The Common Good
September/October 2008

Houses of Hospitality

by Rosalie Riegle | September/October 2008

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

"It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.” These words, which close Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness, open Dan Mc­Kanan’s new book on the Catholic Worker movement today. Founded in 1933 by Day and Peter Maurin, the Catholic Worker celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and McKanan’s new book describes how today’s Catholic Workers live out the “works of mercy”—including houses of hospitality for the poor, instruction on the social teachings of Christianity, and rural farming communes.

McKanan presents nuanced and vivid de­­­­­s­crip­­tions of some of the 200 Catholic Worker houses today, with particular emphasis on the increasing role of families. As befits a theological scholar, McKanan’s thought­ful research in­cludes interviews with individual workers and material from the Cath­olic Worker ar­chives at Marquette University, which complements existing literature on the movement. He points out that the movement was never monolithic, even when the founders were alive, and that frequent communication—especially in the form of newsletters and national gatherings—provide cohesion and coherence among the communities.

McKanan doesn’t neglect ongoing controversies, especially in the book’s longest section, “Rules, Families, and the Church,” where he asks: How “Catholic” is the Catholic Worker? How do families fit in? How do individual communities respond to the “Spiritual Works of Mercy,” which include instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, and admonishing sinners? It is under these “works” that so many Catholic Wor­ker houses take the lead in the nonviolent resistance to war that has always characterized the movement as much as its commitment to feeding and housing the poor.

MCKANAN CONCLUDES that while many individual Catholic Wor­kers are either alienated from the specifically Roman characteristics of the Catholic Church or were never Catholic in the first place, all are animated by the gospels and try earnestly to live them out according to changing locales, circumstances, and individual interests. He doesn’t shy away from the hot-button issues of women’s ordination, advocacy for gays and lesbians, and abortion, concluding that most (but not all) communities take an ecumenical view and identify themselves as inclusive.

McKanan describes several communities that have remained active since the founding days, illustrating that Day’s travels to visit her large network of friends is replicated in the guidance this generation gives to new Catholic Worker houses. While one might wish he had been able to de­vote more pages to how Catholic Wor­kers resist war, to the houses in other countries, and to the growing number of farms, The Catholic Worker After Dorothy is a wonderful introduction to contemporary Catholic Worker life and thought.

Rosalie Riegle is the author of Voices from the Catholic Worker and Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her. She is currently working on a third oral history project, Doin’ Time: Nonviolent Resisters Speak Out for Peace.

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