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Why Are We Called Catholic Worker? On the Origins of the Catholic Worker Movement

Dorothy Day

The Houston Catholic Worker is rejected by some because of its name. Some reject it because of the word “Catholic.” Others because of the word “Worker”. Others say they would never pick up a paper with such a name. The word “Houston” is not a problem: the paper is written for the people of Texas rather than the Catholic Worker houses in other cities. Those who know our work well don’t care what we call our paper as long as we continue our work with the poor and continue to print the paper. Needless to say, we are very saddened when people- even graduates of Catholic Universities – say that we are Communist or socialist, because of the Catholic Worker connection. The Houston Catholic Worker is connected with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement of New York because of wanting to follow and emulate the tradition of the original Catholic Worker and its profound spiritual values.

May Day 1933

On May 1, 1933, in New York City in the midst of the depression, Dorothy Day, a recent convert to Catholicism, and Peter Maurin, a lay theologian, began The Catholic Worker to counter the influence of the atheistic and Com-munistic paper, The Daily Worker. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin wanted to provide a forum for Catholic social teaching and for the encyclicals of the popes, beginning with the Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII in 1891. Since 1891 the church has defended the rights of private property as well as the rights of workers.

Works of Mercy, Man or Marx

Dorothy Day did not believe in the works of Lenin or Marx, but in the works of mercy. The Catholic Worker was not started as a socialist movement, but as a move-ment to bring Christianity to the marketplace. Peter Maurin insisted that the works of mercy are the most direct form of action there is. The works of mercy are feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, ransoming the prisioner, burying the dead. (Matthew 25)

Why Worker?

Those who carry out the works of mercy may well be called “workers.” However Dorothy Day stated in 1952: “The Catholic Worker, as the name implied, was directed to the worker, but we used the word in its broadest sense, meaning those who worked with their hands (to create), or brain, those who did physical, mental, or spiritual work. But we thought primarily of the poor, the disposed, the exploited.” (The Long Loneliness)

St. Joseph the Worker

The Church uses the word “worker” to refer to St. Joseph the Worker for observance on May 1, May Day. The diocese of Galveston-Houston has a parish named in honor of St. Joseph the Worker in Dayton, Texas. Catholic art frequently depicts St. Joseph as a workman and, at times, his Son also. St. Joseph was a patron of the New York Catholic Worker.

Why Catholic?

At the heart of the Catholic Worker movement was Dorothy Day’s and Peter Maurin’s religious belief and the serious practice of it. Those who think that commitment to social change and the service of the poor is incompatible with a deep spiritual life and traditional Christian faith have not studied the Catholic Worker. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin went to daily Mass, studied the Scriptures, set time aside for daily meditation, made long retreats, and read theology and the lives of the saints. To be sure, Dorothy Day will be canonized someday, hopefully along with Peter Maurin.

Faith as a Gift

Dorothy’s commitment to the teaching of orthodox Christianity was not some kind of grudging concession to institutional constraint: it was rather a joyful appropriation of the “precious gift of faith.” In the Catholic Worker we see all the great Christian doctrines, Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection, sacraments, the Mystical Body of Christ – presented clearly and directly, right alongside the ethical and social implications of the Gospels. These central mysteries of the faith took on a vividness and immediacy that made them seem supremely relevant to ordinary life. For example, the birth of a calf at a Catholic Worker farm was a reminder of the Incarnation. Dorothy Day’s ability to be at once completely spiritual and completely down to earth was surely her most extraordinary gift. (Mel Piehl, Cross Currents, Fall, 1984)

Dorothy Day A Kind of Revolutionary?

Dorothy Day was a revolutionary in the tradition of the Gospels, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, and other saints. She was not unrelated to Ghandi, Dom Helder Camara, and Martin Luther King in their quest for non-violent social change. But for her the greatest challenge was, “how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution that has to start with each one of us. When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of the other, to love our brothers and sisters with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we can truly say, “Now I have begun.” (Loaves and Fishes)

Dorothy Day Contemplative

Dorothy Day was an activist, but she was a contemplative activist. She was not of the mold of many of the sixties activists, who have long deserted the marketplace. She was into prayer. Long before the discovery of Eastern mysticism and meditation, touted as a whole new phenomenon, she was steeped in Western mysticism. Dorothy may have known the lotus position, but she knew the positions of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and even lesser Jesuit lights like de Caussade and Lallemont. As our Methodist Catholic Worker Stan Williams says, “To be active with the poor and totally committed to their service, one needs a solid value system like the church.” Those outside the church often have had a difficult time understanding Dorothy Day’s piety, holiness and consistent commitment to the Catholic Church. They respected her work, her noninstitutional presence among the poor, her peace efforts and pacificism, but what did this have to with Catholicism? They wonder: “She was great in spite of the Catholic Church, not on account of it.”

Some Catholics, on the other hand, tended to see the Workers’ efforts in being devout committed church members as either a calculated play for infiltrating radicalism into the church or as a clever strategy for deflecting conservative criticism. Not even many Catholics could understand the intimate connection between the Catholic Worker’s deep roots in the faith and life of the Church and its whole social outlook. They seldom recognized that it was because of the strong commitment to the Christian community that the Catholic Worker was able to speak so clearly both to the Catholic tradition and for it.

Those who knew Dorothy Day say that it is impossible to understand her without understanding her great love for the Church. While Dorothy Day was a committed Catholic, she was at the same time respectful of the beliefs of others and worked with them for social and peaceful change long before ecumenism was popularized by the second Vatican Council.

A true ecumenist, she believed that ecumenism does not mean softening your beliefs, nor abandoning them, or getting others to abandon theirs, but it means deepening your roots in your own tradition and being faithful to them. Focusing on what one has in common, rather than on differences, and on the issues can promote community and a community of interests.


 In researching and studying this article, we have learned much about the meaning of “Catholic” and “Worker” and it has put us very much in touch with our roots. We have seriously considered another name to avoid offending people, but it is hard to be something other than what you are, with this rich tradition behind us and in front of us. A rose by any other name does not smell the same unfortunately. Or rather, fortunately.

Houston Catholic Worker October-December 2016, Vol. XXXV, No. 4  (Reprinted from the May 1986 Houston Catholic Worker)