header icons

Voluntary Poverty at Heart of Catholic Worker Movement

This article, the sixteenth in the series on the Roots of the Catholic Worker movement, features voluntary poverty, one of the marks of the movement.

The great message which Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, has for the world today is the message of voluntary poverty.

John Cort, friend of Peter’s and still living, said that the most vital message of the Catholic Worker movement is the praise of voluntary poverty.

Voluntary poverty is liberating. It frees people to use their skills in the service of others without wage concern.

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, tells us that because Peter had chosen to be poor he had remained free; he had time to think. He lived a rich and abundant life because of that very poverty (Catholic Worker, February 1945).

Peter understood something that St. Francis knew, that detachment from material things is the mysterious key to spiritual freedom, to joy and to the ability to possess things as God wishes us to possess them, on loan, as it were, for this life (Arthur Sheehan, Peter Maurin, Hanover House, 1959, p. 11) Peter quoted Johannes Jorgensen’s biography of St. Francis, who taught that our work should be given away as a gift.
Opposed Wage System

Dorothy Day speaks further of Peter’s voluntary poverty prior to their starting the Catholic Worker movement: “For the seven years before I met him, he had worked as caretaker in New York State at a boys’ camp during the winter. As far as I could gather, he lived with the horse in the barn. He mended the roads, broke rock and cut ice.

“Peter was vehemently opposed to the wage system, so he received in return for his labor, which he pointed out was voluntarily given, the return gift of enough food and clothing from the village store to supply his needs, a place to sleep and the use of the priest’s library, without which he never would have stayed upstate so long. He never refused to give alms, no matter how poor he was. He believed in poverty and loved it and felt it a liberating force. He differentiated between poverty and destitution.” (The Long Loneliness, Harper San Francisco, pp. 178-179).

Jesus and Voluntary Poverty

Jesus, the Son of God, practiced voluntary poverty. He chose to be born in a stable without any of the accoutrements of a middle class life style.

“The great mystery of the Incarnation,” Dorothy Day said as she spoke about the inspiration for the daily life of those in the Catholic Worker movement, “which meant that God became man that man might become God, was a joy that made us want to kiss the earth in worship, because His feet once trod that same earth. It was a mystery that we as Catholics accepted, but there were also the facts of Christ’s life, that He was born in a stable, that He did not come to be a temporal King, that He worked with His hands, spent the first years of His life in exile, and the rest of His early manhood in a crude carpenter shop in Nazareth. He trod the roads in His public life and the first men He called were fishermen, small owners of boats and nets. He was familiar with the migrant worker and the proletariat, and some of His parables dealt with them. He spoke of the living wage, not equal pay for equal work, in the parable of those who came at the first and the eleventh hour.

“He died between two thieves because He would not be made an earthly King. He lived in an occupied country for thirty years without starting an underground movement or trying to get out from under a foreign power. His teaching transcended all the wisdom of the scribes and pharisees, and taught us the most effective means of living in this world while preparing for the next. And He directed His sublime words to the poorest of the poor, to the people who thronged the towns and followed after John the Baptist, who hung around, sick and poverty-stricken at the doors of rich men.” (The Long Loneliness, pp. 204-205).

Voluntary Poverty and Vocation

Running through the writings of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day is the sense of vocation, a sense of calling by God for a specific role in the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. They knew that each of us is called, challenged to respond to the Beatitudes in our lives: Blessed are the poor.

Everyone that Peter encountered for any length of time was challenged with the personal calling by God germaine to every follower of Jesus.

Voluntary Poverty Works

Dorothy Day quoted Fr. Regamy, who spoke about the glories of “accepted poverty.”

St. Francis talked about the joys of Lady Poverty.

But voluntary or accepted poverty is really different from involuntary poverty. It is not like comedian Dick Gregory’s description: “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich, and rich is better.”

For example, a graduate of Notre Dame or Fordham who comes to Casa Juan Diego to work and serve must accept voluntary or accepted poverty, because there are no wages. However, they do receive room and board (and medical care) in the same building where the poor live and they do receive a small stipend to have something in their pocket in case of emergency. And they receive so much in human and divine experience as they come to know the poor, the immigrants, the suffering personally. They have the opportunity to live the Gospel and to come to understand the richness of the Hispanic culture.

