On May Day, 1983 The Catholic Worker movement marked its 50th anniversary. A mass of thanksgiving filled Nativity Church on New York’s Lower East Side. Celebrations followed at Maryhouse, on East Third Street, the home for homeless women among whom Dorothy Day died in November 1980, and at St. Joseph House at 36 East First Street.
It was on May 1st, 1933 that Dorothy Day, accompanied by Joseph Bennett, first distributed The Catholic Worker in Union Square where 50,000 people gathered shoulder to shoulder to announce the coming revolution and denounce the economic system they blamed for a savage depression. Peter Maurin, the man who had stimulated Dorothy Day to start “a paper for the man in the street,” was not with her. His ideas were. Dorothy passed them out, along with her own vivid reporting of conditions, to the angry, the workless, the poor, to those who saw the Catholic Church as having nothing to say to their plight–or to the social evils in which they were trapped.
The front page of the tabloid’s initial issue carried the first of the “easy essays” in this collection, “Blowing the Dynamite.” Maurin’s program was to “blow the lid off” the social program of the Church, a program hidden by Catholic scholars who had
“wrapped it up
in nice phraseology,
placed it in a hermetic container
and sat on the lid.”
On May 1st, 1983, two of us walked in Dorothy Day’s footsteps in Union Square at Fourteenth Street to distribute the twelve-page anniversary issue of The Catholic Worker. Joseph Zarella had been a full-time volunteer at the Catholic Worker when Peter Maurin was in his prime, in the years from 1935 to 1942. Zarella had travelled with Peter Maurin in 1936 to visit the newly founded houses of the Catholic Worker movement. He remembered the talks that Maurin had given to the struggling groups, as well as to monasteries, seminaries and parishes throughout the country. I had encountered Maurin in the early nineteen forties on visits to the Catholic Worker. What we most remembered about Maurin was his utter selflessness, his total absorption in the message he was impelled to share. We cherish the memory of that craggy face, illuminated from within, as he delivered the carefully phrased concepts. We recall what it was like to have the index finger of that broad peasant hand brandished before our faces as Maurin “made his points.” It was these “points,” lived out dramatically by Dorothy Day, and enfleshed not only in her memorable writing but in the C. W. movement, that captured the minds of young people and set them on fire with zeal to remake the world.
The Union Square of 1983 was no longer the hot-bed of revolution, packed with people “impatient to assume the world.” It was a haven for a few people who claimed the benches to pass a sunlit afternoon, most of them bedraggled and many stretched out, sodden with drink or drugs. The Square had become a center of drug-trafficking, and the only sign of the old militancy was a slogan painted in black letters on the monument to the Union dead, “Overthrow capitalism source of 98% of crime.” Not only Union Square had changed as to almost unrecognizable in the intervening half-century, but so had the state of society and of the world at large.
A World War had swept millions through the doors of death, some killed by indiscriminate weaponry, others done to death in unspeakably discriminate destruction on the basis of their race. Violent revolutions had maintained themselves in power through continued violence against untold millions in the Eurasian heartland. Stockpiles of nuclear weaponry, to say nothing of nuclear energy plants, have given us a world pulsating with death. National leaders justify the possession of weapons capable of incinerating the populations of cities by a policy known as “deterrence,” namely, the policy of “dissuading” the other side through terror. Many are reminded of the principle of Noah, in which the Creator made known, by the rainbow sign after the flood, that He would not again interfere with the operation of the cosmos. Humankind, possessing the power wrenched from the heart of the atom, can now threaten the planet itself. In the economic order, the national debt of the United States has risen to unthinkable billions, with a third of the annual budget going into debt servicing. The combined debt of Third World countries has reached astronomic proportions, threatening to bring down the banking systems of First World countries which had been eager to lend at high interest in what they considered secured loans.
Does Peter Maurin’s message speak to generations facing the Third Millennium? Dorothy Day grasped the crucial fact that Maurin was propounding perennial values, values that he had synthesized from the Gospel and the wisdom of the Church and its saints–as well as from thinkers, philosophers and economists studied in the course of a lifetime. In these pages is the distillation of a lifetime of study and prayer. Aside from such general concepts as “the common good” whose implications are so little understood, Maurin presented in the briefest manner possible, the specifics for example, of economic history. Where else could one find an outline of economics comparable to that contained in “In the Light of History,” that begins on page 78.
