Tom Cornell and the Catholic Worker

It would be almost impossible to describe any of the regular participants or contributors to Autonomies as catholic, or christian, or even religious, in any traditional or institutional sense of the latter. And yet we are equally aware of the enormous contribution, past and present, of religious thought and practice to anarchism, taking this last as broadly as possible.

The death of Tom Cornell, long time member of the Catholic Worker, on the first of August (1934-2022), is the occasion to modestly remember his work and that of the movement to which he gave much. We do not agree with all that the Catholic Worker movement has done or the way it has done things, but there is much that we can embrace and to dismiss it merely because of its christianity would be absurd. As Dorothy Day asked in the first issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper, “Is it not possible to be radical without being atheistic? Is it not possible to protest, to expose, to complain, to point out abuses and demand reforms without desiring the overthrow of religion?” And we may ask, today, whether it is possible and/or desirable to imagine any radical political-social change premised on the overthrow of religion? If the answer is yes, then we may rest assured that religion will outlive any revolutionary desire.

We share below an interview with Tom Cornell, short writings by him in defense of Catholic Worker anarchism and a brief introduction to the Catholic Worker Movement. (For obituaries dedicated to Cornell, see America: The Jesuit Review and the National Catholic Reporter).

Stepping back a little, we share written and video material by and on Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy. And we close with a lecture by the north american philosopher-activist, Cornel West, dedicated to Dorothy Day.


Farmer, Anarchist, Catholic
An Interview with Tom Cornell, by Wayne Sheridan (Commonweal Magazine 01/09/2014)

Tom Cornell has been a part of the Catholic Worker movement for more than sixty years. He started in 1953 when he was nineteen years old. By then, the movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, had been around for twenty years. Day was still leading the movement, and Cornell often worked with her, especially as a writer and editor for the Catholic Worker newspaper, to which he still contributes. He has also been a leading peace activist, one of the first to publicly protest the Vietnam War. Tom’s wife Monica was born into a Catholic Worker family; her parents joined shortly after its founding.

Tom and Monica have lived for many years at the Peter Maurin Farm in Marlborough, New York, about seventy miles north of New York City. Tom and Monica’s dedication to the corporal works of mercy is evident as soon as you meet them. The farm functions as a house of hospitality for the formerly homeless and for men recovering from addiction or struggling with physical or mental impairments. The farm also provides rooms for a few volunteers and, occasionally, visiting guests.

The following interview took place primarily in the kitchen of the farm’s “Green House.” Most of the men live in a second house, called the “White House,” which includes a communal dining room and a chapel. There are a few other buildings on the farm, including a hermitage in the woods and a small residence for a beekeeper, who also serves as caretaker of the walking trails on the farm’s property (about fifty acres). The organic farm supplies most of the food for the residents, as well as fresh produce for St. Joseph House and Maryhouse, Manhattan’s two Catholic Worker houses. The Peter Maurin Farm also brings produce to a soup kitchen in Newburgh, New York.

Wayne Sheridan: Thank you, Tom, for welcoming me back to Peter Maurin Farm, and for sitting down for an interview on the occasion of the eightieth anniversary of the Catholic Worker movement.

Tom Cornell: There was a period of time, about ten years—five during the time of Dorothy’s final illness, and five years after her death—during which the future of the movement was much in doubt. Dorothy was such a dominant figure. She really held everything together. We have, however, managed to survive and grow, with much trial and error.

As you know, Peter Maurin Farm is one of the Catholic Worker houses. We are part of the New York Catholic Workers, which include St. Joseph House and Maryhouse in Manhattan and, of course, the Catholic Worker newspaper. I suppose we might be called a sort of “mother house” of the movement. Today I believe there are about 217 houses worldwide, 195 in the United States—the most in our history.

Peter Maurin Farm is quite engrossing for all of us. Monica, my wife, is really the heart and soul of the place. And Tommy, our son, runs the farming operation and does most of the maintenance. And I? Well, I’m not sure what I do besides hang out and help where I can.

WS: You still write often?

TC: Well, I do write when I can. A twenty-nine-page article of mine on “Christian Anarchism” has just been published in Vienna, in German. They seemed very pleased with it. And American Catholic Studies will be publishing an article I wrote about the Catholic Worker’s relationship to Communism, Communists, and the Communist Party. I am pleased with that.

I’ve been active in a new group called Catholic Scholars for Equal Justice whose meeting in California I was able to attend and about which I wrote recently in the Catholic Worker. The organization and the article have had a very, very positive response. But I’m not able to travel or write as much as I’d like to because of age.

WS: When were you born?

TC: I was born in 1934. The world seemed very stable to me when I was young, especially the Catholic world. We still had the same pope two years after I finished college as we did when I was very young—that was Pius XII, of course.

WS: I haven’t been involved with the Catholic Worker movement since my years in college some decades ago. But it seems to me that the core values of the organization have not changed—that is, the focus remains on the practice of the corporal works of mercy and peace work.

TC: “Peace activism,” to be precise. In fact “activism” is a very apt word for all we try to do. In the Bible we read, “I was hungry and you fed me.” It does not say, “I was hungry and you formed a committee”! Our thing is just getting down and doing it. And that’s what keeps us sane. A perfectionist group like ours can get off the track by becoming a little sect, but we try to avoid that by being grounded in reality.

