We recently received an e-mail from a former Catholic Worker in Houston wondering if we could share ideas about living with the human side of the Church. She specifically asked about Dorothy Day’s reflections on this thorny question.
This young friend, filled with faith and commitment to the poor, had had a conversation with another friend who was frustrated with the Church hierarchy and her inability to find a parish community seeking to live out what Peter Maurin called the “shock maxims of the Gospel”. At the same time the former CW had been reading Oscar Romero: “I am also reading the diaries of Oscar Romero right now—another figure who, from a life of prayer, sacrifice and conversation with his people, was able to distinguish which Vatican officials were giving well-thought-out advice and which were making judgments based on preconceived notions rather than facts and deliberation. Yet, he constantly prays for unity among the members of the Church—especially his own archdiocese which was so fractionated during the period in which he writes (1977-1980).” Our former CW reflected that the conversation with her friend “just got me thinking about my own relationship with the institution of the Roman Catholic Church.” She closed by saying, “I know that Dorothy has something to do with my loyalty and I thought you all might be able to contribute something to this question.”
She asked us if we have an article or might be able to find one or write one regarding the way Dorothy viewed her place in Mother Church.
As we began our reflections, we remembered very sincere people who had become paralyzed when they could not live with the imperfections of Church members or saw other people apparently seeking power or special roles for themselves. Even the disciples had a tough time avoiding power plays and understanding the humble role Jesus asked them to play—witness James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and their mother, asking that they be allowed to sit at the right and left hands of Jesus in the Kingdom. Jesus did not respond that they should fight for a better role in the temple, but rather drink the cup that he would drink, love their enemies, die so that others may live, wash others’ feet, and give up all to follow him.
Dorothy had struggled with the issues related to the humanness of the Church long before she became Catholic, believing at the time that the radical movements whose members tried to help poor workers probably had more moral authority than the Church. Her early criticism of the Church related to her understanding of the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, so important later to the CW movement. She saw that often Christians did not implement this key teaching of Jesus, of seeing his face in the poor. She wrote:
My criticism of Christians in the past, and it still holds good of too many of them, is that they in fact deny God and reject Him: ‘Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me’. We believe that all men are members or potential members of the Mystical Body of Christ.1
That passage from Matthew 25 has been at the spiritual heart of the CW movement from the beginning, keeping the movement focused on its roots. One might say that Dorothy Day spent her life putting flesh on the bones of Matthew 25.
As Mel Piehl wrote, “The works of mercy have in effect erected a spiritual umbrella over all of the Catholic Worker’s social and political activities, guaranteeing that … Christian faith and values would remain central to the Catholic Worker and that it would not slip into the pursuit of mere ordinary politics, however righteous or idealistic.”2
The Catholic Workers did not hesitate to emphasize the second half of Matthew’s story of Judgment Day in their articles, the part which describes what will happen to those who reject the least of the brethren. Faced in her work with the desperate situation of the poor, Dorothy wrote in the November 1949 issue of The Catholic Worker about sins of omission and the consequences of them outlined in Matthew 25, when the Lord tells those on his left to depart into everlasting fire, for when he was hungry they gave him no food, no drink, a stranger and they did not welcome him: “I firmly believe that our salvation depends on the poor. “Inasmuch as you have not fed the hungry, clothed the naked, sheltered the homeless, visited the prisoner, protested against injustice, comforted the afflicted, etc., you have not done it to Me.”
If there ever was a mission statement of the CW movement, this was it. Dorothy reminded readers of The Catholic Worker that through the great mystery of the Incarnation, persons in every generation are able to respond to Christ himself in the poor. As she put it, “He made heaven hinge on the way we act toward Him in His disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity.”
How can the Church tolerate us?
As we tried to answer our friend’s questions we reflected that when people ask us how we can stand the Roman Catholic Church, we often have wondered rather how the Church has been able to stand us—after all, who were we to just come in here and begin something called the Houston Catholic Worker?
We began thirty years ago, rented the ugliest building in Houston, started receiving homeless refugees from the wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, and called ourselves the Houston Catholic Worker, Casa Juan Diego. Not only that, we began to publish a newspaper and called it the Houston Catholic Worker. Who were we to do such a thing? We were nobodies like Juan Diego when Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to him, and as imperfect as they come. And yet, the local church has not only tolerated us, but encouraged us.
It was Matthew 25 and the Sermon on the Mount that inspired us to begin, and especially the model of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, who radically lived their Catholic faith emphasizing these teachings of the Gospel. Faced with strangers in a strange land who had nothing to eat and nowhere to lay their heads, we also had to respond to them and their great need. The first people we received in our Houses of Hospitality were refugees from Central American wars who would have been killed if they returned or forcibly recruited to fight in a war in which they did not believe.
Our personal journey, going to El Salvador in the late 1970s to improve our Spanish and live with the poor in Latin America, grew out of small group meetings where we read good books and discussed them with friends—ultimately leading us to founding Casa Juan Diego, the Houston Catholic Worker.
