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Is Dorothy Day’s Laetare Medal in Jeopardy?

If the faculty senate of the University of Notre Dame voted today, it would vote against Dorothy Day and her theology. It is hoped that they won’t posthumously invalidate her medal.

Catholic Workers are highly incensed that liberal theologians have the gall to call into question one of America’s greatest women and attempt to marginalize her thought because it demands such commitment to Jesus, to the Body of Christ and to the poor. Theologians who present themselves as the epitome of tolerance are apparently totally intolerant when it comes to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. Are these bourgeois theologians who object to a Catholic theology of actually living the Gospel?

Recently, through the leadership of Fr. Richard McBrien of the theology department, the senate attempted to reject Father Michael J. Baxter, a prominent Catholic Worker theologian, currently a teacher at Notre Dame. Fr. Baxter is a Holy Cross Father, as is the president of the university, Fr. Edward Malloy. Part of the problem is the title of Fr.
Baxter’s course, “A Faith to Die For,” which may disturb some theologians who know how to arrange compromises to avoid martyrdom.

Fr. Baxter is not only a Catholic Worker theologian, but also started a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Phoenix, Arizona.

Ironically, it is the president of Notre Dame, Fr. Edward Malloy, who hired Fr. Baxter. Fr. Malloy is a long-time fan of Dorothy Day. When the son of the editors of the Houston Catholic Worker was a student at Notre Dame, Fr. Malloy insisted that Joachim give a talk on Dorothy Day and the Houston Catholic Worker in his class.

Hopefully, this conflict will bring Notre Dame to a more profound theology and more profound theologians and avoid the disaster that occurred at most religious schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and others. These schools have not only abandoned religious truths, but many of their professors are at the forefront of undermining religion. There is truly a danger that Notre Dame may become the Harvard of the West.

Notre Dame, of all places, should have a chair of Catholic Worker theology. Funds to establish this chair may be sent to Fr. Malloy or the Houston Catholic Worker.

Below are excerpts from Catholic Worker theology written by Fr. Baxter. These are excerpted from articles that have appeared in various theological and legal journals.

Against the Americanists: On the Errors of Catholic Ethics In the United States

We must challenge the “Americanist tradition” of ethical theorizing that has dominated twentieth century Catholic ethical thought in the United States. I will present here the possibility of generating a theologically more compelling “counter-tradition,” one which relies not on secular social theories in formulating its ethic, but rather draws on the social theory written into the beliefs and practices of the church.

The central assumption of the “Americanist tradition” is that the primary task of Catholic ethics is to provide an ethic for the United States of America. Virtually every major Catholic ethicist in the United States works under the assumption that the relation between Catholicism and America must somehow be theorized so as to demonstrate, usually with the help of some variant of liberal democratic theory, a basic harmony or, in a more chastened view, a “creative tension” between the two. Rarely is it seen how such theorizing actually serves to hold Catholic ethical discourse under the hegemonic sway of nationalist and capitalist ideology, thus rendering Catholic theorists incapable of mounting a serious critique of the American cultural and social order.

It must be noted that not only the dominant Americanist theoretical paradigms have shaped Catholic ethics in this tradition, but institutional arrangements have produced and reinforced these paradigms. Some of these include the adaptation of curricula in Catholic colleges and universities to secular curricular models for accreditation purposes, a new approach to the writing of history which excluded religious belief and practice of any explanatory status, the founding of numerous Catholic professional associations, and the institutionalization of the National Catholic War Council in 1917, which developed into the first nationally based standing organization of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States. This constellation of church-sponsored institutions were thought to be a platform from which Catholic intellectuals and leaders could proffer a Catholic program and vision for transforming America. I would argue that these institutions were a means by which Catholic intellectuals unwittingly transformed themselves into Americanists.

Virtually all contemporary Catholic ethicists claim the mantel of John Courtney Murray, who welded a neo-scholastic understanding of natural law to a Scottish common sense realist epistemology in order to proffer a political theory uninformed by theological categories. The upshot of Murray’s project was to diminish the importance of the church as an institutional force directly shaping the character of the polis, thus replacing traditional Catholic norms in political theory (which Murray rightly deconstructed) with another norm: America.

Liberals and conservatives alike have been captured by the Americanist historiographical framework and theoretical paradigms. The result has been a steady accommodation of Catholic ethical discourse to that of America, so that in the post-conciliar era debates between liberal and conservative Catholic ethicists have come to mirror the debates of American political culture at large. The Americanist tradition has in effect gradually disembedded Catholic ethics from an ecclesially grounded narrative and inscribed it into a narrative which celebrates the imperium called the United States of America.

While the Americanist tradition has dominated Catholic ethics in the United States, other theorists, such as Virgel Michel and Paul Hanley Furfey, found resources in the Catholic tradition to take theology in a decisively different direction.

