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The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins by Mark and Louise Zwick – Book Reviews

Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins by Mark and Louise Zwick Paulist Press, 2005; 367 pages

Reviewed by Mike Wisniewski

“The Catholic Worker movement provides a perspective for living out in a practical way a radical following of Jesus.” This statement by the authors, Mark and Louise Zwick, provides an accurate assessment of what those of us in the movement believe and to which we have dedicated ourselves.

Mark and Louise Zwick are long-time contributors within the Catholic Worker movement. Twenty-five years ago, they founded Casa Juan Diego Catholic Worker House in Houston, which includes numerous programs that serve the needy in their area…. They also operate a home for refugee men, a women’s center, and long-term housing for mothers and their children. Casa Juan Diego is a well-known and trustworthy stop for immigrants and refugees en route to another destination where family members or friends await their arrival. For others, it’s the first welcomed lodging in an unfamiliar, and often unfriendly, country. The Zwicks also offer food distribution, religious education, and parenting classes, as well as medical, dental, and eye clinics. Their dedication to the movement and to the marginated, society’s unwanted, abused, and homeless, is irrefutable.

The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins offers a perspective unlike other material available about the movement and its co-founders. The Zwicks are one of the most orthodox within the movement, which is perceptible throughout their book. They concentrate on the most fundamental aspects of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin’s background, hence the movement’s orthodox founda-tion and early course. To employ their words from the Introduction: “Some of the positions taken by Dorothy during her lifetime that have been considered radical are now well known. Less well known are the philosophical and theo-logical roots that were the basis for these positions.” This viewpoint becomes the heart of the Zwicks’ work.

They take the reader on a journey from Dorothy and Peter’s early life prior to their providential and prophetic meeting on December 8, 1932, which established the Catholic Worker movement; they then continue into the movement’s history highlighting profound events, like the famous and controversial “Retreat” facilitated by Fr. Onesimus Lacouture, SJ. They also include prophetic people who they believe most inspired Dorothy and Peter, which include Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques and Raissa Maritain, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, among others.

But the one person who the Zwicks highlight that most helped me to better understand the roots of the movement is religious and social philosopher, Nicholas Berdyaev, who emphasized that Christianity does not so much depend on the miraculous, but rather on the creative, even bold, activity of Christians in the world, in union with God’s grace. Berdyaev wrote: “In every moral act, an act of love, compassion, sacrifice, begins the end of this world in which reign hatred, cruelty, and avarice. In every creative act begins the end of this world in which reign necessity, inertia, and limitation and arises a new world, the ‘other world,’”

Moreover, the Zwicks point out that, “In response to critics who contend that religion, especially organized religion, makes a person unfree, that the church interferes with freedom, Berdyaev, Maurin, and Day argued that in Christianity there is a deeper freedom, a freedom beyond the dictates of society or the state.”

Because I personally have not read every book and article written by or about Dorothy, Peter, and the movement they co-founded, my knowledge of everything there is to know about our founders and the early part of the movement is somewhat limited.

The Zwicks’ book aided in filling in gaps of information I was lacking, particularly in relation to those who most influenced Dorothy and Peter prior to and early in the movement’s history. for this reason, I found their book of value. It also is worth noting that their style of writing makes this book an easy read and comprehensible. In conclusion, I believe that because of their dedication to and longevity within the movement, their book deserves recognition. They offer the reader not only words, but their very selves.

Reprinted with permission from the December 2006 issue of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.


The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins by Mark and Louise Zwick. Paulist Press 2005

Reviewed by Sr. Brigid O’Shea Merriman, O.S.F.., Lourdes College. Sr. Merriman’s book, Searching for Christ: the Spirituality of Dorothy Day , published by the University of Notre Dame Press, was the fruit of her doctoral dissertation.

This well-crafted work lives up to the promise of its title. Both authors write from an advantageous position, for as co-founders of the Houston Catholic Worker and the Houston Catholic Worker newspaper, they write from within the movement as well as from their research. Zwick and Zwick build upon previous studies and offer a fresh perspective rather than a great deal of new information.

Peter Maurin is given a fine treatment throughout the book. The authors acknowledge Maurin’s influence on Dorothy day, particularly in terms of his grounding n Catholic tradition, including its social teaching, and the contribution of the French personalists Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier. Nor is Dorothy Day’s role minimized. Her advocacy for others is aptly underscored, whether by providing food, shelter, and clothing, retreats for the laity, intellectual stimulation, a life close to the land, or as witness for peace.

The Zwicks’ first chapter provides a fine entrée for the book. Written clearly, it provides short yet substantial introductions to Day and Maurin as well as to the Catholic Worker movement. Readers unfamiliar with the material profit from having a good introduction and, through it, an invitation to read further. Most likely, experienced readers will enjoy a review of the materials.

