For the better part of fourscore years, major media did not generally refer to the Catholic Worker movement (1933- ) by its proper name when it caused a ruckus, but as the generic “radical group.” This changed on 5/14/12, when Catholic Worker activists staged a nonviolent protest at Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago just prior to the 5/20 – 5/21/12 NATO Summit, and thereby garnered some of the first international media attention prior to the Summit.
This action also drew the interest of media commentator Glenn Beck, who like many others over the past eighty years (and many Catholic Workers themselves) wondered what the heck the Catholic Worker movement was. He therefore turned to Dr. Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, for background on the Catholic Worker movement.
As one who supports both the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and also contributes to the Catholic Worker, I was disappointed in Dr. Donahue’s rant on the 5/15/12 Glenn Beck show against some Catholic Worker activists (see about halfway down the linked page) for their demonstration against war at Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago on 5/14/12. Here are some excerpts from the exchange between Mr. Beck and Dr. Donohue:
G. Beck: Tell me about this group.
B. Donohue: Yes, the Catholic Worker Movement began in 1933. A woman by the name of Dorothy Day–she was fairly radical at the time, and she traveled in some kind of left-wing circles. However, in fairness to her, she made some mistakes, I mean, at one point she had an abortion which she later regretted very deeply. She did reach out to the poor and she did include drug addicts and prostitutes and others, she took in people others would not.
GB: [uncertain reading] And so did Jesus. . .
BD: She was a strong opponent of the New Deal. She believed that Catholics had to go out and help each person personally, and not depend on the government, which would in fact would create a state of dependency. So to that extent by today’s markings she would be regarded as being somewhat conservative, quite unlike the ragtag band today that has slapped the name Catholic on their anarchism.
GB: OK, Dorothy Day is kind of a tough one because, I mean, I read the book [holds up Dr. Donohue’s book], and you know, you find out that she is against New Deal and you find out that she has a problem with it because it is government dependency, but she also married an anarchist and she is–I believe–I didn’t have a chance to check today–but I think that Obama and everybody else has done a big deal on Dorothy Day, and she’s a hero of the Uber Left. Is she just a, has she just been co-opted? — kind of like Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been co-opted by the Left–and he’s not a Lefty.
BD: No, she’s definitely been co-opted. Listen, the late John Cardinal O’Connor was a great man–and he was hardly some kind of screaming socialist–and he put her on the cause to sainthood. She was a good woman. She admitted she had made mistakes in the past. She wouldn’t be too happy, in fact, she’s got to be turning over in her grave to see that these people who are out there with the Occupy Wall Street people: they have no organization; they stand for nothing.
As a matter of fact–Glenn, just pick it up from here–They want a week without capitalism. The old Marxists would have said we want an eternity with socialism. They can’t sell socialism because it’s failed all over the globe. So all they want to do now is, like nihilists, they want to annihilate. They want to rip down capitalism. They don’t have a single blueprint to put in its place.
She actually did pay her dues. She went out there one-on-one to help the poor. These people all they do is they throw up their tents, they sing, they dance, they take over buildings and the like. They have nothing in common with Dorothy Day. They are a disgrace. And on top of that they’re in the wrong religion. We are not a pacifistic religion. They’re against NATO. I’m a veteran and the president of the Catholic League. I’m glad we have NATO, and I want a stronger NATO.
GB: OK, so, here’s the problem, Bill, and I’m so glad to have you on because you’ve got to go to the source, instead of, you know, you don’t, you don’t talk to the Chevy dealer about a Ford. Let’s talk to the Catholics about the Catholics. I see this, and I think the average non-Catholic sees this and says, What are the Catholics doing?
It’s just like, you know, you have the nun, I don’t remember her name, but she came out–was it Sr. Jean, or something–and she came out and she said, Hey, Obamacare is great, and you’re like: What are the Catholics doing now? But there is a real split in the Church. Do you know anything specifically about this group because, these guys, they’re communists.
