The Catholic Worker Movement
CW Logo
  Home     Dorothy Day     Peter Maurin     Communities     Research    Help  

Easy Essays
Peter's Biography
Peter's Legacy

Article about Peter's Maurin's legacy

"Peter Maurin: To Bring the Social Order to Christ - Part I"

Marc Ellis

Reprinted with permission from A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker, Patrick G. Coy, Ed., (Temple University Press, Philadelphia: 1988), pp. 15-46.

FOR SOME TIME now, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, along with the Catholic Worker movement they founded, have been thought by many to exemplify the prophetic voice in the twentieth century. To the massive bureaucratic organization of industry and government, they propose a personal, decentralized society. To an urban-acquisitive economy, whether capitalist or secular communist, they propose a village-functional economy. To a secular and rights-oriented mentality, they propose the spiritual as the center of life and obligation to neighbor as its corollary. To a world armed to protect markets and national security, they propose disarmament and the refusal to harm even those who are "enemy." However, the Catholic Worker movement is not without critics. For some, despite respect for the people involved, the movement demonstrates the limitation of any such voice in the modern world. The problems raised are important. Does a small movement, founded in the Depression, emphasizing personalism and the land, hold any hope for the massive social reconstruction necessary in an urban-bureaucrat age? Does a movement that rejects the foundations of the modern world--government, bureaucratic institutions, industry--say anything of consequence to our time? Is a movement that speaks in the language of Roman Catholic faith able to communicate to a religiously pluralistic, even secular, nation and world?

The Catholic Worker's growth in American culture similarly raises important questions about the efficacy and survival of radical spirituality. If America is born of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, and if the West is still being shaped by these movements, what future do prophetic voices and movements have? A discussion of the orienting ideas of the Catholic Worker movement may shed light on these questions.

As COFOUNDERS OF the Catholic Worker movement, both Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day influenced its direction and spirit; but the impetus behind it, and the ideas the movement embodied, came from Maurin. He was a French peasant who emigrated to Canada and then the United States in search of his Christian vocation. His objective had eluded him in France despite his strong Catholic upbringing and his fitful tenure as a Christian Brother during the first decade of this century. Only in the aftermath of World War I and the subsequent world depression did Maurin find clarification of how Christian ideals could be realized in personal and social life. 1

On the surface, Maurin's ideas seem idealistic, even simplistic; yet on another level they are almost prophetic. To an urban-industrial society in the midst of depression Maurin proposed embracing a village economy, where crafts, farming, and a personal way of life could be established. The foundation of this life is a religious affirmation from which flow prayer and communal sharing; it is centered in a simplicity that Maurin called voluntary poverty. Poverty, in Maurin's view, opened one to the call of God and neighbor and made the person and the community dependent on both.

Maurin's vision of community was neither evolutionary nor progressive, and the appetite of modernity in pursuit of power held no allure for him. Instead, Maurin's vision was to live in harmony with others, to share what manual and intellectual labor produced, to be silent and to worship in community. Maurin's sense of commitment was also a dissent. He did not share the hopes of secular radicals and liberals, for they were seeking to increase and distribute the material abundance of industrial life to a humanity freed from the spiritual. The basis of Maurin's commitment, in contrast, was renunciation and sacrifice exemplified in the life and crucifixion of Jesus. In this life of spirit and sacrifice Maurin saw the only possibility of recapturing the integrity of the person and bringing about authentic social reform. 2

Still, to see Maurin simply as a dissenter against modernity is to miss the foundation of his mission and life. To enter into the life and death of Jesus is to affirm a spiritual reality, to become a disciple, and Maurin was, more than anything else, a disciple of Christ. His discipleship was the center from which his social apostolate arose rather than a peripheral attachment to an otherwise developed program of social reform. It formed the basis of his oft-repeated statement that his own word was tradition, not revolution--though, he would hasten to add, tradition made dynamic and faithful to its calling to represent Christ in the world.

For Maurin, the Catholic tradition illumined the darkness of the modem age by providing cultural continuity to the Western world, by critiquing the present, and by forming the basis for a new social order. The Catholic tradition first provided the Western world with a sense of continuity. The problems of modem life could be directly linked to the denial of the role of tradition in providing continuity; the Enlightenment, Maurin often said, was a prime example of such denial. Loss of tradition meant more than simply secularization, for with secularization, economic, military, and political systems were detached from the guidance of the spirit and thus free of the protection afforded the person by the canopy of eternity. For Maurin, tradition held worldly systems at bay, molding them to serve rather than oppress the person.

Tradition also contained the resources needed to critique the present, thus serving to upset the bias of contemporary culture. Modern society stresses competition and profit; the Hebrew prophets and the church fathers spoke for the poor and pronounced judgment on the affluent. The aim of modem life is to find ease and luxury even at the expense of others. Jesus exemplified the meaning of selfless suffering for neighbor as the path to salvation. The lure of modernity is the accumulation and organization of the material world; St. Francis abandoned everything to follow the spirit and to love more profoundly. 3

For Maurin, however, the Catholic tradition offered more than continuity and critique as it provided the resources for personal and societal transformation. Jesus is at the center of this transformation, and to thus believe is to enter a new life of love and service. A person who follows Jesus is intimately involved in the life of a people who have been called to transform self and bid others to enter that transformation. Communities of Christians are formed precisely for these reasons; to praise God, to order personal life, and to reorder the large social life.

