This text comes from our book, The American Venture.
Most of the responses to the Great Depression had to do with government—what the government should do in the crisis and what it shouldn’t do. What each person should do when confronted by poverty, suffering, and injustice—that was a question asked by a man many would have thought odd if not somewhat crazy. This man, Peter Maurin, not only asked this question but had an answer for it. It was this answer that he declaimed in New York City’s Union Square, a place where all sorts of oddballs gathered to speechify about their plans to change the world.
The 55-year-old Maurin was a devout Catholic and the son of a large peasant family in France. As a young man, he had spent some years in a religious teaching order, the Christian Brothers, and served a stint in the French army. Maurin had left his native France in 1909 to avoid mandatory military service and emigrated to Canada, where he engaged in homesteading, and when that failed, manual labor and teaching French. By 1932, he was teaching in a boys’ camp in New York state and spending what time he could in New York City, giving speeches in Union Square and living the life of the poor in Bowery flop houses.
Through his years of wandering, and after reading many books, Peter Maurin had developed what was a rather simple program for social change. The key to social change, he said, was not agitation, not class warfare, but sanctity. Without sanctity, he said, all change is like a “clean shirt on a dirty back.” Each person, he insisted, must himself feed the poor, clothe the naked, and teach the ignorant. He was not opposed to government action, but he thought that modern government, along with modern business, was too large and tried to control too many things. He favored establishing smaller groups and organizations where people could take care of each other in a more personal way—where each person could practice personal responsibility.
Peter Maurin knew he was an “ideas man” and that he needed someone else to help him come up with practical ways to realize his ideas. He found that someone in the person of a 34-year-old woman, a journalist and a single mother named Dorothy Day. From a young age, Day had felt a deep sense of love and concern for the poor, which led her to embrace socialism as the answer to the injustices they suffered. Though she had become an atheist, her experience of the Catholic Church as the church of the poor drew her to Christ, and she was baptized a Catholic on December 8, 1927. For the next few years, however, she wondered how as a Catholic she could work for social justice. Her answer came in early 1933 when Peter Maurin, sent by a mutual friend, visited her apartment.
Peter was a very talkative man. No sooner had he walked through Dorothy’s door than he began to explain his ideas to her. Along with his ideas on personal responsibility, Peter had a plan. What people needed, he said, was “roundtable discussions” where they could come together and discuss the social teachings of the Church (as found in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno) and how to use those teachings to help others. He wanted there to be “houses of hospitality,” where the poor could come to be fed, clothed, and have a place to sleep. He also wanted farms where the poor from the city could go to work and provide for themselves. On these farms, he thought, scholars and manual workers could come together to influence each other and unite in common tasks of justice and charity.
Peter told Dorothy that the first thing they needed to do was start a newspaper. Dorothy was doubtful—neither she nor he had the money for such a venture. But Peter was undaunted. “In the history of the saints,” he said, “money is raised by prayer. God sends you what you need when you need it.” And God sent Peter and Dorothy what they needed. They raised the $57 they required to print the first issue of their paper, which Dorothy named The Catholic Worker.
The newspaper was just the beginning of what became known as the Catholic Worker movement. Peter and Dorothy rented two buildings where long lines of poor men and women soon gathered to receive food and clothing and to find a place to sleep. Various people, even well-known Catholics from Europe and the United States, came to the Catholic Worker house for roundtable discussions. Soon, Catholic Worker houses were founded in other American cities by people inspired by Dorothy and Peter’s work. Some Catholic Workers started farms and retreat houses in rural areas.
The Catholic Worker was different from other Catholic movements in that it never became a religious order or congregation. As Catholic laymen, Catholic Workers did not take religious vows; people could come to help out at Worker houses and stay as long as they wanted, or leave whenever they wanted. Though under Dorothy and Peter’s leadership, the Catholic Worker was faithful to Catholic orthodoxy and obedient to the bishops and the pope, some Catholics thought it suspicious. Dorothy Day, for instance, called herself a pacifist because, it seems, she thought the destructiveness of modern weaponry made modern war unjust. Most Catholic Workers agreed, and this led many of them to refuse to serve in the military during World War II.
Both Maurin and Day were critical of the New Deal because it substituted government action for personal responsibility on behalf of the poor. Not the federal government, said Dorothy, but “smaller bodies, decentralized groups, should be caring for all such needs.” What was needed was not government programs but a commitment to change society according to spirit of the Gospel. All of society—government, business, family and social life—must be transformed by justice, charity, and a commitment to personal responsibility.