Virgil Michel worked within a monastic setting, which gave him a vivid understanding of the potential of “liturgy” and “eucharist” as resources in shaping Catholic ethics. His organicist, distributist vision ran counter to the assumptions of liberal democratic political theory. Paul Hanley Furfey rejected the dominant neo-scholastic division between the natural and the supernatural, arguing that it underwrote a minimalistic ethical standard based on natural law and ignored the ethical importance of the gospel and the lives of the saints. In neo-scholastic thought, on the one hand, there is a moderate standard used by those who view society principally from the standpoint of natural knowledge, and who in their practice show only a minimum of obedience to Christian morality. On the other hand, there is the more radical standard of those who try to realize the ideal. These view society not so much in the light of reason, as in the light of eternity. Furfey spurns the first type as minimalistic and self-centered, while the second type he extols because it represents the real mind of the Church. It represents the precept and example of Our Divine Lord and of the saints. Accordingly, Furfey puts forth a social vision that is resolutely theological, grounded in a trinitarian understanding of charity as “participation in the immanent life of God” and in the doctrine of “the mystical body of Christ,” issuing in what he called supernatural sociology.

The importance of thinkers such as Michel and Furfey is that they represent an instinct within Catholicism which opposes confining theology to a separate sphere, called “the supernatural,” and then divorcing it from the “natural,”, “the social,” “the political,” or “the economic.” This social theory has been embodied in the Catholic Worker Movement.

The Catholic Worker

Consciously locating itself at the margins of capitalist culture in America, close to the poor, the Catholic Worker stands as a community of resistance to the ideologies which reinforce capitalist hegemony in America. Moreover, the “supernatural sociology” of the Catholic Worker has enabled it to serve as an alternative institutional site from which a counter-tradition of Catholic ethics has been produced, one grounded not in liberal democratic political theory but in claims about ethical significance of the Trinity, the liturgy, the lives of the saints, the works of mercy, divine providence, and the power of the Holy Spirit in history. Thus the Catholic Worker exemplifies the possibility of the church at large to produce and re-produce in every age an external critique of the cultural and political order in which it finds itself.

Nature and Grace

Furfey’s “supernatural sociology” should be seen as part of the mid-twentieth century revolt in Catholic theology against neo-scholasticism, and on this score his thought can be usefully contrasted with Murray’s. Whereas Murray works out of a theoretical paradigm in which final ends could be excluded from some spheres of human activity (e.g., politics), Furfey contends that the depiction of any significant human activity without ordering it to our supernatural end is fundamentally deficient. Thus Furfey rejects Murray’s attempt to ground political discourse on “nature” without reference to the supernatural. Murray believes that this was the only way to generate a political theory for a pluralistic society, but Furfey challenges a politics tailored to the exigencies of modern pluralism. His overriding point is that the major institutions of modern capitalist society have been captured by “the world” (understood theologically) and that Christians “are living in a corrupt age, an age shockingly at variance with our principles. He advocates “the duty of bearing witness” and of what he called the “technique of non-participation,” strategies designed both to call into question the existing social order and to generate a Christian alternative to it.

When the terms of the history of Catholicism in the United States are inverted according to what David O’Brien has called an Evangelical Catholic perspective, it becomes clear that the so-called “arrival” of Catholicism in the United States should be narrated not so much as a success but as a failure, inasmuch as Catholicism’s entry into the U.S.
mainstream has been an occasion of accommodation to unChristian elements of the existing political and cultural order. The genuine success of Catholicism in the United States should rather be narrated by recounting what Furfey, Virgil Michel, and others viewed as movements of “personalist action,” projects devoted to promoting racial integration, worker cooperatives, agrarian reform and the like. Such movements and communities are instantiations of the supernatural society of the Trinity in history, effects of the mystical body of Christ.

This is how the Catholic Worker should be read, as an historical effect of the mystical body of Christ, as a work of Divine Providence. As such, its history runs counter to the standard history of Catholicism in the United States.

When Catholics gave virtually unqualified support to Franco during the Spanish Civil War, the Worker declared itself neutral. When Catholic prelates assured Roosevelt of their support for the United States as it entered the Second World War, the Worker reiterated its pacifist stand and sponsored a work camp for Catholic conscientious objectors. When most Catholics in the postwar era were growing prosperous, the Catholic Worker was opening up more houses of hospitality in the slums, in pursuit of what Dorothy Day (quoting Baudelaire) called “the downward path to salvation.” And when Catholics in the sixties and seventies were celebrating a “new Catholicism,” Dorothy Day pointed out the evils of the sexual revolution and bemoaned the casual air of “priests in sports shirts.”

What has sustained the Worker in enacting this counter-history has been its “focus on final ends.”

It was this focus on final ends that enabled the Catholic Worker to encounter Christ in the poor and the marginalized, to see that the great depression of the thirties had in some sense never ended because one in five Americans lives in constant depression, to become familiar with “the other America” (the one that Americanist historians never wrote much about) and to refuse to be reconciled with its injustices.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 1997