Maurin cited two examples from the past to demonstrate the efficacy of Christians gathering in community. The first was that of the early Christians who, in a hostile world, suffered for their beliefs and served neighbor at a personal sacrifice. They took seriously the counsel of Jesus to love and serve neighbor by doing the works of mercy--feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and the prisoner, and instructing the ignorant. As witnesses to truth and commitment, these communities attracted followers and finally triumphed over the surrounding hostile culture. The second example Maurin used was that of the Irish monks who, in the midst of a disintegrating and dying Roman culture, witnessed to a future beyond the chaos of their time. Through the establishment of agrarian and educational communities, they laid the foundations of a new society, medieval Christendom. Thus Maurin envisioned the seeds of change sprouting from below to subvert the dominant culture through witness and perseverance. These examples of societal transformation formed the foundations of Maurin's program to transform the social order: Roundtable discussions in community centers to clarify thought and initiate action; houses of hospitality to carry out works of mercy in service to the needs and as witness to the larger community; finally, farming communes to introduce urban civilization to the simplicity and spirituality of life on the land. 4

Maurin's preoccupation with the social order needs to be placed in perspective. Though he lived his last years as an agitator, Maurin was distinct from many twentieth-century secular social activists. He thought that the social order had a singular mission: to protect and nurture the person's journey toward the mystery of God, thus promoting the possibility of salvation. The social order existed to mirror and express the spiritual dimensions of the person. The trappings of an order built for itself--large-scale industry affluence, and militarism--were to disappear in Maurin's future society.

Maurin's final hope was that the tradition of the Catholic Church, tradition alive and dynamic--would provide the context within which the person might embody this message of salvation. Holding true to the word of Jesus and representing his voice in the world, the church could do nothing less and in effect could do nothing more, for there was nothing else to be done but to preach and embody this message.

Maurin took this understanding of the personal embodiment of the message of salvation so seriously that his last years were formed around it. By 1930, at the age of fifty-three, Maurin gave up everything--home, status, and comfort--to pursue a life of agitation and charity. When he came to New York City to speak on street corners, he came as a poor man and slept in Bowery hotels. Maurin insisted that the practice of poverty be the foundation of the Catholic Worker movement. 5


THE INFLUENCE OF Francis of Assisi in Maurin's life was considerable. The "clarification" Maurin experienced in the 1920s, which saw him change from a teacher of French in Chicago to an itinerant philosopher and handyman in upstate New York, coincided with a worldwide revival of interest in the life of Francis and his own reading of Johannes Jorgensen's Saint Francis of Assisi, G, K. Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi, and a series of papal encyclicals on Francis beginning with Leo XIII's St. Francis and the Third Order. Maurin not only read these works, he reflected on them. in one of his essays, Maurin used Jorgensen's understanding of Francis as a pilgrim, a life that Maurin chose to adopt.

According to Johannes Jorgensen, a Danish convert, living in Assisi:
1. Saint Francis desired
      that men should give up
      superfluous possessions.
2. Saint Francis desired
      that men should work
      with their hands.
3. Saint Francis desired
      that men should offer their services
      as a gift.
4. Saint Francis desired
      that men should ask other people for help
      when work failed them.
5. Saint Francis desired
      that men should live
      as free as birds.
6. Saint Francis desired
      that men should go through life
      giving thanks to God
      for His gifts. 6

Maurin emulated Francis's way of life. When he traveled around the country to spread his word, Maurin often depended on others for hospitality. As much as anything, Maurin's adoption of Franciscan poverty was designed to free him to preach the gospel and stand as a witness to a culture that prized affluence. His emphasis on faith and contemplation as the foundation for rebuilding the church in a time of crisis was basically Franciscan, as was his emphasis on obedience to the Catholic church, a theme he found crucial to Francis's ability to maintain his radicalism while avoiding sectarianism. Above all, Maurin's personalism, his patience with those afflicted, and his sense of joy compared favorably to, and received instruction from, the life of Francis. What he felt Francis "desired" of others, Maurin tried to live. He gave away superfluous goods, worked with his hands, offered his services as a gift, and went through life giving thanks to God.

However, Maurin thought Francis to be more than a personal model. With the papal encyclicals on Francis, Maurin asserted that the mobilization of the Third Order, a lay group devoted to the Franciscan ideals, could contribute significantly to the reconstruction of the social realm. The revitalization of Franciscan piety could occasion a rebirth of the dynamic lay faith for which Francis had hoped, and which through the centuries had been diluted. To this end, Maurin insisted that the evangelical counsels of the gospels were for everybody and that the new society would be built on Franciscan qualities of creed, systematic unselfishness, and gentle personalism. 7

As a modern follower of Francis, Maurin was profoundly at odds with the times in which he lived. While his desire for a new social order was prophetic, the central place of poverty in this new order proved a stumbling block for many. It was one thing to talk about Christians of the first century and the monasteries sacrificing for their faith and community in the practice of poverty; it was quite another to bring the community face to face with the call to be poor in the present. Should poverty be pursued in a time of worldwide depression? Did not the first Christians, the Irish monks, and Francis himself sacrifice so as to make sacrifice unnecessary for future generations? Was not the taking on of poverty placing undue emphasis on suffering?

Though the questions were many, the answers in Maurin's view were clear. One became poor because Jesus gave everything, even his life, to serve humankind. In his preaching Jesus spoke of the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom, and in his pilgrimage had made the poor his own. To become poor was to follow Jesus and thus embody the message of salvation he preached. This embodiment of the message of salvation was a witness to others of the importance of the spiritual, bidding them to follow. The personal and voluntary adoption of a life of poverty was a witness to the community as well and posed the prophetic question of the community's orientation: to the material or the spiritual. By adopting poverty, the community embodied the message of salvation.

