The Anarchism of the Catholic Worker

The Anarchism of the Catholic Worker

In its 90th year, the radical peace movement is reinvigorating itself by going hyper-local.

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Simone Weil House is a century-old arts-and-crafts bungalow with cheerful red siding located in Portland, Ore. The house is on a large corner lot in the city’s historically Black, rapidly gentrifying Northeast neighborhood.

Outside, a hand-drawn chalkboard on the front porch invites strangers and friends to community dinners on Wednesday nights. In the front yard, a free fridge and clothing closet signal a commitment to mutual aid. In the backyard of the double lot, housing-insecure guests live in three tiny homes. Inside is a revolution.

Simone Weil House is part of the anarchist Catholic Worker movement. A household name among peace activists, the movement is finding rebirth in its 90th year by returning to its roots. Communities like Simone Weil House are the next chapter in the Catholic Worker’s story.

Before it was a movement, it was a newspaper. Founded on May Day in 1933, The Catholic Worker was conceived when Peter Maurin, a French immigrant, met the leftist journalist Dorothy Day in 1932 and educated her in the Catholic Church’s recent writings on social justice. Day, a passionate reporter, saw their newspaper as an outlet of pacifist revolution. They called US Catholics—dockworkers, lawyers, and bishops alike—to action. Their faith, Day and Maurin said, was not just concerned with the supernatural on Sundays but rather had a concrete social mission.

In the nine decades since its birth, the Catholic Worker movement has come to be many things: a labor movement, a countercultural commune movement, a back-to-the-land movement, a Luddite arts-and-crafts movement, and a peace movement. Simone Weil House is one of at least six Catholic Worker houses that have opened around the country in the past five years that are turning to Maurin and Day’s original vision of spiritual and economic change to combat the despair of late capitalism and the anomie of a younger generation facing financial devastation and environmental destruction.

“Young people recognize that capitalism is a failure, in the light of the permanent war economy and environmental crisis,” Martha Hennessy told The Nation. Hennessy, who is Day’s granddaughter and a member of the Maryhouse Catholic Worker community in New York City, believes the movement is in crisis, 42 years after the death of its founder. In her eyes, the movement has both “ossified and dissipated.”

“We can get stuck in our ways,” Hennessy said. Although established Catholic Worker houses in New York City, Los Angeles, Des Moines, and Houston continue to draw some young people, many millennial and Gen Z members are opting to start their own houses in order to reinterpret the movement’s traditions and principles for a new generation. Hennessy believes that the Catholic Worker can find renewal by attending to the youngest voices in the movement.

This newest cohort of Worker communities is less inclined to talk about organized resistance or mass political protest. They embrace the movement’s anarchism for its emphasis on local, personal community in a global, online age. They see it as a fundamentally creative endeavor to build a new society “wherein justice dwelleth,” as Day wrote in 1940, without waiting for permission from Big Capital, Big Government, or even their local bishop.

By the time she started The Catholic Worker, Day was a veteran of the activist press of the early 20th century, having worked for left-leaning, populist publications like The Masses and The Call. But she had always been drawn to religion. In 1917, when she was on a hunger strike with suffragists in Occoquan Workhouse, a Virginia prison, she asked for a Bible and found solace in reading the Psalms. She began her formal conversion to Catholicism in 1927, after unexpectedly becoming pregnant the year before. But her conversion alienated her from her communist friends—as well her partner, fellow radical Forster Batterham. For the next five years, Day was unsure of how to integrate her faith with her commitments to workers, immigrants, and the poor.

Peter Maurin was a peasant who left his native Lozère in the South of France and had spent more than 20 years struggling to navigate the industrial age: a failed farm in Canada, agricultural work in upstate New York, coal mining in Pennsylvania, and janitorial work and teaching in Chicago. He met Day through the editor of Commonweal, and they set out to educate fellow Catholics about what the intellectual tradition of a faith that was often perceived as rigidly hierarchical had to say about creating a just economic system and honoring the dignity of the worker.

