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“Blowing the Dynamite of the Church”: Catholic Radicalism from a Catholic Radicalist Perspective

In the wake of their momentous encounter in December 1932, Peter Maurin subjected Dorothy Day to a pedagogical program that he dubbed “indoctrination,” which, from Day’s account, consisted of Maurin coming over to her apartment and expounding to her on God, the Church, the Church Fathers, the saints, the poor, hospitality, liberalism, capitalism, fascism, communism, personalism, distributism, anarchism, Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Chesterton, Belloc, Maritain, Berdyaev, Kropotkin, and so on, until she had heard enough for one day and sent him away.1 Maurin liked to compose and recite “easy essays”–clever, laconic commentaries on the Church and the world-and it is likely that one of the first easy essays he recited in Day’s presence (her memory was not so clear on this2) was entitled “The Dynamite of the Church,” which goes as follows:

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 taken the dynamite
of the Church,
have wrapped it up 
in nice phraseology,
placed it in an hermetic 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.3

The notion of the Church as “dynamic” and having “dynamite” in its possession is worth lingering over for a moment. Both words are derived from the Greek dynamis, meaning power or might. It appears many times in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) in reference to the mighty acts of God, and in the New Testament in reference to Jesus, who also is an agent of God’s power and might, when he casts out demons and heals the sick, and commissions his disciples to do the same. After the resurrection, the apostles bear witness to Christ “with great power,” especially Paul, who delivers the Gospel “not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power” (I Cor 2:4). This same power will prevail at the end of time, when Christ destroys all other sovereignties and powers and hands over the kingdom to God the Father (I Cor 15:24).4

Peter Maurin’s point is this: God unleashed a power, a dynamis, in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, which was to be shared by his followers in their spreading of the Gospel message, but Catholic scholars have taken this dynamic message, cordoned it off, kept it under wraps, and rendered it socially impotent. They have done so in the way that scholars know best, by means of “nice phraseology.”

In its own quipping way, the essay points to the fact that in the world of Catholic scholarship in the thirties, theology and social theory functioned as separate, unrelated disciplines. I elaborate on this separation in the first part of this article. In the second part, I draw on writings of Maurin and Day to show that they did not separate theology from social theory, but espoused a social theory suffused with theological terms and categories. In the third part, I argue that many Catholic scholars today fail to appreciate this integration because they continue to work under an assumed separation between theology and social theory, a separation that privileges the ethical agenda of the nation-state and unfairly marginalizes the radicalist ethical vision of the Catholic Worker. In the fourth and final part, I briefly describe the difficulty in presenting the Catholic Worker from its own radicalist perspective given the disciplinary lines which currently separate theology from social theory, and the nature of the task that is immediately before us.


Maurin’s description of theology “in an hermetic container” was not a critique of any particular Catholic scholar, but of all Catholic scholars–or almost all-collectively went about their work. It was a critique of discourse, that is, of the paradigms, institutions, disciplines, practices, rules, regulations, and unexamined assumptions making up the frame of reference out of which a group of scholars works.5 The questions and problems taken up by a given group of scholars emerge within this frame of reference, but the frame of reference itself often goes unquestioned, unproblematized. In his essay, Peter Maurin contends that the discourse or frame of reference of Catholic scholarship unwisely treats theology and social theory as if they constitute two separate fields of inquiry, and inaccurately views theology as asocial and social theory as having little to do with theology.

Peter Maurin was right. If we look at the theoretical paradigm dominating the discourse of Catholic scholarship in these years, we see that it divided all fields of knowledge according to two fundamentally distinct realms: the natural and the supernatural. Derived from a misreading of Aquinas, this neo-Scholastic paradigm held that the natural desires of the human person-the desire to meet one’s physical needs, to live in society, to marry and raise children, to produce and consume goods, to establish forms of governments which enable such natural activities to be performed in accord with justice and the common good-that these natural desires can be fulfilled without the aid of the supernatural life of Christ in the Church. In this view, there were two separate realms or tiers of human existence, the natural and the supernatural, and it was possible to confine the study of society, economics, and politics to one of those two realms, the natural.6 Hence the separation between theology and social theory.