For Maurin, personal and community poverty was the road to the spirit and to freedom. If there was suffering within freedom, Jesus had suffered, too. The person was free in giving up superfluous goods because life was ordered to its proper end: prayer and service, not sensuality and egoism. And the community was free because it was no longer consumed with the material. Instead of pursuing profit through competition, the community fulfilled its primary function of encouraging cooperation and nurturing the spirituality of the person.

The freedom and the spirit that came in voluntary poverty was the most radical orientation possible and, when implemented in centuries past, caused significant, sometimes violent attempts to restructure social reality. Like others who had sought to emulate the saint from Assisi, Maurin saw Francis's poverty as eschatological. For to Maurin, Francis's vision of life, when embodied in the person and the community, broke through the constraints of history and institutional forms, radically questioning the lethargy and "giveness" of personal and social life. Francis thus represented the transformation that Maurin sought: a return by the person and the community to a total dependence on God. For Maurin, this included freeing the Catholic church and the Franciscan orders themselves from the bureaucratization that had diluted the radical demands of Jesus. Through Francis, Maurin wanted to move to the beginning and the end: the following of Jesus Christ." 8

To Maurin, fidelity to Christ in the spirit meant fidelity to the body of Christ in the world, and in a world filled with injustice this was hardly easy. Participation in the body of Christ called forth a love of neighbor out of whom radiates the presence of God. To recognize the worth of the person in relation to God is to enter a dilemma: the changing of a social order that hinders the spiritual development of the person becomes a necessity; at the same time, the worth of the person renders violence unacceptable even in the movement toward reform. Incarnation means both reform and nonviolence.

Maurin was hardly alone in living this dilemma of social change and nonviolence; such notable figures as Martin Buber and Mahatma Gandhi also explored these questions within their own traditions. Arrived at independently, the conclusions of all three were similar. The world was moving into darkness; only by charting a radically new direction could the world survive. Paradoxically, this direction came through revival of those traditions the modern world labored to forget, traditions that gave persons their proper due by placing them within eternity. Buber's synagogue and Gandhi's ashram were, like Maurin's church, places of faith where the seeds of personal and societal conversion might be nurtured.

To see Maurin in relation to Buber and Gandhi might be difficult for some, at least at first. Buber was a great Jewish scholar, Gandhi a world-renowned leader of the independence struggle in India. Maurin was a little-known agitator who spent much of his time and energy with the unemployed and dispossessed on the street comers of New York City. But viewed from a different perspective, their commonality is worth noting: Maurin participated with Buber and Gandhi in the revival of the prophetic tradition in the twentieth century, the essential outlines of which include a willingness to address directly and openly the questions of the day, to refuse the political and economic alternatives presented as "realistic," to attempt to recover the personal aspects of social and private life, to serve as a witness to and advocate for the poor and oppressed, and, finally, to move within the political realm while maintaining a religious vision. In more specific terms, Maurin shared with Buber and Gandhi the emphasis on the person, simplicity, decentralism, nonviolence, faith, and the land as the foundations of renewal. 9

Maurin sought to promote change in both society and the human heart through a three-part program that became the foundation of the Catholic Worker movement. First, roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought were specifically designed to move beyond cultural cliches and prejudice by bringing all elements of the community--scholar, middle class, and worker--together. The gathering of people with diverse backgrounds, talents, and perspectives provided the context for arriving at a common understanding of present and future possibilities. Discussions focused on learning the ills of the present, determining how things should be in the ideal, and finally, discerning a path to move the social order from where it was to where it ought to be. A community setting mitigated the divisive class and status distinctions that stymied efforts to change the present.

The second part of Maurin's program was the development of houses of hospitality, an idea he derived from the Christian hospices found among early and medieval Christian communities. In these communities the stranger and the poor, the widow and the orphan, had been served by the more fortunate. The revival of such hospices served a variety of needs. Immediate problems of the Depression years could be answered, such as the need for shelter, clothing, and food for the dispossessed. Members of the middle class who came to the hospice and joined in its atmosphere of service and sacrifice gained insight into the human costs of the present social order because they were no longer isolated from the sufferings of the unemployed and the poor; for them, the "givenness" of the social order was demystified. Finally, hospices served a spiritual function; the more affluent participated in their own salvation by fulfilling Christ's command to love and serve neighbor.

The development of what Maurin called "agronomic universities," or farming communes, was the third part of his program, and perhaps the most controversial. These were centers located in the country to train urban dwellers in farming and crafts in order to pave the way for a general return to the land and a village way of life. Typically, there were several levels to Maurin's proposal. Farming communes could fulfill the immediate needs of people in the Depression years by providing free fuel and food, which, while scarce in the city, were abundant in the country. A return to the land could mitigate the technological and cyclical unemployment Maurin thought inherent in an industrial economy, contributing to a more stable and just social order. Moreover, subsistence farming and crafts centered the forces of production once again on need rather than profit, and so provided a basis for recovering the value of cooperation and the spiritual dimension of human existence. 10

Maurin evolved a program that continually raised the most radical questions about personal and corporate life. By binding the fortunate to the poor in the service of hospitality, Maurin profoundly challenged personal and social conscience. By deeming it worthwhile, even salvific, to care personally for those whom society had abandoned, Maurin challenged every abstract and institutional way of dealing with the afflicted. However, to care for others at a personal sacrifice was not only to challenge social and economic systems, it was also to challenge perceptions of life and progress at the heart of contemporary personal and corporate existence.

