The social philosophy held by The Catholic Worker differed from some of the other worker movements of the time. They held the philosophy of strict pacifism, which included opposition to war as well as a rejection of the violent revolutionary class struggle. They also had an acceptance of private property, finding that owning and working one's own land was an important need for human beings. They believed that the less government interference the better; more important than government handouts was the guarantee of a job. Their slogan was "Work not wages," for to them work was vital to human dignity. They valued manual labor highly as well, recognizing that no matter how industrial the world would become, there would always be work that needed to be done by hand.
The Catholic Workers grew strong as a group, attracting many volunteers as their paper expanded. They incorporated into their work a means of direct action for the poor, which was comprised of houses of hospitality in almost every major city of the country, giving shelter to the homeless and soup to the hungry. Twelve farms were established which provided food for the houses and where families had the opportunity to be on retreat for a few days at a time to recollect and reevaluate their lives.
Living a spiritual life was always basic to the approach of Dorothy Day, and her regular column, "On Pilgrimage," was full of her beautiful observations and discoveries. To live, said Dorothy, was to be on pilgrimage. But the journey of life was not an easy one. Life, Dorothy recognized, was "the long loneliness," but it was a loneliness that could be endured. The solution was love- love for the poor, the tired, the hungry, the suffering of the world. It was the love found in the Christian idea of the Mystical Body of Christ, the recognition that in each and every human being was the reflection of the divine nature of Christ.
From its very beginning, The Catholic Worker maintained its editorial stance of absolute nonviolence, and this extended even throughout World War II, a war which most people found justifiable. Dorothy Day wrote many articles during this period about the need for non-violent action in dealing with world conflicts. The Catholic Workers, for example, were among the first groups to protest at the German embassy against the Nazi regime's treatment of the Jews. But going to war was another matter. Christians have always believed in the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," yet they have always found justifications for not following it. Dorothy Day felt that it was vital for the world to reach the point where we would have no compromise about war. Nonviolence, according to Dorothy Day, was "the acceptance of suffering." Suffering, especially unjust suffering, when endured as an offering, has a transforming effect on the world: it creates a force, an energy, as did Christ's unjust death. But in general people could not understand this mystical approach to suffering, and The Catholic Worker lost thousands of subscriptions during World War II. There were times when Dorothy wondered if they should have maintained their hard editorial line. She wrote in The Long Loneliness, "We have always acknowledged the primacy of the spiritual, and to have undertaken a life of silence, manual labor, and prayer might have been the better way."
In the sixties, the Catholic Workers were early in their protest of the Vietnam War and became advisors for the growing antiwar sentiment. They were also a major part of farm labor protests, and Dorothy Day herself was in many a march with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.
The houses of hospitality, retreat houses and farms are found throughout this country today, and The Catholic Worker newspaper remains the best-priced paper at still only one penny a copy. It is interesting to ponder the changes that came about in a young woman's life that led to such a transformation-Dorothy Day transformed not only herself but also all those lives that she touched. And Dorothy Day touched thousands. Her spirit will be with us always, for she left in her writings not only the solitary voice of one passionate, idealistic woman, but also the cries of all those who suffer and labor in the world, the poor and the workers.
References and recommended readings
Dorothy Day. From Union Square to Rome
Silver Spring, Maryland, 1940.
________. Loaves and Fishes
New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
________. The Long Loneliness
New York: Harper and Row, 1981.
New York: Newman Press, 1970.
________. On Pilgrimage: The Sixties
New York: Curtis Books, 1972.
Reprinted from Walking with Contemplation.
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