Any critique of discourse entails a critique of institutions; in this instance, a critique of the standard institutional arrangement in U.S. Catholic higher education in the pre-conciliar era. With few exceptions, Catholic colleges and universities placed philosophy at the center of the curriculum as the discipline that would organize and place into proper perspective knowledge gained from all other academic fields, the arts, the natural sciences, and the newly emergent social sciences. Theology, by contrast, had virtually no place in the standard curriculum. It was studied in the seminaries, which were organizationally separate from the colleges and usually free-standing institutions. Dogma, christology, moral theology, sacramental theology, mystical theology, and scripture, were reserved for the training of future priests. What religious instruction was available at the colleges was catechetical in nature, and did not relate directly to the knowledge pursued and produced at the colleges and universities. This institutional arrangement reinforced the idea that the study of politics, economics, and society deals with natural activities and should be governed by philosophy, not theology.7

Admittedly, the situation was not as clear cut as this account implies, but I believe the picture I have painted, big brush and all, is accurate as regards Catholic social theory in the early twentieth century. John Ryan, for example, the most prominent Catholic social theorist of this era, wrote almost nothing on sin and grace, the sacraments, christology, soteriology, or eschatology, or scripture.8 The same is true of Moorhouse F.X. Millar, a colleague of Ryan’s, whose extensive writings in philosophy and political theory propose no more than a marginal role for theology.9 The same is true of the many lesser known social theorists whose journal articles about political, economic, and social matters are by and large devoid of substantive theological reasoning and argumentation. And the same is true, with qualifications, of the most influential U.S. Catholic social theorist of this century, John Courtney Murray.

How to read Murray is a hotly contested and complex matter these days, too complex to give a full account here, so let me sum up my reading of him in a nutshell. Murray was more ready and able than his predecessors to import theological terms and categories into his social theory,10 but he did so in such a way that his theology effaced itself as it moved into the realm of the natural and the social. In We Hold These Truths, he invokes the incarnation, but only to say that it established a spiritual, not temporal, order.11 This spiritual/temporal distinction dictates (and mutes) the significance of other theological terms and categories. Thus he refers to redemption, but only to note in passing that the Western constitutional tradition may be seen as redemptive in a terrestrial sense.12 He mentions providence, but only to suggest that it was operative at the U.S. founding.13 He even brings up the Sermon on the Mount, but only to insist that its precepts, or any other precepts drawn directly from scripture, have no direct bearing on the morality of public policy.14 In each case, Murray’s use of theological terms and categories only serves to reinforce the premise of the primacy of the spiritual order, a premise that serves to reinforce the existence of another order set aside solely for temporal affairs-the affairs of politics, the state, civil law, public discourse-wherein the language of faith and revelation yields to the language of reason and natural law. The overall effect is to lend support to the presiding contention of We Hold These Truths, that this spiritual/temporal distinction received full-fledged endorsement by the U.S. founders and was granted legal recognition in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

It is important to note the connection between the neo-Scholastic division of the natural from the supernatural and the exigencies of liberal democratic political order in the United States of America. Murray set out to provide a basis for a “public philosophy” that would appeal to all parties in a religiously pluralistic setting; this meant a philosophy not grounded in the beliefs and practices of any specific ecclesial body, a philosophy not referring to the ultimate ends of human existence;15 and the neo-Scholastic natural law, autonomous from the supernatural and accessible by means of reason alone, was perfectly suited to this task.16

The problem with natural law conceived apart from its supernatural end is that it perpetuates the myth of the modern liberal state as a religiously neutral institutional arrangement. In fact, this is a debased, unnatural law that should rather be understood as a rival to true religion (in the Augustinian sense), and its emergence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries dissipated the authority of the Church not only among the networks of social and political power but also within its own membership.17 Furthermore, when natural law is not ordered to its supernatural end, it lacks the linguistic and conceptual resources needed to challenge existing configurations of political power from a perspective other than the realm of “the political.” In this sense, the neo-Scholastic enclosure of the natural within an autonomous sphere precluded a fundamental theological critique of the modern liberal state. Thus while Murray was an accomplished theologian, theology had little direct and substantive effect on his political theory. The same is true of Catholic social theory in general. It is remarkably bereft of references to Christ, the sacraments, scripture, the saints, and other tradition-specific theological terms and categories which do not easily conform to the discursive protocols of the modern liberal state.

This is what Peter Maurin put his finger on in “Blowing the Dynamite of the Church.” What we need to put our finger on is that much the same is true of Catholic social theory today. But before commenting on the contemporary scene, I want to take up the Catholic Worker from its own non-state-centered, theologically-informed, radicalist perspective.


