“After visiting the Catholic Worker, something inside of me that was broken healed.” These are the words of one student who volunteered at a Catholic Worker as part of a course I teach each year at Manhattan College. Like many of my students, this one was surprised to discover in this movement aspects of Catholicism that she did not encounter in her own faith formation. “I did not realize,” another student wrote, “that people actually try to live what Jesus taught.”
For ninety years, the Catholic Worker ( cw ) movement has offered a concrete way to live out the teachings of Jesus in the beatitudes and the works of mercy. Not to be confused with Joseph Cardijn’s Young Christian Workers, the cw was founded in New York on May 1, 1933 by Servant of God, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin as a prophetic and personalist Christian response to the suffering and injustice experienced during the Great Depression. Day, a recent convert to Catholicism, a single mother and a journalist, prayed to find a way to apply her faith to the realities of the time. Her answer came when Maurin arrived at her doorstep in 1932 and convinced her to start a paper.
What began as a newspaper grew into a movement with a three point program proposed by Maurin. First, houses of hospitality would serve as centers of learning where the works of mercy could be lived in feeding and sheltering the poor, the “ambassadors of Christ.” Second, this movement would organize regular round table discussions for the clarification of thought. And third, farming communes would gather people of different educational and economic backgrounds to work the land, pray, and study social issues. Such a program, Maurin believed, would help to “create a new society within the shell of the old.” This is a radical, almost revolutionary vision that seeks to transform oppressive systems of power from the bottom up.
In addition to these three points, the cw is known for its pacifism. Day believed that the works of mercy were the opposite and antidote to the works of war and she took seriously the gospel call to be peacemakers even when it was unpopular. “We are still pacifists,” she wrote after the United States entered the Second World War, “Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers.” The cw has lived out this beatitude in a number of ways, from demonstrating against mandatory civil defense drills in the 1950s to organizing some of the first protests against the Vietnam War and Wars in Iraq. For some Catholic Workers, including Martha Hennesy, one of Day’s granddaughters, this has meant participating in other related efforts, like Plowshares, a movement aimed at real and symbolic acts of nuclear disarmament.
In the landscape of ecclesial movements, the cw is not easy to categorize, something that is both attractive and frustrating to my students. While one can discern Benedictine and Franciscan elements, there are no vowed or consecrated members. Core groups of “workers” can spend decades, or only a few months, living in cw communities. As an anarchist movement, there are no clearly defined leaders, no central offices, and no civil or canonical statutes. Each community is autonomous and anyone, including non-Christians, can join or start one. As the late Jim Forest once remarked, “It is unlikely that any religious community was ever less structured than the Catholic Worker.”
As a result, there is a great diversity of styles, scope of work and identity. For some, the movement is too Catholic, while for others, it is not Catholic enough. Some believe strongly in the efforts to promote Day’s canonization, while others believe it is a distraction from the real mission of serving the poor. Some communities follow Day’s lead in resisting any legal incorporation, while others have formed formal organizations with tax exemption benefits. Yet, despite these differences, the movement is thriving in many ways. It is often remarked that the ability of the cw to survive is a miracle, what Kate Hennessy describes in the May 2023 issue of the paper as the “miracle of our continuance.”
Today there are more than 175 cw communities. While the majority are in the United States, the directory maintained by the unofficial website, catholicworker.org lists houses and farms in over a dozen countries from Australia and New Zealand to Sweden and Uganda. These include: the Casa Juan Diego in Houston, Texas, which provides housing, legal services and medical care to migrants; the Romero House in Iowa, one of the newest cw communities founded in 2020 to shelter those transitioning from homelessness and prison; the House of Grace in Philadelphia, which offers urgently needed medical care; Bahay Nazareth, an ecumenical house of hospitality in the Philippines for those living with hiv/aids ; and the Amistad Catholic Worker, which has created a “Human Rights Zone” in the city of New Haven to protect those experiencing homelessness.
With increasing concerns for ecological justice, Maurin’s vision of farming communes has seen renewed interest. Today, there are twenty-five cw farms. Some, like the Appalachian Catholic Worker, offer educational programs and retreats in nature, while others focus on providing sustainable, healthy food to those who cannot otherwise afford it.
What, then, unites this diverse movement? In addition to the charisms of Day and Maurin, the movement is tied together by the Aims and Means, a statement that outlines core values and identifies key practices: nonviolence, works of mercy, manual labor, and voluntary poverty.
But this is a living text that, like the movement, has developed over time. It is not meant, as Brian Terrell, a longtime cw , points out, to be a “bylaws or constitution of the Catholic Worker that demand adherence.” Rather, they are “offered to initiate and encourage clarification of thought.”
In what could be described as a synodal exercise, the May 2023 issue of the paper invited cw members the chance to offer comments on the text. While most of the responses speak positively about the document, several call for more explicit attention to racial justice, the experiences of the lgbtq community and ecological justice. Among the challenges identified, is how to maintain identity with religious diversity or as Paula Miller asks, “How are we more inclusive of communities that include members of other faiths or follow no religious doctrine while also honoring our Christian foundation?”
Nevertheless, this 90-year-old movement remains a dynamic presence as highlighted by the new podcast series, Coffee with Catholic Workers. New cw houses and farms have formed. The papacy of Pope Francis, who mentioned Dorothy Day when he spoke to the US Congress, has renewed awareness of the importance for Christians to live out the beatitudes and the works of mercy. And the process for Dorothy Day’s canonization offers a unique opportunity to draw attention to her witness and the work of the cw .
In the end, perhaps, what matters is not the 90th anniversary of this movement, but the urgent need to, as Day wrote in 1940, “practice the presence of God.” Christ, she explained, “said that when two or three are gathered together, there He is in the midst of them. He is with us in our kitchens, at our tables, on our breadlines, with our visitors, on our farms…. Christ is there with us. What we do is very little. But it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes. Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest.”
* Dr. Kevin Ahern is a Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Dorothy Day Center at Manhattan College and is Co-chair of the Dorothy Day Guild.
By Kevin Ahern *