WS: What reality keeps you grounded?

TC: The poor. People come to the Catholic Worker, and even if they stay only a few years, or even just a few months, they often find their vocation. Few of us aspire to living among the poor as a career path. But, our modus operandi is direct action and works of mercy in small intentional communities. We live in voluntary poverty. There is no distinction between staff and guests. That’s the way it has always been, and it’s been fun.

In fact, John Cort, the socialist leader [and a former Commonweal editor], remembered when he first met Dorothy. She was giving a talk and she seemed to be having so much fun that he thought, “I might like to try that too. Have some of that fun.” So he became a Catholic Worker.

WS: You mentioned that there was a young Muslim man staying at St. Joseph’s House in the city. How long has he been a resident there?

TC: About a year, maybe a bit longer. He goes to a mosque on Tenth or Eleventh Street. It’s a bit conservative. He’s a resident volunteer at St. Joseph’s and he helps around the house.

WS: What do you mean by “conservative”?

TC: The mosque does not have interfaith programs or sensibilities. As you know, the Catholic Worker movement welcomes volunteers who are not Catholic and who want to experience the way we live and who wish to serve the poor. Some of these non-Catholic volunteers go on to found or join intentional communities in their own faith traditions. A few convert. We’ve also had many Jewish Catholic Workers over the years. We don’t discriminate as to who can be called a Catholic Worker, just as we don’t discriminate as to whom we serve.

WS: How do you keep the farm going with so few workers?

TC: We used to have two very good and strong men in addition to Tommy, our son, and then they left. One, Tim is off to Italy, following the woman he fell in love with, and they are both now trying to open a Catholic Worker house to serve immigrants, appealing to the Italian church to let them use abandoned church-owned buildings. And the other, Michael, is in Massachusetts trying to open an intentional-community farm to serve mentally challenged adult men. We admire them and encouraged them, but it has left us short-handed as most of the guests living here are unable to do the type of physical labor needed on the farm. Somehow we made it through the bulk of the harvest in 2013.

WS: When I helped your son deliver fresh produce to St. Joseph’s House in Manhattan, it was beautiful how all the volunteers came out to help unload the van, sort it, and store the produce in the basement storage areas—all with such joy and enthusiasm.

TC: We have people who come to our houses and are used to eating junk food. Some of them continue the bad habit, but we try to provide all organically grown vegetables and some fresh fruit and eggs. The meals at St. Joseph’s are much, much better than they were when we were young. It was awful then. Dorothy was a typical American in that she just focused on the basics of food. But at least she did know that you don’t put onion in a fruit salad, which is what one of our volunteer chefs would often do.

Monica is our prime cook here on the farm, and she does an excellent job. We do have a guest who was once in the catering business, and he will cook the communal meals once or twice a week.

WS: In the early days of the Catholic Worker the emphasis was on feeding the urban poor, and all else was secondary. Since then, the movement seems to have widened its focus to other things, including ecology.

TC: Actually, there was no real awareness of the polluting of our planet in the general public. The awareness was not there in the early part of the twentieth century—and not even in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. But I think we in the Catholic Worker movement anticipated it, almost providentially, much earlier. Caring for what is now called the “biosphere” was a central part of Peter Maurin’s philosophy. We have had small farms and have been pioneers in the modern “back to the earth” movement for most our existence.

Today we all have to learn to live more simply and more responsibly. It amazes me that the short-term goals of the very rich dictate the policies in this country—policies from which their grandchildren will suffer no less than our grandchildren. We have the rapid disappearance of whole species. What happens when the sea can no longer support fish because of acidity? What happens when large populations migrate out of regions that can no longer support them? The Maldives Islands are putting away money to buy a new homeland.

Also, the importance of employing active nonviolence was something I believe we were ahead of the curve on. Dorothy would not support U.S. participation in World War II. She urged men to refuse the draft. That was a minority position within society and within the Catholic Worker community itself. She was adamant about it. She welcomed back people who went to the war, but she never wavered from her commitment to pacifism.

No one was sure whether a Catholic could be a conscientious objector when I applied for that status in 1956. It took four years for the Selective Service system to grant me an exemption as a conscientious objector. I had no idea why it took so long. I had assumed that somebody was doing my family a favor by putting my file at the bottom of some big pile of paper. My godfather John Cornell was a well-known jurist and a leader of the Democratic Party in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where we lived. I thought they were just protecting someone with the name of Cornell. It was an embarrassment.

But Fr. Ned Hogan, chair of the theology department at Fairfield University, told me years later that my application was submitted for review to the National Catholic Welfare Conference, which was what the bishops conference was called at the time. Originally it was called the Catholic War Council because it really was an open question: Can a Catholic be a conscientious objector? And most people assumed the answer was no. That was for Quakers, Mennonites, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The theologians said they would not make a judgment on this because they never studied it; it was not in their manuals at the seminary. They had just-war theory, and that was it. Finally, Fr. Hogan, who wasn’t himself a pacifist because he couldn’t imagine excepting himself from the Irish war, guided my study of the question. He said pacifism was orthodox; my position was contrary to nothing in Catholic teaching. Later on, the U.S. bishops’ 1985 pastoral letter on peace recognized pacifism as a legitimate strain in Catholic tradition in addition to just-war theory.

