Dorothy Day in 1916

Work: The Dorothy day revolution

Ninety years have passed since the birth of the Catholic Worker Movement in New York. We spoke to Giulia Galeotti about the most significant experience of social Catholicism in the United States and its founders.
Ivo Paiusco

Ninety years ago, on May 1, 1933, in Union Square (New York), the first issue of theCatholic Worker magazine was circulated at the traditional workers' rally and sold for one cent. The founders were Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. With the periodical came the eponymous movement, which became the most significant experience of social Catholicism in the United States and made a strong contribution to deepening the social consciousness of Catholics on work, service to the poor and social change in the Christian sense. We discussed this with Giulia Galeotti, journalist and head of the cultural section of L'Osservatore Romano and author of the book Siamo una rivoluzione! Vita di Dorothy Day [We Are a Revolution! Life of Dorothy Day].

The goal of the Catholic Worker is to bring about a more just society through people who choose voluntary poverty and practice works of mercy. Maurin, to whom we owe the conceptual foundations of the magazine, starts from the observation that society and the business and industrial world have become estranged from Christianity. His goal was to overcome this separation and reconcile life with faith. How does the theme of work fit into this?
Work – understood as the individual's gift and service to the community, whose goal is not gain but Christian fulfillment – is central to Maurin's discourse. However, the reference to work in the name of the Catholic Worker is due to Day, yet another demonstration of how the friendship between the two, so different and so at odds on virtually everything, has borne immense fruit. He proposed the Catholic Radical (radical is one who goes to the root of social and personal problems), but she was not convinced. In his view, in fact, the name should have referred to the reader to whom the paper was addressed, rather than to the attitude of its editors. For the Catholic Worker is the newspaper of those who do not have jobs: the poor, the have-nots, and the exploited. The title was a manifesto, and it alone disturbed many. On first hearing it, many mistakenly associated it with the communist Daily Worker; others found it too Catholic, others too little. What certainly baffled both proponents of capitalism and communists was the idea, strongly rooted in Scripture, that we must earn our living by the sweat of our own brow, not that of others. And that any surplus should be shared with those in need: the secret of Christian work lies here.

According to Maurin, people need proper thinking to effect change: hence the slogan "cult, culture and cultivation." After all, "culture, charity and mission" are three fundamental aspects of Christian life according to Fr. Giussani. Can we say that these are also three cornerstones of the Catholic Worker's thought to the extent that leaving even one of them out makes it impossible to live the Christian experience wholly ?
Yes, otherwise the table would not stand upright. When he went to meet Day, what Maurin had in mind is a program of action to bring about a peaceful personalist, communitarian and green revolution articulated in the three "c's". By cult he meant the fundamental beliefs that bind a society together, culture as the manifestation of these fundamental beliefs, and cultivation is the development of local economic activity supported by the sound cultivation of the land, not for profit but for subsistence. Maurin in fact did not like political revolutions. What he advocated was a revolution of the person that was articulated in a newspaper capable of reaching the man in the street by introducing him to the social teachings of the Church. He hoped for bishops to open houses of hospitality for the needy for the practice of works of mercy, carried out person to person, as opposed to state bureaucratic procedures; agricultural communities to support the unemployed so that everyone, from intellectuals to workers, could return to the land: this is the "green revolution," as he called the agrarian movement, decades before the expression became fashionable. Maurin (who cited social encyclicals very often, especially Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, "the Pope of the workers") argued that the world is in a terrible mess, but the crisis would be avoidable if people accepted the simple truth of the incarnation: God came to earth to show human beings how they should live. For him, poverty, social conflict and war should be traced back to the fact that we have brought the eternal out of history. So what he wanted to do was to reintegrate the eternal into human experience. Maurin, who had absolute faith not only in God but also in man, felt the tremendous importance of this life, the dignity of the worker, the dignity of labor, man as "co-creator."

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According to the Catholic Worker, work is a response to the problem of alienation because it offers the person the possibility to support their family while being free. In the capitalist and consumer society, workers are forced into jobs that do not contribute to the common welfare. This conception of work may seem anachronistic, suitable only for a minority today. What is the most current contribution of the Catholic Worker to the Christian committed to work?
Many people find it strange that Maurin was so concerned about aspects such as business, economics, labor, capital, maternity of women workers. And he was because he was convinced that these should be vital questions for the Church, in a vision that would perfectly complement Day's. Because for the Catholic Worker, defending the unemployed and exploited workers is to defend peace and love; to live daily work well is to realize peace and love day after day, a vision as strange ninety years ago as it is today. Day gave many examples of how working men and women are continually betrayed by the state, by ideologies, by the church. And, I would add, by people of supposed good will: do you not think this betrayal continues even today in our civil society? In the 1940s, the prayer of the workers of the Association of Catholic trade unionists began like this, "Lord Jesus, carpenter of Nazareth, you are a worker as I am." How much have we lost of these words? If it is the work that engulfs the person, and not the person that gives meaning to the work, perhaps we have not really understood anything about the carpenter from Nazareth.