This context of suffering and service fostered freedom from both cynicism and naive optimism in the roundtable discussions. Hospices catalyzed personal and social conscience so that the powers of the day, which in other contexts seemed overwhelming, fell to insignificance. If the poor were no longer abstractions, the self was no longer immune to suffering, either its own or that of others. This suffering brought both person and society closer to the source of their origin in God.

Maurin took the question of salvation so seriously that he thought personal and social life had to be oriented around it. To give up what was superfluous and to live personal and community life centered on the spiritual was to follow the way of salvation as preached by Jesus. The question was, What form of life nurtured this message and what diverted attention from it. For Maurin, contemporary life, with its urban-industrial base, organizational propensities, and search for affluence, hindered rather than nurtured humankind's quest for salvation. Maurin's strong belief in human freedom to respond to the message of salvation allowed him to think that, once the message was posed, personal and community life could and would revolve around it.11

A COMPLEMENTARITY OF backgrounds and gifts made the meeting of Maurin and Dorothy Day providential. If Maurin, a French peasant-intellectual wandering in America, had come to conclusions about the primacy of the spiritual in the world and the need for a social reconstruction to nurture the spiritual, Day, a former socialist who had experienced the new freedoms in the urban centers of America, had wandered and come to conclusions as well: the integrity of the person, she had concluded, was bound up in spiritual affirmation. Maurin, through inheritance and study, was imbued with the history and spirituality of the Catholic tradition; Day, because of her journalistic talents, could facilitate the dissemination of his ideas through print and, because of her strength of character, translate his understandings into the concrete by founding the Catholic Worker movement. She also added an urban orientation and concern for the industrial worker that Maurin lacked. The prophetic quality of their encounter can be measured by the depth of their spiritual calling: their readiness to abandon self; their ability to stand in opposition to the present as they affirmed a future; their will to persevere in success and failure; their inclusion of others in the search for personal and social salvation. 12

The Catholic Worker movement, along with its newspaper, grew out of this encounter. Over its next fifty years the movement remained steadfast in its positions: the spirit is at the center of radical activity and community; a personal, agrarian way of life provides meaningful labor and a sense of communal sharing that nurtures the interior dimensions of the person and the social order; a subsistence and cooperative order provides the context for true freedom as opposed to the illusory freedom promised by a consumer-oriented, competitive order. The program designed to move toward the ideal has not changed either: discussions for the clarification of thought; hospices to serve the needs and witness to the larger community; farming communes to instruct urban dwellers on the efficacy and spirituality of life lived in community on the land. However, members of the Catholic Worker do not simply repeat these positions; they live them. To be for the poor and the outcast, they become poor. To testify to the obligations of faith, they serve others voluntarily and at a personal sacrifice in hospices around the country To affirm the mystical body, they refuse violence to protect nations or self. To begin the movement back to the land , they form agrarian communities. Like the founders, members combine theory and practice in daily works of justice and mercy; that is the key to the Worker's prophetic witness.

The optimism of a newborn venture, and the singularity of its views among American Catholics in the 1930s, made the initial impact of the movement far greater than its numbers. By the mid- 1930s, circulation of the Catholic Worker passed the 100,000 mark and was climbing, influencing young and old alike who were interested in a dynamic Catholicism. Orate Fratres (later Worship) greeted the appearance of the Worker with satisfaction. "It appears a veritable godsend in our time of social disintegration and unrest." What impressed Orate Fratres particularly was the Christian foundation and the "thoroughly Catholic spirit that breathes through its pages." John Toomey, a Jesuit, wrote an enthusiastic article for America, noting that "the response to the paper has been simply tremendous. It seemed from the beginning to voice the unspoken thoughts of millions." Priests were ordering bundles of the newspaper for their churches and sisters were buying it for their schools. Farmers, miners, and textile workers were reading it. A priest in Hamburg, Germany, was distributing one hundred copies every month to American and English seamen he found on the Hamburg docks, and lay people in Australia were distributing it there. Toomey concluded that month by month the Catholic Worker, the "little Catholic monitor, is pouring Encyclical fire into red and reactionary merrimacs."13

Maurin himself was the subject of several articles. J. G. Brunini, writing in Commonweal, termed Maurin an apostle to the radicals. Brunini described his technique, which had now become familiar to those gathered in Union Square:

Maurin does not employ a soap-box. From audiences he questions socialist or communist speakers and defends the position of the Catholic Church. Or he will initiate a discussion with one or two or three bystanders, gradually collect a crowd and address it although ostensibly talking only to his original listeners.

The presence of communists at Maurin's talks had the value of making Catholic workers who otherwise would remain silent "decidedly articulate." In Brunini's view, this had the effect of strengthening their faith. He concluded that Maurin had initiated discussion for the clarification of thought that had been advocated by the recent popes. 14

John LaFarge wrote affectionately though critically of Maurin in an article in America. Describing him as an elderly, peaceful man who wanted to apply ethics to the complicated question of wealth, LaFarge thought Maurin's language perfectly familiar five centuries ago but confusing in the present:

It is as when you cannot ring a bell without getting a jarring resonance from a cracked window pane.... In a conference, let us say, on social surveys, or some other finely graduated thesis, when discussion begins to languish, Peter stands up---not very high and conspicuously inconspicuous--and without further preludes tells the audience that "in the first centuries of Christianity the poor were fed, clothed and sheltered at a personal sacrifice."15

Maurin would continue:

And because the poor
were fed, clothed, and sheltered 
at a personal sacrifice,  
the pagans used to say  
about the Christians  
"See how they love each other."  
In our own day  
the poor are no longer  
fed, clothed, and sheltered  
at a personal sacrifice  
but at the expense  
of the taxpayers.  
And because the poor  
are no longer  
fed, clothed and sheltered  
the pagans say about the Christians  
"See how they pass the buck."

