Revisiting the Catholic Worker Movement: Dorothy Day and Anarcho-Socialist Christianity

Kaya Oakes


One afternoon in July, I was carrying plates of potato salad and chicken to groups of homeless people in the dining room of a Berkeley parish. The church hosts a monthly sit-down dinner for two hundred people, and each table has a host, who sits with the guests, in addition to a server. I recognized the guy hosting the table I was serving; I’d often seen him running a food line with a group of volunteers in People’s Park near the university.

With his long white beard and all black wardrobe, J.C. Orton looks like a lot of other Berkeley guys, but the stencil on the side of his VW Van is unusual: it reads  “Night on the Streets: Catholic Worker.” Almost every morning since 1997, J.C. has gotten up at the crack of dawn to serve hot food in the park. On rainy and cold winter nights, he offers an emergency shelter and a hot meal to Berkeley’s semi-permanent indigent population. He also helps long term homeless find rooms, receive medical care, get jobs, and open bank accounts. “Night on the Streets” is run on a completely volunteer basis, and J.C. recently received a Jefferson Award for public service. The work of J.C. and his colleagues wouldn’t be possible without the inspiration of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, a radical socialist writer and single mother.

The case for Day’s canonization as a saint in the Catholic Church began almost immediately after her death in 1980. Today, she’s been declared “venerable,” meaning that her case is headed up the Vatican’s rungs toward sainthood, after which she may be beatified — that’s to say, officially acknowledged as an intercessor, or a person to be prayed to — before she can arrive at the official title of Saint.

Day would hate every moment the cardinals spend debating her case. For one thing, making the case for sainthood is expensive. Miracles done in the name of the person have to be officially verified, which requires a Vatican-appointed squadron of investigators and years of work, all of which have to be paid for by the people making the case for sainthood. For Day, an ardent Catholic who nonetheless once said that the modern Church is the “cross on which Christ is crucified”, the idea of comfortably seated, well-fed cardinals combing over her life would have been nauseating. She would have thought the money should be spent feeding and clothing the poor. Not to mention her feeling about the notion of sainthood: “Don’t call me a saint,” she once snapped to an overly ardent acolyte. “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

The Catholic Worker movement, which Day co-founded in the 1930s with her friend Peter Maurin, preaches the most radical gospel of all: voluntary poverty, the inclusion of the destitute and socially outcast in Christ’s body, a life of service. And it’s not a religious order, because all of the members are lay people. If it sounds like Socialism, there’s a reason: before she devoted herself full time to poverty issues, Day was a writer for Socialist and Marxist newspapers, and also a novelist and screenwriter who’d been raised in a home with only the loosest affiliations to religion. She was arrested for the first time during a rally for women’s suffrage while she was in her twenties, and, like her literary hero Dostoyevsky, who’d requested a Bible when he was in jail, she bent her head to scriptures while she waited out her prison sentence. The Bible changed her perspective on Socialism and activism: in her autobiography The Long Loneliness, she wrote that “if [activists] had faith in… our protest against brutality and injustice, then we were indeed casting our seeds, and there was promise of the harvest to come.”

It took some years of wandering through the deserts of radical secular culture before Day planted that harvest, and along the way she lived a very modern kind of life. For many years she was involved in what she delicately calls a “common law marriage.” She had an abortion early on, then later gave birth to a daughter, at which point her partner abandoned her, so she raised her daughter on her own, supporting them both with her writing. There are amazing descriptions in her autobiography of the desolation and fear she felt in the early years of her daughter’s life, walking up and down the deserted beaches near her shack home in New England, sitting to write, always worrying about money. Nearly a hundred years later, hers is a very contemporary story.

Day was drawn to faith from a young age; as a small child living in San Francisco, she witnessed the destruction wrought by the 1906 earthquake and thought that only a “frightening, impersonal God” could have caused it, yet by the time she was a teenager, she was inexorably drawn to Christianity via the Russian novelists she loved, even if her “faith had nothing in common with the Christians around me.”

A radical woman needs a radical gospel, and Day’s fervent desire to believe in God helped keep her open to the man who would change her life, the visionary itinerant preacher Peter Maurin. Born in France and a former Christian Brother – an order dedicated to teaching and running schools – Maurin was living the life of a hobo when he met Day, but he was likely to take off his coat and give it to anyone who was poorer than him. He was street preaching his message of voluntary poverty in Manhattan (his line of reasoning: “the way to reach the man on the street is to meet the man in the street”) when a friend introduced him to Day. She had converted to Catholicism by this point and was still supporting herself and her daughter through her writing, but Maurin’s message of living off of the land and rejecting manufactured capitalism inspired Day. She needed his vision, and he needed her pragmatism.