The preferential option for the poor, which has been at the heart of Catholic Worker activism since our founding, has also become central in American Catholic thinking. There is now a higher awareness of the needs and just claims of the poor. But there is need for more work here. In the War on Poverty, poverty has won.

WS: I’m curious about the relationship of Catholic Workers to politics.

TC: It’s indirect. We do not get involved in politics per se. I knew a Catholic Worker who was a Republican and later became a Christian anarchist.

WS: Could you define what you mean by “Christian anarchist”?

TC: In 1954, Robert Ludlow, whom Dorothy named our “chief theorist,” renounced the use of the word “anarchism,” saying it belongs to others, not ourselves. He was quite bitter about it. He eventually left the movement. At that time Ammon Hennacy’s brand of anarchism appealed to many of the younger people in the movement. Ludlow was a scholar—of Aquinas. Ammon’s simplistic one-liners drove him nuts. Dorothy advised us not to listen so much to Ammon but to follow his example of personal responsibility. His anarchism was not really compatible with Catholic social teaching: too individualistic, not communitarian in the way Dorothy’s was.

The anarchism that the Catholic Worker has adopted comes from the wider socialist movement. The word “anarchist” was used by the so-called scientific socialists (Marx, Engels, and their followers) as a pejorative term to describe what they called “deviationists”—left-wing deviationists. But you have people like Peter Kropotkin, Bakunin, Tolstoy; theirs is the kind of anarchism we are aiming at with a great emphasis on what’s called “horizontalization.” Authority, wealth, and power have to be decentralized as much as possible. What is specifically Christian about the Catholic Worker form of anarchism can be found in Aquinas, who said positive laws that are not in harmony with the natural law are not binding for us. Such laws are a species of violence.

In Catholic Worker thinking there is a set of preferences. We would rather have people in charge of what they are doing. Who is the authority in the kitchen? The cook. How do you get authority, how do you exercise it? It isn’t by delegation or majority vote; it’s by good work. And that authority is exercised as long as it is recognized by equals. Anarchism of this kind should not be equated with sloppiness or irresponsibility or chaos. That is not what we’re aiming at. And it is not what we ordinarily have, although we fall down on occasion. It has worked out extraordinarily well for us, although it does take time.


In Defense of Catholic Worker Anarchism

Tom Cornell

(From the May 2010 issue of The Catholic Worker and published at the Anarchist Library)

Ammon Hennacy did the Catholic Worker a lot of good. He got us out on the street selling the paper and into court rooms and jail cells for nonviolent direct action protesting war and war taxes and Civil Defense. We call ourselves Catholic anarchists largely because of him, but we seldom examine what that means.

Ammon refused to register for the World War I draft and served over two years, eight months of it in solitary confinement at Atlanta federal prison. In 1940 he was still of an age obliged to register for the World War II draft. Again he refused. But this time Selective Service ignored him. From then on he refused to pay federal income taxes and took day-labor as a farm-worker in Arizona so that, if the feds wanted to garnishee his wages, they’d have to send a “revenooer” out every day at sundown to confiscate his pay envelope. It wasn’t worth it. Ammon was arrested over fifty times for nonviolent civil disobedience, but more important, he took personal responsibility in little things. If a trash barrel was overturned onto the street, he would go out of his way to right things. That was essential to his idea of anarchism.

Anarchism has been controversial within the Catholic Worker movement at least since the Pacifist Weekend of 1954, when Robert Ludlow, whom Dorothy Day had dubbed the Catholic Worker’s chief theoretician, renounced anarchism, or better, the Catholic Worker’s appropriation of the term and whatever Bob meant by it (v. his “Re-evaluation” in the June 1955 CW). Many secular anarchists agree with Ludlow and hold that “Catholic” and “anarchist” are mutually exclusive terms. Ammon provocatively called his book The Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist. In a second edition, Ammon added a chapter on why he left the Catholic Church and changed the title to The Book of Ammon. (Ammon was reconciled to the Church a few days before his death. His funeral was held at the Catholic Church of St. Joan of Arc in Salt Lake City, Utah.)

What kind of anarchism can we claim? An etymological definition (an- meaning no- and arche meaning rule) is useless if it fails to recognize a current in the wider socialist movement, called by its detractors anarchism. No anarchist of sound mind holds either that government does not exist or ought not to exist, etymology notwithstanding. All socialists want government to promote the general welfare rather than the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many, “people before profits.”

As I see it, anarchists would want more government if that means courts defending the right of workers to organize, the Department of Agriculture helping to initiate independent producer and consumer cooperatives instead of supporting vertical integration of farms into ever bigger and more powerful conglomerates. Government could favor open-pollinated seed sharing instead of forcing farmers around the world to buy new patented hybrid seed for each planting to enrich Monsanto. Government could facilitate worker buy-outs of small industries with no-interest loans. The Postal Service could subsidize journals of opinion as it once did in order to disseminate alternative ideas and enrich democratic debate, and so that the means of communication might not fall into the hands of a few.

But conversely, anarchists would want much less government if that means the State Department, and the so-called Defense and Justice Departments and counter-revolution, the overthrow of socialist initiatives wherever they may be and the installation of right-wing dictators in client states. Anarchists want much less, no government if that means racist prisons and war, but more anti-trust legislation and enforcement, trust-busting, not union-busting, more environmental protection, more Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and immediate access to federal courts for every labor organizer punished for organizing. But anarchists will hold even benign organs of government to a most strict accounting, since “power tends to corrupt,” and they will view the state in practice more as a guarantor of privilege than as an organ of its diffusion.