The social theory to which Maurin referred in his essay was dynamic because it possessed an explosive ingredient: Jesus Christ. The image of dynamite jolts the listener/reader into imagining Christ and the Church in temporal rather than in purely spiritual terms. This is not to say that Maurin denied that the Church’s mission is “spiritual”; no Catholic intellectual of that era would have denied that; but, for Maurin, “spiritual” signified specific practices and a specific form of social life. In contrast to standard Catholic social theory, his social theory was, in a word, ecclesial.

Consider, for example, his three-pronged vision of a society based on cult, culture, and cultivation. Together with culture and cultivation he lists as an indispensable element “cult,” the practice of the worship of God (and he had a specifically Catholic form of worship in mind).18 Consider his designation of parishes and dioceses as sites for the practice of hospitality; not the “muni,” not state-run shelters, but the Church.19 Consider his view of St. Francis as one who lived the kind of life that could spark social reconstruction, not personal piety or ecclesiastical reform alone, but the reconstruction of society.20 For Peter Maurin, society is not built on a “pure nature”; rather, society flows out of a “nature” ordered to and fulfilled by Christ in the Church, a nature that is, to paraphrase both Father John J. Hugo and the English theologian John Milbank, “supernaturalized.”21

This supernaturalism permeates the writings of Dorothy Day, particularly The Long Loneliness. Think of the scene at the outset: “Confession”-the practice of bringing one’s sins into the light of day, also writing about “all the things which had brought [her] to God,” about how she “found faith” and “became a member of the Mystical Body of Christ.”22 Think of the scene in the postscript: people sitting, talking, dividing up loaves and fishes, welcoming the poor into houses with expanding walls, knowing God and each other in a Eucharistic banquet joining heaven and earth.23 Confession, then communion-here we have the story of a practicing Catholic who like Augustine (whom she cites in depicting her own task as a writer24) feels compelled to tell how God has taken possession of her life.

This supernaturalist perspective is written into the structure of the overall narrative of The Long Loneliness, as it moves from the second to the third part. Dorothy Day’s time on Staten Island with Forster Batterham, walking the beach, reading, cooking, eating together, sleeping together, bearing a child-this consoling time of “natural happiness” draws her into an overflowing supernatural love. With Forster she had a child she loved and he made the physical world come alive, awakening in her a flood of gratitude. But, she writes, “the final object of this love and gratitude was God. No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”25 Natural happiness could not satisfy. It expands one’s desire beyond what the natural itself can ever fulfill. Nature, in other words, produces a lack. It is like salt on the tongue, leaving us thirsting for something more; not for more salt, but for the water which alone quenches our thirst.26 So the story moves on, painfully, to the baptism of her daughter, to the break-up with Forster, to her own baptism, and at length, to her life at the Worker-the story of natural love transformed into the love of the cross.

A theology of the supernatural comes in Day’s account of the Retreat. She describes Fr. Pacifique Roy as talking “of nature and the supernatural, how God became man that man might become God, how we were under the obligation of putting off the old man and putting on Christ…” This, he said, is done by “acting always for the ‘supernatural motive,'” by “supernaturalizing all our actions every day.”27 Fr. John J. Hugo, director of the Catholic Worker retreats, stressed that as Christians “we have been given a share in the divine life; we have been raised to a supernatural level.”28 “Grace is a share in the divine life . . . ,” he said, “and the law of this supernatural life is love, a love which demands renunciation.”29 Significantly, she wrote this chapter shortly after the promulgation of Humani generis (1950), the encyclical that defended the neo-Scholastic notion of “pure nature” as necessary to preserve the integrity of nature and the gratuity of grace. This pronouncement called into question the nouvelle theologie of Henri de Lubac and others for arguing that the notion of a purely natural end was a distortion of Aquinas’ belief that the human person has a natural desire for God and thus a single, supernatural end. Given this context, it is significant that Day alludes to the controversy, mentions de Lubac favorably,30 and offers a brief formulation of her own supernaturalist theology: “Body and soul constitute human nature,” she writes. “The body is no less good than the soul. In mortifying the natural we must not injure the body or the soul. We are not to destroy it but to transform it, as iron is transformed in the fire.”31 This is clearly a defense of Hugo against his critics, and also perhaps her own homespun attempt to allay official suspicion.