Three chapters—five, six, and fifteen—are particularly good. Chapter five, on the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, recounts his critique of the bourgeois spirit, which threatened to undermine Christian principles of belief and action. Rather, Berdyaev’s understanding of true freedom was faith-based on the paschal mystery of Christ. The Russian’s influence upon Day and Maurin was considerable, though no single philosopher or social movement alone guided them. Chapter six summarizes the several connections between Christian personalist philosophy and the early Catholic Worker move-ment. The authors rightly credit Emmanuel Mounier as the dominant force in the Christian personalist move-ment during his lifetime. Introduced to Mounier by Maurin, Dorothy Day applied the former’s emphasis on human dignity and responsibility in this world while on pilgrimage toward the next. Chapter fifteen, the third of these remarkable chapters, emphasizes Day’s role in retrieving and defending the pacifist tradition. In a well organized chapter, the Zwicks substantiate their claims with elegant ease. They observe that, especially from 1933 on, Day persistently lived and taught “the active nonviolence of love” (p. 253). An absolute pacifist, she spoke out against violence in any form, from obliteration bombing in World War II to the use of napalm in Vietnam.

Conversely, the chapter on Jacques and Raissa Maritain suffers from a lack of focus. However, it is redeemed by a magnificent last chapter on the Catholic Worker’s legacy in a troubled world. The authors rightly note the movement’s Gospel radicalism and the integration of spiritual and social life that it offers. They also demonstrate well that Day and Maurin have modeled an unflagging commitment to transform the world, one step at a time.

Reprinted from The Catholic Historical Review with permission of The Catholic University of America Press. Washington, DC.,

More than a Chronicle of Sources

The book’s title does not fully describe its scope; though organized into chapters that focus on elements that Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day drew upon in shaping their movement, it is more than a chronicle of sources. The Zwicks also focus on the ways in which Peter and Dorothy put this body of thought into action. In other words, this work is as much about characterizing the process of the Catholic Worker project, a process encompassing both roots and manifestations, as about detailing the roots themselves.

Reviewed by Michael Latsch in the Duluth, Minnesota, CW paper: Loaves and Fishes


Reading and Experience

There are many fine books on the Catholic Worker movement, but this one stands out because it is born of both wide reading and lived experience.

From Commonweal , reviewed by Lawrence Cunningham:


A Dangerous Book

“The book clearly demonstrates how the Catholic Worker movement is more than just soup kitchens and houses of hospitality: it demands an integration of the Gospel, the lives of the saints, the liturgy, and the richness of the Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition. This is a dangerous book to read. It may shake the comfortable foundations of one’s complacency. I know it has done so for me.”

Reviewed by John E. McCormick in Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal


To Live the Gospel

“This fascinating and detailed work will be meaningful to readers interested in American history, social justice, religion and public life. It will also appeal to Catholics wishing to live the Gospel with lives of action, contemplation, and prayer. ”

From the Diocesan paper of Juneau: The Inside Passage


Liberation from Consumerism

“The Catholic Worker Movement contains a concise biography of Day and her Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin. The book also explores the deep roots and the distinct approach of the Catholic Worker, especially the philosophy of personalism….

Freedom, to Catholic Workers, is the power to do good for others. That’s an idea that could really liberate those young adults who are mired in the frustration of consumerism and apathy on the job.”

From Initiatives In Support of Christians In the World (National Center for the Laity):


“No one who is interested in the history of the Church in the twentieth century or in the development of Catholic social thought will find this book without interest. It sheds much light on subject not well-known to most Catholics, yet a subject at the heart of the church’s social apostolate.”

Reviewed by Thomas Storck in The Chesterton Review

“What Mark and Louise Zwick have done in this volume ‘back to the sources,’ is very like what Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day did in their time. Then, Peter said in his most famous Easy Essay, that the scholars had taken the dynamite of the Christian message and wrapped it up in fine phraseology, put it in a box and sat on the lid. Then, Peter and Dorothy were taking the best thinking of the time and making it accessible to ordinary people. Two generations and an Ecumenical Council later, too many scholars are still sitting on the lid. This is a unique and an invaluable resource, weaving the strands of thought that make the Catholic Worker synthesis . We read with growing excitement. Young people may find here what they are seeking. It comes out of practice, a daily immersion in the realities of life shared with workers and the poor, out of extensive and careful reading of the sources, and out of a deep immersion in the spiritual life of prayer and sacramental worship. It comes out of the heart, the heart of faithful Catholic Workers and the heart of the Church.”

Monica and Tom Cornell, Peter Maurin Farm


“Read this at your own risk. If you are a believer in the Gospels, longing to have your faith re-enkindled and challenged, The Catholic Worker Movement will stir you, sustain you and change you. If you have a comfortable allegiance with the money and power ethic of a capitalist cult, it will either transform your life or anger you. This book, charged with the zeal and faith of our greatest saints, will accompany me on my next retreat. Give it as a gift to your young. It will open the great narrative of the Gospels embodied in the Catholic Worker Movement, so often neglected by theologians, bishops, media experts and those who have assumed the role of speaking for Catholicism.”

John Kavanaugh, S.J., author of Who Count as Persons: Human Identity and the Ethics of Killing, directs the Ethics Across the Curriculum Program at Saint Louis University.


