What Started the Catholic Worker Movement during the Great Depression?
In September 2015 Pope Francis came to the United States and delivered a speech during a joint meeting of Congress. During this speech, the Pope specifically commended the lives of four Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dorothy Day. Of the four, Dorothy Day’s life and contributions are probably the least known in non-Catholic circles. However, this is not due to their lack of greatness.
This short essay will consider the contributions of Dorothy Day as a progressive American and social activist, specifically her creation of a movement that began in Brooklyn and swept across the United States during the early 20th century: the Catholic Worker Movement. In doing so, it will become apparent as to why the Pope commended her in his 2015 visit to the United States and why she is being considered for canonization in the Catholic Church. This article will also illuminate the relationship between Catholic Social Teaching and American social justice movements in the 20th century.
What is the Catholic Worker?
The Catholic Worker movement began as a lay community dedicated to serving the poor during the Great Depression and advocating on behalf of those oppressed by social injustice. This movement still exists to this day. The lay dimension of these Catholic Worker Houses is particularly important. Members do not take vows; they are not ordained in the Catholic Church. They are single or married men and women who are committed to living in the community and following in the footsteps of Christ through service to the oppressed. These volunteers serve food to the poor, eat with them, and are dedicated to living an austere lifestyle in solidarity with them.
The first Catholic Worker house was founded in Brooklyn in 1933, but there are over 240 communities worldwide, some of which would be described as interfaith. Each community lives out the call to service in different ways, depending on the needs of the communities in which they live. The idea of the Catholic Worker was first presented to Dorothy Day by Peter Maurin and Day’s skill for organizing and passion for social justice got it off the ground running.
Day’s Youth and Socialist Commitments
Because Dorothy Day’s faith was integral to the movement’s foundation, we will consider it here. Dorothy Day was baptized as an Episcopalian but did not have any strong religious affiliation or influence in her youth. As she entered into early adulthood, she became increasingly vexed by the country’s social ills, particularly the looming effects of industrialization and the trend that free market societies had to abuse their workers. Moreover, she was extremely outspoken about her anti-war commitments and socialist leanings in her writing as a journalist and her political activism.
She joined the socialist party, declaring herself an atheist dedicated to the common good. Though Day was very involved politically, she felt a calling and pull to Catholicism; socialist politics was not substantial enough--it did not have enough heart. In other words, Day found a lot of talk among her Bohemian communities about advocacy for the poor, but not as much action. Even though political protests were active in some sense, activists rarely met with, listened to, or lived with the poor. They advocated for them but didn’t love them. This lead to a long courtship with Catholicism, but her common-law husband, a staunch anti-theist, was not keen on her intrigue with religion.
After giving birth to her daughter and separating from her common-law husband, Day converted to the Catholic Church, which gave new resolve and purpose to her mission of social transformation. Day’s conversion to Catholicism helps explain her search for something more than socialist politics that eventually resulted in the birth of the Catholic Worker.
The Great Depression
The creation of the Catholic Worker cannot be separated from the economic and cultural climate from which it was born. Day was living amidst a particularly trying time in American life: the Great Depression. During the Great Depression, one could not walk outside without being bombarded by the poverty lining American streets. Families were cast out of their homes, desperate for work, and depended on the charity of others for their meals. As Day read through the Gospels, she found Jesus’ commitment to the poor particularly compelling and inescapable duty of Christian life.
She not only wanted to serve the poor but live among them just as Jesus did. She felt that depth in relation with Christ necessarily moves one towards the other. During the Depression, Day especially felt the need for such a movement towards the other; opportunities were increasingly abundant. So, restless, eager for political change, and new to the Catholic faith, Day prayed for a way to enact the change she wanted to see in the world.
Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin
The creation of the Catholic Worker was also dependent on its co-founder, Peter Maurin. According to Egan Eileen, Maurin was, “bursting with ideas on how to remake society and purge it of its evils through living according to the Gospel and Christian tradition, and would share them with anyone who would listen.”  George Schuster, a mutual friend of Maurin and Day, recommended that the two meet and discuss their common interests. Shortly after Schuster made the suggestion, Maurin showed up on the doorstep of Day’s home, and five months later the Catholic Worker was born.
It was Maurin’s ideas and Day’s ability to see them through and conceive of practical applications for the implementation that enabled the Catholic Worker to become a reality. Both Maurin and Day were brought together by their restless interest in lifting society, creating communities that made it just a little easier to be good. So, putting all of this together, the Catholic worker was a response to the poverty produced during the Great Depression--a product of Dorothy Day’s political activism, her conversion to Catholicism, and Peter Maurin’s passion for conforming society to Christ’s Gospel. Its ideological roots can be described as radically Christian.
Significance of the Catholic Worker
The Catholic Worker stands as one of the most successful and interesting social movements of 20th century America--successful, not in terms of the sheer number of communities that it produced, but in the authentic service, it offered to the poor and oppressed. Those in Catholic Worker communities lived a reading of the Gospel that was necessarily active, politically speaking. Having a relationship with Christ was not simply an individualistic endeavor, but one that demanded movement towards the other. Both Day and Maurin understood that love of God, if authentic, should overflow into the lives of others. The Catholic worker was most fundamentally about love.
For Day, love was found in community with others--it was how one encountered God. Day articulates this in the very postscript of her memoir, The Long Loneliness, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” So then, the Catholic worker was about bringing love to those who did not know it, who were cast aside by society, shamed by their communities, and ridiculed by the culture. To Day and Maurin, this is what it meant to live like Christ. The true Christian did not simply take up this task as a once a year service opportunity; they lived it daily.
Moreover, the Catholic Worker stands as a testament to the synthesis between political progressivism and Christian ethics. Christianity, Catholicism, in particular, should engage with politics; it should always promote a preferential option for the poor. Finally, the Catholic Worker foreshadowed the theological posture of Vatican II; it encouraged the love of God to be active in the world and confirmed the laity's call to holiness.
- See the Pope’s speech in full here: https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/september/documents/papa-francesco_20150924_usa-us-congress.html
- Eileen, Egan. "The Final Word is Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement." Crosscurrents no. 4 (1980): 377-384
- Day, Dorothy.The Long Loneliness, (New York: Harper One, 1952).