Featured Reviews, VOLUME 1

FEATURED: The Catholic Worker after Dorothy by Dan McKanan [Vol. 1, #40]

“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.

The Catholic Worker After Dorothy:
Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation
Dan McKanan.

Paperback. Liturgical Press. 2008.
Buy now from: [ Doulos Christou Books $16 ] [ Amazon ]

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.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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  1. The evening after submitting and then posting this review, I was reading “The Violence of Love,” a collection of texts from Oscar Romero. In the preface to the book, it is descibed that “during his three years as archbishop of San Salvador, he became known across the world as a fearless defender of the poor and suffering…Yet he earned also the hatred and calumny of powerful persons in his own country – hatred that produced constant attacks on him in the national media and inevitably led to his matyrdom.”
    Reading from these homilies, I found Romero expressing the radical and eternal love of the gospel; it is this vision that I hoped to plea for in this review, rather than settling for anything less, such as any mission of the nation-state.
    Anyway, here are Romero’s words, which succinctly descibes the mission of the Church within the mission of other institutions:
    “As Christians formed in the gospel,
    you have the right to organize
    and, inspired by the gospel,
    to make concrete decisions.
    But be careful not to betray
    those evangelical, Christian, supernatural convictions
    in the company of those who seek other liberations
    that can be merely economic, temporal, political.
    Even though working for liberation
    along with those who hold other ideologies,
    Christians must cling to their original liberation.”
    June 19, 1977 (pg. 4, the Violence of Love)

  2. Brent,
    Dan McKanan’s book is most valuable as a corrective of certain misunderstandings and deliberate distortions of the history of the Catholic Worker movement and the thinking of its founders by some scholars and Catholic Workers in recent years. Reading your review, I sense that your critique is founded more on the commentary of these and less on an understanding of the writings of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day.
    Clearly distinctions such as “Left” versus “Right” fall short in describing the Catholic Worker and are only marginally helpful to any discourse of anything at all. Your assertion that “McKanan curiously aligns the anarchist tradition, of which Day and Maurin had great sympathies, with the Left,” presents a false dichotomy, as most proponents of the anarchist tradition, especially as Peter and Dorothy understood it, have so aligned themselves. I fear, too, that you add to the confusion by conflating, as many do today, American political liberalism with the political Left. I write this response a couple of days before the 2008 presidential election, laughing through tears to hear the Democratic (sic) Party and its militarist pro-corporate candidate Barack Obama characterized as being of the Left. O f course, the CW has little common cause with that sort of liberalism and Dan McKanan does not argue that it does.
    There are, however, traditions of the truly radical political Left that are fundamental and that cannot easily be divorced from the CW and the thought Peter and Dorothy. Both found inspiration from and quoted extensively from these radicals, American and European, religious and secular. Note, for example, Peter’s debt to the work of the atheist communist-anarchist Peter Kropotin and Dorothy’s commendation of her friend, comrade and “sister in the deepest meaning of the word” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn as an example of what the Vatican Council calls the laity to be, Flynn’s lack of religious faith and her position as Secretary of the Communist Party, USA, notwithstanding. The Cuban Revolution of Castro and Guevara inspired Dorothy in ways that Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society did not. Dorothy was able to see the (decidedly “Leftist”) anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti and the IWW labor organizers who were murdered by the state or by mobs on behalf of the owning classes as saints and martyrs who died in the service of Christ and the least of His brothers and sisters. “It is impossible for any one of those who have real charity in his heart not to serve Christ,” she quoted Mauriac, “Even some of those who think that they hate Him have consecrated their lives to Him.” The concept that a truly “radical” versus a merely “liberal” critique can be found only among those who profess faith in Christ might be found in the writings of Alisdair MacIntyre or Stanley Hauerwas, perhaps, but it is alien to the thought Peter and Dorothy and to the tradition they founded.
    You are correct that Dan McKanan would be mistaken if he did “equate this radical impulse (works of mercy) synonymously with the practices of the political Left,” but he does not do this. He does, however, recognize something essential about the movement and its founders that some other scholars choose to ignore when he notes the common ground, the kinship, friendship and debt the movement owes to the Left where it exists.
    I encourage your resolve to go deeper into the writings of Peter and Dorothy and suggest more familiarity with the primary sources will increase your appreciation for Dan’s scholarship.
    Brian Terrell

  3. Thanks for the response, Brian; I really appreciate a chance for dialogue. Part of the difficulty of reviewing a book such as this is that it is somewhat out of my regular reading, so I am not well-read in many other histories of the Worker to round out a background for this book, so no, my critique is of the text itself, and rooted mostly in the relationships I’ve had with a few CW communities and workers.
    It seems from your reply that perhaps a majority of recent histories ignore the relationship with anarchist and other Leftist traditions? In that case I certainly am in favor of a revisionist history presented in McKanan’s writing, for I have certain sympathies for the American anarchists, socialists, and the communists as well. I wouldn’t have realized that this part of the history has been ignored if not for your comments. I have currently been looking over the “New Program of the Communist Party USA “ from 1966, which is an excellent critique of exploitative capitalism, although it still falls short because it misses the much more radical critique provided by the Sermon on the Mount.
    I hope that what I’m arguing for is that as a community of followers of Christ – whatever form that takes, be it the CW, or many other communities – we do not settle for any “radicalism” presented by the nation-state, the political-corporate-economic principalities and powers of the world. The notion that the critique of the powers must be more radical than any “liberal” or “conservative,” “Left” or “Right,” (which, I really like how you put it: “are only marginally helpful to any discourse of anything at all”) comes not just from Hauerwas, et al, but from Jesus the Christ: “My kingdom is not of this world…for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth.” Also Paul, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
    I’m just not interested in “the potential to revitalize…the Left in America today,” (McKanan, 217), although I am invested and intensely concerned with revitalizing the church (ibid). Part of what makes this revitalization such a difficult course to navigate is that the narrative of the nation-state has become so interwoven and confused with the narrative of the church (ie, the gathered body of Christ, the “royal priesthood”).
    Certainly we can come alongside others who are invested in practicing works of mercy, hospitality, peace-making; who are subverting or calling into question the dominating powers of the age; who are loving their neighbor as they love themselves. In my estimation, both Day and Maurin embraced an attitude of inclusion, “befriending” these other movements, as McKanan descibes it. If this part of the history of the Worker has been glossed over, left-out, erased, then it is a good thing that it appears in this re-telling of the history, and, as I said, I do appreciate the book quite a bit as a history.
    Still, I must just repeat the words, “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment.” To make this distinction, and this confession, is what sets apart the church. It is easy for me, and certainly has been easy throughout the history of the church, to betray this radical vocation. It is often easier for me to just say that I don’t vote because I’m an anarchist than to go into the long details that make up that conviction, beginning with a confession of Christ who has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth.” But that is what I should be doing all the time; it’s just a lot easier to write these things than to really live them out, and yet that is our calling. I’m mostly trying to repeat the most radical call of the Gospel, and seperate that from any earthly powers that fall short of that. First, I am speaking for myself, to remind myself of the cost of discipleship (deny yourself…).
    I hope that that articulates some more of my thinking behind the review. Your point that I have equated “liberalism” (as expressed today) with “the Left,” is well taken, and I understand the huge distances between the two. I think that my argument is that these are still essentially the same (along with “conservatism,” etc) as powers that fall short of the Cross of Christ.