It was particularly important to LaFarge that Maurin lived the life of simplicity and poverty that he preached. Yet, while recognizing Maurin's voice as prophetic, LaFarge also raised piercing questions. What would Maurin do if he had a wife and six children to support? Could the ideals he proposed be seriously entertained as a general solution to the world's economic malaise? Maurin replied that these ideals were something to strive toward, and, furthermore, that the movement toward ideals could be accomplished only through discussion and clarification. Instead of providing blueprints, Maurin hoped to raise questions that could not be ignored. If his vocation was to live the single life, his farming communes, especially, were designed for families as well. Though these questions remained problematic to LaFarge, they did not lessen his respect for Maurin and he promised to pray for the success of Maurin's still theoretical farming communes. 17

Others were praying for the success of Maurin's venture. In November 1934, Jacques Maritain, the French Thomistic philosopher, visited the Worker and had several discussions with Maurin. Upon leaving he wrote to Maurin:

I wish I could have said all that was in my heart--never was I more vexed by inability to speak fluent English. It seemed as if I had found again in the Catholic Worker a little of the atmosphere of Peguy's office in the Rue de la Sorborme. And so much good will, such courage, such generosity! It is thus, with meagre means and great love, that the future for which we long is prepared.18

Maurin's essays were also beginning to reach a wider audience. In January and July 1934, Catholic Mind reprinted several of his essays dealing with the role of Catholic Action and the call for social reconstruction. At the same time Maurin's essays began to appear in pamphlet form printed by the Catholic Worker Press. These were penny and two-penny pamphlets ranging from two to thirty pages in length and included essays on hospitality, usury, and the works of mercy. The latter pamphlets were briefly noted in Commonweal. 19

Another avenue for Maurin's essays was the development of the Daily Catholic Worker, an extension of the monthly publication. Instead of a printed newspaper eight to twelve pages in length, this was a mimeographed sheet distributed daily at the rate of a thousand a day. The typical daily carried provocative statements on the news of the day and concluded with one of Maurin's essays, though usually in shortened form. This experiment for agitation proposed by Maurin himself lasted little more than a month. Yet despite the brevity of its duration the paper gained attention, with America citing it as the first Catholic daily in New York City and important for those interested in the laborer's plight and the claims of social justice.20

Maurin's "Easy Essays" were becoming the trademark of the Catholic Worker movement. Designed to communicate important ideas in an understandable manner, they often formed word plays that were memorable and easy to recite. In their essence, though, these essays contained energy and urgency and were not without a critical edge toward the social order and the church. Perhaps Maurin's most notable essay was that published in the first edition of the Catholic Worker in May 1933:

Writing about the Catholic Church, a radical writer says: "Rome will have to do more than to play a waiting game; she will have to use some of the dynamic inherent in her message." To blow the dynamite of a message is the only way to make the message dynamic. If the Catholic Church is not today the dominant social, dynamic force, it is because Catholic scholars have failed to blow the dynamite of the Church. Catholic scholars have taken the dynamite of the Church, have wrapped it up in nice phraseology, placed it in an hermetic container; and sat on the lid. It is about time to blow the lid off so the Catholic Church may again become the dominant social dynamic force.21

For Maurin, both the clergy and the laity were to blame for the failure to blow the dynamite of the church. The laity told the clergy to mind their own business, particularly in economic and political matters and to retreat to an ever-diminishing sphere of doctrine and morals. By assenting to this retreat, the clergy divorced itself from the people, neglecting to acquaint itself with and be among the masses. Because it was separated from the people, the clergy lost touch with the social order and failed to provide a sociology that was grounded in theology, one that would join faith and social reform. This discouraged Maurin, for it meant that the clergy was not capable of or interested in a technique of leadership and thus was unable to provide leadership for Catholic Action. Because of this failure of leadership people were leaving the church and becoming interested in Marxism and fascism. 22

Maurin's evolving message also indicated his disappointment with the failure of certain papal encyclicals, such as Forty Years After, which were more organizational in their approach and did not uphold the ideal of personal responsibility voiced by the encyclicals on St. Francis. It was as though "a sad and weary father said to his children who warred continually on one another: you will not follow the ideal so I will present to you another program-organization." During meetings at the Catholic Worker School, when speakers would affirm papal support for the New Deal, Maurin would rise and say, "The great danger of the present day is fascism and the tendency of all organization is to lead to fascism."23

Maurin's criticism was always balanced with pursuit of constructive proposals: blowing the dynamite had practical consequences and demanded a path which others could follow. Maurin's "Open Letter to the Bishops of the United States" published in the October 1933 issue of the Catholic Worker, points to this balance.

The Duty of Hospitality

1. People who are in need 
    and are not afraid to beg 
    give to people not in need 
    the occasion to do good 
    for goodness'sake.
2. Modern society calls the beggar 
    bum and panhandler 
    and gives him the bum's rush. 
    But the Greeks used to say 
    that people in need
    are the ambassadors of the gods.
3. Although you may be called 
    bums and panhandlers 
    you are in fact
    the Ambassadors of God.
4. As God's Ambassadors 
    you should be given food, 
    clothing and shelter 
    by those who are able to give it.
5. Mahometan teachers tell us 
    that God commands hospitality, 
    and hospitality is still practiced 
    in Mahometan countries.
6. But the duty of hospitality 
    is neither taught nor practiced 
    in Christian countries.

