Ruined for Life

The secondary literature available to the Catholic Worker movement is voluminous. When coupled with movement co-founder Dorothy Day’s copious writings, some may wonder why another book is needed on this lay movement that has so influenced the U.S. Catholic church.

But the question is too general, thereby missing the mark. Rosalie Riegle Troester’s oral history of the Worker movement, Voices From the Catholic Worker, is an utterly singular contribution. Unlike most previous researchers, Troester cast her net far beyond the New York City Catholic Worker, interviewing 208 individuals from around the United States and Canada associated with the Catholic Worker. Troester’s method levels the playing field, making room for the full range of voices that constitute a decentralized movement made up of independent lay communities. Catholic Worker scholarship will never be the same. Movement members here speak for themselves and wrestle publicly with the meaning of their faith, their movement, and their work.

Troester’s interviews became 6,600 transcribed pages of text. Since only 7 percent made it in to what is still a sizable book (597 pages), we have here an unusual oral history, one with a heavier editing hand than is the norm. Moreover, a prominent section is presented as "roundtable discussions." Drawing on the intersections within her wide-ranging interviews, Troester presents "constructed conversations" among workers on issues like protest and resistance, the role of Catholic Worker farms, the meaning of community living, and feminism in the movement and the church. I found this creative technique a welcome respite from the dry dialogue that often marks the two-person interview format.

Although Troester warns that she cares about the movement, her skillful editing presents the Catholic Worker without any gloss. Workers tell humorous stories from life at the houses, explaining how they came to the movement and what it means or meant to them. We learn of fulfilled fantasies and deep disappointments, and watch as old wounds gained in the movement are recalled and explained through Troester’s probing yet sensitive interviewing style.

The armchair reader can open this book anywhere and enjoy the engaging narrative, while the serious reader is led to new insights into the many complexities of the movement. This is no small feat. The Catholic Worker has long stymied the well-intentioned attempts of historians, sociologists, and theologians to categorize it. As the historian of anarchism David DeLeon once wrote: "While my interpretive categories are elastic enough to encompass most groups, I confess that the Catholic Workers seem to be in another dimension...if it did not exist I would have thought it impossible."

THE INTERVIEWS reflect an emerging reality in the contemporary movement to reinterpret and expand the canons of the Catholic Worker gospel. Since the death of co-founder Dorothy Day nearly 14 years ago, the movement has branched out from behind her long shadow. The role of gay Catholic Workers, and church teachings on homosexuality, abortion, and women’s ordination are a few of the issues that some Catholic Worker communities and individuals are addressing in ways that don’t always square with the positions Dorothy Day publicly took, or was presumed to hold. Moreover, some communities are fashioning new ministries that go beyond the movement’s traditional emphasis on the urban homeless, focusing on prison populations, persons with mental disabilities, or providing hospices for people with AIDS.

In some of the interviews presented here, and in writings appearing elsewhere of late, movement sympathizers and some current and former movement members bemoan these changes. Some question the right of certain individuals or communities to identify with the movement, and others are careful not to publish comments critical of church leaders or of church teachings in movement publications. They fear that the movement will compromise its meaning and significance if it strays from the traditions Day and Peter Maurin established and the roots they sank in the soil of the gospels, U.S. Catholic culture, and the church’s social teachings.

The truth is that many of the movement’s historic positions—including those defined and promoted by Day and Maurin—are positions that have always been far outside the mainstream of the church. These include pacifism, anarchism, military tax resistance, agrarianism, a refusal to accept tax-exempt status, and promoting bans on usury.

From the 1940s through the Vietnam War era, for example, the pacifism of Day and the Worker was so far outside the mainstream of the church as to be dismissed as little less than kooky. By the early 1980s, however, when the U.S. Catholic bishops embraced nonviolence as a viable Catholic position in their pastoral on war and peace, they were citing Day and relying on the nonviolent witness of the Worker movement.

I don’t presume to know if a similar process will take place relative to dissident positions being articulated in the Worker movement today on women’s ordination or the moral viability of an actively gay lifestyle. But I am sure that efforts to stifle these dissident voices, or to say they have no place in the Worker, are ill-advised, counterproductive, and contrary to the historic role the movement has played in the church.

PART OF THE GENIUS of Dorothy Day was that she created a movement with a heart big enough to welcome all those who walked through the door. Many now forget that that welcome extended not only to all manner of guests, but to workers as well.

The movement has always attracted a fair number of "dissident Catholics," and continues to do so today. While their positions on certain social or ecclesiastical issues may put them on the church’s margins, they fashion a spiritual home in the Worker. Michael Harrington spoke for more than himself when he said he joined the movement partly because it was as far as he could go to the Left and still stay in the church.

The few times Day chose to intervene with specific Catholic Worker communities or individuals to enforce a "party line," or to bring workers or communities in line with church teachings, are oft-quoted and recalled. But that these are the rare exceptions in Worker history is conveniently forgotten.

This movement was built on freedom and trust in the integrity of the individual to carry out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy and to make informed and sincere choices when confronted with life’s many spiritual dilemmas. Indeed, Bob Tavani told Troester about the time he put up a sheet at Tivoli farm listing the "twelve marks of the Catholic Worker." Dorothy Day came to him and said, "Not bad, but you forgot number one—freedom." I’m convinced that the movement simply cannot be understood apart from the fact that nobody ever had to get permission from anybody else to open a Catholic Worker house.

As important as freedom was for Day, at other times she also named love and community as defining elements of the movement. Troester’s interviews demonstrate that these are central elements for many in the movement. So its seems to me that what is called for at the present moment is a little more trust, goodwill, and freedom within the movement, and a lot less finger-pointing from outside the movement at those communities or individuals deemed to have strayed too far from the presumed legacy of Day and Maurin.

After all, wars are still waging and the poor are still with us; there are many wounds that need to be bound up, and there is lots of soup waiting to be served.

PATRICK COY is the editor of Revolutions of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker (New Society Publishers, 1992). He was a member of the St. Louis Catholic Worker community for seven years in the 1980s.

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