BD: Yeah, they’re, I would call them more like anarchists, communists, whatever. A communist at least had a blueprint–they were totally flawed–but at least they had some idea where they thought [we] could take it. These people just want to tear down. They’re more like brats who see the Erector Set and they just want to destroy it, they don’t want to put up anything in its place. There’s nothing Catholic about them. They’re a ragtag group. They don’t have any board of directors. They have no headquarters. They could just slap the name Catholic on there and the media will give them that attention.
And you know what? They have a bipolar age distribution. In other words, there’s the very young, the ones in their twenties, who are very angry, they don’t want to get a job, and then the others who are about maybe six to twelve months away from assisted living.
GB: OK, so (laughter) you don’t mince any words. What you’re saying is that they’re the 60s hippies. . .
BD: That’s right.
GB: The radicals, and the twenty-somethings that they have co-opted. . .
BD: That’s right.
GB: Which is what, which is exactly what what we’re seeing in the universities.
BD: That’s exactly right. Everyone else has a job, they’re normal, they go to work. You have a generation of young people obviously in their twenties who don’t seem to want to, you know, get in step with the rest of us and get a job, or maybe they can’t get a job. And then you’ve got the old hippies who are out there, some of them are Catholic, some of them are Protestant, or Jewish, whatever they might be. They have more in common with each other certainly than the rank and file Catholics who go to church on Sunday and pay the bills for the Catholic Church. I guarantee its been a long time since these people ever went to church–and gave any money.
Which, take a look at the work of Arthur Brooks and others, the people on the Left are the ones who give the least amount of money to the poor. And there’s a reason for that. They think they have a right to pick the pocket of the rich and that’s the way to help the poor.
Dorothy Day knew better. You have the help them out one-on-one, and not just rip off the poor and say, My job is done. These people are a disgrace.
Now Dr. Donohue has a tough job fending off misleading SNAP attacks on the Catholic Church, defending good popes past and present against vicious slander, standing up for religious freedom especially on the HHS Mandate, and responding to a general cultural war against Catholic teaching and values–all this from the epicenter of New York, New York–and I support him and the Catholic League in his defense of the faith–but this time on the Catholic Worker he got it wrong.
Almost everything that Dr. Donahue said of the present-day Catholic Workers could also be–and was–said of Dorothy Day in her own time. She embraced both a form of Acts 2: 42-47 communism, an anarchism inspired by Peter Kropotkin, and a form of personalist pacifism. Each May for the past several decades, the Catholic Worker newspaper has republished its “aims and means” describing these positions.
As for whether Catholicism is a pacifistic religion, consider the famous words spoken by Servant of God Pope Paul VI on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, 1965 at the United Nations. The original French conveys some of the emotional power of Paul VI’s statement:
Il suffit de rappeler que le sang de millions d’hommes, que des souffrances inouïes et innombrables, que d’inutiles massacres et d’épouvantables ruines sanctionnent le pacte qui vous unit, en un serment qui doit changer l’histoire future du monde: jamais plus la guerre, jamais plus la guerre! C’est la paix, la paix, qui doit guider le destin des peuples et de toute l’humanité!
It is enough to recall that the blood of millions, countless unheard-of sufferings, useless massacres and frightening ruins have sanctioned the agreement that unites you with an oath that ought to change the future history of the world: never again war, never again war! It is peace, peace, that has to guide the destiny of the nations of all mankind!
Paul VI’s very historic speech, one of the first by a pope outside the Vatican in the modern era, is especially notable for the pro-life language in the final paragraphs. Some day Paul VI will be recognized as the visionary he was. Although the Catholic Church teaches a just war theory in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2307-2317, the Church on a daily basis preaches, like Paul VI, to end almost every war.
It is therefore not surprising that some Catholics, especially young adults, take this message of peace literally.
Although doing so for often different reasons from those of the socialists or communists, Dorothy Day as a Catholic Worker attended many demonstrations that outraged the Catholics of her day as much as Dr. Donahue is outraged by the Catholic Workers joining with the Occupy movement in demonstrating in Chicago during the May 20-21, 2012 NATO Summit.