The Municipal Lodgings

That is why you who are in need 
are not invited to spend the night 
in the homes of the rich. 
There are guest rooms today 
in the homes of the rich 
but they are not for those who need them. 
And they are not for those who need them 
because those who need them 
are no longer considered 
as the Ambassadors of God. 
So people no longer consider 
hospitality to the poor 
as a personal duty. 
And it does not disturb them a bit 
to send them to the city, 
where they are given the 
hospitality of the "Muni" 
at the expense of the taxpayer. 
But the hospitality that the 
"Muni" gives to the down and out 
is no hospitality 
because what comes from the 
taxpayer's pocketbook 
does not come from his heart.

Back to Hospitality

The Catholic unemployed 
should not be sent to the "Muni." 
The Catholic unemployed 
should be given hospitality 
in Catholic Houses of Hospitality. 
Catholic Houses of Hospitality 
are known in Europe 
under the name of hospices. 
There have been hospices in Europe 
since the time of Constantine. 
Hospices are free guest houses; 
hotels are paying guest houses. 
And paying guest houses or hotels 
are as plentiful 
as free guest houses or hospices 
are scarce. 
So hospitality, like everything else, 
has been commercialized. 
So hospitality, like everything else, 
must now be idealized.

Houses of Hospitality

We need Houses of Hospitality 
to give to the rich 
the opportunity to serve the poor. 
We need Houses of Hospitality 
to bring the Bishops to the people 
and the people to the Bishops. 
We need Houses of Hospitality 
to bring back to institutions 
the technique of institutions. 
We need Houses of Hospitality 
to show what idealism looks like 
when it is practiced. 
We need Houses of Hospitality 
to bring social justice 
through Catholic Action 
exercised in Catholic institutions .

As with many of Maurin's letters, the bishops responded in neither word nor deed. Nonetheless Maurin continued to critique passivity and injustice and propose paths of peace and justice. He remained optimistic about the possibility of response, despite evidence to the contrary. in a simple but deeply moving essay Maurin outlined his understanding of the essence of what is human.

1. To give and not to take
   that is what makes man human.
2. To serve and not to rule
   that is what makes man human.
3. To help and not to crush
   that is what makes man human.
4. To nourish and not to devour
   that is what makes man human.
5. And if need be
   to die and not to live
   that is what makes man human.
6. Ideals and not deals
   that is what makes man human.
7. Creed and not greed
   that is what makes man human. 25

Yet, in the final analysis, it was Maurin's peculiar propensity to translate his vision into concrete activity that defined both the uniqueness and limitation of his advocacy Maurin was always on the move, always experimenting and always risking failure. His presence in Harlem in 1934 again exemplifies the simplicity and complexity of his witness.

By 1934 the fate of blacks in America had become central in Maurin's thought. This was not a sudden consideration. He had roomed with a black in his years of wandering and had been in contact with blacks through Father LaFarge, and the Catholic Worker had run many articles decrying racial discrimination. Moreover, the Depression hit blacks particularly hard, and the Scottsboro Case, in which nine Alabama blacks had been convicted of rape, was then prominent. All this may have enhanced Maurin's sense of the urgency of the racial issue. In the final analysis, though, it was his sense of personal responsibility that sent him to Harlem.

In the May 1934 issue of the Catholic Worker Maurin first pronounced his concern for blacks, in a rephrasing of the bishops' annual statement of 1934. As stated by the bishops:

There is a very grave and subtle danger of infection from Communism. Special efforts are being made to win Negroes who are the victims of injustice. The Communists have as their objective a world war on God and the complete destruction of all supernatural and even natural religion.

Maurin rephrased the statement:

The Negroes are beginning to find out  
that wage-slavery  
is no improvement 
on chattel-slavery. The Communists say  
that Christianity is a failure  
for the very good reason  
that Christianity has not been tried.26

With the donation of a store by Paul Daley, a Catholic attorney, Maurin made his home in Harlem, at 2070 Seventh Avenue just below 124th Street. Both the Daily Catholic Worker of May 22 and the June issue of the Catholic Worker announced the opening of the Harlem storefront with enthusiasm. It was to be not only a place where interested blacks could ask questions about Catholicism, but also a center for maintaining an active program of meetings emphasizing social justice and racial equality. Since the communist idea of a godless state had been concealed from the blacks, it was the object of the Harlem branch to show blacks that the church had a definite social program and that there was interest in all workers, black and white. 27

The Harlem branch was anything but formal. A laundry sign hung over the door and the floor, though clean, was bare of any covering; someone needed to take a day to hammer down nails that had held down former layers of linoleum. There was no furniture until, some days after the opening, a neighbor donated a bed and covers. Soon to follow were donations of tables and chairs, pots and pans, a tool chest, and some boards for shelves. In the beginning there was no money for electricity or even candles, and Maurin received evening guests in the dark. One such guest was Father LaFarge, who remembered his visit because all he could see in the dark was Maurin's forefinger motioning in the air as he was making his points. Often, because of lack of funds, Maurin begged for food or money. Later a statue of a black Madonna that had hung in the Fifteenth Street house was delivered and hung in the Harlem storefront.

By the middle of September it was reported to the donor of the storefront that Maurin was living comfortably, holding meetings, and carrying on an educational campaign that had gained credibility through sharing the people's poverty. It was also reported that books, magazines, and blackboards lined the wall with Catholic teaching, and that Maurin was already taking in men off the street and sheltering them.