It is hard for parents of the workers at Casa Juan Diego. They have been geared to economic success by our culture, rather than spiritual success, geared to view things through capitalism, the spirituality of America’s upper-middle and upper class. They want their children to get on with their lives, pay their college loans and make a good living.
Casa Juan Diego is frequently a way station for a year or two before the Catholic Workers go on to graduate school or to law or medical school. We hope that they will one day come again to Casa Juan Diego or at least to the poor if they can escape from the albatross of school loans. Very few graduates return to the poor, despite what they said.

More to Voluntary Poverty than Giving

Voluntary poverty not only enriches the poor, it also enriches and empowers the candidate for voluntary poverty.]

People think that the continuance of Casa Juan Diego for many years is based on the fact that all the people-including the head volunteers who work at Casa Juan Diego-(as Thom Marshall calls us) return their salaries to the poor.

People think that if they give money, the money goes to the poor in a rather direct way rather than for salaries. They see it as a good investment; what better way to serve the poor. And that’s true! (Footnote:) We are a little tired of people saying that sending a check is not enough. We will accept any amount of checks people want to send. Sending a check may be the first step in the conversion process-the conversion process to voluntary poverty. Some people may be sending a check of such an amount that they are practicing voluntary poverty.

But Much More!

The voluntary poverty approach does more. It gives us a new perspective, a new motivation, a whole new way of looking at poverty and justice. It helps us overcome the myopic approach that sees everything through the lens of consumerism and materialism. Indeed, it is a new way of providing human service.

Voluntary poverty is liberating. You might say it is liberation theology, in the sense that it adopts as a lifestyle the fundamental option for the poor, so encouraged by the present Pope-thus freeing the care-giver from inhibitions or other restraints.

Voluntary poverty consists not only in simply living simply, nor does it only consist in sharing the struggle of the poor, but is a step toward freedom, allowing persons to use their skills as a gift to society, while at the same time having sufficient resources to survive destitution.

Voluntary poverty is this freedom from wage restraints that allows a better use of one’s skills and creative resources without the inhibition of government regulation and without the albatross of bureaucracy always and ever raising its ugly head and lurking in the background. One of the beauties of this approach is that one doesn’t have to spend 20% of the time counting and creating statistics in order to insure further funding.

Even at Casa Juan Diego we worry about bureaucracy. Because we serve so many people we could succumb to screening, sorting out, triage and helping only “the deserving poor.”

Working without pay has great advantages and incentives: One doesn’t need money to work under the rubric of voluntary poverty.

The idea of voluntary poverty encourages us to develop creative ways to help those in need. We call these alternative services.

Knowing that those who earn the minimum wage have a very difficult time paying rent and utilities, much less buying food, Casa Juan Diego from its beginning in 1980 has distributed food each week. The approach of poverty and simplicity allows us to distribute very simple foods (rice, beans, vegetables, fruit, bread and tortillas) without investigating anyone. Only the poorest will come to stand in line at Casa Maria or Casa Juan Diego with 150 families to receive this food. We sometimes receive calls about our food distribution from people who ask if we have meat or vouchers. When we say no, they sadly turn away.

One woman threw the food across the floor at Mark, saying, “I’ll have my lawyer call you tomorrow!” The lawyer called, but hung up weeping after Mark talked with him.

Alternative services can also be developed via voluntary poverty to provide medical and dental services as well as transportation and information services. Over 35,000 people have passed through the doors of Casa Juan Diego.

To establish alternative services does not require grant money or large endowments, as salaries are eliminated from the beginning. In alternative services all you have to do is start and have hope and faith in the help of the Lord and many good people.

Workers and Scholars

The approach of voluntary poverty developed by Peter and Dorothy included the idea of scholars and workers working together. This means that there are no strict divisions of labor. Everyone does everything.

We are blessed at Casa Juan Diego by being in community with Catholic Workers who are laborers, many of them Mexican or Central American immigrants. Their grasp of voluntary poverty is remarkable, which lends credence to our theory that poverty does not mean the absence of culture-au contraire. Immigrant Catholic Workers also understand the Catholic Worker vocation. They constantly study the Worker movement (we are grateful for having so much material in Spanish) with each issue of the paper.

A second blessing of voluntary poverty and the blend of workers and scholars is in the various roles that it permits. Only those with many years of being Catholic Workers are permitted to do certain roles, such as cleaning of excrement left on the clinic steps by street people the night before, or cleaning up the trash and debris around dumpsters left by broken bags of wet garbage.

