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Peter Maurin, Saint and Scholar of the Catholic Worker

This “interview” is what might taken place in such an interview, presenting Peter Maurin’s ideas.

Houston Catholic Worker: What do you call your approach?
Peter Maurin: Christian personalism, which makes each person responsible for the suffering Christ who stands before him in the person of the poor. It differs dramatically from an economic order characterized by rugged individualism, competitiveness and the profit motive.

An economics of Christian personalism seeks to re-establish the relationship between the religious and the secular in all realms of economic activity. We must underscore the tragic flow of secularism because its spirit has severed economic activity from its moorings in the Christian faith.

The person must be at the center of all the processs of economic life.

HCW: Why did you want to start houses of hospitality in the poorest sections?
Peter Maurin: People will come to the houses of hospitality in the skid row sections looking for the catch. Someone is making money or it’s a racket, they will think. They will be dumbfounded finding people without salaries to help their fellowmen under such difficult circumstances. The less courageous will be encouraged to start others under less difficult circumstances.

HCW: Am I my brother’s keeper?
Peter Maurin: No matter what people’s preferences are, we are our brother’s keeper.

HCW: What is the way to start a house of hospitality?
Peter Maurin: Begin, just begin.

HCW: What did your father mean when he talked with you about the “shock maxims of the Gospel?”
Peter Maurin: As we walked back and forth to the village our father spoke of the shock maxims of the New Testament. He was talking about the Sermon on the Mount: going the extra mile, having a coat and a cloak and giving one away, loving your neighbor as yourself, turning the other cheek.

HCW: What’s wrong with industrial capitalism?
Peter Maurin: It is incompatible with the Christian Gospel because it renders the person subservient to the production of wealth. No economic system which places greater value on the accumulation of wealth than on the dignity of the human person deserves the support of those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ and the Pope. It leads to alienation and a loss of a sense of personal participation in community life. With industrial capitalism it is not clear who is responsible for problems that arise.

HCW: Were you in touch with Bishops over the years?
Peter Maurin: Yes, many were friends of Dorothy and myself and visited the Worker. They were very open to our ideas.

HCW: Why do you feel sorry for Bishops?
Peter Maurin: The ministration is swamped by the administration (paper work).

HCW: The Easy Essays seem so simple. Why did you write that way?
Peter Maurin: They are deceptive. My writing is the fruit of much study and prayer. The essays were written to entice people into more profound study regarding the rich Christian tradition and radical ways of living the Gospel.

HCW: Why do you emphasize hospitality so much?
Peter Maurin: Hospitality is a mystical key to a real love of mankind and central to the Gospel. A fifth century Catholic Council required that each parish have a house of hospitality.

Hospitality was what distinguished a Huguenot village from my parents’ village. In the former a beggar brought maledictions and rejection. In the latter the poor were received as Ambassadors of Christ.

I have witnessed a Cleveland, Ohio, Bishop reprimand a priest for chasing a beggar from the Cathedral steps: “Where there is no beggar there is no cathedral,” he said.

Bishops and Hospitality

We need Houses of Hospitality to give to the rich the opportunity to serve the poor
We need Houses of Hospitality to bring the Bishops to the people and the people to the Bishops.
We need Houses of Hospitality to bring back to institutions the technique of institutions.
We need Houses of Hospitality to show what idealism looks like when it is practiced.
We need Houses of Hospitality to bring social justice through Catholic Action exercised in Catholic institutions.

HCW: What about people in the houses of hospitality who are ungrateful and even violent sometimes?
Peter Maurin: The minds of the involuntary poor have a raw edge. Not enough charity has been practiced to make the poor curious about the things of the spirit.

HCW: What is your peace plan?
Peter Maurin: The seven spiritual works of mercy and the seven corporal works of mercy.

HCW: How do you see the role of the Christian in society?
Peter Maurin: By uniting their works of mercy to the spirit of Christ in the Mystical Body, they participate with Him in the conquest of the world. St. John, in the Apocalypse, speaks of Christians as the “overcomers.”

HCW: What did you do when the FBI came to investigate conscientious objection at the Catholic Worker during World War II?
Peter Maurin: FBI agents continually came to check on the sincerity of those who had registered with the Association of Catholic Conscientious Objectors. These agents were courteous and frequently Catholic. They had never heard the morality of war debated from a Catholic point of view. They often stayed to talk; some subscribed to the paper or left money for the bread line.