The late Howard Zinn described his social philosophy as “democratic socialism, without passports or visas or jails.” Noam Chomsky calls himself an anarchist, by which he means a libertarian socialist, as did Paul Goodman, Emma Goldman and in her pre-Stalinist days, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. When Dorothy Day defended the Cuban revolution she did not imagine that Fidel Castro planned to do away with government. Anarchism has to be understood within the broader socialist tradition. Neo-conservatives want to starve the government to death so as to free rapacious corporate interests from any restraint. That is not our kind of anarchism.

Anarchist thinkers distinguish between society, government and the state. National sovereignty entails the ability of the state to protect its interests or to project its might with ultimate force. But the whole of humankind will live as long as it lives under the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Weapons of mass destruction can not be allowed to remain in the hands of nation states without a high probability that they will eventually be used. That is morally inadmissible, absolutely. If the primary purpose of the state is to protect its people and the modern nation state is the primary threat to the survival of all peoples, what can be said of its legitimacy?

Gordon Zahn intended in his retirement years to address the issue of nationalism as a threat to human survival. He wasn’t granted the time. Another framework has to come into play under the over-arching principles of the unity of the human family, the need to defend the innocent, the integrity of cultures and the sovereignty of God in a globalization of solidarity, not a globalization of exploitation. How will anarchists contribute to that project?

Instead of a political program or ideology, anarchists offer a set of attitudes and preferences: the fewer rules and regulations, the better. “All the law necessary, and no more than is necessary,” and then we argue over “necessary.” We favor spontaneity over predictability, initiative and invention over tried-and-true patterns and personal responsibility over delegation. Authority is to be won by good work and exercised only as long as it is recognized by equals. Anarchists look to horizontal organization before vertical structure, though not denying the need for that too. Catholic anarchists temper individualism with a mind toward community and the common good. Many vote and even hold local public office. But the preferred modus operandi is direct action and the formation of small, intimate communities.

Government can advance the right of peoples to organize for the redress of grievances and for the advancement of their own interests. Since the rich and powerful are already well organized, law and government should make a “preferential option” to extend the same rights to the poor and the marginalized in order to advance justice, promote the general welfare and civil harmony. In the modern state they seldom do. Anarchists are likely to perceive this anomaly, and the deception the powerful employ to justify the wars that maintain their power and privilege.

Catholic anarchists gratefully accept the teaching authority of the Church. How to make our position understandable and attractive to others, especially our fellow Catholics, should be part of our clarification of thought. I have come to conclude that Catholic Worker radicalism is not eccentric at all, but comes from the very heart of the Church. Democratic, libertarian socialism or anarchism best harmonizes the principles of Catholic social teaching: the supreme goods of justice and peace; the dignity of the human person with inherent rights from conception to natural death; universal solidarity with a preferential option for the poor and the young; the defense of the innocent; the universal destination of goods; the right to private property; the priority of labor over capital; subsidiarity and the universal common good, all in the tradition of the virtues.

Almost all Americans have been conditioned by their schooling and the media to believe that ours is a democratic republic and not what it is in fact, an oligarchic plutocracy on its way to fascism. They have been programmed to be compulsive consumers, willing cannon-fodder and compliant accomplices in their own exploitation. Religion should sharpen, not dull moral judgment. If fascism ever comes to this country it will undoubtedly be wrapped in the flag and brandishing the Cross. To reach our fellow Catholics we should go to the Magisterium.

Christians are obliged to obey duly constituted authority justly exercised (Rom 13, 1–2). We must also ask what constitutes legitimate authority and how justly is it exercised. According to the Compendium of the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church, “Citizens are not obligated in conscience to follow the prescriptions of civil authorities if their precepts are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or to the teachings of the Gospel (#820). Unjust laws pose dramatic problems of conscience for morally upright people: when they are called to cooperate in morally evil acts they must refuse…. It is a grave duty of conscience not to cooperate, not even formally, in practices which, although permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to the Law of God. Such cooperation in fact can never be justified, not by invoking respect for the freedom of others nor by appealing to the fact that it is foreseen and required by civil law. No one can escape the moral responsibility for actions taken, and all will be judged by God himself based on this responsibility (#399).” Catholics understand this in the matter of abortion. Once the principle is established, it can be applied to war and unjust social and political structures as well. It’s revolutionary!

Decisions for civil disobedience must be made in good conscience under spiritual guidance, after careful consideration of the facts of the matter and the context and the consequences and the principles involved. A good conscience must be a right conscience as well, based on a correct judgment of the facts and informed by the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. Won’t that lead to chaos? When the time draws near that nonviolent civil disobedience threatens the common good, then we will reconsider the matter. But that is not the problem today. Quite the opposite! The problem today is obedience. The Nazi Army was overwhelmingly Christian, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, over 90 percent. If there wasn’t a pastoral failure involved in that, then there is no such thing and we pastors and preachers and catechists and religious teachers are irrelevant. It’s all “pie in the sky.” If the Kingdom of God is not here and now it will never be then and there.

