The Catholic Worker Movement (CWM) began on May 1, 1933, when journalist Dorothy Day (who had worked for such Marxist papers as The Call, The Liberator, and The Masses), collaborated with Roman Catholic social activist Peter Maurin to produce and distribute a newspaper called The Catholic Worker. The first-issue press-run of this radical publication consisted of 2,500 copies, which Day and a few allies hawked (for a penny per copy) to passersby at a Communist Party May Day rally in New York's Union Square. The circulation of the paper quickly climbed to 150,000, but then fell precipitously during the Spanish Civil War and WWII, when a number of its volunteers and staffers adhered unwaveringly to their Christian pacifist positions and were sent to prison or public-service camps for refusing the military draft. Day would serve as The Catholic Worker's editor until her death in 1980.
In 1933 CWM opened the first of what would become its many volunteer-staffed “houses of hospitality,” where the homeless and hungry could access food, clothing, and shelter. Most often, these places of refuge have been situated in blighted urban areas.
CWM derides capitalism as a “bourgeois” economic system whose underlying “profit motive” and its “prevailing concern for acquisition and material interests” renders it “far from God's justice.” Under capitalism, says the organization, “those in power” constitute “a non-producing class” of exploiters who “systematically rob” every laborer of “that wealth which he produces over and above what is need[ed] for his bare maintenance.”
Impugning employers for devaluing labor as merely “an item in the expense sheet,” CWM contends that capitalism “divides society” by “pitting owners against workers in perpetual conflict over wealth and its control”; by encouraging employers to “live off the sweat of [the workers'] brows”; by creating “an unjust distribution of wealth” and a “widening gap between rich and poor”; and by designating “class, race and sex” as the main factors that “determine personal worth and position.” Further, says CWM, capitalism imposes huge psychological costs by excluding most people “from meaningful work,” causing them to feel “alienated from the products of their labor,” and sowing a “spiritual destitution” which manifests as “madness, promiscuity and violence.”
To combat the pathologies created by capitalism, CWM advocates “a complete rejection of the present social order”; “a withdrawal from the capitalist system so far as each one is able to do so”; and “a non-violent revolution to establish an order more in accord with Christian values.” By such measures, says CWM, people can establish a “new society within the shell of the old”—“a cooperative social order” of “communitarianism” without “extremes of wealth and poverty.”
In pursuit of such a utopia, CWM urges the reorganization of society into a host of “decentralized cooperatives” wherein the “widespread and universal ownership by all men of property” serves as “a stepping stone to a communism that will be in accord with the Christian teaching of detachment from material goods.”
Opposed, on moral principle, to the accumulation of personal wealth, CWM contends that “what anyone possesses beyond basic needs does not belong to him but rather to the poor who are without it.” Thus the organization embraces the doctrine of the “preferential option for the poor,” a concept closely aligned with the tenets of liberation theology.
Emphasizing “the need for disarmament and alternatives to war,” CWM condemns “the deliberate taking of human life for any reason.” By logical extension, the organization endorses all manner of strategies to undermine militarism: refusing to pay taxes; claiming conscientious-objector status in order to avoid conscription; refusing to comply with unjust laws; and participating in nonviolent strikes, boycotts, protests, or vigils. The organization Voices in the Wilderness, founded in 1995, was led almost exclusively by individuals sympathetic to CWM.
Since Dorothy Day's death, CWM has had no central leader; it possesses neither a board of directors, a formal system of governance, an endowment, a payroll, nor a pension plan. Today there are more than 130 Catholic Worker communities in 32 U.S. states and eight foreign countries; each community is autonomous.
CWM continues to publish The Catholic Worker, with a circulation of approximately 90,000, seven times per year. Moreover, the Movement has given rise to such offshoots as the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, the Catholic Peace Fellowship, and Pax Christi USA.
For additional information on CWM, click here.