This Marquette University reprint of William Miller's pioneering work on the history of the Catholic Worker movement is to be greatly appreciated. Miller's work was first published in 1973, while Dorothy Day, co-founder of the movement, was still alive, about a decade after she had first granted him access to the movement archives at Marquette University. Miller's work draws on the sources of the Catholic Worker movement, both written and oral, at a time when Dorothy Day's personal influence was at its highest. The work is at once both an intellectual history that explains the origins of the radical idea of the Catholic Worker movement as well as a moving personal account of the people that make up the movement.
The Catholic Worker movement was greatly influenced by the Christian personalism of the Frenchmen, Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mournier, coupled with the Russian influence of Nikolai Berdyaev and the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. According to Miller, Dostoevsky’s writings deal with the three main problems of human existence: evil, freedom, and community (353). In many ways, these are the primary concerns of the Worker movement. In many respects the Catholic Worker movement can be considered at least as one incarnation of personalism in dialogue with socialism and communism.
The Worker program, as envisioned by Peter Maurin, along with Day the co-founder of the movement, consisted of three elements. Maurin’s thinking was a synthesis of the gospels, church fathers, writings of the saints and philosophers, which he hoped would help create a new society in the shell of the old, whereby it would be easier for people to be good. The first element was houses of hospitality in which the works of mercy would be lived and practiced. The second element was roundtable discussions for the “clarification of thought” in which the challenges of living the personalism of the gospel would be reflected on in order to better be realized. The last element, which is probably the least realized, was “agronomic universities” in which scholars could be workers and workers could be scholars.
As he relates in his preface, Miller’s original approach sought to associate the Worker movement with the idea of liberalism, an association he gradually came to reject. Instead of liberalism, tied as it was to the myth of progress that found its basis for community in the nation state, the Catholic Worker idea sought the common life in the realm of the spirit. The idea was a return to the eschatological expectation in which the active and selfless love of Christ is subsumed into every aspect of creation. Miller says that for Maurin and Day "it is the only radicalism worthy of depths of man and sufficient to the crises at hand (4)."
One of Day's programmatic essays was entitled "Hell is Not to Love Any More." It is a reflection that rejects any sentimentalized notion of love. It is only through the experience of active love that one becomes aware of the reality of God. This active love is, in the words of Fr. Zossima of Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, "a harsh and dreadful love compared to love in dreams." This sums up the basic idea of the Worker: faith in love as the ultimate reality.
Coupled with the focus on active love is the Worker view that accepts suffering and tragedy, divisions and catastrophes, as necessary cost of genuine freedom. The Worker movement struggled towards its vision of a redeemed creation against pressures from both without and within the Church. Day and many of the Workers embraced a pacifism not widely understood. They also rejected the temptation to ally themselves with what Day called “Holy Mother the State“. Adhering to state sponsored guidelines in order to provide much needed resources for their mission, would be a betrayal of the personalist principle that refuses to offload the responsibility of Gospel demands to the workings of the State. As the complexity of modern life increases, the Worker movement sought to maintain a critical distance from the State so as not to give over the freedom necessary to live the gospel. Day’s vision was characterized by a social decentralization and simplicity that sought to respond to the needs at hand. The goal is not success according to the world’s standards but to further the reality of spirit in the world.
Miller’s work captures the spirit of the pilgrimage that Day and the Worker movement saw themselves as part of. For those interested in the history of the movement as well as the foundations for the Worker challenge to the Church, this work is to be highly recommended.