Soon after the newspaper’s founding, the Worker’s editorial staff began feeding the unemployed who flocked to their office. By the seventh issue, in December 1933, they were asking readers to help fund their “cooperative apartment” for out-of-work women. After several moves across downtown Manhattan, the cooperative apartment became the first St. Joseph House of Hospitality, which opened in 1936 on Mott Street. Houses of hospitality are often collectively run homes where single adults live in solidarity with homeless people, immigrants, single parents, or vulnerable adults they invite to live with them. A few houses of hospitality are run by families. Today, there are roughly 200 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality and farms around the world.

But the Worker’s influence over mainstream Catholic culture—as well as secular activist culture—has faded from what it once was. The movement’s flagship newspaper, which once had a six-figure international circulation, has dwindled to approximately 26,000 subscribers.

“The Worker is not the leader that it once was,” said Rosalie Riegle, a professor emerita at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and the author of two oral histories on the movement. “I don’t see the activism that I once did in the houses.” Anarchist movements defy monolithic description, and Riegle offered the caveat that every house was different. But she has noticed a decline in civil disobedience, pacifist activism, and the “desire to be countercultural” among the Worker houses.

There are many reasons for this, including an aging population (at the Worker’s 2022 national gathering in Worcester, Mass., “young people” were defined as anyone under 40) and a general decline in religiosity in the US (despite a rise in hard-right Christian nationalism). But perhaps the biggest factor is real estate: St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Chicago, where I live, was purchased in 1974 by three young Workers with a down payment of $5,000 (or $30,000 today). Yet houses of the same size in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood currently list between $650,000 and $3.5 million. Workers who cycled through houses of hospitality would often settle in the neighborhood and continue to organize community services. Those natural “Catholic Worker neighborhoods” emerging from the old houses are a thing of the past.

And yet the movement has managed to reinvent itself at a small scale. In February 2021, Simone Weil House was growing, so the Workers rented an abandoned house two doors down that had been sporadically occupied by squatters. “Hell House” was spray-painted on its facade. The Workers picked up hypodermic needles from the floor and scrubbed swastikas off the walls inside. Hell House was christened “Dorothy Day House,” and Emma Coley, a 26-year-old graduate of Princeton University, moved in, along with several guests. Between the two houses, there are now four Workers and five guests.

Their community is committed to simple living, buying in bulk, and sharing food with their neighbors via their pantry and free fridge. They’ve received permission from their landlord to garden in the backyard, and among their Christmas gifts last year was a truckload of wood chips and compost.

The young Workers at Simone Weil House explicitly link their passion for economic and environmental reform to the prayer life of the Catholic Church—the liturgy. Simone Weil House follows what they call the “liturgical circulation of the cosmos,” including monastic prayers throughout the day and the seasons of fasting and feasting observed in the Catholic calendar. The house celebrates Mass on the third Friday of each month and hosts open community dinners on Wednesdays and Sundays. Many members of the house, including Coley and the house’s founder, Bert Fitzgerald, are oblates—that is, lay members—of a Benedictine monastery near Salem, Ore. They pray the monastic hours with the monks at Mount Angel Abbey, including evening prayer after their weekly open community-night dinners.

“One of the things that drew me to this house is [being able] to remind people that everything we believe about how our relationships should look like and how society should look like comes from the Eucharist—from the Mass,” Coley said.

Day and Maurin were leaders in the US liturgical movement, which set out to reform the practices of Christian worship in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Liturgy” is derived from the Greek leitourgia, meaning “the work of the people.” In general usage, it means public prayer as a worshiping community and the rubrics that guide that prayer. By “liturgy,” Catholics most often mean Sunday Mass, but it can also refer to the liturgy of the hours, which are the ancient prayers of monastic communities, a way of chanting the Psalms throughout the day.