Dorothy Day believed that a revolutionary force already set in motion would at last sweep the world. The last century saw many a counterfeit. If there is to be a revolution, it will be, as Ammon Hennacy called it, the one man or one woman revolution, or as Dorothy put it, “the revolution of the heart,” one by one. If there is to be “a new social order in which it is easier to be good,” it will be built on the means that Peter Maurin envisioned, “a philosophy so old it looks like new, the gentle personalism of traditional Christianity.” There is no more revolutionary manifesto than the Sermon on the Mount.

Catholic Workers do not, by and large, engage in conventional politics. It is too late for that. “What matters is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another–doubtless very different–St. Benedict” (Alisdaire MacIntyre, After Virtue). Although he insists that he is not an anarchist, MacIntyre paints the picture as we see it.

In order not to be conformed to this age, not to be co-opted by an effete state socialism or, even worse, by decadent bourgeois liberalism, to continue ever to be transformed in the renewal of our understanding, to discern what is truly good and pleasing and perfect, the will of God, Catholic Workers should nurture the gifts our founders left us, continue to identify as anarchists, and struggle always to understand just what that means.


A Brief Introduction to the Catholic Worker Movement

Tom Cornell (from The Catholic Worker Movement)

The Catholic Worker movement is made up of people motivated by the teachings of Jesus, especially as they are summarized in the Sermon on the Mount, and the teachings of the Catholic Church, in the writings of the early Fathers and the social encyclicals of the modern popes, to bring about a “new society within the shell of the old, a society in which it will be easier to be good.” A society in tune with these teachings would have no place for economic exploitation or war, for racial, gender or religious discrimination, but would be marked by a cooperative social order without extremes of wealth and poverty and a nonviolent approach to legitimate defense and conflict resolution.

The movement publishes a tabloid-size organ seven times a year, The Catholic Worker. Started by an itinerant French worker-scholar (and illegal immigrant) Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, a veteran left-wing journalist and Catholic convert, the paper was first sold in New York City, at a Communist Party May Day rally in Union Square, for a penny a copy, in 1933. The price remains the same.

Peter Maurin

Peter Maurin saw the need for a new intellectual synthesis to meet the material and spiritual crisis epitomized by the great Depression and lasting to this day, a synthesis grounded in cult, that is prayer, in culture, that is literature and the arts, and agriculture, that is labor and the crafts. Houses of hospitality in the cities would make possible direct personal response to the needs of the wounded members of the larger community through direct practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Farming communes on the land would encourage scholars to become workers and workers to become scholars while obviating unemployment and forming “cells of good living” as a practical alternative to a moribund society. In city houses and farming communes regular meetings “for the clarification of thought” would be held. People of all persuasions would dialogue, to explore the causes for the present disorder and to find a way from where we are to where we ought to be.

Peter Maurin was a man of the soil, with deep roots. His family had worked the same land, in southern France, the Languedoc, for fifteen hundred years. His region had been evangelized by Irenaeus, disciple of Polycarp, disciple of John. Peter had worked with Le Sillion, a Catholic lay movement in France for political and social democracy. He worked as a laborer and as a teacher before emigrating to Canada as a prospector. He entered the US looking for work, prospered as a private teacher of French, returned to casual manual labor in order to study at his own pace a curriculum of his own design.

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day was a city woman, a Bohemian as well as a pioneer in the “engaged journalism” of the Left. She was born in New York City, grew up there and in Oakland, California, and Chicago before returning as a young adult to New York and a staff assignment at the daily Socialist Call. She worked on The Liberator staff and was acting editor of The Masses when it was closed by order of Attorney General Palmer during the Red Scare after World War I. Dorothy was jailed for picketing President Wilson’s White House for the women’s vote and participated in a hunger strike at Occoquan Prison. Her friends and fellow workers were socialists, anarchists and communists. She was an intimate as well of the literary circles in New York hat centered around Eugene O’Neil, Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley. It was a heady time to be young and in New York.

And there was love. Dorothy’s love, an Anglo-American named Forster, loved nature more than human society, introduced Dorothy to nature’s beauty and gave her a daughter. In thanksgiving, and in hope of shielding her child from the moral confusion and pain of a rootless, secularized society, Dorothy yielded to an insistent and growing pull from the Transcendent, had he baby baptized and followed her into the Catholic Church.

A Movement Begins

Peter had an idea. Dorothy had passion and ability and an unfulfilled desire to work, as she had with the radicals of the Left, for social justice, but now as a Christian and a Catholic. Out of their meeting in 1932, the Catholic Worker was born and the paper first offered to the public five months later. Some early visitors to the Catholic Worker headquarters noted its similarity in style and tone to L’Esprit, the lay Catholic intellectual journal in Paris at that time, identified with Emmanuel Mounier, Charles Peguy and Jacques Maritain. Maritain actively encouraged the work.

The circulation of the paper quickly reached 150,000, to plummet drastically during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, when the editorial position of the paper remained consistently Christian pacifist, and many volunteers and staff members went to prison or public service camps for refusing the draft. Post war recovery was slow but steady, and the movement distinguished itself for resisting Cold War hysteria and red-baiting. The movement took a leading role in stimulating opposition to the Viet Nam War. Early in its history the movement had organized to oppose anti-Semitism and has stood steadily for racial justice.