By October the Harlem program was in full swing. In the evenings there were discussions, with the leadership alternating among laity, priest, and black speakers. Maurin spoke on Saturday night. The afternoons featured art, catechetics, and story hours. Emile LaVallee, a professor of French, had joined the group in Harlem, and both he and Maurin conducted French classes as well.

Maurin discoursed on a variety of subjects in Harlem, but on the "Negro issue" his point was singular. If anthropologists divided the world into four kinds of people, with blacks being a distinct group, they added at the same time that there was nothing in science to prove one race superior to another race. Theologians made the same point: that Christ died for the redemption of all races. Blacks were created by the same God and enjoyed the same beatific vision. For Maurin the conclusion was obvious: all races were included in the mystical body of Christ. If there was a "Negro problem" in America, the solution was not the emulation of values whites had held out for blacks in slavery or capitalism but the development of black culture. The way for blacks to solve the Negro problem was to behave the way St. Augustine, a black man, wanted everyone to behave: as believers looking after each other. For Maurin, it was the power of example.

The white people 
are in a mess 
and the Negro people 
will be in a mess as long as they try 
to keep up 
with white people. 
When the Negro people 
will have found the way 
out of their mess 
by evolving a technique 
in harmony 
with the ideology 
of Saint Augustine 
the white people will no longer 
look down 
on Negro people 
but will look up 
to Negro people. 
When the white people 
will look up 
to the Negro people 
they will imitate 
the Negro people. 
The power of Negro people 
over white people 
will then be the power of example. 28

By the middle of October, initial enthusiasm was blunted by the difficulties of being white and Catholic in black and Protestant surroundings. Writing to a correspondent, Dorothy Day expressed dismay. "I wish you would drop in to see Peter when you have time. It is pretty hard sledding up there. There is great opposition to the work and it is hard to get along." The next day Day wrote to another correspondent in the same vein. "His school is not going well at all and only a few people show up. The place will just have to continue as an information and literature center and for the meeting of friendly groups." Day noted, however, one successful aspect of the venture: the arts and crafts classes conducted by Ade Bethune and Julia Porcelli were well received and thriving.

Maurin's venture in Harlem could not be faulted for lack of imagination. To spread his message one night, Maurin went on as an amateur performer at the famous Apollo Theater. He was announced as a comedian, and when he began reciting his essays, catcalls filled the theater. Maurin was escorted off the stage. Later he recalled that he really "got the hook that night." Maurin also conceived the idea of having "poster walks" in which a group of young men, each carrying a sign with an idea from one of his essays, would walk through the streets of Harlem. They would walk in a straight line, becoming something of a moving billboard. A group of students agreed to participate in the march, but marchers were abruptly dispersed by a barrage of insults and garbage hurled at them by members of the Harlem community. This was not the only such incident of violence for the Workers; one night Maurin was accosted by two thugs in Harlem who jumped him and gave him a severe beating. When he showed up at the office, his face was a mass of bruises.

Violence of yet greater magnitude was witnessed by people at the Harlem storefront. In March 1935, a riot broke out in Harlem, spurred by the Depression and rumors that a black child had been beaten to death by the police. One night, as the evening classes at the Harlem center drew to a close, the shattering of glass was heard. The door was locked and all sat in the rear of the house. At midnight the disturbance reached a climax as window after window in neighborhood houses fell to the sidewalk, and groups of angry blacks surrounded the storefront. just as the destruction of the storefront seemed imminent, a man in the crowd shouted that these white people should be left alone, that they were "all right." The center was spared and the next day friends of the Worker, black and white, came to make sure all were safe.

"God's miracle," as it was described by a fellow Worker in Harlem, strengthened Maurin's determination but did not enhance black acceptance of the Worker's positions. Six months later , despite distribution of leaflets proclaiming the church's stand against war and fascism of any kind, there was still a marked reluctance to receive the paper. On several occasions the tabloid was torn up. Finally the Harlem center closed when the owner, a member of the National Guard, found out about the developing pacifist stand in the Worker movement and asked Maurin and his cohorts to leave.

Even before the riot in Harlem, many doubted the purpose of a Catholic Worker branch there. Some were skeptical of the usefulness of the work; others thought it wasted effort: "Teaching a few small children a few small things, they reasoned, would not remove the stench of race discrimination; handing out a few free copies of the Catholic Worker would not, they held, convince an oppressed people of the efficacy of Catholic Worker philosophy." 29 These understandings could not be easily dismissed. A willingness to go to the poorest, the least, was often an invitation to failure, and Maurin's Harlem work did precisely that--it failed.

Continue with Part II


Note: The Catholic Worker is cited here as CW

1. See Marc H. Ellis, Peter Maurin: Prophet in the Twentieth Century (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 21-44.

2. Peter Maurin, "The Spirit for the Masses," CW, October 1933: 2.

3. Peter Maurin, "Easy Essays," CW, May 1933: 1, 8.

4. Peter Maurin, "Maurin's Program," CW, June-July 1933: 4.

5. For the years preceding the founding of the Catholic Worker movement, see Ellis, Maurin, 34-38.

6. Peter Maurin, "The Case for Utopia," CW, April 1934: 3. The encyclicals concerning St. Francis that Maurin read and quoted include those promulgated by Popes Leo XIII, Pius X, and Pius XI. They were compiled under the title Rome Hath Spoken (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1932).

7. See Stanley Vishnewski, "Days of Action: The Story of the Catholic Worker Movement," vol. 1, unpublished manuscript, ca. 1966, 55-56, Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection, Stanley Vishnewski Papers, Memorial Library Archives, Marquette University, Milwaukee (hereafter cited as "CW Papers"), W-12.3, box 1. Also see Peter Maurin, "Go-Getters vs. GoGivers," CW August 1936, 4.