The reformers of the liturgical movement restored the idea of the liturgy as practiced in the early church: a ritual the whole congregation participated in rather than something the priest did and the congregation watched, which is how the Sunday Mass had been viewed for centuries. The movement in the United States was led in part by Father Virgil Michel, a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota who was close to Day and Maurin. He taught them to pray the liturgy of the hours and encouraged them to make it a part of the rhythm of their community.

“The idea that the liturgy is essential to social regeneration, to social justice, was his signal contribution to the Catholic liturgical movement in America in the early 20th century,” said Rita Ferrone, a religious writer and a contributor to Commonweal. The liturgical movement had a social vision: Prayer on Sunday should shape the rest of the week. “Michel saw the liturgy as our lived enactment of the spiritual reality of the Body of Christ, in which no one can say to another, ‘I don’t need you,’” Ferrone said in a 2013 talk at St. John’s Abbey.

“Even communities that are pretty disaffiliated from the institutional church still do have some kind of liturgical prayer practice that’s very important to them,” said Casey Mullaney, a member of St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker House in South Bend, Ind. Mullaney moved there soon after she started graduate work in theology at the University of Notre Dame. A veteran of multiple hospitality houses in upstate New York, she thinks that prayer practices, however eclectic, retain elements of their liturgical movement origins in Worker communities.

“I think that really speaks to the fact that even if people in the movement aren’t likely to articulate liturgy as a core value, like hospitality, the liturgy is still in there and part of the movement’s DNA,” she added.

Creating a “community-scale” economy is Simone Weil House’s small answer to the climate crisis. “We make a mistake when we think that the climate crisis can only be solved at scale,” Coley said. “If the solutions are to keep our lives exactly as they are but just replace the energy source, that’s not going to work.”

The house’s commitment to voluntary poverty contributes to its low carbon footprint. “It’s a month-to-month struggle,” Fitzgerald said of paying their bills. “We rely on a last-minute donation to make rent for our two houses each month.” Embracing discomfort is their concrete contribution to imagining a more sustainable world.

Fitzgerald, 40, opened Simone Weil House in 2019. He said he is drawn to the “Peter Maurin side” of the Worker, by which he means favoring creative action and, to cite Maurin, building a “society where it’s easier to be good.” The house’s call for volunteers last year invited those interested in “living and developing Peter Maurin’s economic program, especially a cooperative, community-scale economy.” Day called Maurin’s vision the “village economy,”

The tenor of the relations between Catholic Worker houses and the bishops in their dioceses varies. In the beginning of the movement, Day and Maurin challenged church leaders to embrace voluntary poverty and do works of mercy rather than strategize financial investments. While bishops sometimes publicly take umbrage at the fact that women often preside at Catholic Worker liturgies, many others applaud the movement’s work. St. Peter Claver House has an ongoing cooperative relationship with the bishop of the diocese, Kevin Rhoades, who has celebrated Mass in its chapel and offered a blessing for its low-barrier shelter project, Motels4Now, in March.

The Worker is a form of lay action, meaning it is not beholden to the church hierarchy’s corporate or legal structures. It has always resisted incorporation (even incorporation as a federally recognized nonprofit), and its lack of centralized management may be a strength with this new generation.

That doesn’t mean it won’t collaborate with the institutional church. Simone Weil House has a close relationship with Holy Redeemer Church in Portland, whose former pastor, Patrick Neary, was appointed a bishop by Pope Francis in December. The house is interested in building meaningful economic relationships with parishes as well as spiritual ones. It launched a course in 2020 called “Liturgy and the Communion Economy” to teach others about the religious vision behind worker-owned cooperatives, credit unions, and community-scale economies. One section of its course met in person at Holy Redeemer Church.

The Worker also draws from secular activist movements. Spencer Hess started a farming collective in Missouri, which Emily Larner soon joined. They began dating and then volunteering together at the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker in Kansas City, Mo., before starting the John Paul II Catholic Worker Farm in Kansas City. “For me, farming always had a political valence,” Hess told The Nation. Larner said she grew up on a “standard American diet” but during her college years learned more about the importance of climate planning and sustainability.