Over the years independent Catholic Worker house of hospitality and farming communes have sprung up, now numbering over one hundred, some with their own publications. In New York hundreds are fed on a “no questions asked” basis at the soup kitchen, scores of men, women and volunteers make their home in two houses in the Bowery and a farming commune upstate. Regular Friday Night Meetings for the Clarification of Thought are held and the paper’s circulation has climbed to 90,000.

Anyone may seek help at the Catholic Worker. Anyone may volunteer who has the ability to take personal responsibility and work respectfully with others. Most of the volunteers are Catholics committed to active nonviolence. There is no means test and no religious test.

Contemporary Issues

The nuclear age has sharpened awareness of the need for disarmament and alternatives to war. The widening gap between rich and poor in our country and between nations has spurred greater urgency in the quest for a more just social order. But the distinguishing marks of the movement remain smallness, decentralization, personal responsibility, the personal response to persons in need in direct encounter and a search for answers to the questions that arise from that meeting: Why are there so many poor and abandoned? What is honest work? What is due workers and the unemployed? What is the relationship between political, social and economic democracy, and between these and the common good? Just where are we, where do we want to be and how can we get there? What of means and end? What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ today?

Catholic Workers attempt to alleviate the sufferings of the poor by adopting lives of voluntary poverty in order to be free for direct, personal involvement, not so much dispensing charity as sharing in the lives of others. Voluntary poverty also frees us to respond to militarism, exploitation and racism in the spirit of Christian nonviolence, with the weapons of the Spirit, prayer, penance and self-sacrifice, and the weapons forged by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez, and by the nonviolent activists with whom we work in the peace movement. We do not underestimate the task, noting that a generation after the passage of civil rights legislation large sectors of our minority populations are more depressed and isolated than ever. This struggle brings heartbreak, but it is fun, too, joy.

Catholic Worker Legacy

From the Catholic Worker movement have sprung many off-shoots, among them the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, the Catholic Peace Fellowship and Pax Christi, USA. Catholic Worker alumni can be found on the editorial staffs of major publications, on university faculties, in labor unions and in monasteries, and occasionally in jails and prisons for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.

It is impossible to estimate the effect the movement has had on the Church or on society in an increasingly conservative environment. By its very existence for over sixty years the Catholic Worker has had something of a reproach to both, but its fidelity to a consistent life ethic, to the prophetic tradition of Israel, and to the “gently personalism of traditional Christianity.” Dorothy Day once wrote that “What we do is very little, but its like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes. Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest.”

Tom Cornell resides at Peter Maurin Farm, 41 Cemetery Rd, Marlboro, NY 12542


Yes! I am a Radical

Peter Maurin

Down to the Roots

I was once thrown out
of a Knights of Columbus meeting
because, as the K. of C. official said,
I was radical.
I was introduced as a radical
before the college students
of a Franciscan college,
And the Franciscan Father added
“I am as radical
as Peter Maurin.”
Speaking in a girls’ college
near St. Cloud, Minnesota,
I was told by Bishop Busch,
are up in a tree
and you are trying
to go down to the roots.”

Poor Conservatives

After another meeting
I was told by a sociologist
“I still think
that you are a radical.”
And I told the sociologist
“We have to pity
those poor conservatives
who don’t know
what to conserve;
who find themselves
living in a changing world
while they do not know
how to keep it from changing
or how to change it
to suit themselves.”

Radically Wrong

Monsignor Fulton Sheen says:
“Modern society is based on greed.”
Father McGowan says:
“Modern society
is based on systematic selfishness.”
Professor John Dewey says:
“Modern society
is based on rugged individualism.”
When conservatives
try to conserve a society
based on greed,
systematic selfishness
and rugged individualism
they try to conserve something
that is radically wrong,
for it is built
on a wrong basis.
And when conservatives
try to conserve
what is radically wrong
they are also
radically wrong.

A New Society

To be radically right
is to go to the roots
by fostering a society
based on creed,
systematic unselfishness
and gentle personalism.
To foster a society
based on creed
instead of greed,
on systematic unselfishness
instead of systematic selfishness,
on gentle personalism
instead of rugged individualism,
is to create a new society
within the shell of the old.
Modern society
is in a state of chaos.
And what is chaos
if not lack of order?
is not a science,
it is an art,
the art of creating order
out of chaos.
All founders of orders
made it their personal business
to try to solve the problems
of their own day.
If religious orders
made it their business
to try to solve the problems
of our own day
by creating order
out of chaos,
the Catholic Church
would be the dominant
social dynamic force
in our day and age.

(Writings by Peter Maurin, his so called “Easy Essays”, can be read at the Catholic Worker Movement website, here)


Aims and Purposes (1940)

By Dorothy Day

The Catholic Worker, February 1940, 7.

Summary: Restates the central vision of the Catholic Worker Movement as working for “a new heaven and a new earth, wherein justice dwelleth.” This vision recognizes the “primacy of the spritual” and the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ. The Catholic Worker is “a new way of life” involving Houses of Hospitality for the daily practice of the Works of Mercy and Farming Communes where each person can take responsibility of doing their part. (DDLW #182).

For the sake of new readers, for the sake of men on our breadlines, for the sake of the employed and unemployed, the organized and unorganized workers, and also for the sake of ourselves, we must reiterate again and again what are our aims and purposes.

