Houses of Hospitality

"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.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2008
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