In some people’s eyes, the words Worker and Catholic Worker give the Catholic Worker movement a bad name, even today. We were quite surprised when someone we had known for twenty years introduced us to a colleague as people who could explain the good parts of socialism. “What?” we said. “We are not socialists!” “Then why do you call your paper the Houston Catholic Worker?”
The same questions came up when we decided to build a building in the mid-1980s to replace the buildings destroyed by fire. We were referred to a local Catholic contractor who built a lot of buildings for the Catholic community. That contractor had doubts about us because of the word “worker” in Catholic Worker. He was worried about socialism. The local bishop helped to convince him that we were OK.
Like the Catholic Worker in New York in its earliest days, Casa Juan Diego from its beginning in 1980 has received and tried to help workers and especially those who were unemployed. We continue the tradition, although our particular emphasis has been refugee and immigrant workers.
Like those Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin sought to help, those who come to Casa Juan Diego are workers struggling to support their families. We developed a cooperative so that they could work legally after the 1986 Immigration law was passed.
Dorothy and Peter began the movement during the Great Depression when the number of unemployed in the United States was staggering. Twenty-five per cent of the population was without work. The situation was grim. It was so bad that men who could not find work sometimes left their families so that there would not be one more mouth to feed.
Dorothy and Peter saw even workers who were Catholic listening to Communist Party rhetoric because they used the language of workers’ rights and concern for workers as part of their strategy of winning the workers to their cause. While the vast majority of the rank and file of the workers were not Communists, but rather, as Dorothy said, “of every political color and creed,” many industrial workers, miners, laborers, and the unemployed were being drawn to Communism. Practically speaking, it seemed to those workers and the masses of the unemployed that Communists were the only ones who cared about their plight.
Communism was intellectually fascinating to many in the 1930s in the United States. Dorothy, who had already tried socialism before she became a Catholic, decided not only to condemn Communism and socialism, but to create an alternative. The great irony of her life is that while she was sometimes accused of being a Communist, she and Peter from the beginning presented a different vision for Catholics who might have turned to Communism in desperation in the midst of worldwide depression. They brought workers the teachings of the Popes on the dignity and rights of workers.
Why couldn’t we have a workers’ paper, Dorothy asked, which wasn’t Communist (or socialist either for that matter) which came from one’s faith rather than embracing atheism? And so the newspaper that Peter Maurin had asked Dorothy to found and edit was called The Catholic Worker, an answer to the Communist Daily Worker.
Dorothy and Peter not only started a newspaper (which soon grew to have a very large circulation), but gave much practical help to workers and the unemployed. The Catholic Worker movement gave immediate aid in Houses of Hospitality and bread lines. A cup of coffee and cottage cheese or apple butter on bread, for example, was a common menu as large numbers of men lined up for breakfast, if that was all they had.
The Catholic Worker would be based on faith, a faith whose richness Dorothy and Peter wished to present to readers in all its fullness, including the social dimension. It would be based on a Catholic understanding of work, and on the encyclicals of recent pontiffs, beginning with the earth-shaking Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, which supported the organization of labor unions at a time when unions were illegal and workers had few or no protections. The Catholic Worker newspaper presented an alternative to the economic system which had left the social order in such disarray. The Catholic Worker was based on nonviolence and love as opposed to the violent class struggle advocated in the Communist Daily Worker .
Cyril Echele, one of the early Catholic Workers, has asserted that, unbeknownst to most people, the Catholic Worker movement “may inadvertently have done more to stem the tide toward Communism in the United States than any other concerted effort up to the present time.”
Dorothy and Peter actively challenged an economic system that created so many poor and offered solidarity and a greater vision to those workers whose only support had seemed to come from the half-truths propagated by Communist organizers. Even though Communists addressed the harsh reality of the social order and gave workers their support, Dorothy understood that their ideology ultimately offered the poor only a flawed hope for salvation through materialism. The possibility that some might confuse her involvement in causes for justice with Communism did not lessen Dorothy’s cry that Christian faith could not be separated from concern for those who suffered.