We have lived a long time, and one thing we have learned as lay people is that when one wants to begin a project or step out and live the Gospel, we should not begin by asking the Church for money or personnel to run the project, but simply try to live the Gospel—hopefully working together with other folks, depending on the Lord, and nurture from the Liturgy from which our faith and inspiration grow.
One evening some years ago when we gathered with a few acquaintances to discuss peace issues, a young man spoke angrily at length about how the bishop had refused to fund his project. He lost faith in the bishop and the Church. We wondered why he expected the bishop to fund his project.
In terms of finding community and like-minded people seeking to more profoundly follow the Gospel, the history of how the Catholic Worker movement began might be a good starting point.
Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, had formation as a Christian Brother, many experiences with small groups in France, and read widely. He studied the Church Fathers, the history of monasticism, but also contemporary philosophical and liturgical movements. He worked very hard at finding people to join him in his program of bringing his ideas, his conviction that, as Mel Piehl phrased it, “the most traditional Catholicism was of supreme social relevance to modern humanity, and that it was only necessary to ‘blow the dynamite’ of that ancient church to set the whole world afire.”
It wasn’t easy for Maurin to find people to work with him, but he did not give up. He continued to talk to people and the editor of Commonweal finally recommended that he speak to Dorothy Day, a newspaper-woman who might be able to help him implement his project. Dorothy, a recent convert, had been seeking a way to live out her faith and did not know other Catholics who shared her commitment to the poor. Actually she did not yet know any Catholics well. Mel Piehl pointed out that Maurin showed her that there was not, as she had feared, a contradiction between her newfound Catholic faith and social radicalism, but rather that “social transformation could come precisely by unlocking the power of traditional Catholicism.”3
Dorothy and Peter took a different approach than seeking power in the Church. For them, as for all the saints, being a disciple, being a Catholic, meant becoming holy and powerful in a very different way, the way of the Gospel: “The greatest challenge of the day is: How to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us. When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers and sisters with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we can truly say, ‘Now, I have begun.’”4
Mel Piehl described the Catholic Worker movement as one which did not seek power, but rather, “attempts to transform society not from without—by accumulating enough power to attack the existing power structures—but from within, by altering the fundamental assumptions and values that shape all of public existence”.5
Dorothy and Peter found the Church to be a source of support for their freedom to do good, to work for the common good, rather than a repressive institution. Peter also frequently said that it was better to announce than to denounce:
Although she could be very critical in private of the failings of churchmen, Day generally avoided or downplayed direct criticism of clergy in the Catholic Worker. Although this reticence was considered a weakness by some, especially in later years when general Catholic inhibitions against such criticism broke down, Day held to the view that Catholic religious owed obedience to their superiors and that lay persons should concentrate on positive social action rather than on attacking the Church and its leaders. When a group of activist Catholics in Los Angeles wrote her complaining of opposition from the hierarchy there, she replied” [in a letter in 1963]:
We must follow where the spirit leads. So go ahead, and don’t look for support or approval. And don’t always be looking for blame, either, or see opposition where perhaps there is none. It is judging the motives of others.
Dorothy went on to write from her heart to the Catholic Workers in L.A.: “Excuse my didactic tone, but I do have long experience. I beg you to save your energies to fight the gigantic injustices of our times, and not the Church in the shape of its Cardinal Archbishop there. It is a temptation of the devil to divert our energies, discourage us, sadden us, and neutralize all we would like to do.”6
Former acquaintances challenged Dorothy about her conversion to Catholicism, wondering how she could possibly join the Catholic Church. She responded:
I had a conversation with John Spivak, the Communist writer, a few years ago and he said to me, ‘How can you believe? How can you believe in the Immaculate Conception, in the Virgin birth, in the Resurrection?’ I could only say that I believe in the Roman Catholic Church and all She teaches. I have accepted Her authority with my whole heart.
But she knew it would not always be easy: “At the same time I want to point out to you that we are taught to pray for final perseverance. We are taught that faith is a gift and sometimes I wonder why some have it and some do not. I feel my own unworthiness and can never be grateful enough to God for His gift of faith. St. Paul tells us that if we do not correspond to the graces we receive, they will be withdrawn. So I believe also that we should walk in fear, ‘work out our salvation in fear and trembling.’” [The authors learned from St. Thomas Aquinas about this idea, that graces come in chains, and if you refuse one link, you may lose them all.]
It is hard to explain. It is difficult to make myself clear. If St. Paul, to whom Christ Himself spoke, saw things as through a glass, darkly, how can I hope to make things clear to you? I have only tried to put down what I do understand, urging you again not to discredit Christianity because of the faults of Christians.7
Peter told Dorothy (and everyone else) about the early Church and how Christians performed the Works of Mercy at a personal sacrifice. He saw that the practice and symbolism of the Works of Mercy, receiving the Lord in the poor, binding up wounds and washing feet not only had a special witness value, but was a unique way of changing society. He understood from the lives of the early monks and the lives of the Saints that the practice could also be revolutionary. As he put it, “The social order was constructed by the first Christians through the daily practice of the Seven Corporal and Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy.”