The newspaper they started together, The Catholic Worker, was first published in 1933. It cost a penny a copy; today, it costs 25 cents a year. Day finally had a platform of her own from which to express her ideas, and Maurin began pushing even more extreme visions of Worker life. More than protesting on picket lines, Maurin wanted Workers to live together in collectives, both urban and agrarian. He argued that every house should have a “Christ room,” a room that should be open to any poor person who needed it; Maurin always referred to the poor as “ambassadors of God.” Within a few years of the newspaper’s appearance, the Depression hit, and Day and Maurin were forced out of necessity to begin enacting some of the ideas they preached in their newspaper. Day tells the story of a homeless young woman who had read an issue of the Worker and confronted Day, saying “Why do you write about things like that when you can’t do anything about it?” Day felt ashamed, and soon enough, Catholic Worker hospitality houses – rented apartments and houses where anyone in need could stay for free – began to spring up all over New York. The Workers also began running bread lines to feed the increasing number of indigents in the Bowery. “We were pushed into it,” Day wrote of the bread lines. “Everything we’ve done, we’ve been pushed into.”

It is that notion of working to fix a problem rather than simply sitting back and writing polemics that separates the legacy of the Catholic Worker from so many other idealistic movements. Whereas liberals and radicals have for decades written about poverty issues from a place of privilege, Day advocated for a different approach. She left a high-paying career as a Hollywood screenwriter to live in the Bowery with the poor. When her socialist comrades abandoned politics, Day rolled up her sleeves and kept serving soup. When Maurin died and multiple Worker farms imploded due to personality clashes and the hard realities of living off the land, Day re-focused her energies on the urban poor, traveling by bus and hitchhiking around the country in her seventies in order to report on and expose the conditions people were forced to live in. She became active in the anti-war movement in the sixties and was an ardent supporter of Cesar Chavez and the farm worker’s rights movement.  All the while she remained fervently faithful and convinced that her work was being done in the spirit of Christ, even while she was not afraid to lob a verbal grenade or two at the Vatican.

So Dorothy Day – writer, single mother, agitator for change — is the most modern of saints. Today, there are over a hundred Catholic Worker houses across the U.S. and more of them abroad. Each has a Christ room, and many have unlocked front doors (and most of them are located in marginal neighborhoods where this might be perceived as lunacy). Volunteers can pitch in part time with cooking, serving food, tutoring neighborhood kids and participating in demonstrations, or they can make a commitment to the house and live there full time for several years, giving up whatever careers or material goods they formerly had. It’s not a life for the wishy-washy. I’ve met several Workers via my own volunteer work with the Berkeley Food and Housing Project.

Like any volunteers, Workers are susceptible to about the inevitable danger of burnout, the temptations of capitalism and the “compassion fatigue” that anyone who works in a helping profession is all too familiar with. Yet each Worker I’ve met addresses Day as if she were still alive today: Dorothy says, Dorothy thinks. Not every Worker is Catholic; in fact, many of them are only marginally connected with the religion. They devotion to the cause is rooted in our collective human desire to reach out and help the people around us, a propensity it is all too easy to forget that we share.  To be a Worker is to live in solidarity with the poor, not just in service to them. The Worker movement has survived for decades after Day’s death, and canonization or not, it looks like it will continue.

Towards the end of her life, Day attempted to explain exactly what she thought young people who joined the Worker would gain from it in one of her columns. “They learn not only to love, with compassion,” she wrote “but to overcome fear.” At a moment in our culture when the Catholic church tends to inspire more fear and loathing than devotion and faith, there is an increasing cry from the pews to turn back to the days of the primitive church, when women had a greater role in the liturgy, communities were small and closely knit and Christ’s message that “whatever you have done unto the least of these, you have done unto me” was taken as a credo for living instead of a lofty ideal. If that change comes, it is the Workers who will be leading the way.

Works cited:

Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, FSG, 2003

Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness, HarperOne (reprint), 1997

Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker columns and articles, via the Catholic Worker web archives

Peter Maurin, Easy Essays, via the Catholic Worker web archives

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