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The Catholic Worker Movement:
A Critical Analysis


Dr. Carol Byrne
I believe that no one is better qualified than the author of a book to present an objective synopsis of it. With this in mind, I asked Dr. Byrne, a British expert on the Catholic Worker Movement and Distributism, to introduce TIA readers to her recently published book The Catholic Worker Movement (1933-1980): A Critical Analysis (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2010, 332 pp.). She kindly agreed, and here is the summary she offers us. The Editor
The Catholic Worker Movement

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Ever since Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker Movement (CWM) in 1933, the subject of its being a Communist front has become the elephant in the room – something of which CWM aficionados are inwardly aware but which they all agree to outwardly ignore. They have succeeded in circulating the myth, implicitly believed even by members of the clergy who should know better, that Day left Communism behind when she entered the Catholic Church.

So when Cardinal John O’Connor of New York wrote to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in February 2000 requesting that Dorothy Day’s Cause be introduced, he alleged that after she became a Catholic Dorothy Day was never a member of any “political groups hostile to the Church, for example, Communists, Socialists or anarchists,” and that “she did not approve of their tactics or any denial of private property.”

From this, we must infer that the Cardinal has been not only misled but is misleading others as authentic documentary evidence exists to prove the falseness of these claims. As far as I know, my book is the first and only study, based on archival sources not previously available to the public, which shows that Dorothy Day, after her conversion to Catholicism, did in fact become a member of several Socialist organizations and was actively involved in political groups whose founders and leaders were predominantly members of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA).

The book provides details of how Day shared public platforms with high profile Communists including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a paid official of the CPUSA (and later its first woman Chairman), took an active part in an array of Communist-led strikes during the 1930s and ‘40s and used her newspaper, the Catholic Worker (CW), of which she was editor for almost 50 years, as an organ of propaganda in favor of Communism. All this must be considered against the background of the decree issued by the Holy Office in 1949 pronouncing an anathema on any Catholic who cooperated with Communists in any way. The fact that she was able to flout the papal ban against Communist-aiding Catholics merely conferred on her an added mystique among her supporters.

While declaring herself committed to a non-violent revolution, Day nonetheless supported every Socialist regime around the world regardless of its violent beginnings and inhumane consequences. There is documentary evidence that Day supported the policies of hostile foreign powers operating from Moscow, Havana, Peking and Hanoi against her own country, the USA.

Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan

Dorothy Day and Marxist Fr. Daniel Berrigan, standing at right, orient hippies for anti-war protests
She also wrote favorably about such Socialist dictators as Lenin, Castro, Mao and Ho Chi Minh, even though they had all violently persecuted the Church in their respective countries. Is it not ironic that some Catholics who died in Communist purges of the 20th century have been canonized while the Vatican is considering sainthood for a Catholic who spent most of her life collaborating with their executioners?

The book demonstrates how Day arrived at her position on absolute Pacifism simply by relying on her personal opinions and identifying them with the teachings of Christ. Here it is important to keep in mind that we are dealing with a private interpretation of the Gospels, and that the Church has never taught that the sayings of Jesus establish a case for Pacifism. The problem is that Day made her private opinions into a universal claim that all war is wrong, but the fact remains that war is not, in all cases, prohibited by the Christian law.

When Cardinal O’Connor stated that Dorothy Day’s commitment to Pacifism distinguished her from Communists, he did not seem to be aware of the Kremlin-controlled Peace Movement of the 1960s or the extent to which Day’s Pacifist stance actually helped further Communist objectives, particularly during the Vietnam War era. With regard to the situation in the United States, the function of Pacifism, as evidenced in its effect, was to debilitate the national will, to demoralize opposition to Socialist States, to inhibit US defenses against Communist aggression and thus to imperil the national interest.

There is more to Day’s Pacifism than meets the eye. Her involvement in the Peace Movement needs to be considered against the wider background of the radical activism of anti-war groups with which she cooperated – all of them founded, infiltrated and funded by Communist-supporting officials who sat on each others’ committees, shared platforms, contributed to each other’s publications and shared a common desire to destroy the political and economic structures of Western societies. We must conclude that her Pacifism, apart from being treasonable to her own country, was intellectually dishonest insofar as she knowingly served the interests of Socialism while pretending to be also serving the interests of Christianity.

Revolution, workers movement

International Communist - similar to Day's position
Despite her constant bleating about non-violence, violence is a built-in feature of her revolutionary position. A close examination of the works of those who influenced Day and Maurin – from the Russian anarchist Kropotkin to the French ideologue Emmanuel Mounier to the Liberation Theology practitioners of Latin America – shows that they have all advocated violence as a necessary, even indispensable, tool in the cause of the anti-capitalist revolution.

However, there is no validation in Catholic tradition for Day’s positions on Anarchism, Pacifism, Personalism, “Christian Communism”, unionism, civil disobedience, Liberation Theology or her idea that the Mystical Body of Christ encompasses the whole of mankind. She simply twisted the teachings of the Scriptures, the Saints, the Church Fathers and the papal encyclicals to arrive at her preconceived conclusions.

For those who think that Day loved the Church, my book exposes the ugly, unvarnished details of her anti-clericalism. The most striking characteristic of Day’s criticism of the Catholic Church was its similarity to the material found in Soviet anti-religious posters and periodicals. Her words echoed the standard Socialist propaganda blaming the clergy for being too rich, for allying themselves with powerful governments and for oppressing the working people.

It was not simply a question of fraternal correction of certain pastors whose behavior may have fallen short of the evangelical spirit and caused scandal to the faithful – she was remarkably tolerant of errant clergy who were on her side – it was a denunciation of the clergy as representatives of the “ruling class,” the class of the “oppressors.”

Cesar Chavez, Coretta King, Dorothy Day

The Red Left: Cesar Chavez, Coretta King & Dorothy Day
This brings us to the unkindest cut of all – Day’s insistence that it was the Church’s wealth that caused the persecutions it suffered throughout History, when the catalyst in many of such persecutions was the attempt by Socialists to poison the public mind against the clergy and expropriate their property. Such an approach to Christianity is favorable neither to procuring justice in the world, to genuine freedom nor to the interests of the Catholic Church of which she was a member.

The book also explores the CWM’s commitment to ecumenism, religious liberty, liberation theology, worker priests and liturgical experimentation that it had been promoting for decades before Vatican II. It shows how these phenomena contributed to the long process of moral dissolution culminating in the 1960s that helped to normalize anarchy and dissent within the Church and promiscuity, homosexuality and radical feminism among the American public.

Both Day’s and Maurin’s goal was a Communist society that would abolish the system of wage-labor and free enterprise and produce a classless society characterized by shared ownership of goods and communal child rearing. Day even published an article that called “for some union in which the individual States will agree to surrender national sovereignty in favor of a world society.” (Catholic Worker, June 1955) Their whole aim was to keep the Communist dream alive and introduce it into the Church through Christian-Marxist dialogue.

Day’s supporters are still ignoring the elephant in the room. It’s a very large elephant and hard to squeeze around. Are we being disorientated because of that elephant? If so, isn’t it time to adjust our visual field and see it for what it is?

Dr. Carol Byrne may be contacted here




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