8. Peter Maurin, "The Case for Utopia," CW April 1, 1934: 3.

9. For an interesting comparison see Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Boston: Beacon Hill, 1949); and Mahatma Gandhi, All Men are Brothers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958).

10. Peter Maurin, "Easy Essays," CW, June-July 1933: 1, 3; "To the Bishops of the U.S.," October 1933: 1; "Back to Christ! -Back to the Land!" November 1935: 1, 8.

11. Though I have emphasized the Franciscan quality of Maurin's thought, it is important to mention other intellectual influences as well. The intellectuals that Maurin read came from a variety of schools of thought: the English distributists who rejected machine technology and urban civilization for an agrarian, handicraft society; a revived Thomistic school of philosophy that sought to reassert the efficacy of metaphysics; the French personalist school, which attempted to reestablish the centrality of personhood in the individual and the social realms. Many of the intellectuals Maurin read and quoted were well known and included G. K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Eric Gill, Jacques Maritain, and Emmanuel Mounier. Others, like Nicholas Berdyaev and Vincent McNabb, were less well known. Though the threads that ran through these writings were diverse, the basic conviction emerged that the revival of the spiritual dimension in the person and the culture could reverse the decline of civilization initiated with the triumph of secularism in the eighteenth century. For most, the dignity of the person could be affirmed only when this dimension was recognized. A humanism without God was to set forces into motion that would take humankind into a new dark age, where all would be possible and permissible and the person would count for nothing. Accordingly, these thinkers feared the power of modem life seen in industrialism, urbanism, and statism. Because of these fears, Edward Shapiro has labeled this group "decentralist intellectuals," and others, with less insight, have termed them reactionaries. Neither label, however, does justice to the motivation of their thought or their intellectual capabilities. Instead, these intellectuals might be better understood as dissenters against the confusion and violence of a world emerging into modernty. In the light of our century's subsequent experience they should be seen as protesting against a slaughter that was just beginning.

12. For a description of the meeting of Maurin and Day as well as the background that Day brought to their meeting, see William D. Miller, A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement (New York: Liveright, 1973), and his more recent biography Dorothy Day: A Biography (New York: Harper & Row, 1982).

13. "The Church and Social Problems, Orate Fratres 9 (April 1934): 227; John Toomey, S.J., "Radicals of the Right," America 52 (February 2, 19351: 399.

14. J. G. Brunini, "Catholic Paper vs. Communism," Commonweal 19 (November 24, 1933): 96-98. Maurin's discussions with communists were unusual in their day and controversial. He was attacked by conservative Catholics and communists alike. For the attack by Catholics see the Brooklyn Tablet, August 24, 1935: 6, 7. For the attack by communists see Daily Worker, August 18, 1934: 2.

15. John LaFarge, S.J., "Peter the Agitator Quotes the Prophets of Israel," America 55 (August 1, 1936): 395.

16. Peter Maurin, "Feeding the Poor," CW, May 1936: 4.

17. LaFarge, "Peter the Agitator," 395.

18. But if Maritain left with such an impression of the Worker movement, he also wanted to clarify a discussion he had had with Maurin, and stated: "I'm of the impression that I didn't make myself quite clear on the subject of the Pluralist State, when I replied to your explanation of it. I want to make it quite clear that such a state with its 'Federation' of diverse juridicial structures, would be not merely a simple collection, but would have a real moral unity of orientation. It would deserve the name of Christian because it would tend in a positive fashion, across these diverse structures toward an integral Christian ideal. Instead of being polarized by a materialistic conception of the world and of life, like the capitalist and the communist state, it would be polarized through the knowledge of the spiritual dignity of the human person and on the love which is due him" (Maritain to Maurin, November 11, 1934, CW Papers, W10, box 11.

19. Peter Maurin, "Big Shots and Little Shots," Catholic Mind 32 (July 8, 1934): 260; "Action: Political or Catholic?" Catholic Mind 32 (July 22, 1934): 278. Numerous pamphlets were published by the Catholic Worker Press beginning in 1934; the one-penny pamphlets were mimeographed and the two-penny pamphlets were printed. See CW Papers, W- 1, box 1. Also see "Catholic Worker Moves to New House of Hospitality on Charles Street," Commonweal 21 (March 1935): 627.

20. The Daily Catholic Worker began on May land apparently ended on May 25. For the announcement of its beginning, see "Mimeograph Machines Urged by P. Maurin for Every Parish," CW, May 1934: 6.

21. Peter Maurin, "Easy Essays," CW, May 1933: 1, 8.

22. Peter Maurin, "For Catholic Action," CW, June 1, 1934: 5.

23. Dorothy Day, "Days with an End," CW, April 1, 1934: 3.

24. Peter Maurin, "To the Bishops of the United States," CW, October 1933: 1.

25. Peter Maurin, "Personalist Essays," in "Monthly Symposium on Personalist Democracy," January 1938: 5.6, CW Papers, W-10, box 1.

26. Peter Maurin, "The Bishops Message: Quotations and Comments," C W, May 1934: 2.

27. For continuing coverage of Maurin's Harlem experiment, see CW, May-October, 1934.

28. Peter Maurin, "The Race Problem," CW, May 1938: 8.

29. Herman Hergenhan, "Harlem Riot," CW, April 1935: 1. For the published and unpublished sources relating to the Harlem House, see Ellis, Peter Maurin, 182, 183 n. 20-30.

Home | Easy Essays | Peter's Biography | Peter's Legacy