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Why Argue About Fr. Michael J. Baxter and Notre Dame?

The last issue of the Houston Catholic Worker featured several articles in defense of the appointment of Fr. Michael Baxter, C.S.C., a Catholic Worker theologian, to the theology department at the University of Notre Dame and in defense of Notre Dame President, Holy Cross Fr. Edward Malloy, who was denounced by the Faculty Senate for this action.

We apologize, especially to Dr. Lawrence Cuningham, head of the Notre Dame theology department, for speaking so strongly and critically of the department. Dr. Cunningham has been a supporter of the work of Casa Juan Diego for some years and inspired us with his book on St. Francis of Assissi. We should have focused more on Fr. Richard McBrien’s public statements on this controversy, which sparked the reaction featured in our Jan.-Feb. issue of this year.

Dorothy Day
Marquette University Archives

We are still uncomfortable with what has transpired. Father McBrien has a tremendous following and his statements on Dorothy Day could do harm to the Catholic Worker movement, to which we have given our lives.

This question is much larger than Fr. Baxter and Notre Dame and Fr. McBrien. It is an attempt on the part of a number of writers and theologians to marginalize the Catholic vision of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin as utopian, one that only a very few can follow.

We speak of Fr. Baxter as a Catholic Worker theologian, not the Catholic Worker theologian. There have been a number of theologians closely associated with the Catholic Worker movement over the years. Those who were closest personally and theologically to Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day included Fr. Virgil Michel, O.S.B., Fr. Paul Hanley Furfey, Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P. and Fr. John Hugo. The research undertaken at the Houston Catholic Worker in preparation for the recent series on the roots of the movement, on the saints and philosophers who influenced Peter and Dorothy in developing the movement, brought to our attention the importance of these theologians, as well as philosophers such as Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques Maritain and Nicolas Berdyaev, in the first several decades of the movement.

Fr. Michael Baxter, who co-founded a Catholic Worker house of hospitality, is another theologian in this tradition.

Some may have wondered why we responded so strongly in the last issue to the Notre Dame faculty senate’s denunciation of President Fr. Edward Malloy, who hired Holy Cross Fr. Michael Baxter to teach theology.

The reason is this: The comments by Fr. Richard McBrien accompanying this action labeled the Catholic Worker and the Catholic peace movement as a sect and attempted to marginalize them from the Catholic tradition (National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 1997). In this marginalization from the mainstream of the Catholic tradition, he included not only Fr. Michael Baxter, Catholic Worker theologian, but also Dorothy Day.

These words are not original with Fr. McBrien. They echo exactly the
astounding criticism of Dorothy Day by someone who might be considered a strange bedfellow of Richard McBrien, neoconservative George Weigel. In his 1987 bookTranquillitas Ordinis, and in his later book, Freedom and its Discontents, Weigel accuses Dorothy of being sectarian, of abandoning the Catholic heritage. He places Dorothy with St. Francis of Assisi, with her breaking with the mainstream of American Catholicism.

Weigel states that “Dorothy Day and the Catholic worker movement stood decisively with the Franciscan religious intuition and existential impulse, breaking with the mainstream tradition of American Catholicism and its view of the American experiment.”

Unfortunately, Weigel apparently read only one book on the CW movement, that of William Miller. (Beware of the man of one book!) He didn’t know that Dorothy Day was not a Third Order Franciscan, but a Benedictine Oblate.

by Ade Bethune

It is most interesting that George Weigel places St. Francis of Assisi outside the Catholic tradition, but he himself seems to be more comfortable with Adam Smith, father of capitalism without restrictions, certainly not at the center of the Catholic Tradition.

Weigel describes Dorothy in the same terms that Richard McBrien used in the National Catholic Reporter article of January 31, 1997, where he called her a saint, but stated that the countercultural approach represented by the Catholic Worker and the Catholic peace movement “is not representative of the Catholic tradition. It’s like a dissenting opinion.”

