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Seventy Five Years Of the Catholic Worker


I originally wrote this for the Progressive Christian website, Crossleft http://www.crossleft.org/node/6257.

Last year marked the seventy fifth anniversary of one of my favorite newspapers, The Catholic Worker.  The Catholic Worker is a progressive Catholic newspaper that was started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin to apply Catholic Social Teaching to the issues of poverty in American society. I’ve always been a fan of Dorothy Day from biographies that I’ve read and from hearing of people who really admire her. I bought a used copy of her book “By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day” 5 or 6 years ago, but only started reading through the whole book last year. Inspired by the book, I subscribed to the Catholic Worker in December through Amazon and received my first issue in January. Since then, I’ve looked forward to looking in my mail and finding a new issue to read.

Dorothy Day kept the company of socialists, anarchists and communists in the Greenwich Village while she was young, and she shared their radical views on politics and life. Her abiding passion was to help the poor, and she converted to Roman Catholicism when she found the same love of the poor in Catholic Social Teaching that she found in the radical politics of her friends. She did not forsake her radical political convictions, but melded it with a spirituality that nourished her inner self as she worked to help the outer world. Day’s interpretation of the papal encyclicals caused her to fight the institutions that lead to poverty and war.

In this fight, she found a ready ally in Peter Maurin. Maurin was an immigrant Frenchman, deeply influenced by the Christian Brothers in a Catholic populism that was in ferment in early 20th Century France. He drifted to Canada and eventually the U.S., working for 20 years in hard manual labor. During that time, he read widely, and he developed a personalist philosophy that emphasized the development of cooperatives and communal farming as an alternative to the urban industrial society of the time. This society was based on the Gospels, and Maurin felt that this society would be better than the ones offered by capialism and communism.

One day, Peter knocked on Dorothy Day’s door, and they soon became close friends. Their shared vision of a better society based on Catholic priniciples lead them to create a newspaper that would be sold for a penny (so that workers and poor people could afford to buy it). The Catholic Worker was first sold at a communist rally in Union Square on May 1, 1933. In that first issue was an editorial that stated the purpose of the newspaper. It wrote:

It’s time there was a Catholic Paper printed for the unemployed. The fundamental aim of most radical sheets is the conversion of its reader to radicalism and Atheism.

Is it not possible to be radical and not atheist?

Is it not possible to protest, to expose, to complain, to point our abuses and demand reforms without desiring to overthrow of religion?

In an attempt to popularize and make known the encyclicals of the Popes in regard to social justice and the program put forth by the Church for the ‘reconstruction of the social order’, this news sheet, The Catholic Worker, is started.”

During it’s 75 years of existence, The Catholic Worker, has held a pacifist position against wars from World War II through Vietnam and now the Iraq War. It has fought for the rights of immigrants and farm workers. The paper has supported the Civil Rights movement. In the first 3 Catholic Worker issues that I’ve received, I’ve read about discrimination and hostility faced by undocumented day laborers in Phoenix, Arizona; the plight of Iraqi refugees in Jordan; the situation of the Kurdish people in Iraq; the continued injustices being perpetrated in Guantanamo. It had obituaries of people like Stephen Spiro, Evelyn Dudley, Ralph DiGia, and Gordon Zahn, activists and longtime friends of the Catholic worker. The issues documented the work of current activists in the New Sanctuary Movement on behalf of undocumented workers, the civil disobedience of the National War Tax Resistence Coordinating Committee, on protesters in the capital against the unfair incarcerations in Guantanamo. And it had wonderful art by the likes of Fritz Eichenberg, Rita Corbin, Ade Bethune, Brian Kavanagh, and Gary Donatelli.

I look forward to receiving the paper. The current editors of the paper gave a short note thanking its readers for their support. It’s a wonderful summation on the contributions that the Catholic Worker has given to our society.

Throughout the ensuing seventy-five years of its existence, friends and allies, brothers and sisters in the peace movement, in the work for the poor, the prisoner, the immigrant- all those who count for naught in our blustery era- have, indeed, been given the opportunity to know Peter and Dorothy. We can meet them in their writings, in their ‘easy essays’, in their long pilgrimmages. This legacy is ours to imbibe, for they wrote as they truly lived. We are privileged to have such primary resources.

There are also the voices of others who enhance the vision of the Catholic Worker with their own memories and understandings. This anniversary issue includes interviews with Workers past and present who we hope will give us all a better sense of a philosophy ’so old that it looks new’. and with them we join Catholic Workers everywhere in gratitude for this movement which keeps our greed and our obdurate spirits in check. Deo Gratias.”

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