HCW: Was the Catholic Worker isolated during World War II because of its pacifist stance?
Peter Maurin: We had a steady stream of visitors during that time that never seemed to end. A member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation used to bring caravans of Protestant ministers and members of their congregations. Soldiers came on furlough, conscientious objectors came from their camps. Both seemed to find in the Worker a sense of stability.

HCW: Why do you talk about back-to-the-land and handi-crafts and artisans? That’s not practical. Why don’t you reform the industrial society and make it Christian?
Peter Maurin: If you believe that can be done, then it is your task. I believe in going to the roots. I don’t believe in baptizing something that is intrinsically wrong, like the acquisitive or luxury spirit.

HCW: What about abortion and unwanted children?
Peter Maurin: We have Catholic Worker Maternity Guilds for the welfare of needy mothers bringing young children into the world.

HCW: What should we do about our borders and immigrants?
Peter Maurin: We call barbarians people living on the other side of the border. We call civilized people living on this side of the border. We civilized, living on this side of the border, are not ashamed to arm ourselves to the teeth so as to protect ourselves against the barbarians living on the other side. And when the babarians born on the other side of the border invade us, we do not hesitate to kill them. So we civilized exterminate barbarians without civilizing them. And we persist in calling ourselves civilized.

HCW: Do you have a blueprint for a farming commune?
Peter Maurin: I don’t give blueprints or five-year plans. You must learn by doing. Education is a life process.

HCW: Why did you start your school of folk culture?
Peter Maurin: We can be troubadours for Christ like St. Francis. Good music, books, drama, folk dancing, proverbs, conversation and art bring wholeness and are an entertaining way of getting ideas across. We need folk schools so people can learn the significance of folk cultures and can learn from these cultures.

HCW: Do you believe in freedom?
Peter Maurin: Freedom is a duty more than a right. Having pure aims and using pure means is making the right use of freedom.

HCW: Why do you go to daily Mass?
Peter Maurin: It is the greatest act of love between God and his children.

HCW: Why do you always talk about the Works of Mercy?
Peter Maurin: In the first centuries of Christianity pagans said about Christians: “See how they love each other.” The love of God and neighbor was the characteristic of the first Christians. This love was expressed through the daily practice of the Works of Mercy. To feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to instruct the ignorant at a personal sacrifice was considered by the first Christians as the right thing to do.

HCW: What do Catholic Workers believe?
Peter Maurin: On the Cross of Calvary Christ gave His life to redeem the world. The life of Christ was a life of sacrifice. We cannot imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary by trying to get all we can. We can only imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary by trying to give all we can.

HCW: Did you ever think of leaving the Catholic Worker movement that you started?
Peter Maurin: Yes, twice. Once, some of the young workers wanted to use whatever money was contributed only for propaganda, printing and the support of the editors instead of feeding the poor who came to our door; they called those in need “derelicts,” “rotten lumber,” and “deadwood.” The other time was when two young fellows had a fist fight in the house.

HCW: Why do you abandon movements that become political?
Peter Maurin: I feel that you have to keep to a personalist approach, which is so much more profound than politics:
Charles Péguy used to say “There are two things in this world, politics and mysticism.” Politics is just politics and is not worth bothering about and mysticism is mysterious and is worth all our striving.

HCW: Why don’t you dress better?
Peter Maurin: I don’t want to arouse envy.

HCW: How do we get money for our projects?
Peter Maurin: In the history of the saints, capital was raised by prayer. God sends you what you need when you need it. Just read the lives of the saints.

HCW: Are you opposed to paying Catholic Workers?
Peter Maurin: Yes. They should receive only what they need.

HCW: What do you think of the present secular and theological world?
Peter Maurin: We have entered into a new Dark Age in a century and culture of death, holocausts and exploitation of poor workers. 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? 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.

HCW: Why did you stop charging for your French lessons?
Peter Maurin: St. Francis of Assisi thought that labor should be a gift.

HCW: Are you in favor of private property?
Peter Maurin: Yes, but private property is for everyone, not just for a few. If our property does not serve the Common Good we fall under papal condemnation. Private property is a sacred trust.
Editors’ Note: Pope John Paul II recently put unbridled capitalism on a par with communism when he spoke to Slovenians on his first visit to the former Yugoslav republic. The Holy Father said Slovenia must remain especially vigilant, upon freeing itself from the negative consequences of a totalitarian ideology, to stop another ideology that is no less dangerous, that of unbridled capitalism.

HCW: Why did you include roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought in your program?
Peter Maurin: To explain the best of Catholic ideas to workers and scholars.