Hess said he and Larner went from being “radicalized by the left wing of the Democratic Party” to being radicalized by “orthodox Catholic Workers.” They are explicit about “seeking holiness” while urban-homesteading and building local community. “I found the Worker because I was looking to understand what’s truly wrong with the world and what would truly make things better,” he said.

Hess and Larner see their farming and community-building as putting into practice what Maurin preached. “I was inspired by Peter Maurin’s comprehensive vision of what life should be like and how society should be ordered,” Hess said. He found his way to the Worker movement after reading the Russian philosopher and theologian Nikolai Berdyaev, who is known for his blistering critiques of both capitalism and communism. In Maurin, Hess found an American thinker who echoed the social critique he found in Berdyaev.

Resisting capitalism by creating a new economic life is not just a Gen Z innovation on the Worker movement. Choosing community over capital as the basis for an economy is the original Catholic Worker mandate. Maurin’s “Easy Essays” series offered his thoughts on economics, the corruption of the pre-1929 economy, and the need for a new way of doing business. “The best thing to give labor is a philosophy of labor,” he wrote in The Catholic Worker’s November 1934 issue. Rather than agitate for unions, he wanted workers to “fire the bosses.” Maurin sought to educate whoever would listen about the need for a deeper revolution—one that didn’t just give Band-Aids to suffering workers but reformed the founding principles of the United States’ acquisitive, competitive capitalism.

“An economics characterized by gift and communion rather than scarcity—an economics related to solidarity—has been a concern of the church for the past 60 or 70 years,” said Timothy O’Malley, the academic director of the Center for Liturgy at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. O’Malley was a classmate of Fitzgerald’s, and his center helped Simone Weil House set up its online course on the communion economy.

In conjunction with that course, Simone Weil House has been working with Notre Dame Federal Credit Union since 2020 to create a community cooperative-banking model. Instead of a centralized bank with individual customers, the model imagines the credit union as a nervous system connecting communities. “People find themselves in all sorts of trouble because the state has legalized lending money at interest,” Maurin wrote in an “Easy Essays” series against usury. Under this model, they have provided zero-interest loans to people in their community—helping one man with rent and another with refinancing credit-card debt. Coley herself got a low-interest loan for a used truck from Notre Dame Federal Credit Union.

“What Bert and Emma are doing springs from the same Eucharistic vision that Dorothy Day had,” O’Malley said.

Dorothy Day was never one to cite statistics to quantify or qualify success. She told stories of people and personalities. “Let me be discursive,” she once told a frustrated questioner seeking statistics. “I’ve learned to speak in stories.”

Reporting on the Catholic Worker today, one encounters similar roadblocks. The movement’s constantly evolving, decentralized nature makes it hard to identify trends. The Catholic Worker is global in reach but hyper-local in focus, dedicated to solving community problems on the neighborhood level. But over the past five years, young Workers establishing their own houses are increasingly drawn to the vision at the root of the movement: Maurin’s program for a new economy, which was ahead of its time in its ecological awareness—a world on the other side of resistance, a positive vision for change.

“I think Peter’s idea of the farming commune and village economy is hard for people to grasp because it’s so controversial,” Hess told The Nation. The houses of hospitality are often interpreted through the lens of capitalist concepts like “charity” and “nonprofit services,” but communal farming “goes against the grain of capital accumulation. We can’t even imagine it.”

In diary entries from the final decade of her life, Day noted that Maurin’s program called for a more comprehensive economic and cultural change than what the movement was offering:

The question of money, the question of the rich and the poor, is tied up certainly with a revolutionary concept of changing the whole social order in which there will be cooperatives and credit unions and regionalism, Thoreau-ism. It is so much deeper than just the business of giving out soup to a line or running a headquarters in a neighborhood where everybody’s free to drop in.

“We have to ask,” Coley said, “what are the alternative structures that we want to take the place of the current structures?”

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