In this book, Dan McKanan (chair of the theology department at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University) presents an insightful overview of the Catholic Worker movement. While he devotes significant attention, as the title suggests, to the period after the death of Dorothy Day, he also discusses the earlier history. Particularly helpful are McKanan’s reflections on the reasons for the enduring nature of the Catholic Worker, the role of families, and the content of some recent debates within the movement.
While many wondered how the Catholic Worker would fare after the death of Dorothy Day, McKanan highlights the movement’s continued strength and vitality. Since Day’s death, the number of Catholic Worker communities has in fact more than doubled and the number of communities that are more than 25 years old has increased ten-fold. In the United States there are currently houses of hospitality in nearly 150 cities along with more than a dozen Catholic Worker farms. (pp. 1-2) (McKanan does not discuss the spread of the Catholic Worker to other countries, one of the few weaknesses of the book.)
What accounts for the enduring vitality of the Catholic Worker? McKanan highlights especially the movement’s emphasis on personal responsibility, the centrality of the works of mercy, and the openness to diverse community forms. Provocatively, he asserts that “the key to the Catholic Worker’s endurance” is that “it has never really tried to endure.” (p. 22) Rather than focusing on institutional perpetuation, it has instead fostered a personalist approach that simply invites people to take personal responsibility for responding to pressing needs. Most new communities arise out of the initiative of persons inspired by the witness of the Catholic Worker, rather than out of any deliberate effort at institutional movement-building.
McKanan divides the history of the Catholic Worker into four periods. The first period, from 1933 until the Second World War, he calls the time of “the founders.” These included especially Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, both also many others who played important roles in forming, supporting, and maintaining communities. By 1941 around forty communities had formed. Most of these communities, however, would close during the Second World War, due in part to disagreements over the movement’s pacifism and the entry of numerous Workers into the military. A second period, from the end of WWII until the early 1960s, was a time of slow and steady rebuilding. This was followed by the “the flowering” of the 1960s and 1970s, which saw a large number of new communities form, many of which have endured long-term. McKanan highlights the central importance of this generation of Catholic Workers, asserting that “they deserve as much credit for the endurance of the Worker as Dorothy Day herself.” (p. 5) “In the end,” he says, “the hippie generation of Catholic Workers achieved something very few of the founders had: they figured out how to make whole lives out of the Catholic Worker movement.” (p. 91) The final period McKanan labels “after Dorothy,” from 1980 to the present. This has been a time of continued growth, including the formation of Catholic Worker communities in numerous smaller cities.
Several issues have given rise to considerable debate and discussion in the contemporary Catholic Worker movement. One of these is the role of families. Whereas Dorothy Day is often portrayed as having discouraged the involvement of people with children as full-time members of Catholic Worker communities, McKanan presents a more balanced perspective. He argues that Day recognized the difficulties of the Catholic Worker calling (especially for families in urban houses of hospitality) and did indeed discourage people from embarking on such a path without considerable discernment, but at the same time she frequently in her writings had praise for those who were able to successfully embrace such a calling. Significantly, in recent decades increasing numbers of families have been core members of Catholic Worker communities. Moreover, families have always been central to the extended Catholic Worker family. Day never identified the Catholic Worker simply with those living full-time in community.
Other issues of contemporary debate among Catholic Workers that McKanan discusses include the relationship of the movement with the Catholic Church and the question of disagreement with church teaching on issues such as homosexuality, contraception, the ordination of women, and, to a much lesser extent, abortion. At times these questions have led to heated controversies within or among Catholic Worker communities. There are, for example, a vocal minority of Catholic Workers who feel that the broader movement has strayed too far from Catholic orthodoxy. Others argue that support for women’s ordination, support for homosexuals, etc. follows naturally from the Gospel. McKanan’s history shows that these issues of debate concerning Catholicism are not new. Some important earlier figures in the Catholic Worker movement were sharply critical of the Catholic Church, such as Ammon Hennacy. While Dorothy Day disagreed with these views, it is significant that she did not prevent them from being expressed even in the Catholic Worker newspaper. Overall, McKanan suggests that most Catholic Worker communities, united around a common commitment to the works of mercy, tend to find ways for both progressive and traditionalist Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, to work together.
What does the future hold for the Catholic Worker? McKanan is uncertain. Some factors, he suggests, give cause for concern. Among these are the aging of the 1960s generation who have been so central to the movement. Will the younger generations of Workers have the same longevity? Also, McKanan laments what he terms the “relative invisibility” of the movement in both Catholic and national consciousness. (p. 215) Yet, the movement is very much alive. And given the critical times that we live in, McKanan suggests that we may be on the verge of another “auspicious moment” for the flowering of the Catholic Worker vision.