And as for being ragtag, believe me, the 5/14/12 demonstration Catholic Workers were no more nor less ragtag than Stanley Vishnewski, Dorothy Day’s first fabled ragtag disciple of thousands to follow.
For more background on the particular Catholic Worker group involved in the 5/14/12 demonstration, here’s an earlier article from Loyola Magazine on the White Rose Catholic Worker community in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Here’s also information from the Nuclear Resister pacifist blog on the 5/14/12 demonstration.
I have my own criticism of the Catholic Worker philosophy, and it is one shared with the late Msgr. Paul Hanly Furfey (1896-1992) of Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, the pioneering dean of Catholic priest sociologists (Full disclosure: Fr. Furfey and I corresponded for many years beginning in the late 1970s). While he is often considered a “Catholic Worker theologian,” in his Love and the Urban Ghetto, Fr. Furfey offered a sympathetic, balanced, but also unstinting critique of the Catholic Worker movement based upon his then 44 years of interactions with and support for the people in the movement. His critique is so important, with his book out of print, that I offer the bulk of it here:
Limits of the Catholic Worker Movement
by Fr. Paul Hanly Furfey, from Love and the Urban Ghetto, 1978, Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, pp. 119-130.
In 1934 and subsequently, many of us in the Department of Sociology at the Catholic University, both faculty and students, came to know the Catholic Worker rather well. We were all deeply impressed. The movement seemed to represent a giant step beyond Catholic liberalism. However, as time went on, we began to evaluate it as social scientists.
In one important respect the Catholic Worker went far beyond the liberals, who were swept off their feet by the government’s officially generated enthusiasm during World War II. Even though the Selective Service Act provided for conscientious objectors, the Catholic hierarchy made no move to cooperate. It was the Catholic Worker group that took the initiative and provided Catholic COs with opportunities for alternative service in forestry camps and elsewhere. All during the war the paper provided a forum for anti-war criticism. The entire present Catholic pacifist movement has its roots in the Catholic Worker. This has probably been the group’s proudest achievement. However, this is beyond the scope of the present book, which focuses on a different problem: the misery of the urban ghetto.
In some ways, however, the Catholic Worker group merely reinforced the work of the liberals. Thus their paper spoke strongly and to a wide audience in favor of racial desegregation and the rights of labor, often by means of excellent, on-the-spot reporting.
The chief day-by-day activity at Catholic Worker houses has always been feeding the derelicts, the outcasts, the homeless men and women who wander about the city streets without hope, often without any regular income or at best with a very inadequate income. That the free meals thus provided constitute a great act of Christian charity is beyond argument. It is a very necessary good work and one that tends to be neglected by the standard social agencies. However, by concentrating on a tiny fraction of the poor, one may distract attention from the vastly greater number of the other poor.
The social outcasts who are fed in bread lines or in other similar ways do indeed constitute only a tiny fraction of the poor. It is difficult to estimate, for any large city, the actual number of those to be classified as social outcasts. It is hard to define this category precisely and still harder to count the actual number who should be thus classified. For Washington, perhaps Maurine Beasley’s guess is as good as any. She gave an estimate of one thousand. This is well under 1 percent of the city’s poor as reported by the census. [Recent scientific surveys have increased estimates of the size of the homeless population in major cities, but they still represent a relatively small percentage of the poor in general–A. Schorsch, III]
By concentrating on a minuscule fraction of the poor, Catholic Worker groups tend to overlook the major problems of the slums as described in earlier chapters. Of course the aged poor, the sick poor, are also problems. Yet the chief problem of these areas is the problem of average residents, the normal boys and girls who find that local schools do not meet their needs, who drop out at the minimum legal age, functionally illiterate and untrained for any job. They may marry, but they usually find that normal family life is beyond their means. They are usually undernourished. They fall an easy prey to sickness. A few do, indeed, become the sort of outcasts that attract the love of Catholic Worker groups, but by that time their lives are wrecked. The great majority continue to suffer until they meet an early death, having been aided perhaps by our tragically inadequate welfare system, but probably not otherwise. By focusing on a tiny fraction of the poor, the Catholic Worker may even be doing the average slum dweller a disservice, as they distract attention from the less dramatic, but very tragic plight of the latter.