It is amazing how much dumpsters become a part of our lives, but being dumpster-ready is a requirement for being a Catholic Worker. Only after several years as a Catholic Worker is one ready. For example, Andrew Wright is now ready.

No Welfare

Those who practice voluntary poverty must find a means of surviving to avoid depending on the church or government for support. Voluntary poverty does not mean going on welfare or asking the Bishop to underwrite the support needed.

An acceptable practice for married couples is for one of them to practice voluntary poverty while the other works for money. For the first twelve years of the existence of Casa Juan Diego, one of us worked at establishing and running Casa Juan Diego while the other (Louise) worked full-time for money in addition to assisting with establishing and running Casa Juan Diego. So money for support was not taken from Casa Juan Diego for our children’s schooling or music lessons.

With voluntary poverty couples could provide a free teacher to an inner-city school while the spouse supports the family, or could provide a free doctor to a clinic while being supported by their spouse, or think what an immigration lawyer could do for immigrants with a working partner.

Vow of Poverty

Voluntary poverty is not only about the vow of poverty that many take-albeit very important, very powerful and one of the most tremendous witnesses we have. It is also about the voluntary poverty practiced in the Acts of the Apostles where all practiced poverty primarily to provide better resources for the poor (See Luke Timothy Johnson, Acts of the Apostles, Liturgical Press, 1992).

The voluntary poverty of the Catholic Worker movement is not simply living simply, but living simply in order to freely serve.

Sinful Structures

Voluntary poverty is related to personalism and subsidiarity (Small is Beautiful).

First of all, it permits one to serve the poor freely without grantsmanship, press releases, constant fund raisers, government regulations, edifice complex (focus on fancy buildings to guarantee funding), public relations, charity balls, getting featured in the Houston Chronicleor Maxine Messenger’s society column, rather than good service.

Abandoning the economic factor frees a person to focus on service. It allows people to avoid professionalism, the pitfall of those who approach being a professional with emphasis on the latest style clothes, many offices, fancy offices, receptionists, secretaries, boards, meetings with everyone all dressed up, and hiring more people. Professionalism believes the super-professional knows better than any other person how to teach people how to live-without the richness of a great philosophy or the clear message of Jesus and often without the great respect for the person of personalism.

The service of voluntary poverty is professional service, pure and unadulterated. Professionalism is sinful structure!

We get this funny feeling in our stomachs when agency people, guilty of all of the above, tell us that justice is more important than charity.

Must Work

Voluntary poverty does not mean not working. Some Catholic Workers may misunderstand this. It really means much work, much work. With voluntary poverty one can work day and night and some workers do, as we creatively try to live out the Beatitudes in our lives. We feel we can permit this overwork because it is not for money that we work, but in service of others. We would not do this work for money.

Voluntary Poverty as Personalism

Emmanuel Mounier, whom Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin loved so much, presented a blueprint for a personalist approach that asks everyone to lay aside greed and materialism. It is in harmony with the Beatitudes. It is voluntary poverty!

Mounier said, “On the plane of individual ethics we believe that a certain kind of poverty is the ideal economic rule of personal life. But by poverty in this sense we do not mean an indiscreet asceticism or a shameful miserliness. We refer rather to a contempt for the material attachments that enslave, a desire for simplicity, a state of adaptability and freedom, which does not exclude magnificence or generosity, nor even some striving for riches, providing such endeavours are not avaricious” (The Personalist Manifesto, Longmans, Green and Co., 1938, p. 192).

Voluntary Poverty: Changing the Social Order

There was no one more committed to the works of mercy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc., than Dorothy Day. But she felt that this was not enough.

Dorothy speaks of the heresy of good works, “These accursed occupations,’ as St. Bernard calls them, which keep people from thinking.”

“To feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the harborless without also trying to change the social order so that people can feed, clothe and shelter themselves, is just to apply palliatives. It is to show a lack of faith in one’s fellows, their responsibilities as children of God, heirs of heaven” (Catholic Worker, Feb. 1945).

Peter Maurin provided the idea of clarification of thought to solve the problem of good works without thought and prayer and study. He emphasized the encyclicals and the social teaching featured in them, along with the lives and example of the saints and the great thinkers of his day in many fields.