Dorothy explained the reason for the word Catholic in the name of the paper in her autobiography: “Many times we have been asked why we spoke of Catholic workers, and so named the paper. Of course it was not only because we who were in charge of the work, who edited the paper, were all Catholics, but also because we wished to influence Catholics. They were our own, and we reacted sharply to the accusation that when it came to private morality the Catholics shone but when it came to social and political morality, they were often conscienceless.”
Friends and volunteers took The Catholic Worker not only to Union Square and Communist meetings to show the alternative, but also to Wall Street to pass out copies after talks there. The Catholic Workers hawked their paper in the streets of New York to show the unemployed that they did not have to turn to Communism and the false hopes it encouraged. Dorothy wrote in the June-July 1933 CW about the response to the presence of Catholic Workers in Union Square that first May Day in 1933, where so many, and especially Communists, were shocked to find Catholics there to refute their claims:
The crowds in Union Square stopped to gaze on May 1, not only at the massed parades, bands and various red banners, but also at the caption, “The Catholic Worker”, being displayed and distributed everywhere. Communists who make soapbox speeches were frankly shocked at its appearance, refuting as it did their claim that the Church is interested only in squeezing money from the people to send to Rome. Even more surprising to them was the revelation that Catholicism has a definite social program to aid the worker.
The work of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin is affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
God blesses those who come to the aid of the poor and rebukes those who turn away from them… It is by what they have done for the poor that Jesus Christ will recognize his chosen ones. When the poor have the good news preached to them, it is the sign of Christ’s presence.1
The Houston Catholic Worker and the Realities of Our Time
In a different era, the Houston Catholic Worker tries to do what the early Catholic Workers did. As Dorothy and Peter read the encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, we are influenced and affirmed in our work by John Paul II’s social encyclical, Laborem Exercens, where he teaches that the morality of any economic system must be judged on how the workers are treated, and more recently, Pope Benedict XVI’s great encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth).
For the past thirty years we have been receiving workers, desperate to work to help their families, who have been uprooted by the current global economic system. Each day hospitals in Houston call us to receive or to help the families of injured workers who have no one else to help them because they are undocumented. Some of these workers are paralyzed. They have worked under conditions as unsafe as those described in Rerum Novarum.
Today, the danger is not large Communist meetings; they do not exist. It is, rather, what Pope John Paul II called a new feudalism. The Middle Ages and feudalism are usually criticized as a horrible time, when serfs had little materially and had to give their allegiance to a landowner. One of the strongest criticisms of that age was the enormous gap between rich and poor that existed.
In the present global economy large numbers of workers are in a position similar to that of serfs from an earlier time. We are speaking here of those who labor in maquiladoras or out-sourced plants and make a pittance, of those who lost their farms in Mexico to multinational agribusinesses when NAFTA and other “free trade” agreements took force, and now only have seasonal work in the fields or even work on the land they previously owned as hired hands. Undocumented workers in the United States are often underpaid or even cheated out of their meager wages.
Even prior to the popularity of sending of work to the cheapest labor markets they could find and the passage of so-called “free-trade” agreements, the effects of “structural adjustment” policies tied to loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have hurt workers in many countries.
What is Moral?
Dorothy Day herself emphasized that Catholics can have different points of view in politics and economics. That does not mean, however, that the Church condones practices that oppress workers in an inhumane way.
Rather loud Catholic voices can be heard saying that one does not have to listen to the Holy Father unless what he says is related to faith and morals, that he and the world’s Catholic Bishops should not even bother to speak about the effects that economic practices may have on workers and families. The most strident voices come from the Acton Institute and others committed to libertarianism and Calvinism in economics. Unjust treatment of people, however, including workers whose families may starve to death, may also be considered a matter of faith and morals and is condemned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, following the tradition of the Holy Scriptures:
A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice. In determining fair pay both the needs and the contributions of each person must be taken into account. “Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural, and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good. Agreements between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.2
Benedict XVI continued the papal tradition of defending the poor and workers in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate . The way in which some well-known Catholics in the United States criticized and misinterpreted that encyclical was similar to the reactions of those who misunderstood Dorothy and Peter’s Catholic Worker to be somehow related to socialism.