Catholic Workers, following Peter and Dorothy, embraced personalism. This has meant taking personal responsibility for our brothers and sisters through Houses of Hospitality and the fourteen corporal and spiritual Works of Mercy. The saints and also Catholic Workers believed that we do not have to wait for the Church hierarchy or the State to do everything. Dorothy actually said she had much more faith in Holy Mother Church than in “Holy Mother the State”.
It would be a mistake to suggest that the preferential option for the poor is a new development with the Catholic Worker movement, in contemporary religious orders or in the post-Vatican II Church. The emphasis on living out the Gospel in the washing of the feet, in receiving and caring for the poor as the Lord himself, was a reality in the life and teachings of the early Church, and throughout Church history with the example of St. Francis and others in the Middle Ages, later with St. Vincent de Paul and Frederic Ozanam, Frances Cabrini and the work of religious orders over the centuries.
The commitment to peace and against war, so much at the heart of Dorothy Day’s life and the Catholic Worker movement, also has its roots in the early Church and the teachings of Jesus, now more and more affirmed by recent Popes.
What does faith have to do with social concerns?
Although they were engaged in the most important issues of their day, Dorothy and Peter did not put their best hopes in partisan politics. Dorothy had tried that and found that politics was “rife with deal-making.” Peter Maurin quoted Péguy: “There is politics and mysticism, and mysticism is better.” They were very interested in what can be described as Aristotle’s view of politics, the larger view, the broad sense of what was going on in society. They knew that their faith had much to say to the world.
Piehl asked, “How has the Worker been able to combine its spiritual outlook with its political witness in a way that testifies to the autonomy and priority of faith, yet remains fully engaged with the most difficult and controversial issues of actual public life in the United States and elsewhere?” His answer was that the place to begin to understand its radical involvement was with the Worker’s religious orthodoxy:
Almost from its beginnings, the movement’s adherence to traditional Catholicism has been misunderstood or dismissed as a curious anomaly. Secular radicals and many Protestants have often considered it a baffling or irrelevant hindrance to the movement’s admirable social views. The historian Lawrence Veysey, for example, is one of those who have considered the movement’s churchly orthodoxy a strange, marginal quirk: the Catholic Worker, he declares, ‘insisted on maintaining a tenuous tie with the Catholic Church.’
The tie was not tenuous. However, Piehl notes that even some who have recognized the importance of the Catholic faith to the life, spirituality, and work of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin have not understood it as a strength:
“People who think of Catholicism as a kind of military hierarchy, in which superiors hand out orders to inferiors on all subjects, tend to see the freewheeling Catholic Worker’s commitment to the Church as incomprehensible or contradictory. Even some Catholics have seen the Worker’s traditionalism as either a calculated ploy for infiltrating radicalism into the Church, or a clever camouflage to deflect conservative criticism.” Diehl concludes, “Anyone who looks very closely at the history of the Catholic Worker must eventually recognize the inadequacy of such interpretations.”
Saints and sinners in all ages
It is disconcerting to observe that the Church, the Bride of Christ, filled with splendor and beauty in her theology and her sacraments, also has members who are weak, mediocre, and sinful. We have to remind ourselves that there have been saints and sinners in the Church in all ages. The Lord himself ate with sinners and called them to follow him. The trouble is magnified, however, when scandalous sinners become powerful in the Church.
Some say that the scandals of our time (especially that of Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ whom some have named a psychopath who led a double life) equal those of the notorious Borgia popes. Even during the time of the Borgia popes, however, there were saints who loved the Church and were able to see beyond the scandals and live out the Gospel, following the Nazarene without leaving the Church. Pope Alexander VI, the most notorious Borgia pope, died in 1502. His great grandson, Francis, by contrast became the leader of the Jesuits and a canonized saint after the death of his wife. Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in 1531.
We close with the words of Fr. Catoir, the former president of the Christophers who wrote in a recent column to those struggling with scandals and discomfort with the Church:
Hold onto your joy! Remember the words of Jesus: ‘I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete.’
Don’t let a Church scandal screw up your chances for spiritual happiness. Do not lose your joy because of the sins of others; that would be a form of self-sabotage.
There have always been bad people in the Church: bad popes, bad bishops, bad priests, bad men and bad women. Despite them, decide to be joyful, no matter what.
My advice to anyone who is fed up with the Church is this; Don’t let anyone steal your joy!
Jesus taught us to reject the sin but love the sinner and we all must try to do that.
So don’t forget to make an act of contrition now and then for your own faults and failings. No one is without sin.
Also, never abandon the Eucharist. Forfeiting this wonderful gift would be the worst act of self-sabotage for Catholics.
And pray often, Lord, ‘I do believe, help my unbelief!’
Hold onto your joy!
Please consider donating to Casa Juan Diego here.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXX, No. 4, August-September 2010.