The social philosophy of the Catholic Worker looks toward an ideal society. As stated in the May 1977 issue of their paper, this will involve “a complete rejection of the present social order and a nonviolent revolution to establish an order more in accord with Christian values.” It is disappointing to find that the ideal proposed is Distributism: “We favor the establishment of a Distributist economy wherein those who have a vocation to the land will work on the farms surrounding the village and those who have other vocations will work in the village itself. In this way we will have a decentralized economy which will dispense with the State was we know it and will be federationist in character as was society during certain periods that preceded the rise of national states.”
A clear and quite obvious objection against this proposal is that it has been tried out rather often and has never worked. As stated in the preceding chapter, there was a wave of enthusiasm early in the last century for experiments of this sort, both in France and here in the United States. The Brook Farm experiment is perhaps the best known example. In spite of the commitment and enthusiasm of the participants, such ventures never succeeded.
It is surprising that Catholic Worker followers should still advocate Distributist communities after their own experience. Various groups among them have bought land in rural areas with these ideals in mind. Houses located on these farms have been pleasant places for rest, quiet work, and spiritual exercises. Yet they never developed in the direction indicated in the position paper quoted above.
One might even ask whether a society of the type described would be desirable, even it if were feasible. Is it really a good idea to turn back the clock? Do we really want to discard modern technology and restore life as it was before the machine age? Granted that many of the fruits of so-called “progress” are illusory, yet some of these fruits are good. Consider modern medicine, for example. It depends on an enormously intricate technology, the manufacture of drugs, the use of complicated equipment. It depends further on medical schools, on continuing research, on large medical libraries. Do we want to give up this complex technology for the sake of the simple life? In the United States the expectation of life at birth rose from 47.3 years in 1910 to 72.5 in 1975. Is Distributism worth the sacrifice of a quarter of a century of life?
[ASIII: In the next section, Fr. Furfey described the “Washington Experiment” in which ultimately two houses were set up in Washington DC–Martin de Porres House “to serve the derelicts,” and Fides House, “a large and formal settlement house. . . . to concentrate on the remaining 99 percent.” Fr. Furfey recounted many “individual successes”:]
All such successes were heart-warming. Yet gradually the staff began to realize that they were doing nothing, and could do nothing, to solve the essential problem of the ghetto. That problem was inherent in the very organization of the U.S. socio-economic system. Ghetto dwellers were excluded from any real participation in that system. Their voices were not heard. Few jobs were open to them, and those few jobs were menial, poorly paid, uninteresting, dead-end jobs. And without stable employment, stable family life is not possible. Ghetto people simply do not belong. Their needs are not taken seriously.
In the Fides House neighborhood a family usually undertook to support a child to the age of sixteen. It was difficult to do that much, and it was usually impossible to do more. At sixteen a boy or girl would drop out of school, this being the minimum age for doing so legally. At that time the child would probably be functionally illiterate and untrained for any job. It is extremely difficult for a poorly prepared boy or girl of this age to get any job in Washington. If one is lucky enough to get some sort of a job, it will surely be poorly paid.
There were many heart-rending cases. the bright, playful youngsters had made Fides House a joyful place. Then, after a few short years, they had become hopeless cases. One boy turned to robbery and spent ten years in prison. Another was murdered in a gambling dispute. Still another, after prison and a marriage break-up, killed his wife, her uncle, and himself on the street. Such cases dramatized for the staff the bitterness of ghetto life. And there was little Fides House could do. One might indeed, hope to get a decent job for this or that boy or girl. This would be an individual triumph, But it would not alter the economic system with its built-in sector of unemployment. The ghetto would remain as it was.