I can think of no book which explores with such thoroughness and sensitivity the major intellectual influences on the Catholic Worker founders, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Had it not been for the writings of Dostoevsky, Berdyaev, Emmanuel Mounier and Virgil Michel, it is an open question whether there would be a Catholic Worker movement. Certainly it would be very different. Mark and Louise Zwick show that the Catholic Worker is much more than a network of houses of hospitality and of witness against the cruelties of war. From its early days, the Catholic Worker has been a haven for liturgical renewal, theological dialogue and social analysis that continues to challenge anyone seeking to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Jim Forest, Catholic Worker, Author, and Co-Founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship


“At long last we have between covers, all the riches of the Houston Catholic Worker paper. How blessed we are, and have been for years, by your lives and works. All success to the Origins in a dark time, contemptuous of life and love.”

Daniel Berrigan, SJ, Poet, Prophet, and Witness


Finally! A truly comprehensive, historical presentation of the Catholic Worker movement that not only renders the facts, but above all, challenges us to engage the rich and radical spirituality of this amazing movement. The guidance and perspective of Louise and Mark Zwick, both in this text and in their own lived experience of the movement, proclaim the truth that the Catholic Worker movement is alive and well in the Third Millennium. Joining the communion of saints, so richly brought to life in this book, we can confidently say, ¡sí se puede!

– – María Ruiz Scaperlanda, author of The Journey: a Guide for the Modern Pilgrim; The Seeker’s Guide to MaryEdith Stein: St. Teresa Benedicta of the CrossTheir Faith Has Touched Us: the Legacies of Three Young Oklahoma City Bombing Victims.


“They are known to history as writers, activists, holy people, but Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin were great readers first of all. The Catholic Worker is the fruit of their reading, and Mark and Louise Zwick here show themselves to be astute readers of the written work in which the movement is grounded.”

-Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage


“How should the Church engage the world — primarily by gospel influence on public policy or primarily by person to person witness that enfleshes the gospel? Mark and Louise Zwick answer this question with an inspired retrieval of the spiritual and intellectual sources for a Catholic radicalist alternative to “public theology.” Their book is a spiritual treasure that will be an invaluable addition to courses on Catholic social teaching.”

William L. Portier, Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology, University of Dayton


“Genuinely Catholic radicals fall through the cracks nowadays. Their politics can fall to the left of mainstream liberals, and their view of the Church is embarrassingly premodern. In such a milieu the message of the Catholic Worker Movement is easily manipulated but seldom heeded. The Zwicks, on the other hand, have set the record straight. Whether you revere or detest Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, reading this book will make you rethink your assumptions about the movement they started, the Church, and the very idea of Christian social action in the world today.”

Peter Casarella, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, School of Theology and Religious Studies, The Catholic University of America


“The Catholic Worker Movement by Mark and Louise Zwick is luminous, like the reality whose origins their book describes. With all its human limits, the Catholic Worker is filled with the light of Christ. It is a light that shines through the coming together of its founders, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, too unlikely a match to have been made anywhere but in heaven. It is a light that shines through their vocational wedding from their diverse sources, and from the Source of their sources.
What the Zwicks have done is simple and huge. With a knowledge that almost seems to match the daily work they do, they have given us the foundations of the Catholic Worker. They enable us to see the profound thinking of the saints, philosophers, theologians, popes, novelists, priests, and workers who most influenced Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. The Zwicks’ scholarship is grounded, as the movement is, by an emphasis on the living presence of Christ in the poor.
That integrated vision of thought and love in action in so many different examplars, is, in the end, simply a variation on Paul’s theme of the mystical body of Christ. As the Zwicks show, the Catholic Worker is a way we can follow into the heart of that body — the way of the cross.
Because of what this book describes and what its authors exemplify, The Catholic Worker Movement is alive with the light of Christ.”

Jim Douglass, Catholic Worker and author


Dorothy Day spoke of editors, early in her career as a journalist, who urged her to stick to personal stories and leave serious intellectual issues to “greater minds.” Day is still treated this way, as a saintly exemplar who was too simplistic to fully address social issues. In this book, the Zwicks correct this image by displaying the depth and breadth of Christian social thought that stands behind Day, Peter Maurin, and the Catholic Worker movement. Here is a wealth of resources for Christian attempts to bring the Gospel directly to bear on the economic and social problems of our time. This book is based not simply in sound library research but in the Zwicks’ own attempts to be both workers and scholars. This book should encourage others not simply to think deeper, but to practice a Christian social order.

William T. Cavanaugh, Associate Professor of Theology, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota


“The Zwicks recuperate the philosophical and theological roots of the Catholic Worker movement’s founders, and, in so doing, pay us a great service. The book is an inspiring and illuminating guide into the richly Catholic life of faith in which the movement originated and continues to have its deepest meaning.”

David Schindler, Dean and Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology, John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Editor, Communio (North American edition)


Mark and Louise Zwick are the Founders of the Houston Catholic Worker, Casa Juan Diego, and Founders and Editors of the Houston Catholic Worker newspaper.


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