All of which goes to show that Day’s integrated understanding of the natural/supernatural relation ran counter to the neo-Scholastic two-tier paradigm that dominated the discourse of Catholic scholarship during the pre-conciliar era. She envisioned society not as enclosed within an autonomous “natural” realm of human activity, but as radically open and dynamically oriented toward the supernatural. Two scholars associated with the Worker, Virgil Michel, O.S.B. and Paul Hanly Furfey, articulated this perspective in books, academic journals, and articles in popular periodicals including The Catholic Worker: Michel, by rooting all social regeneration in the liturgy;32 Furfey, by showing that all true society flows from participation in the inner life of the Trinity.33 But it was Day who was able to articulate it in terms of specific practices that make up a supernaturalized life. Her thick descriptions of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving hospitality to the stranger, instructing the ignorant (that is, picketing), growing food on the land (or trying to), and so on-all showed that Peter Maurin’s “new society within the shell of the old” where “it is easier for people to be good”34 was thoroughly realizable in the here and now, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the intercession of the saints.

But this “new society” never figured into the work of Catholic social theorists. It did not register as a “society” as they understood the term. It was “spiritual” rather than “temporal,” “supernatural” rather than “natural,” “ecclesial” rather than “social.” It embodied “charity” rather than “justice.” These are false oppositions, of course, produced by the separation of theology and social theory that dominated Catholic scholarly discourse in the pre-conciliar era, but the effect, as Peter Maurin saw so clearly, was to confine the power or dynamis of Christ to an asocial sphere where it lay dormant.

The situation is not fundamentally different now. Even though the Catholic Worker has received plenty of scholarly attention lately-something that Catholic Workers should fear because, as Stanley Hauerwas had observed, academics study religious movements that are dead or that they are trying to kill-it remains marginalized in the discourse of Catholic social ethicists. Some social ethicists exclude it willingly; others, against their best intentions; but in any case, the problem is not so much with the ethicists themselves as with the discursive structure of their field, which still posits a division between theology and social theory.


Permit me to make a sweeping generalization about Catholic social ethics which is too complex to explain or defend fully here, but which needs to be made anyway: Catholic social ethics today continues to posit a separation between theology and social theory and it does so in two ways: first, by extending John Courtney Murray’s project of providing the nation with a “public philosophy” (or now, a “public theology”) to which all in a pluralistic society can appeal; and second, by reinforcing that project with a theoretical paradigm quite distinct from the neo-Scholastic one that shaped Murray, a paradigm inherited from Max Weber.

The genealogy of this Weberian paradigm is long and complex, tracing from Ernst Troeltsch, to H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, and to James Gustafson, whose influence in the field of Catholic social ethicists today is pervasive.35 For our purposes, we should note that this paradigm is structured along the lines of an antinomy between religion and politics, each of which performs a distinct ethical function.36 Religion, for Weber, furnishes an ideal vision that forms the basis for an “ethic of ultimate ends,” while politics determines how ethical ideals may be approximated in a world of conflict and violence, thus functioning as an “ethic of means.” These two ethical functions complement each other, Weber maintains, but they operate within distinct life-spheres governed by distinct laws. It is the task, indeed the “vocation,” of the politician, working within the domain of the state, to ensure that ethical means be appropriate to real-life circumstances. The politician must ensure that the harsh realities of necessary means be segregated from the lofty vision of ultimate ends, thus avoiding irresponsible attempts to put religious ideals such as, say, the Sermon on the Mount into practice in the “real world” of politics–which is, as Weber himself acknowledges, a world of ethical compromise. It is this religion/politics antinomy, along with the dualism between ends and means, that has given rise to the litany of antinomies that shape the discourse of social ethics in the Troeltsch-Niebuhr-Gustafson tradition: ideal/real, absolute/relative, individual/social, sect/church, love/justice, Christ/culture, kingdom/history, and so on. My point in identifying this paradigm, along with that of Murray, is to emphasize that in the field of Catholic social ethics they have combined to form the distorted lens through which the Catholic Worker is read.

This distortion is evident in the readings of the Catholic Worker offered by two very different thinkers, George Weigel and Charles Curran. In Tranquillitas Ordinis George Weigel, a neo-conservative, presents what he calls “The John Courtney Murray Project” over the course of 150 pages and then he pauses to deliver an overtly hostile critique of, among others, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker.37 “Given the Weberian choice between an ‘ethics of responsibility’ and an ‘ethics of absolute ends,'” he writes, “Dorothy Day unhesitatingly chose the latter.”