Only one conclusion seems possible. Radicalism on the Catholic Worker model could indeed ease the pain of an individual needy neighbor. Personalism provided a most beautiful Christian lifestyle. But this, unfortunately, was not enough. It is not genuine Christan love if one helps some individual and suffers an unjust social system to exist. For it is the system itself that make our neighbors suffer. To tolerate the system is to tolerate their agony. Christian love is inconsistent with such toleration. To help one’s neighbor in need requires a frontal attack on the evil system itself. There is no alternative.
Paul Hanly Furfey, Love and the Urban Ghetto, 1978, Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, pp. 119-130.
Fr. Furfey, the sociologist, did not see the Catholic Worker program of societal change through agrarian distributism likely ever to succeed. But Fr. Furfey, the peacemaker, with John C. Ford, SJ (1902-1989) one of the very few priests in America to contemporaneously decry the mass bombing of cities during WWII–finally condemned two decades later as “a crime against God and man himself” by the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes–continued to support the Catholic Worker movement because of his objection to war and his belief in the “Worker’s” individual efforts at charity following Matthew 25:31-46.
With these critiques I agree, but with a further concern about the Catholic Worker: I learned in hundreds of different ways through twenty years working with the homeless at Friendship House in Chicago that alcoholism is a disease, and those who work with alcoholics must study this disease and work with medical facilities and professionals in order to get the best possible care for the homeless alcoholic and addicted, who will surely die without adequate treatment. If one is not assiduously working to get treatment for the ill, there is always a danger of keeping ill homeless people as “pets” in some strange moral fantasy-land.
Like the monastic movements, the Catholic Worker is an attempt at Christian perfectionism. Since the world continues to remain imperfect, such lifestyles pose particular challenges, yet continue to attract the young and the old. And since the Catholic Worker is a movement, it has indeed evolved since the Fr. Furfey’s 1978 critique (which echoed his similar 1930’s critique of the agrarian utopianism of the Catholic Worker within its own newspaper).
“The Worker” has also evolved by not only multiplying greatly in many cities and rural areas, but it has schooled itself in the techniques of nonviolent action, influenced by more senior activists like Kathy Kelly (full disclosure, my teaching colleague friend at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, 1980-82), who appear now and again within Catholic Worker ranks and publications despite their own personal wrestling with the beliefs of Catholicism.
As a movement with a strong anarchist influence, the Catholic Worker varies from place to place in its Catholic orthodoxy and religious practice. Dr. Donohue is right: The “Worker” has no board of directors, no headquarters, but this allows for dozens of different initiatives to spring up in Kropotkin-style “organic” fashion based upon Catholic Worker tradition built over the past 79 years. Some Catholic Worker houses continue Dorothy Day’s own Eucharistic piety, and attend daily Mass, pray the Liturgy of the Hours, pay great attention to Catholic teaching, philosophy, and literature, and hold to Catholic consistent ethic of life principles. Others are in danger of pursuing their own perfectionist cult of personality, and, as Paul said to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13), they might hand their bodies over to be burnt (with zeal), but they do not have love, the love of God.
In addition, the Catholic Worker has also taken up the challenge posed by Fr. Furfey, who saw “no alternative” but to “help one’s neighbor in need” by “a frontal attack on the evil system itself” by nonviolent direct action in addition to personal acts of charity.
And in an odd sort of way, outside of some sci-fi post-apocalyptic scenario, it is ironically a technological advance–in wind turbine energy production that one sees spreading throughout the American farmland–that actually makes a distributist agrarian solution seem more feasible.
American Catholic intellectuals take the Catholic Worker _very_ seriously, because the “The Worker” is much more radically countercultural than mainstream American Catholicism, and from time to time threatens to tip American Catholic culture away from the strategy of being both loyally American and loyally Catholic that has been the “Americanist” heart of established (read, academically tenured) American Catholic thought, and one of the principal cultural stances of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. Witness the 1997 tenure denial at Notre Dame University of then Congregation of the Holy Cross priest and peace activist Michael J. Baxter, often also called a “Catholic Worker theologian.”