McBrien and Weigel are both speaking of a woman who went to daily Mass and communion and weekly confession, made a holy hour daily, memorized and studied constantly the papal encyclicals (the social teachings of the Church), prayed the Divine Office, participated in the Catholic renaissance before the Second Vatican Council, (in the liturgical movement, the Scriptural renewal, the ecumenical movement and the movement around the role of the Catholic laity) and lived the Sermon on the Mount. Her radical life of commitment to the poor and to peace are legendary. She was thoroughly Catholic in the Benedictine tradition. Are she and the Benedictines outside the Catholic tradition? Are they members of a sect?

Peter Maurin had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Church history and put together a synthesis for living the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25:31ff. in the richness of the Catholic tradition which he brought to Dorothy Day, a new convert to Catholicism. The heart was the Sermon on the Mount and what Peter called the “shock maxims” of the Gospel–also heavily quoted by the writers of the Church in the earliest centuries.

Dorothy had a tremendous impact on American Catholicism and on the U. S. Bishops. Catholic historian David O’Brien, in 1980 on the occasion of her death, said that Dorothy Day “was the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.” The Catholic Worker was a leader long before the Second Vatican Council in emphasizing the importance of lay leadership in engaging the world and in calling lay people as well as religious to the Gospel ideals of holiness, service of the poor, and work for peace.

What does Fr. McBrien mean, telling us that the Catholic Worker and Fr. Baxter are sectarian?

According to Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary it means:

1) originally, an apostate from an established church, 2) a member of any religious sect, 3) a person who is blindly and narrow mindedly devoted to a sect.

Fr. McBrien, himself, in his book Catholicism, describes a sectarian as one who defines the church as the exclusive locus of God’s activity, and the mission of the church as limited to a countercultural, otherworldly salvation.” No one who has studied the writings of Dorothy Day could apply the above definitions to her, as McBrien does in the NCR interview.

It is a shame that those who so outrageously label Dorothy have apparently not read Sr. Brigid O’Shea Merriman’s book, Searching for Christ: the Spirituality of Dorothy Day, (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), or even that compiled by Shep Abell from the series in the Houston Catholic Worker on the roots of the movement, the saints and philosophers who influenced Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin (available upon request from the HCW).

If they had read these things, they would still disagree with her on Americanism, but they would hardly put her outside the Catholic tradition and heritage or marginalize her as simply a saint to whom no one could relate.

Americanists–the New Sect

Perhaps it is the Americanists, who take their inspiration from John Courtney Murray, who might more properly be called “sectarian,” because they respond to the tensions between Church and world by restricting religion to a private affair and going along with everyone else in the public arena. This has never been the Catholic tradition.

(In criticizing “Americanists” we are not criticizing those who simply have a commitment to their country, but rather theologians who have developed this stance of separation of church and politics, faith and public life, between what one believes and what one lives or agrees to. We appreciate the United States, especially after having lived in El Salvador and almost losing our lives. However, as Catholics and Americans, we know it is our obligation to call our country to greatness–to human rights and peace, to a use of technological advances that enhance the dignity of the human person and do not allow the person to become a commodity–either at home or in the global market. We believe that our faith can offer much to the United States and should not be simply left at home.)

The curse of modern theology is the neoscholastic dualism which returns to the separation of nature and grace of centuries past, instead of emphasizing their organic unity as expressed in the theology of Henri de Lubac, S.J., who, more than anyone else, shaped the theology of Vatican II.

Discussions of the organic unity of nature and grace are inadequate, as Fr. DeLubac points out, if they do not address the need for a radical transformation of nature in relation to God. Anyone who observes the misery, the despair of the vast majority in Third World countries today (see p. 5, “The Way of the Cross of a Migrant”) knows that the natural needs a judgment beyond itself. The drive of modernity to operate without God and without this transformation leaves the poor without anything.

One of the most important books published since Vatican II, Heart of the World, Center of the Church, (Eerdman’s, 1996) by David Schindler, a former Notre Dame professor, addresses these questions of Church and
world. His distinctive approach shows that just as the Church exists for the world, so the intrinsic beauty and freedom of the world are deepened as the world is informed by the Church.

Dorothy Day knew that the radical call of the Gospel to the poor, as lived through the Church, would deepen the intrinsic beauty and freedom of the world. Interestingly, Communio, the journal edited by David Schindler, will have an issue featuring Dorothy Day this fall.

Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., raises related questions about faith, Church and world in his article “Latino Religion and the Struggle for Justice: Evangelization as Conversion,” Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology, Vol. 4, No. 3, February 1997. Fr. Figueroa Deck begins by pointing out that both Protestant and Catholic churches since the mid-1970’s, and especially the Roman Catholic Church, has “in effect, come to see itself, to perceive its very identity, in terms of the rich and complex idea of evangelization.” He presents evangelization and Christian conversion as “a radical experience of God in one’s life,” a response to the proclamation of the Gospel message in which “deep changes occur in both the individual and in the wider contexts of that person’s life,” and also involving “culture and the collectivity.”

Figueroa Deck, in applying the ideas of the New Evangelization to Latin America, quotes Pope Paul VI on the evangelization of culture: “What matters is to evangelize man’s culture and cultures not in a purely decorative way as it were by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to the very roots, in the wide and rich sense which these terms have in Gaudium et spes, always taking the person as one’s starting point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God” (On the Evangelization of the Modern

In a review of recent literature among Hispanic/Latino theologians in his article, Figueroa Deck concludes that liberation theology, which emphasizes transforming society, and evangelicals, who emphasize the supernatural and conversion, have something to offer each other. He suggests that the gaps in each of these understandings can be corrected in a sufficiently adequate or truly integral understanding of evangelization/conversion:

“An integral experience of conversion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ (evangelization) requires faith in an incarnate God present in history. This is the area of eschatology, the Christian understanding of the relationship between time and eternity, the linear sense of movement in the mysterious process by which God’s reign somehow becomes real, incarnate, here on earth as well as beyond. Liberationists stress this historical consciousness sometimes to the point of neglecting the
transcendent, supernatural, and mystical elements of Christianity. Evangelicals, in sharp contrast, prescind from history almost completely by placing all the emphasis on what God will do outside of time, mystically, after death, in his far distant heaven. In this they do not depart from the ahistorical syndrome of the indigenous pre-Colombian religions or of Latin America’s still living popular versions of medieval Spanish Catholicism. Cannot or even must not the current antagonism of liberationists to evangelicals and vice-versa be transformed and made to complement one another in the service of an integral, committed Christian vision of both Church and society?”

Privatization of Religion Harms Poor

It is most interesting that dualistic theologies, following Murray, are found on both the right and the left in the Catholic Church in the United States and influence Latin America. The resulting social commentary and moral theology confirms Paolo Freire’s assertion in The Pedagogy of the Oppresssed that both the right and the left are
sectarian and that both of these extremes ultimately leave the poor behind.

Freire describes sectarians of both right and left (including Marxists) who, “closing themselves into circles of certainty from which they cannot escape, ‘make’ their own truth.” According to Freire, both types of sectarians, treating history in an equally proprietary fashion, end up without the people–which is another way of being against them.” By contrast, in Freire’s view, “the more radical the person is, fully entering into reality in order to know it better, the more he or she will be able to transform it.”

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin considered themselves radicals in the root meaning of the word, going down to the roots–in this case of the Gospel and the Catholic tradition. This brought them to share the life of the poor and oppressed, spending their lives doing the works of mercy instead of the works of war and protesting injustice. They lived what Paolo Friere said prophetically, “The pedagogy of the oppressed is a task for radicals, it cannot be carried out by sectarians.”

Perhaps unwittingly, the Americanists contribute to the oppression of the poor, especially in the Third World, but also in the U. S. The equivocation in John Courtney Murray’s thought which allows the privatization of religion finds different, but equally destructive, expression in liberal and neoconservative thought. It has become apparent, with the glaring inequalities which become more severe each day under the global market, the lack of concern for displaced migrant peoples which result from these inequalities on the part of most and the subsequent implementation of policies which treat persons only as commodities of the market, that removing Catholic morality from the public square leaves the poor with no one to defend them.

It may be more obvious that people like George Weigel and Michael Novak, who write beautiful books and give many talks about the glories of capitalism and the global market, could have a direct role in the tragedy of the lives of so many whose lives are controlled by maquiladoras (factories in the Third World which belong to companies in richer nations) or who suffer from the impact of decisions on developing economies by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and now the World Trade Organization. Their writings justify the payment of salaries in maquiladoras so low that people cannot eat, provide housing and send their children to school, while CEO’s in Europe, the U. S., Japan and South Korea make millions of dollars and stockholders receive enormous windfalls. Novak accuses the poor who object to this of the sin of envy.

