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Called to Be Saints: John Hugo, the Catholic Worker, and a Theology of Radical Christianity

Benjamin T. Peters. Called to Be Saints: John Hugo, the Catholic Worker, and a Theology of Radical Christianity. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2016, 586 p.

Reviewed by Mark and Louise Zwick

In this landmark study of Fr. John Hugo and the retreat that had a profound influence on Dorothy Day, Benjamin Peters argues that Hugo’s theology not only was formative for Dorothy’s  spirituality, but is quite relevant to contemporary discussions of Catholic engagement with American society and culture.

At a time when many clerics and ecclesiastics taught that lay people’s role was simply to go to Mass and avoid sin, the retreat criticized the idea of minimalist Christianity. Hugo retrieved from the Gospel and the great spiritual writers that all Christians are called to a life of holiness, the life of holiness presented in the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5, 6, and 7 of St. Matthew’s Gospel). A re-reading of those chapters in the Bible will help to understand not only the retreat, but Dorothy’s spirituality and the way she lived out her faith in engaging American society and culture, often in radical ways.

Peters points out that while Hugo was not the originator of the retreat, he was its most prominent and theologically articulate proponent. It was started by Onesimus Lacouture, SJ, and is based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which guide the retreatant into the ultimate purpose of life and the created world and to living a more holy life, seeking and finding God’s will.

The Appendix of 322 pages, the second half of this book, is a photocopy of Dorothy’s handwritten notes from one of the earliest retreats, with facing pages with the typewritten text. Peters points out that these notes are the earliest record of the retreat. Hugo did not write his first book about the retreat until two years later.

The main themes of the retreat appear in Dorothy’s notes, including the Folly of the Cross, detachment, understanding the good things in this world as samples of the beauty and goodness of God (not to be confused as substitutes for Him), and the concept of going beyond a good but “merely natural life” to the higher way of Jesus, the life of a saint, guiding one’s life and actions through supernatural motives.

Peters argues that those who depict Dorothy’s journey as simply one from sinner to saint, as one New York Times article put it, have missed the spirituality of the retreat and its Christian framework for her life and her radical engagement with institutions and issues. Like the retreat theology, she emphasized choosing the better over the good.

Readers of Dorothy’s The Long Loneliness may not have observed what Peters points out, that the entire structure of her book is based on the retreat:

“For in her autobiography, Day clearly described giving up the ‘natural happiness’ she found in her ‘two great loves’—her life with Forster and with her friends in the Old Left—in terms of choosing the better over the good. Day did not understand herself as simply renouncing something sinful, instead she saw herself as also giving up a life that was good and joy-filled in order to pursue what she regarded as something much greater—a supernatural life of holiness.” (222-223)

Dorothy enthusiastically endorsed the retreat as soon as she first made it. However, not everyone agreed with her. There was controversy over the retreat both within the and without the CW movement.

The emphasis on detachment in order to concentrate on God disturbed some retreatants, especially when it was spelled out in practical terms, such as giving up smoking. As Mark Zwick put it in The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins):

“Never before in the history of the Church had orthodoxy required smoking and having a car radio.”

It was considered radical  but it was Ignatian radicalism, not, as some have described it, Jansenism.

What apparently caused some of the controversy around the retreat on a theological level was the retrieval of a particular reading of the Spiritual Exercises that both Fr. Lacouture and Fr. Hugo emphasized – what Pope Francis has recently positively spoken of as the Jesuit mystical tradition of Lallemant, Surin, and De Caussade (Abandonment to Divine Providence).

It was also related to theological discussions and arguments about the relationship between nature and grace. In The Long Loneliness Dorothy related criticism of the retreat to the controversy over nature and grace around the work of Henri de Lubac, SJ, in France as well as that of Fr. Hugo (204).

Fr. John J. Hugo
Marquette University Archives

Peters also places Fr. Hugo’s teachings and writings in the context of significant currents of ressourcement theology in Europe during the decades before the Second Vatican Council when theologians such as De Lubac and Blondel were strongly criticized. De Lubac, later considered a great theologian, was silenced and forbidden to teach for years. Hugo was assigned as a prison chaplain and forbidden to use the diocesan retreat houses for his retreat. He was also restored to positions of respect after the Council.

Hugo criticized neo-Thomists for separating the implications of grace from the daily life of the Christian, arguing against their two-layered, dualist approach. He advocated rather the integrated theology of St. Thomas Aquinas himself.   Hugo recognized nature as good and yet as always insufficient.

However, influential neo-Thomists at the Ecclesiastical Review criticized Hugo’s theology in their articles and succeeded in undermining the retreat.

Theology of War and Peace

Hugo’s theology influenced Dorothy’s choice not to participate in some U.S. political, social, and economic institutions. For example, participation in preparations for war would not help her to live a holy life, which was the whole goal of the Ignatian retreat.

Hugo agreed with Dorothy’s stand against war and conscription but told her that she needed a deeper theology regarding it. She invited him to write a series of articles in The Catholic Worker on Christian participation in war. He did so, and they were reprinted as separate booklets several times.

Hugo developed a theology of pacifism in the pages of The Catholic Worker. In those lengthy articles written during World War II when there was tremendous support in the United States for the war, Hugo applied the theology of the retreat to the right of Catholics to conscientious objection and non-participation in war. He retrieved support for the position from the Church tradition and the Fathers of the Church. He called for using the weapons of the spirit – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in fighting what he called the real war – “history’s movement toward a spiritless objectivization and violence.” (23-24) Peters cites here William Miller in A Harsh and Dreadful Love.

Miller, Dorothy’s earliest biographer, described “Hugo as The Catholic Worker’s ‘principal theological reference’ for its positions on war and military conscription.” (23)

Peters argues that “the fact that Day has been referred to as the ‘Mother of American Catholic Pacifism’ also points to Hugo’s significance for American Catholicism.” (24)

Nature and Grace Again

Peters says, “The relevance of Hugo’s theology today is that it continues to offer a corrective to much of the contemporary discussion of Catholic engagement American society and culture.” (205)

With a newer group of theologians, the controversies are again related to nature and grace.

Peters contends that theologians like the Himes brothers, Richard Gaillardetz, Charles Curran, and David O’Brien who describe their work as public theology and criticize Dorothy Day, Michael Baxter, Michael Budde, William Cavanaugh, and even David Schindler, as “sectarian,” “absolutist,” and “perfeccionist,” actually return to a two-tiered idea of nature and grace, in a different form.

Discussions of nature and grace may seem esoteric to the non-theologian, but there are enormous differences in the living out of the faith in these different approaches.

Peters quotes Fr. Hugo’s niece, Rosemary Hugo Fielding on the practical implications of the retreat for U.S. Catholics then and now:

“She recounted that her uncle often argued that Catholics should resist the temptation to divide themselves according to American political categories of ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ and instead think in terms of being either ‘superficial’ or ‘radical.”

“The Retreat took arms against the reductionism that is forced upon Roman Catholicism by Americanism, the Procrustean bed on which American theologies, liberal and conservative, repeatedly dismember the Church.” (208)

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, June-September 2016.