Together with the Works of Mercy, feeding, clothing and sheltering our brothers, we must indoctrinate. We must “give reason for the faith that is in us.” Otherwise we are scattered members of the Body of Christ, we are not “all members one of another.” Otherwise, our religion is an opiate, for ourselves alone, for our comfort or for our individual safety or indifferent custom.

We cannot live alone. We cannot go to Heaven alone. Otherwise, as Péguy said, God will say to us, “Where are the others?” (This is in one sense only as, of course, we believe that we must be what we would have the other fellow be. We must look to ourselves, our own lives first.)

If we do not keep indoctrinating, we lose the vision. And if we lose the vision, we become merely philanthropists, doling out palliatives.

The vision is this. We are working for “a new heaven and a new earth, wherein justice dwelleth.” We are trying to say with action, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are working for a Christian social order.

We believe in the brotherhood of man and the Fatherhood of God. This teaching, the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ, involves today the issue of unions (where men call each other brothers); it involves the racial question; it involves cooperatives, credit unions, crafts; it involves Houses of Hospitality and Farming Communes. It is with all these means that we can live as though we believed indeed that we are all members one of another, knowing that when “the health of one member suffers, the health of the whole body is lowered.”

This work of ours toward a new heaven and a new earth shows a correlation between the material and the spiritual, and, of course, recognizes the primacy of the spiritual. Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul. Hence the leaders of the work, and as many as we can induce to join us, must go daily to Mass, to receive food for the soul. And as our perceptions are quickened, and as we pray that our faith be increased, we will see Christ in each other, and we will not lose faith in those around us, no matter how stumbling their progress is. It is easier to have faith that God will support each House of Hospitality and Farming Commune and supply our needs in the way of food and money to pay bills, than it is to keep a strong, hearty, living faith in each individual around us – to see Christ in him. If we lose faith, if we stop the work of indoctrinating, we are in a way denying Christ again.

We must practice the presence of God. He said that when two or three are gathered together, there He is in the midst of them. He is with us in our kitchens, at our tables, on our breadlines, with our visitors, on our farms. When we pray for our material needs, it brings us close to His humanity. He, too, needed food and shelter. He, too, warmed His hands at a fire and lay down in a boat to sleep.

When we have spiritual reading at meals, when we have the rosary at night, when we have study groups, forums, when we go out to distribute literature at meetings, or sell it on the street corners, Christ is there with us. What we do is very little. But it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes. Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest. What we do is so little we may seem to be constantly failing. But so did He fail. He met with apparent failure on the Cross. But unless the seed fall into the earth and die, there is no harvest.

And why must we see results? Our work is to sow. Another generation will be reaping the harvest.

When we write in these terms, we are writing not only for our fellow workers in thirty other Houses, to other groups of Catholic Workers who are meeting for discussion, but to every reader of the paper. We hold with the motto of the National Maritime Union, that every member is an organizer. We are upholding the ideal of personal responsibility. You can work as you are bumming around the country on freights, if you are working in a factory or a field or a shipyard or a filling station. You do not depend on any organization which means only paper figures, which means only the labor of the few. We are not speaking of mass action, pressure groups (fearful potential for evil as well as good). We are addressing each individual reader of The Catholic Worker.

The work grows with each month, the circulation increases, letters come in from all over the world, articles are written about the movement in many countries.

Statesmen watch the work, scholars study it, workers feel its attraction, those who are in need flock to us and stay to participate. It is a new way of life. But though we grow in numbers and reach far-off corners of the earth, essentially the work depends on each one of us, on our way of life, the little works we do.

“Where are the others?” God will say. Let us not deny Him in those about us. Even here, right now, we can have that new earth, wherein justice dwelleth!

(From the Catholic Worker Movement website. Other writings by Dorothy Day may also be found at the same site.)


(There is a very good article on Dorothy Day by Casey Cep entitled “Dorothy Day’s Radical Faith” and published by The New Yorker magazine, 13/04/2020).


A Peace of the Anarchy: Ammon Hennacy and Other Angelic Troublemakers

A Peace of the Anarchy is a quick summary of 20th century radical activism in the USA with a notable focus on the pacifist christian anarchist Ammon Hennacy. Folks from the War Resisters League, the IWW, Earth First! and the Catholic Worker, along with Mr. Hennacy exemplify the marginalized prophetic witness for peace and justice in the USA as they attempt to appeal to the dominant culture. These people speak on the benefits of anarchy and peace, following the radical (rooted/basically grounded) ideology and optimism that goodness will
overcome evil, love is superior to hate and truth trumps falsehood.


The Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker

Reprinted from The Catholic Worker newspaper, May 2019, 86th Anniversary Issue

The aim of the Catholic Worker movement is to live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ. Our sources are the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures as handed down in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, with our inspiration coming from the lives of the saints, “men and women outstanding in holiness, living witnesses to Your unchanging love.” (Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer for holy men and women)

This aim requires us to begin living in a different way. We recall the words of our founders, Dorothy Day who said, “God meant things to be much easier than we have made them,” and Peter Maurin who wanted to build a society “where it is easier for people to be good.”* * *

When we examine our society, which is generally called capitalist (because of its methods of producing and controlling wealth) and is bourgeois (because of prevailing concern for acquisition and material interests, and its emphasis on respectability and mediocrity), we find it far from God’s justice.