There is no problem with this in itself for Weigel; the problem is that “Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker did not heed Weber’s advice to eschew politics. The movement may have rejected ‘politics as a vocation,’ but it eagerly embraced politics as an avocation.” This was especially the case regarding its approach to Soviet communism, which was “distorted by the apocalyptic horizon and its failure to distinguish relative evils.” As regards Day herself, Weigel grants that her religious intuitions were sincere and intense, but this does not detract from her shortcomings as an absolutist unwilling to make the compromises and prudential judgments necessary in the political arena. She should have avoided politics altogether. Thus Weigel assures us that “Dorothy Day’s life and witness remains a powerful sign in modern American Catholicism,” but finally, “the enduring truth of [her] life rests . . . not in her political judgments, but in her faith.”38

A surprisingly similar reading of the Catholic Worker has been offered by the liberal Catholic moral theologian and social ethicist Charles Curran. In American Catholic Social Ethics, Curran focuses on one of the Catholic Worker’s leading theological spokesmen, Paul Hanly Furfey.39 The primary positive feature of Furfey’s “radicalism,” says Curran, is that it is “prophetic” and thus has “the ability to see the problems.” Whereas “Catholic liberals at times might tend to overlook some problems . . . , the Catholic radical possesses a methodological approach which makes one sensitive to the real problems facing our society.” And yet, while the methodology of Catholic radicalism serves to make “Catholic and others in our society aware of the dangers of conformism,” it is deeply flawed, as Curran sees it, in that it has not been “effective in helping the lot of the poor and oppressed in our society.” The problem here is that it has a “one-sided emphasis on the change of the heart of the person with comparatively little or no stress on the need for the change of institutions or of structures.”40

Thus, while the work of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker has been “awe-inspiring and of great spiritual beauty,” their program “has not been effective. They have concentrated only on the derelicts and have done little or nothing to help the poor of the ghetto change the conditions in which they live.”41 Nevertheless, Curran affords Day and the Worker a limited place within his “catholic and universal church,” to wit: “within the total church there must always be room for a radical Christian witness. Individual Christians, but not the whole church, can be and are called to a radical vocation and witness within the church.”42

Notice here the similarities between Weigel’s and Curran’s reading of the Worker. Both find it lacking in responsibility when it comes to institutional change. Both appeal to criteria of effectiveness. Both extol the Worker for its inspiring example, but its significance is restricted to the realm of individual witness. Both are indebted to the Weberian paradigm of politics. Differences in tone and emphasis notwithstanding, the readings of the Catholic Worker offered by Weigel and Curran are equally condescending and misleading.

And this is true, I would submit, of a host of social ethicists dedicated to developing a “public philosophy” or a “public theology,” whose considerable differences give way to a common reading of the Catholic Worker’s ecclesiology as “sectarian.” This is a key word in the lexicon of Catholic social ethics done in the Troeltsch-Niebuhr-Gustafson lineage. It is invoked as a way to dismiss the claim that Christian discipleship entails a form of life that is embedded in the beliefs and practices of the Church and therefore cannot serve as the basis for universal, supra-ecclesial ethical principles that are then applied in making public policy.43 In this dismissal, it is possible to detect the lineaments of the kind of Weberian critique of the Catholic Worker offered by Weigel and Curran, namely, that Gospel ideals do not pertain to politics and must therefore be translated from ends into means, from absolute into relative terms, so as to have a more direct bearing in the world of pragmatic policy making. But such a translation reproduces the former neo-Scholastic separation of theology and social theory that Peter Maurin criticized in his easy essay. It also runs counter to the consistent claim of Maurin and Day that true society is rooted in the supernatural life of Christ and cannot be abstracted from the beliefs and practices of the Church. Most importantly, this “public theology” approach fails to take seriously a contention that has been central to the life of the Catholic Worker from the beginning, namely, that the modern nation-state is a fundamentally unjust and corrupt set of institutions whose primary function is to preserve the interests of the ruling class, by coercive and violent means if necessary-and there will always come a time when it is necessary.

Those working out of the Murray tradition of “public theology” find this assessment of the modern nation-state to be intolerably negative. And indeed it certainly is negative-but Day would add that this is for good reason. After all, she was formed politically by the Old Left during and after the Great War. This was the era of the Committee on Public Information, the suppression of journals such as The Masses, the Palmer Raids, the shut-down of the Wobblies, and the Red Scare of the twenties. The history of state-sponsored political repression was very much intertwined with Dorothy Day’s personal history (as is especially clear from the first part of her autobiography44), and it left her forever wary of the claims of the state, as she herself indicates with the title of the chapter in The Long Loneliness on anarchist politics: “War is the health of the state.”45

