Dwight Macdonald on the Catholic Workers

I nominated Dwight Macdonald as my first Reactionary Radicals draft pick the other day, in a post that also cited John Lukacs contrasting Henry Kissinger, the famous war criminal, and Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. To bring things full circle, here are a few passages from Macdonald's own essay on Day and the Catholic Workers, from The Memoirs of a Revolutionist (and first published in two issues of The New Yorker in October 1952):

Politically, the Catholic Workers are hard to classify. They are for the poor and against the rich, so the capitalists call them Communists; they believe in private property and don't believe in class struggle, so the Communists call them capitalists, and they are hostile to war and to the State, so both capitalists and Commmunists consider them crackpots. … Being as a general rule pacifist, most Catholic Workers refuse to serve in the army, to work on war industries, and to pay federal income taxes (since most of the budget goes for war purposes) even on those rare occasions when they have enough income to pay taxes on.

Despite that, Macdonald reports, they met surprisingly little official resistance. "'I'd as soon arrest the Holy Father himself!' exclaimed one uniformed co-religionist" charged with breaking up a strike.

How does such a group survive?

Under Miss Day's guidance, the Catholic Workers have devised an inexpensive and effective technique of fund-raising: they pray to Saint Joseph, their patron saint.

Macdonald was a non-believer, but there's no condescension in his essay. The humor is dry but respectful, too, as when Macdonald relates movement's co-founder Peter Maurin's plan for reforming prostitutes — "He thought a lot about it and finally proposed a double-barreled solution: Settle prostitutes and male alcoholics on Catholic Worker farms and let them marry and rehabilitate one another. Nothing much came of it, however."

The Catholic Workers have always been aware of their own limitations: Macdonald cites one columnist for the Catholic Worker newspaper writing frankly, "I dislike writing, due to my lack of talent. … It kills you when you haven't got it. Right now, I feel cheated by having to meet a deadline with this tripe when I could be listening to the first game of the World Series." This self-understanding extended to Day herself, naturally enough:

…she is a leader whose chief worry is that her followers have too great a tendency to follow. "Low in mind all day, full of tears," she wrote one evening in 1936 in a journal she has kept since she was a girl. "What with Easton, New York, Boston, Ottawa, Toronto and Missouri groups all discouraged, all looking for organization instead of self-organization, all weary of the idea of freedom and personal responsiblity — I feel bitterly oppressed. I am in the position of a dictator trying to legislate hismelf out of existence. They all complain that there is no boss. Today I happened to read Dostoevsky's 'Grand Inquisitor,' most apropos. Freedom — how men hate it and chafe under it, how unhappy they are with it!"

She persevered; so has the movement. As for Henry Kissinger, pray for him, too.

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One thought on “Dwight Macdonald on the Catholic Workers

  1. R J Stove May 17, 2006 / 6:04 am

    It’s amazing how much fury Dorothy Day still inspires among what might be broadly called the neocon Catholic mindset. I was once in an online discussion group where any mention of Dorothy Day was greeted with howls of outrage that couldn’t have been more ferocious if she’d been … well, French. Since I had no dog in that particular fight, I said nothing, but simply remained puzzled.

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