In economics, private and state capitalism bring about an unjust distribution of wealth, for the profit motive guides decisions. Those in power live off the sweat of others’ brows, while those without power are robbed of a just return for their work. Usury (the charging of interest above administrative costs) is a major contributor to the wrongdoing intrinsic to this system. We note, especially, how the world debt crisis leads poor countries into greater deprivation and a dependency from which there is no foreseeable escape. Here at home, the number of hungry and homeless and unemployed people rises in the midst of increasing affluence.

In labor, human need is no longer the reason for human work. Instead, the unbridled expansion of technology, necessary to capitalism and viewed as “progress,” holds sway. Jobs are concentrated in productivity and administration for a “high-tech,” war-related, consumer society of disposable goods, so that laborers are trapped in work that does not contribute to human welfare. Furthermore, as jobs become more specialized, many people are excluded from meaningful work or are alienated from the products of their labor. Even in farming, agribusiness has replaced agriculture, and, in all areas, moral restraints are run over roughshod, and a disregard for the laws of nature now threatens the very planet.

In politics, the state functions to control and regulate life. Its power has burgeoned hand in hand with growth in technology, so that military, scientific and corporate interests get the highest priority when concrete political policies are formulated. Because of the sheer size of institutions, we tend towards government by bureaucracy–that is, government by nobody. Bureaucracy, in all areas of life, is not only impersonal, but also makes accountability, and, therefore, an effective political forum for redressing grievances, next to impossible.

In morals, relations between people are corrupted by distorted images of the human person. Class, race and gender often determine personal worth and position within society, leading to structures that foster oppression. Capitalism further divides society by pitting owners against workers in perpetual conflict over wealth and its control. Those who do not “produce” are abandoned, and left, at best, to be “processed” through institutions. Spiritual destitution is rampant, manifested in isolation, madness, promiscuity and violence.

The arms race stands as a clear sign of the direction and spirit of our age. It has extended the domain of destruction and the fear of annihilation, and denies the basic right to life. There is a direct connection between the arms race and destitution. “The arms race is an utterly treacherous trap, and one which injures the poor to an intolerable degree.” (Gaudium et Spes)

In contrast to what we see around us, as well as within ourselves, stands St. Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of the Common Good, a vision of a society where the good of each member is bound to the good of the whole in the service of God.

To this end, we advocate:

Personalism, a philosophy which regards the freedom and dignity of each person as the basis, focus and goal of all metaphysics and morals. In following such wisdom, we move away from a self-centered individualism toward the good of the other. This is to be done by taking personal responsibility for changing conditions, rather than looking to the state or other institutions to provide impersonal “charity.” We pray for a Church renewed by this philosophy and for a time when all those who feel excluded from participation are welcomed with love, drawn by the gentle personalism Peter Maurin taught.

decentralized society, in contrast to the present bigness of government, industry, education, health care and agriculture. We encourage efforts such as family farms, rural and urban land trusts, worker ownership and management of small factories, homesteading projects, food, housing and other cooperatives–any effort in which money can once more become merely a medium of exchange, and human beings are no longer commodities.

A “green revolution,” so that it is possible to rediscover the proper meaning of our labor and our true bonds with the land; a distributist communitarianism, self-sufficient through farming, crafting and appropriate technology; a radically new society where people will rely on the fruits of their own toil and labor; associations of mutuality, and a sense of fairness to resolve conflicts.* * *

We believe this needed personal and social transformation should be pursued by the means Jesus revealed in His sacrificial love. With Christ as our Exemplar, by prayer and communion with His Body and Blood, we strive for practices of:

Nonviolence. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:9) Only through nonviolent action can a personalist revolution come about, one in which one evil will not simply be replaced by another. Thus, we oppose the deliberate taking of human life for any reason, and see every oppression as blasphemy. Jesus taught us to take suffering upon ourselves rather than inflict it upon others, and He calls us to fight against violence with the spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting and noncooperation with evil. Refusal to pay taxes for war, to register for conscription, to comply with any unjust legislation; participation in nonviolent strikes and boycotts, protests or vigils; withdrawal of support for dominant systems, corporate funding or usurious practices are all excellent means to establish peace.

The works of mercy (as found in Matt. 25:31-46) are at the heart of the Gospel and they are clear mandates for our response to “the least of our brothers and sisters.” Houses of hospitality are centers for learning to do the acts of love, so that the poor can receive what is, in justice, theirs, the second coat in our closet, the spare room in our home, a place at our table. Anything beyond what we immediately need belongs to those who go without.

Manual labor, in a society that rejects it as undignified and inferior. “Besides inducing cooperation, besides overcoming barriers and establishing the spirit of sister and brotherhood (besides just getting things done), manual labor enables us to use our bodies as well as our hands, our minds.” (Dorothy Day) The Benedictine motto Ora et Labora reminds us that the work of human hands is a gift for the edification of the world and the glory of God.

Voluntary poverty. “The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge and belief in love.” (Dorothy Day) By embracing voluntary poverty, that is, by casting our lot freely with those whose impoverishment is not a choice, we would ask for the grace to abandon ourselves to the love of God. It would put us on the path to incarnate the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.”* * *

We must be prepared to accept seeming failure with these aims, for sacrifice and suffering are part of the Christian life. Success, as the world determines it, is not the final criterion for judgments. The most important thing is the love of Jesus Christ and how to live His truth.

(From the Catholic Worker Movement website).



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