Many may not meet people who face these sufferings directly and are thus able to dismiss the immigrants, who strive to go to countries where labor standards are slightly higher, as terrible people who should return home. At Casa Juan Diego we speak each day with individuals or families who are seeking work under these conditions. Ironically, U.S. businesses are delighted to have them, because they are short of workers in agriculture, construction, chicken factories, or households as maids.

Two Peas in a Pod

Liberal theologians like Fr. Richard McBrien, who say, I am personally against abortion (or anti-immigrant legislation or the death penalty or anti-welfare legislation or euthanasia or slave wages), but we have to make accommodation to the culture in which we live, and to its laws, also, perhaps unwittingly, open the door to Catholic politicians’ participating in oppression. Neoconservatives may say, I want everyone to have a just wage, “but” one cannot interfere with the market. Others may say, I am personally opposed to the death penalty, but we must go along.

The theology which leaves its faith at home to go out to participate in the public square in a so-called level playing field, does not inform the culture and bring out its intrinsic beauty, but may be co-opted by it. This theology can easily be taken over by current fads or by secular movements which may begin well but later deteriorate into narcissism and in pursuing self-interest, abandon concern for the poor. It has even confused the authors at times in the past.

What might be called a “but” theology (I am personally against this, “but…”) allows decisions about life and death and economics to be made as if a person were a commodity. This is true not only of the global economy, but of middle-class women who decide to have an abortion because they may not be able to send their children to good universities if they have more of them. It has allowed the medical profession to make it standard practice to try to create a master race, insisting on policies which will result in no defective people, policies which insist on invasive and potentially harmful testing and doing away with children when there may possibly be a small abnormality (and there may not; these tests are inconclusive.)

The influence of this theology is devastatingly obvious as one looks at its effect on the lives of poor women in the U. S. and where it has led its followers in the world community in events like the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing.

Theologians like Fr. McBrien who criticize Pope John Paul II for his “intransigence” at UN meetings such as those at Cairo, because he fought against Planned Parenthood’s sterilization and abortion agenda, have probably not talked, as we have, with poor women from Latin America who were sterilized without their consent and even without their knowledge, discovering months or years later that they no longer had a uterus. These theologians undoubtedly were convinced by the “pro-choice” arguments that each woman must decide for herself about sterilization and abortion, never dreaming that these might be required for employment in U. S., European, Japanese or Korean factories in Latin America or other Third World countries. They surely did not know that poor women in Houston, Texas, would be pressured and harassed into having amniocentesis and abortion by health providers simply because they were thirty-five years old. They surely did not know that the theology which insists that Catholic morality not be brought to the national or international public square could leave poor women defenseless against governments, against companies, against forced abortion policies like that of China.

They probably did not know that the overriding concerns of Latin American and other Third World women is not a “right” to abort their children, the “final solution” of sterilization and abortion, but economic status on a survival level for a couple, for the family, so that the children might have health care and be sent to school.

Liberal and neo-conservative theologians who insist that the American (U. S.) “experiment” of democracy and the kind of separation of church and state as described by John Courtney Murray is the ideal expression of Catholicism and should be exported may be guilty of a new colonialism. Following their theology Dorothy Day would never have been able to bring the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, and 7) to make the powerful critique that she did of unjust economic policies and encroaching militarism and in the United States.

Catholics today often find themselves without firm theological footing or leadership to combat injustices against poor women in the global market which rival the Inquisition in oppression. By contrast, Jesuit theologian Figueroa Deck reminds us, “Catholic social teaching with its straightforward critique of capitalism, capital punishment, and first world hegemony has made itself felt, if perhaps only faintly, through the preaching and world travels of Pope John Paul II.”

The spirituality of the Catholic Worker can help us all to respond to Jesus in the poor and to address global issues of economic injustice and violence from a perspective of the world-transforming power of God’s love and grace.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVII, No.2, March-April 1997