The title comes from a phrase in an essay written by Randolph Bourne as the Great War was drawing to a close.46 It was well-known among the Old Left in the years after the war, and it is worth reviewing at length because it obviously reflects Day’s worldview. The essay decries the way in which a nation’s population during war is transformed into a single herd that conforms to the aims and purposes of the state. In times of war, Bourne observes, the state realizes its “ideal,” which is “that within its territory its power and influence should be universal.” It makes a claim on “all the members of the body politic,” for “it is precisely in war that the urgency for union seems greatest, and the necessity for universality seems most unquestioned. The State is the organization of the herd,” Bourne continues, and “war sends the current of purpose and activity flowing down to the lowest level of the herd, and to its most remote branches.” Thus the state becomes “the inexorable arbiter and determinant of men’s businesses and attitudes and opinions.”47 As an open supporter of the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.) or “Wobblies,” an anarchist union that was subjected to intense governmental scrutiny and repression during and after the war, Bourne was concerned with the ways in which control is exercised over the population by means of the police, courts, prisons, and other state-sponsored institutions. But he is particularly insightful about the subtle mechanisms by which conformity is ensured through a complex network of symbols, attitudes, and customs that produce what he calls “State-feeling” or “State-enthusiasm.”48 Old symbols are taken out and dusted off. Old slogans are brought back into circulation. “Public opinion, as expressed in the newspapers, and the pulpits and the schools, becomes one solid block. And ‘loyalty,’ or rather war orthodoxy, becomes the sole test for all professions, techniques, occupations.”49 This is true in the academy, when the “herd-instinct” becomes the “herd-intellect,”50 and also in the churches, “when Christian preachers lose their pulpits for taking more or less in literal terms the Sermon on the Mount.”51 The mechanisms that produce this “State-feeling” are so subtle, so well dispersed, reaching each cell in the body politic, that conforming to it feels natural and right, so much so that it feels natural and right to kill for it.

By using Bourne’s provocative aphorism as a chapter title in her autobiography at a time when the nation was in the throes of the cold war, Day reminded her readers that the Catholic Worker is “radical” in two related senses. It is radical in the sense that it addresses the roots of social reconstruction by grounding it in the person and work of Christ, and also in the sense that it refuses to conform to the order-or disorder-imposed by the modern nation-state. This second sense of radicalism is crucial for reading the Catholic Worker from its own radicalist perspective, for it challenges public theology’s state-centered understanding politics by disclosing the possibility of reading “public theology” as ideology, that is, as a constellation of ideas that legitimate the dominant power relations of capitalist order by depicting particular forms of social and political life as natural or universal.52

One way to begin reading “public theology” as ideology would be to examine the word “public,” which is supposed to signify the inclusive nature of the workings of liberal democracy in the United States. From the perspective of the Catholic Worker, the mechanisms of the state have never really been “public” for much of the population-the ones who live in shelters and S.R.O.’s, who work the fields or sweep the floors at McDonalds, who live a paycheck away from eviction, who are not counted in the census, who live in constant economic depression. Similar criticisms could be made of notions like “freedom,” “justice,” “the common good,” “civil society,” and “the limited state,” words or phrases that conceal the dehumanizing world of those who live in the bottom fifth of “our society.” Public theologians, of course, respond that this is the situation that they seek to reform, which would seem to be a worthy task; but this kind of reformist agenda only serves to reinforce the assumption that the only effective mechanism for implementing justice in the modern world is the modern state. It is this assumption that Dorothy Day, with the help of Robert Ludlow, rejects in her chapter on the state and Christian anarchism, in favor of a localist understanding of government and politics grounded in the power of the cross.53

The power of the cross moved Dorothy Day beyond the pale of the Old Left, where religion was seen only as part of the ideological superstructure that kept capitalism running smoothly. In her journey from natural happiness to supernatural love, she discovered another kind of religion, with a social program at least as radical as any she had encountered among the Marxists, socialists, and anarchists of her youth. Having been singed by “the dynamite of the Church,” she could pose the startling question, in the first issue of the New York paper, “Is it not possible to be radical and not atheist?” The question pointed to a crucial flaw in the standard critique of religion put forth by radicals of the Old Left, namely, that it was a critique of bourgeois religion, religion that conforms to norms established by the social relations of capitalist production, religion that is designed to legitimate the workings of the state and market. That critique failed to consider the possibility of another religion, one founded on a Lord who preached love of enemies and good news to the poor, who healed the sick and welcomed the outcast, who made the rulers of this world tremble, and who bestows upon His followers the power to do the same. This is the religion that was proclaimed by Day in the first issue of The Catholic Worker and, as has been amply demonstrated by Catholic Workers ever since, it was-and is-a genuinely radical religion.