(History does have its ironies, in this case a double or perhaps even triple irony. Quoted in the 1997 National Catholic Reporter article just cited on the Baxter tenure controversy taking the establishment “Americanist” view was the theologian earlier barred from Catholic University of America teaching, Charles Curran, who said “The Catholic church in the United States has the biggest hospital system, social service system and educational system under private auspices, which serve not only Catholic but all kinds of folk. How can you be countercultural and still do that?” Who would have guessed, other than the likes of Fr. Furfey and Prof. Baxter (and Francis Cardinal George) perhaps, that fifteen years later Catholic institutions are being forced, because of the HHS Mandate on abortifacients, artificial constraception, and sterilization, to act in the very opposite direction of Prof. Curran’s supposition, and _take_ a countercultural stance?)
I’m sure that Dr. Donohue knows much more about the Catholic Worker than the hyped-up cultural cartoon balloon format of the Glenn Beck show allowed him to say.
But I also have my own opinions on Dr. Donahue and the Catholic League. When the situation–as it often does–calls for loud, in-your-face confrontation filled with spike and vinegar, he gets the job done, e.g., Dr. Donohue’s response to Jon Stewart’s 4/16/12 “vagina manger” outrage. But the Kaplan-Maslow Law of the Instrument applies here: when all you have is a hammer, you treat everything else like a nail. The Catholic League needs other media voices, and a much more comprehensive, interactive web page that captures hundreds of anti-Catholic statements and leads readers to some kind of responses to them on a dynamic basis.
And with so much apparently riding on Dr. Donohue’s heroic, individual efforts, what will remain of the Catholic League when he retires? Will there be chapters in other cities to carry on, as Catholic League founder Fr. Virgil Blum, SJ once envisioned? Or will it continue as a mostly one-person show? There is also danger of mission-creep in such a position, wherein the spokesperson begins commenting on all manner of things Catholic, in self-appointed Catholic hall-monitor fashion–to borrow and credit my seminary friend Ken Trainor’s memorable phrase–similar to the Nobel scientist in physics who begins commenting on politics, diet, and art no sooner than the award is in hand and the awardee is securely in media space.
Also–and I’m glad it appeared to be a one-time thing–but the apparent display announcement of Patrick J. Buchanan’s book Suicide of a Superpower probably didn’t belong on page 2 of the December, 2011 issue of Catalyst, the Journal of the Catholic League, unless it were to be cited as a paid advertisement. One does not have to subscribe to Mr. Buchanan’s views in order to support the Catholic League, or at least I hope not.
As for Glenn Beck, DJ turned historian and social philosopher: he has taken Friedrich A. Hayek’s useful and insightful critique of social justice as an economically undefinable phrase in The Mirage of Social Justice to the limit of making the words “social justice” absolutely suspect in some circles.
Never mind that if we, say, follow the Fifth Commandment not to kill and the Seventh Commandment not to steal, and thereby act in a personally just manner, that we might be able to measure in a rudimentary way the “social justice” of a society based upon the degree to which there is neither murder nor theft.
In this way it is possible to operationalize somewhat the social justice question, and to a degree answer Hayek’s critique. But this is no easy matter once economic measures are considered, and Hayek’s insights and criticisms must not be dismissed out of hand, because Hayek stands with those who realize, contra absolutist thinkers like Plato and his heirs, that human freedom should not be sacrificed for anyone’s utopia. Therefore, anyone who cares about the social justice question should read Hayek–especially Catholic Workers!
But I don’t agree that the words “social justice” should be banned or mark those who use the words as suspect. Is not a society without murder and theft desirable? If so, we should have a phrase to describe it. “Social justice” is one such phrase.
Now if Glenn Beck and his audience would just read the entire text of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica!
Peter Kreeft’s A Summa of the Summa, or as I like to call it, Some of the Summa, is a good place to start. . .
© Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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