In responding to the challenges of society, of poverty, poor wages, horrible living conditions, Dorothy became irate at the helplessness of society to facilitate social change.

“What can we do? people would say, and the result is palliatives, taking care of the wrecks of the social order, rather than changing it so that there would not be quite so many broken homes, orphaned children, delinquents, industrial accidents, so much destitution in general.”
“Palliatives!” Dorothy would say. How she hated that word. Temporary solutions! “Palliatives, when what we need is a revolution,” (Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage, Catholic Worker Books, 1948, p. 98). Dorothy always emphasized the revolution of the heart, nonviolent revolution.

Dorothy responds to the so-called heresy of good works. Today’s heresy of good works is known as bandaid services. However, the creation of more and more bureaucracy is another type of bandaid, quite different from the personalist approach.

Attempting to implement Emmanuel Mounier’s emphasis on a “maximum of initiative, responsibility and spiritual life,” Dorothy speaks strongly about the difference between “personalism, individualism and collectivism:

“We are working for the Communitarian revolution to oppose both the rugged individualism of the capitalist era, and the collectivism of the Communist revolution. We are working for the Personalist revolution because we believe in the dignity of man, the temple of the Holy Ghost, so beloved by God that He sent His son to take upon Himself our sins and die an ignominious and disgraceful death for us. We are Personalists because we believe that man, a person, a creature of body and soul, is greater than the State, of which as an individual he is a part. We are Personalists because we oppose the vesting of all authority in the hands of the state instead of in the hands of Christ the King. We are Personalists because we believe in free will, and not in the economic determinism of the Communist philosophy” (Catholic Worker 1936).

Dorothy wanted all the readers of her paper, the Catholic Worker, to participate in changing sinful structures. She felt the transformation of the social order began with the practice of voluntary poverty and personalism. She spelled out a personalist response for her readers:

“When we succeed in persuading our readers to take the homeless into their homes; having a Christ room in the house as St. Jerome said, then we will be known as Christians because of the way we love one another. We should have hospices in all the poor parishes. We should have coffee lines to take care of the transients; we should have this help we give sweetened by mutual forbearance and Christian Charity. But we need more Christian homes where the poor are sheltered and cared for…

“So we do not cease to urge more personal responsibility on the part of those readers who can help in this way. Too often we are afraid of the poor, or the worker. We do not realize that we know him, and Christ through him, in the breaking of the bread” (Dorothy Day,House of Hospitality, Sheed and Ward, 1939, p. 241).
Wedding of Charity and Justic

So often we hear Catholics speak as if charity (works of mercy) and justice are somehow incongruous or not connected.

It took a seminarian from Colombia (Alfredo Mosquera, C.S., who was with us last summer), to point out to us that it is voluntary poverty that brings together charity and justice. It is by living poorly (voluntary poverty) with the poor that we can change social structures and develop new ones.

But the whole tradition of the Church from the earliest times, as well as the Catholic Worker movement, has understood that it is only in the light of the Sermon on the Mount, of the Beatitudes, of the love of God and neighbor, that social justice can be sought and authentically found.

An excellent article appeared in the Spring 1998 issue of Communio on “Charity and Justice.” In that article, D. Stephen Long takes the radical approach of the Gospel to economics and a good human life. Like Peter and Dorothy, he emphasizes that the key to a good human and Christian life is to be found in the blessedness pronounced by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and especially the Beatitudes. Long quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albert the Great, the Fathers of the Church and Alasdair McIntyre, all of whom affirm that charity is the basis for all other virtues. We are not speaking here of philanthropy, but the love of the Trinitarian God as expressed to us in the person of Jesus Christ, baptism and in the Eucharist. Long quotes St. Thomas who, he says, took the blessings of the Beatitudes as the “heart of a Christian social ethic, the central image of the moral life..” St. Thomas wrote, “The discourse given by the Lord on the Mount contains all that a Christian needs to conduct his life. In it man’s interior motives are perfectly regulated.”

Voluntary poverty brings a whole new vision, dimension and identification with the poor that is missing in the statements of those promoting justice, not charity.

Voluntary poverty is that existential leap that frees us to be present to those who need justice implemented.

We don’t need a separation of charity and justice, what we need is a wedding of charity and justice through voluntary poverty.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVIII, No. 7, December 1998.