New Vatican Clarification
The head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Turkson, said in an interview with Catholic News Agency that key terminology in Caritas in Veritate has been misunderstood by some in the United States: CNA reported that the Cardinal clarified the meaning of some of those terms:
“We found out that some of the vocabulary which is just taken for granted and used freely may not always have the same sense or may have had some nuances which sometimes are missed because of the way the terms are used in the American political context,” Cardinal Turkson said. He said the Vatican was pleased by the response to the document, but reaction from some sections of the audience in the United States was unexpected….”
“He emphasized that the misunderstanding was not a general or widespread problem among American Catholics. But, he said, ‘in certain circles … there is a difficulty.’
“For instance, the Pope’s teaching on themes of ‘social justice’ have been mistakenly connected to ‘socialism’ and ‘communism.’ As a result, he indicated, the Pope is mistakenly seen as promoting socialist or big-government solutions to social problems.
“The council has also learned that words like ‘social’ and ‘solidarity’ may have been dismissed by American readers for their perceived connection with communist regimes such as the Soviet Union, he said.
Cardinal Turkson explained that in the Church’s thinking, social justice involves citizens’ obligations and responsibilities to ensure fairness and opportunity in their communities and societies.
“While this may include the adoption of specific government policies and programs, the emphasis in Catholic social teaching is on the obligations that flow from citizens’ relationships in societies.”
“Respecting, understanding and fulfilling those demands constitute our justice,” he said.
This is in contrast to socialism, he explained, which is an ideology in which private property and private interests are totally placed in the service of government policies.
Cardinal Turkson said the Council was also surprised that the Pope’s concept of the ‘gift,’ was perceived in some circles as encouraging government welfare handouts.
In Caritas in Veritate , Pope Benedict described the concept of “gift” as a way to understand God’s love for men and women in his gift of life and his gift of Jesus. Gift, Cardinal Turkson explained, is “a very basic, deep theological expression of God’s relation or the motivation for whatever God does in the world, and it’s not quite the same as a handout.”
“Cardinal Turkson urged American Catholics and government and economic leaders to give a conscientious reading of Caritas in Veritate.”
Caritas in Veritate took the economic world by surprise. While readers on the Right and the Left were both waiting for statements about capitalism and socialism, they found instead a challenge to Catholics and other people of good will of “a profoundly new way of understanding business enterprise”.
The Holy Father spoke of redistribution of wealth (cautioning us to be careful that such redistribution does not hurt the poor), of grave imbalances produced when economic action is conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation. He spoke of the importance of “gratuitousness,” or gift, of the common good, of “solidarity and reciprocity” within economic activity, not only outside it or “after” it.
He said the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak and insisted on the involvement of local communities in choices and decisions that affect the use of agricultural land.
The Holy Father traced the roots of this “new” understanding of business from the Gospel and the Fathers of the Church through modern Catholic social teaching.
One of the proposals in Caritas in Veritate would be a major change for firms on Wall Street. Businesses have a responsibility, says the Pope, to all the “stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business,” not simply to shareholders (those who buy stocks). The stakeholders are the “workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and the community of reference.”
One of the practical examples Pope Benedict XVI used in Caritas in Veritate is the “Economy of Communion” developed by the Focolare movement. An understanding of the Economy of Communion will give a lot of insight into the encyclical and its recommendations and help to dispel the kind of misunderstandings that occur when people confuse solidarity with the poor with socialism and Communism.
“Without the perspective of eternal life,” the Holy Father said in Caritas in Veritate, “human progress in this world … runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth.”
Editor’s note: Please prayerfully consider supporting the important work carried out by Casa Juan Diego in Houston, Texas, by donating here.