But this theological claim can be explicated only from a radicalist perspective. Given the present configuration of the field of Catholic social ethics, this requires distinguishing the radicalist perspective of the Catholic Worker from the bourgeois perspective of Public Theology and unmasking Public Theology as a discourse which legitimates the nation-state. It requires a demolition of public theology using “the dynamite of the Church.”


Unmasking public theology as ideology is a theoretical task, a scholarly task, and one would expect that one place where such a task might be accomplished is the Catholic college or university. But here we run into a problem. The theoretical paradigms and institutional structures shaping Catholic colleges and universities today continue to separate theology from social theory and therefore militate against a supernaturalized social theory such as that embodied in the Worker. It is by no means a coincidence, therefore, that these Catholic schools all too often function as production sites of capitalist theory and training centers for capitalist practice. At times, the ethos of these schools is so drenched in late-twentieth-century capitalist culture as to lead one to conclude, in darker moments, that the shepherding being done at these schools is the kind that raises sheep not for the Church, but for the market.54

But resisting capitalism is a problem we face not only in our schools. It is a problem for everyone everywhere, as some Leftist theorists of hegemony began to recognize earlier this century. One of the first such theorists in this country is mentioned in The Long Loneliness, very briefly. He was the brother-in-law of Forster Batterham (Day’s English, anarchist common-law husband), and when Day first met him, he was “writing the first of his strange books.”55 This was Kenneth Burke, the Marxist literary critic who informed the radical left of the thirties that revolution is a cultural as well as an economic struggle, and that (in the words of Frank Lentricchia) “a revolutionary culture must situate itself firmly on the terrain of its capitalist antagonist, must not attempt a dramatic leap beyond capitalism in one explosive, rupturing moment of release, must work its way through capitalism’s language of domination by working cunningly within it, using, appropriating, even speaking through its key mechanisms of repression.”56 If the point provides a helpful corrective to Peter Maurin’s image of dynamite (perhaps the image of termites is more appropriate), it only heightens the urgency of the message of Peter Maurin’s easy essay.

