“History of a Radical Movement”
A Review of
The Catholic Worker After Dorothy:
Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation.
by Dan McKanan.
By Brent Aldrich.
Coming to Dan McKanan’s The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation, I have in mind several relations I’ve had with Catholic Workers just over the past couple years, one of which being the agronomic university model in LaMotte, Iowa, New Hope Farm. In a recent email from the farm, the worker was excited by the immanence of Peter Maurin’s green revolution, and lamented that this book “missed this shift entirely,” so I was curious to see how that would develop over the course of the book. Entering into only the introduction of the text though, I am confronted by a certain reading of history, so foundational for the rest of the book, that it nearly overshadows the rest of the book for me; this is a construction of history so entangled with the politicized Western culture that it fails to see the most radical characteristics of Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and the Catholic Workers. By aligning – and arguing fervently for – liberal politics with radical Christianity, McKanan reduces attributes that make the Catholic Worker so radical.
Laying aside that critique for later, the book is structured into two parts, the first “Four Generations of Catholic Workers” is a history of the Worker, beginning in the 30s with Day and Maurin, and re-telling the story of the Worker until Day’s death in 1980. Not being very well-versed in the complete history of the Worker, this narrative was helpful for me, especially in anticipation of the namesake of the book (…the history after Dorothy, although it fills only half of the book). Midway in, McKanan begins a transition to exploring the history of Catholic Worker communities that continued on through Day’s death, and some that began soon after her death. In many ways, this account of numerous communities, some short-lived, many more established, becomes a rather dizzying survey of the multiplicity of expressions of the Worker, introducing dozens of people in different cities and time periods. Some of the difficulty in writing a history of the Catholic Worker is that it has taken on such variegated forms in its time; McKanan maintains that “the works of mercy…function both as a defining practice and a hermeneutical principle” (3-4). This practice is described in many ways, from St. Joseph community in Minneapolis operating transitional housing, which has since disconnected itself from the CW, to Casa Juan Diego in Houston, which offers “shelter and legal support for immigrant workers, shelter for women and children, care for sick and wounded immigrants, English classes, food and clothing, Spanish language liturgies” (112-113).
The shift to the second section, “Rules, Families and the Church,” is marked by a description maintaining that the Worker “can only be expressed through ‘many descriptions, not one, many truths, not the truth’” (127). The desire to tell many stories of faithfulness, and not champion only one model that works is very helpful in many cases, such as the long chapter “Inventing the Catholic Worker Family;” Day, in the New York Worker house she founded, rarely, if ever, had families living there, and so sat little precedent for a working model. McKanan, however, traces Day’s writings praising other Worker communities maintaining both family responsibility and Worker life, then describes families beginning in the 1940’s, but with an emphasis on the 1960’s onward, who have followed a Catholic Worker model and “invented” the CW family on the way, in many ways according to their place and circumstances.
Two other chapters in the section, “Aims and Means” and “Wrestling With the Church” become wildly divergent in any attempt to summarize the positions of Catholic Workers, and this is the breakdown of not expressing “the truth;” it is further confounded by the author’s reading of history I cited at the beginning, and must return: in attempting to sort through roots of the Worker with Day and Maurin, and the ensuing tradition, there is a certain engagement with political liberalism, and the American Left. This is distinct, in the writings of Day and Maurin, from radicalism, which is their intent. Others in the Worker movement have continued the critique of liberalism, which is in Maurin’s words:
Liberals / are too liberal / to be radical. /
To be a radical / is to go to the roots. /
Liberals don’t go to the roots; / they only / scratch the surface. (18)
Cited in this book as furthering this critique are Alisdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas, both thinkers with large influence on my own tradition, whose critique encompasses “the unrestrained corporate capitalism espoused by the Republican Party and the welfare stateism championed by the Democrats,…both opposed to the common good” (21). McKanan curiously aligns the anarchist tradition, of which Day had great sympathies, with the political Left, and also asks if “capitalism and the omnipotent state…are the only heirs of classical liberalism?” (21). Within the same paragraph, he rightly identifies Day and Maurin’s anarchism which rejects “institutions that refuse any transcendent point of reference,” (21) and yet throughout the book, McKanan describes the Worker’s engagement with liberalism as a more formative vision than its radical formation as the body of Christ. Day and Maurin’s visions were deeply radical and were subversive to the nation-state in that they practiced Christ’s call for a new allegiance, more radical than any politics of the state. It is distressing when McKanan identifies the radical critique of ideologies, only to continue to argue that the problem with a radical critique is that these ideologies are “very much alive and well with the CW movement” (19). This perspective shifts the emphasis from a movement with a cultural critique as radical as that of Jesus, to one settling for only a liberal critique. Additionally, it confuses the history of a called-out community of Christ, set apart from dominant ideology, to one which blurs the lines. Certainly, the movement inaugurated by Dorothy Day is one radically opposed to the oppressive political and economic structures around it; to settle for less is to not give it the full measure of its importance.
In the brief concluding chapter, “The Future of the Works of Mercy,” McKanan arrives at the point I had anticipated much earlier in the book, engaging a more reflective discourse with the contemporary Catholic Worker (the New Generation in the subtitle, which I assumed would be the focus of the book). In these remarks, McKanan astutely identifies that “the Catholic Worker alternative…is as simple as the works of mercy. Confronted with any social problem…the Catholic Worker’s first response is to ask, ‘How can I take personal responsibility for feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, for instructing the ignorant and comforting the afflicted?’” (217). This is indeed the radical vocation of the CW: a simple incarnational practice of works of mercy. This practice itself, enfleshed in houses of hospitality, agronomic universities, and roundtable discussions for clarification of thought can be a radical practice, that is, a practice which gets to the root of the gospel. Unfortunately, McKanan continues to equate this radical impulse synonymously with the practices of the political Left: “This simple question [of personalism], still has the potential to revitalize both the church and the Left in America today” (217). Deriving identity and mission from the Left (or Right) is a dangerous task, even when certain aspects of it look similar to the radical call of the church. Granted, I am not Catholic, nor a Catholic Worker, so I can only imagine that the challenge of wrestling with the hierarchy and rigidity of the Catholic Church is a much more complex issue than that of my own free church tradition, and that a turn to political liberalism might be an attractive alternative. Still, the mission of the church, as a contrast society, must not be confused with the mission of the nation-state; there may be points of intersect, but the fundamental identities are radically different.
In the end, The Catholic Worker After Dorothy may function best as a history, albeit to be viewed with careful navigation of the ways in which the mission of the nation-state has been interwoven with that of the ‘God Movement,’ to borrow Clarence Jordan’s language. This book attests to the importance of the Catholic Worker from the 193o’s into the present day, but its confusion of the radical vision of Day and Maurin (who, in hospitality, were eager to support others even those with a liberal mission) with the mission of the political Left is distressing. Considering the radical subversive Christianity embodied by Day and Maurin makes me long mostly to explore more deeply their writings, which express a vision that is radical to the culture, and specifically offer a radical call to the Church to embody its mission in the world.