HCW: Why do you talk so much about Irish history?
Peter Maurin: The Irish believed in houses of hospitality as core to their culture and faith. The medieval Irish monks lived out the faith and carried it to Europe and even to Russia with their schools and agricultural centers.

HCW: How is a personalist different from other people?
Peter Maurin: A personalist is a go-giver, not a go-getter. He tries to give what he has, and does not try to get what the other fellow has. He tries to be good by doing good to the other fellow. He is altro-centered, not self-centered. He has a social doctrine of the common good.

HCW: What did you like about Peter Kropotkin?
Peter Maurin: He stressed cooperation in an age that glorified the efficacy of struggle and competition.
Kropotkin says: “The economic problem is not an economic problem; it is an ethical problem.”

HCW: Do you have faith in the so-called science of sociology?
Peter Maurin: Not much. I believe more in the art of charity and justice.

HCW: What is the most important thing in your economic reform?
Peter Maurin: Economic reform must begin with the individual. No effort to build an economic order embodying Catholic teaching can succeed unless Catholics begin to live out their principles in their personal lives.

If I am anxious to build an economic order which cares for the needs of the poor and the needy, I must care for the poor and the needy. If I want to love Jesus, I must love my neighbor, especially my neighbor in need.

HCW: Do you believe in systems?
Peter Maurin: We believe in systematic unselfishness.

HCW: Do you believe each person has a vocation?
Peter Maurin: Each person has a specific purpose in God’s plan and has unique gifts to contribute to the community. Before discovering their vocation, people might be envious or jealous of others, they might even wish to be some other person. They might be afraid. Vocation means to be a friend of God.

I brought Leon Bloy’s thought to the United States. He says it well, “You should do something great, you should lay aside all the foolishness of a more or less long existence, you should become resigned to the fact you will seem ridiculous to a race of janitors and bureaucrats if you are to enter into the service of Splendor. Then you will know what it means to be a friend of God.”

HCW: What would you do if an armed attacker threatened your life?
Peter Maurin: I would just tell him, shoot me if you will, but I will not shoot you.

HCW: What should the Catholic Church do?
Peter Maurin: Blow the dynamite: Writing about the Catholic Church, a radical writer says: “Rome will have to do more than to play a waiting game; she will have to use some of the dynamite inherent in her message.” To blow the dynamite of a message is the only way to make the message dynamic. If the Catholic Church is not today the dominant social dynamic force, it is because Catholic scholars have failed to blow the dynamite of the Church. Catholic scholars have taken the dynamite of the Church, have wrapped it up in nice phraseology, placed it in an hermitic container and sat on the lid. It is about time to blow the lid off so the Catholic Church may again become the dominant social dynamic force.

HCW: What is the solution to our economic problems?
Peter Maurin: Kropotkin says: “The economic problem is not an economic problem; it is an ethical problem.”

Business men say that because everybody is selfish, business must therefore be based on selfishness. But when business is based on selfishness everybody is busy becoming more selfish. And when everybody is busy becoming more selfish, we have classes and clashes. Business cannot set its house in order because business men are moved by selfish motives, Business men create problems they do not solve them.

When the bank account is the standard of values the class on the top sets the standard. When the class on the top does not care for culture, nobody cares for culture. And when nobody cares for culture civilization decays. When class distinction is not based on the sense of nobless oblige, it becomes clothes distinction. When class distinction has become clothes distinction everybody tries to put up a front.

HCW: How can one prepare for death?
Peter Maurin: What we give to the poor for Christ’s sake is what we carry with us when we die.

HCW: What is the responsibility of each Catholic?
Peter Maurin: In his encyclical on St. Francis de Sales the Holy Father says: “We cannot accept the belief that this comand of Christ concerns only a select and privileged group, and that all others may consider themselves pleasing to Him if they have attained a lesser degree of holiness. Quite the contrary is true, as appears from the generality of His words. The law of holiness embraces all and admits of no exception.”

Peter Maurin died in 1949. Thanks to The Catholic Worker, 1933-1940, to Dorothy Day,The Long Loneliness, Harper and Row, 1952, to Marc Ellis, Peter Maurin, Paulist Press, 1981, to Peter Maurin, Easy Essays, Franciscan Herald Press, 1977, to John J. Mitchell,Critical Voices in American Catholic Economic Thought, Paulist, Press, 1989, to Arthur Sheehan, Peter Maurin: Gay Believer, Hanover House, 1959 (so named before the meaning of the word “gay” had changed), and to the Marquette University Archives, the sources for this “interview.”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVI, No. 4, July-August 1996.