One trait that the Catholic Workers share with most everybody else is that they often quote G.K. Chesterton. But what sets them apart is that they also take his ideas on Distributism seriously.
As Mark and Louise Zwick show in their book on the Catholic Worker Movement, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day founded the work in 1933, realizing that with unemployment reaching 25 percent “there had to be an alternative to the economic system that had left the social order in such disarray.” In tracing the rise of capitalism, the Zwicks argue that there is a connection between the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and the deterministic “invisible hand of the market” that gave justification to the idea that being poor is just your own fault. Although it didn’t stop capitalists from working hard to get rich, it strangely prevented them from being charitable to the poor since the scheme of salvation downplayed good works. This mentality has served to create quite a distance between the rich and the poor in America. The solution to the problem involves not only a devotion to the works of mercy, but helping the poor become self-sufficient. Distributists are the only social theorists who seem to understand this. Economics must not be more important than people. “Profits do not have rights, but workers do.” Conversely, the opposite danger from the spread of cancerous corporations is the gargantuan growth of government. In The Catholic Worker paper Dorothy Day tried “to awaken our readers to the necessity of combating the ‘all-encroaching state.’”
The only way to combat both the forces of big business and big government is with a society of owners, families who own their own property, workers who own their own businesses. Worker ownership is not only more respectful of the dignity of the person, but it produces goods of greater quality.
In spite of the connection between Calvinism and Capitalism, the Distributist solution is not something that must be explained only to Protestants. Most Catholics, especially in America, don’t get it either. They have bought into Capitalism. In 1948 Dorothy Day wrote in the Catholic Worker:
If the priesthood studied distributism as a long-term movement and did not play two ends against the middle by endorsing the present capitalistic system, we would be ready for what the future would bring.
This is prophetic. If a Distributist solution had been embraced in large numbers, starting with Catholics in the transitional years following World War II, we could have prevented “the military-industrial complex” that developed instead, with huge corporations serving as government contractors and lobbying for more and more military buildup with the bureaucratic buildup that inevitably accompanies it. In order for the big corporations to compete for the huge contracts they would need cheap labor, cheap parts. The result was low wages, outsourcing, loss of domestic manufacturing, loss of jobs. America does not make anything anymore. It just orders it. Wage slaves live in stacks. Ownership is only a vague dream.
Dorothy Day often quoted Chesterton and praised him as much: “To us who daily suffer the ugly reality of industrial capitalism and its fruits, the… words of Chesterton ring strong.” She also invoked St. Thomas Aquinas as a defender of property, that “a certain amount of goods was necessary to lead a good life.” In other words, that property had to do with what was proper or appropriate to a man.
What prevents the proper distribution of property are “structures of sin.” What is going to change these structures of sin is going to have to be something both physical and spiritual. It is not going to happen merely by materialistic means. It is not going to be forced onto a populace from above. It must come from conversion, from a change of heart, from people themselves who not only care about their families, but about their neighbors’ families.
Dorothy did not only write about Distributism, she did Distributism. She helped people become self-sufficient. She started farms. She focused on the wonder of everyday life. She did things for herself rather than hiring others to do them. While she admitted that Distributism had an agrarian emphasis, she said that does not mean that everyone must become a farmer. There must also be an urban emphasis on widespread ownership and self-sufficiency. “We are not going to leave the city to the Communists.”
Dorothy Day said on several occasions that Distributism is not dead. The idea of a local economy is not dead. The evidence that it is not dead, she said, is that people are always burying it.