Here are contained the values that the Catholic Worker, now counting over eighty houses and communities in the United States, has tried to incarnate, and which are discussed in the paper which goes around the world in over 100,000 copies.
As readers dip into these phrased essays, they will find values so old they seem new, that “blow the lid off” many false values by which too many professed Christians order their lives.
I will limit myself to two of Maurin’s bedrock concepts that indicate clearly that the “established order” which so many Christians accept, is, in fact, in Emmanuel Mounier’s phrase, an “established disorder.” The two concepts are Maurin’s emphasis on the necessity of the “daily practice of the works of mercy,” and his resurrection of the ban on usury, the taking or charging of interest.
The “daily practice of the works of mercy,” Maurin insisted, was the distinguishing mark of the followers of Jesus. Performing them without interruption would demand a rejection of war, since in war, all the works of mercy, from feeding the hungry to sheltering the shelterless, are interrupted or obscenely reversed. If there are hungry and homeless people around us, they must be fed and sheltered, not by impersonal state systems, but at personal sacrifices by individuals and communities. Thus there is need for Houses of Hospitality. Maurin thought that every parish should have such a house of refuge. He would have approved of a development in the eighties, when Catholic parishes in New York City provided shelter for the homeless, with parishioners taking turns as volunteers.
The spiritual works of mercy, Maurin stressed, make it incumbent on scholars to share their knowledge with workers. Workers, in their turn, could help scholars with their skills and acquaint them with the realities of their situation. Only in this way could workers become scholars and scholars workers. The ramifications of mercy, which is only love under the aspect of need, are endless. Works of mercy can only be performed for a person, and the heart of Maurin’s message was the inviolable dignity of the person as image of his Creator. He introduced a term from the works of the French writer and philosopher, Emmanuel Mounier, personalism.
Even more controversial than its rejection of the violence of war and revolution was the Catholic Worker’s rejection of interest. The ancient ban on usury (meaning simply interest) by the Church Fathers and the Prophets of Israel has fallen into disuse. Money was not supposed to breed money. Here the ethos of the profit system and the ethos of the Gospel collide. The Gospel has a clear injunction regarding our surplus possessions and funds. They are to be used to meet the needs of those who lack necessities. The ethos of a profit economy calls for surplus funds to be banked or invested so that they may increase by means of interest. The source of the increase in riches becomes a matter of indifference rather than of moral concern.
Where only an increase of riches or profit matters, then economic activity has at its heart an ethical void. All manner of unjust economic structures may grow and flourish and all manner of exploitation may abound. Work is taken to the places where labor is cheapest and workers have fewest rights.
If surpluses are used in charity, or in cooperatives for human purposes such as home-building for the less affluent, life necessarily becomes simpler and the ideal of voluntary poverty cannot be far behind. The Christian doctrine of property becomes a reality, namely the retaining of a sufficiency of goods for an adequate life and the sharing of the remainder with the needy. In point of fact, millions of Christians, working for wages, actually live out this teaching on property. How else do we explain the world-wide network of the works of mercy supported by the small gifts of the many, Though there are Catholic millionaires, the masses of Catholics are rather the victims than the beneficiaries of corporations as they roam about the world seeking profits.
Maurin found “concordances” even with the radical IWW (the International Workers of the World), and he often quoted their slogan on “building the new society within the shell of the old.” Maurin’s revolution was personalist and communitarian, to be achieved without violence and without recourse to the class struggle or to the rhetoric of class confrontation. He helped people transcend the tyranny of false alternatives.
Peter Maurin attended Mass daily, calling it “the greatest act of love between God and His children.” His prophetic task was to indicate the paths by which this love could be incarnated in daily living. In his “easy essays,” we find the hard sayings of the Gospel and ways to apply them to society. His message calls for changing society through transforming the “old creature” into the “new creature” of the Gospel. Unjust structures will never be replaced unless they are first replaced in the heart.
The riches of Maurin’s prophetic message, more alive than ever in a time of moral and economic crisis, are here for all to plumb, not only Catholics, but all who hunger for a more peaceful and just society, “where it is easier for people to be good.”