Catholic scholars will have to do more than play a waiting game.57
1Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 169-74. Idem, Loaves and Fishes (New York: Harper & Row), 3-9, 14-16. 
2Day, Long Loneliness, 172.
3Peter Maurin, Easy Essays (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977), 3. In this volume the essay is given a different title: “Blowing the Dynamite.”
4In both passages cited the word used is dynamis, but this word is not often used to refer to evil powers. See Walter Wink, The Powers, vol. 1, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 161-2. 
5For a general understanding of the notion of discourse, see Paul Bove, “Discourse,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 50-65.
6For a brief but helpful summary of this neo-Scholastic understanding of the natural and the supernatural and the corrective to it proffered by Henri de Lubac, see Paul McPartlan, Sacrament of Salvation (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995), 45-60. See also Stephen Duffy, The Graced Horizon: Nature and Grace in Modern Catholic Thought (Collegeville, Minnesota: Michael Glazier, 1992), 50-84; and Fergus Kerr, Immortal Longings (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 159-184. 
7For a general description of this institutional arrangement, see Michael J. Baxter, C.S.C., “In Service to the Nation: A Critical Analysis of the Formation of the Americanist Tradition in Catholic Social Ethics” (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1996), 123-147. 
8Charles Curran, American Catholic Social Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 84-87.
9For a more extensive account of Millar, see Baxter, “In Service to the Nation,” 323-353.
10Murray’s dedication to serious theological concerns, particularly those articulated by the nouvelle theologie, has been convincingly shown in Joseph A. Komonchak, “John Courtney Murray and the Redemption of History: Natural Law and Theology,” in John Courtney Murray and the Growth of Tradition, ed. J. Leon Hooper and Todd David Whitmore (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1996), 60-81. 
11John Courtney Murray, S.J., We Hold These Truths (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), 202-204. 
12Murray, We Hold These Truths, 155.
13Murray, We Hold These Truths, 30, 67, 68.
14Murray, We Hold These Truths, 275ff.
15Murray, We Hold These Truths, 54, 73.
16This summary raises the possibility of developing a philosophy that does make adequate reference to ultimate ends, a philosophy that points beyond itself and thus acknowledges its own insufficiency in providing a full account of society and politics. Such a task clearly goes beyond the purposes of this paper, but it is important at least to acknowledge that the position I am setting forth calls for the developing of precisely this kind of philosophy. 
17For an account of how the rise of the liberal state subverted the authority of the Church by confining it to the private sphere of “religion” (understood in the modern sense), see William T. Cavanaugh, “‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State,” Modern Theology 11 (October 1995): 377-420. 
18Day, Long Loneliness, 171.
19Peter Maurin, Easy Essays (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977), 8-12.
20Maurin, Easy Essays, 37-38.
21As regards John Milbank, I refer to his admittedly crude characterization of the French theological movement, the nouvelle theologie, as “supernaturalizing the natural,” in Theology and Social Theory (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1991), 206-255.
22Dorothy Day, Long Loneliness, 9-12, 10.
23Day, Long Loneliness, 285-286.
24Day, Long Loneliness, 10-11.
25Day, Long Loneliness, 135.
26Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, trans. Rosemary Sheed with an introduction by David Schindler (New York: Crossroad, 1998), 31.
27Day, Long Loneliness, 247.
28Day, Long Loneliness, 256. 
29Day, Long Loneliness, 257.
30Day, Long Loneliness, 258.
31Day, Long Loneliness, 257.
32Michael J. Baxter, C.S.C., Reintroducing Virgil Michel: Towards a Counter-Tradition of Catholic Social Ethics in the United States,” Communio 24 (Fall 1997): 499-528. 
33The clearest presentation of this theology is found in Paul Hanly Furfey, Fire on the Earth (New York: MacMillan, 1936). 
34Day, Long Loneliness, 170.
35Again, this argument is too complex to put forth here, but it may be helpful at least to list some of the more important texts to be included in this genealogy: Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, trans Olive Wyon, with an introduction by H. Richard Niebuhr (New York: The MacMillan, 1931; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago, 1976). H. Richard Niebuhr, “Ernst Troeltsch’s Philosophy of Religion” (Ph.D. diss, Yale University, 1924). Idem, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951). James Gustafson, “The Sectarian Temptation: Reflections on Theology, the Church, and the University,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 40 (1985): 83-94. 
36This position is explicated in Max Weber, “The Profession and Vocation of Politics,” in Weber: Political Writings, ed. Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs and trans. Ronald Speirs, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 309-369, see especially 357-369. My characterization of Weber draws closely on a brief but illuminating summary of Weber in Frederick C. Bauerschmidt, “The Politics of the Little Way: Dorothy Day Reads Therese of Lisieux,” in American Catholic Traditions: Resources for Renewal, ed. Sandra Yocum Mize and William Portier (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1997), 78.
37George Weigel, Tranquillitas Ordinis (New York: Oxford, 1987), 148-173.
38Weigel, Tranquillitas, 152-153.
39Charles Curran, American Catholic Social Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 130-171. For another account of the importance of Furfey in the Catholic Worker Movement, see Mel Piehl, Breaking Bread (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), 126-128. 
40Curran, American Catholic Social Ethics, 166-167.
41Curran, American Catholic Social Ethics, 170. 
42Curran, American Catholic Social Ethics, 169.
43The most frequent target of this critique is Stanley Hauerwas. For a critique of Hauerwas, see James Gustafson, “The Sectarian Temptation,” 83-94; for Hauerwas’ response, see “Introduction,” in Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World, and Living In Between (Durham: Labyrinth Press, 1988), 1-21.
44Day, Long Loneliness, 44-109.
45Day, Long Loneliness, 263-273.
46Randolph Bourne, “The State,” in War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays, 1915-1919, ed. and with an introduction by Carl Resek (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 65-104, see especially 69, 71.
47Bourne, “The State,” 69.
48Bourne, “The State,” 77, 78.
49Bourne, “The State,” 70.
50Randolph S. Bourne, “The War and the Intellectuals,” in War and the Intellectuals, 3-14, 7.
51Bourne, “The State,” 71.
52Ideology can be understood in a multitude of ways, as has been noted by Terry Eagleton in Ideology: An Introduction (London: Verso, 1991), 1-3. Here I am combining several of these possible uses, though not, I hope, in a self-contradictory way. 
53Ludlow’s argument that government need not be confined to the domain of the modern state can be found in Day, Long Loneliness, 268. For an illuminating account of Day’s localist politics, including the influence on Day of Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots, see Robert Coles, Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1987), 89-109, especially 105-107. 
54I have taken and adapted this metaphor from Kenneth Burke, as presented in Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 88.
55Day, Long Loneliness, 114. 
56Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change, p. 24.
57This paper was originally presented at a conference on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker at Marquette University, October 10, 1997.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIX, No. 3, March-April 1999.