to the ethics of the “prophets of Israel and the Fathers of the Church” on the question, but he underscores the way in which loansharking is a treacherous mechanism, economically and ethically, in our social system because it licenses “the acquisitive society” at the expense of “the functional society,” that is, it is an economic mechanism that drives us collectively to unfettered greed. “Living off the sweat of someone else’s brow,” he teaches us, somehow damages our capacity for any kind of ethical restraint, and prohibits us from living as “gentlemen.”

Peter could see in this as in so many questions that he spoke incessantly about, that what captivates us by way of materialism, be it accumulation of money or the products of industrial capitalism, also takes possession of us spiritually. And if we’re captivated by mass production, or the omnipotent state, or impressive bank accounts, or even accelerating “progress” be it social, political or technological, then we are held captive against the possibility of benefiting from what manual labor, or holy poverty, or prayerfulness might have to offer if we had any contact with them. This is what is fundamental and holistic about so much that he talked about. It’s a basic and simple contribution to the common good of our society and I submit, the Catholic Worker movement’s gift to our society, if we can learn to embody and articulate it ourselves.

Even America does not have to rot and die for its sins. Peter Maurin saw and lived a way to be “a new society in the shell of the old,” and was so confident of its appeal that he just kept talking it up. We, intellectuals and rabble rousers alike, can take a dose of that medicine and offer a like gift to our society and our world, and even our church, if we heed Peter.

3. He puts a challenge to us to form and inform our intellects through clarification of thought and to share that thought with all manner of people.

The very method of the Easy Essays is a method of indoctrination, of summarizing ideas in a way that allows them to inculcate themselves into our intellects. That was the virtue of their simplicity and their catchiness. But that does not mean the teaching of Peter Maurin was simplistic. Not at all. If we attend to the ideas he presents and to the intellectuals he recommends to us, we come away with exactly what he advocated: minds that were not only informed but well formed, that had a coherent world view and philosophy, the value of which we cannot underestimate. Broad philosophical unity– vision–is hard to come by, even in the best of learning institutions. It needs to be worked at and cultivated.

Peter isn’t satisfied to have us simply memorize his Easy Essays. He wants us to grasp what he is pointing to, and he believes that the exchange of ideas through roundtable “clarification of thought” is absolutely valuable. Dorothy Day emphasizes over and over that “clarification of thought” is the first point in the Catholic Worker program, and the reason for the Roundtable discussions, the newspaper, the constant effort to educate people that both Peter and Dorothy undertook.

That is a vital part of our work in sustaining their legacy, I submit. We need to return to serious study of Peter Maurin, through his Easy Essays, through the many books that he recommended, through his summaries of so many intellectuals. In the early years of the paper, he often ran a “books to read” list along with his Easy Essays and his “easy essay” style summaries of the thought of such writers as Maritain, Berdaeyev, Belloc. My immersion in Peter Maurin led me to monopolize Georgetown University’s library copies of two very early books of Easy Essays, the 1936 Sheed & Ward edition and the 1948 Catholic Worker Books edition, for two years! These both had similar book lists in the back and I read several of those also. Penty, Chesterton, Furfey, Maritain come to mind.

If we study and discuss just a few of these we’ll have a much stronger capacity to think through how to “bring the social order to Christ,” how to “build a new society in the shell of the old,”

4. His manner of practicing Catholicism.

Peter Maurin, without a doubt, is deeply conversant with his religious tradition and able to speak of its spiritual, social and political implications in his day. It is on this basis that he was able to apply the Church’s social teachings to modern problems. He was also as devout and pious and loyal to the Church as he could be, but barely ever spoke of obedience or orthodoxy.

Peter Maurin matters as a Catholic because he shows us how to be faithful to Christ and to his church. He does so in the personalist terms, taking his own advice to “be what you want the other fellow to be.” Without a doubt he advocates that we know our Catholic heritage, that we know the example of the saints and the teachings of the Holy See, that we see the applicability of the Benedictine motto, “Labor and Pray,” to our own lives and to our mission in the world. We’d have, then, a primarily spiritual outlook and motivation for all that we do. So, too, if we took to heart the example of St. Francis in practicing poverty.

But a deeper lesson impresses me in the remembrances of Peter Maurin, particularly those offered by Dorothy Day. We see that he insisted that the Works of Mercy, or a philosophy of poverty, a philosophy of work, such as he proposed, are rooted in the “primacy of the spiritual.” More significantly, he lived them, “at a personal sacrifice.” Dorothy Day reports that he never had a second coat, that he often gave away his bed, he never had his own desk, that he always “ate what was set before him.” He’s the one who brought every Tom, Dick & Harry in from Union Square or the Bowery and thus prompted the first hospitality.

I’m impressed that this wasn’t all done to show up or shame anyone or out of any egotistical posturing, nor to impose some “truth” on others, but out of a simple straightforward fidelity to Christ. As such all these practices were primarily devotional acts, offered to God as found in daily prayer and in his brothers and sisters. And as an offering of gifts, it was all done with complete freedom.

I notice, too, that this is the heart of Peter Maurin’s adherence to the Church, these acts of love, a very impressive fidelity that speaks so much truer than the voices in our church that clamor on the one hand for order, orthodoxy and obedience, and on the other equality, democracy and inclusion.

Peter calls us to a deeper understanding and practice of what it means to be Catholic, a practice that responds to the Christ in his most glorious persona. He capsulizes this beautifully in one of his most “religious” Easy Essays, “The Spirit of the Mass, The Spirit for the Masses.”

                The central act of devotional life
		in the Catholic Church
		is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
		The sacrifice of the Mass
		is the unbloody repetition
		of the Sacrifice of the Cross.
		On the Cross of Calvary
		Christ gave His life to redeem the world.
		The life of Christ was a life of sacrifice
		The life of a Christian must be
		a life of sacrifice.
		We cannot imitate the sacrifice of Christ
		on Calvary
		by trying to get all we can.
		We can only imitate the sacrifice of Christ
		on Calvary
		by trying to give all we can.


I submit that being conversant with Peter Maurin’s thought and teaching is part and parcel of participation in the Catholic Worker movement. We ought not to disregard him as too quaint or too simplistic to be taken seriously. We need to insure that his legacy is a living legacy, for the vitality of our movement, for the life of our church and for the redemption of our society.

		Interest doesn't interest me 
		But principle does interest me

		Modern man maintains that enlightened self-interest
		is the way to see that society governs itself
		But the self-interest is no longer enlightened and 
		no one is remembering principle
		When interest becomes the only principle
		What we get is a selfish society

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