The Underpinnings of Faith

When I lived in Des Moines, Iowa, I attended Friday evening Mass at the Bishop Dingman House of the Des Moines Catholic Worker. Many of my students at nearby Simpson College also showed up for worship, as well as to help serve meals, clean the house, and join in war protests during the week. There were usually 20 or so present at Mass, including the poor and not-so-poor, African Americans and Latinos, children and grandparents, college students, and high-school dropouts. For a while there was even a black cat that sat purring in front of the coffee table-turned altar.

One night an inebriated man came in from the street, sat down, and loudly and nonsensically interrupted everything as we tried to make our way through the order of worship. Because Mass tended to be informal and open to anyone’s contribution and participation, we tried to keep things going. But when it got to the point where the service could no longer continue, Father Frank Cordaro paused and gently escorted the man to the kitchen, where he was given a seat and a warm meal. The rest of us were stunned. When Father Frank returned he said to us, “Don’t you hate it when Jesus does that?” Of course, in asking this he was echoing Dorothy Day, who was deeply influenced by St. Benedict, who reminded his monks that “everyone was to be received as Christ.”

Day and the Catholic Worker movement she co-founded in 1933 with Peter Maurin in New York City are certainly not foreign to many readers. Perhaps less familiar are the intellectual ideas and spiritual practices that ground and sustain the Catholic Worker. Acquainting us “with the richness of thought, contemplation, and action that has inspired and characterized the Catholic Worker movement” is the aim of The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins, authored by Mark and Louise Zwick, who are the founders of the Houston Catholic Worker, Casa Juan Diego.

The Zwicks provide the requisite account of Day’s spiritual journey, but they also try to connect the dots between Day, Maurin, and the saints, theologians, novelists, and philosophers who influenced them. Day and Maurin read voraciously, and the Zwicks deftly show how their views on personalism, the common good, distributism, anarchism, the works of mercy, pacifism, and the connection between liturgy and social justice were thoughtfully drawn from the likes of Virgil Michel, Nicholas Berdyaev, Emmanuel Mounier, Francis of Assisi, Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Dostoevsky, and Thérèse of Lisieux. In the book’s final chapter, the Zwicks also provide an interesting reflection on the legacy of the Catholic Worker in today’s world of sweatshops and terrorist attacks.

While many people have been drawn to the Catholic Worker because of its opposition to war and its solidarity with the poor and suffering, this book demonstrates that there is a broad, deep tradition and spirituality underpinning it. However, while it may appear to be thorough, especially to those less familiar with the Catholic Worker, the book is not exhaustive. As Iowa Catholic Worker Brian Terrell has observed, a few people who influenced Day and the movement are curiously absent, such as Ammon Hennacy, whose picketing, tax resistance, and civil disobedience would become trademarks for many Catholic Workers. Moreover, the Zwicks seem to downplay the tensions Day felt with the official Church, and no reference is made to how Day often quoted Romano Guardini, who said that “the Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified.”

To be fair, the authors say that they “mine some of the richness of the reading, study, and writing of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day,” not all of it. However, a careful reader might wonder whether the Zwicks selected particular intellectual and spiritual sources that are more inspirational to and representative of the Houston Catholic Worker than of the wider Catholic Worker community. After all, each Catholic Worker house today has its own emphases and personality.

The Zwicks also fail to identify where they disagree with Day. For example, they write, “While Dorothy quoted Teresa frequently over the years and relied upon her methods, she did not hesitate to criticize or point out her errors,” but the Zwicks themselves do not follow the same procedure with regard to Day.

Nevertheless the authors have provided us with a useful resource for understanding some key elements of the Catholic Worker movement, though in the classes I teach it will not replace the primary and more moving texts, such as Day’s The Long Loneliness.

Tobias Winright teaches Christian ethics at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.

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