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  • The Catholic Worker after Dorothy. Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation
  • Margaret R. Pfeil (bio)
The Catholic Worker after Dorothy. Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation. By Dan McKanan. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2008. 236 pp. $19.95 (paperback)

In a clear, engaging style, McKanan takes up the formidable task of assessing the contours of “the Catholic Worker movement after Dorothy.” In reality, his project encompasses much more than the nearly three decades following Day’s death in 1980. The first part devotes a chapter to each of four generations of Workers, proceeding from Dorothy’s first encounter with Peter Maurin through the movement’s ebb and flow during World War II and its aftermath, to its revitalization in the 1960’s, and finally to those who have pitched their tents with the growing number of houses of hospitality and Catholic Worker farms around the world since 1980. Part II offers a thematic treatment of “Rules, Family, and the Church” followed by a synthetic conclusion focusing on the works of mercy. McKanan writes with sympathetic admiration of the Catholic Worker, bringing to bear the interpretive advantage of one looking in from the outside, while also encountering some of the limitations inherent in the project of providing an ordered account in sweeping strokes of a self-proclaimed anarchist movement. [End Page 120]

Referring to Mt. 25:31–46, McKanan argues convincingly for more nuance regarding the liberal/radical distinction, finding some fertile common ground in the practice of the works of mercy (219). His treatment, though, would benefit from a deeper exploration of the Catholic Worker’s theology of radicalism in four aspects. First, McKanan appreciates the personalist practice of the works of mercy as an enduring commitment of the Catholic Worker, perceptively noticing, for example, Dorothy’s prioritization of the needs of people over any desire to preserve the movement (4). He aptly notes her attribution to St. Jerome of “the idea that ‘every home should have a Christ’s room’” (134), but he does not draw out the radical implications of such a practice: there might be no need for Catholic Worker houses or large-scale public relief efforts if every household were to offer this sort of personalist hospitality.

Secondly, Dorothy’s propensity to flesh out Catholic Worker personalism through appeals to Scripture and the practices of the early Church reflected a fundamentally sacramental view of the world. McKanan recalls the centrality of spiritual practice for Dorothy, including her status as a Benedictine oblate (14), her daily reception of the Eucharist, and the significance of regular retreats in nurturing her commitment to Thérèse of Lisieux’s “little way of love” (47). But, he does not quite capture Dorothy’s sacramental approach to the works of mercy as her free response to God’s love. For example, he suggests that Dorothy expected one “to commune daily in order to be the house manager” of a Catholic Worker community (137). However, Dorothy actually made a point of reversing that order of influence, emphasizing that she attended Mass daily not to help the work of hospitality but rather because all the day’s work culminates “in the climax of the Mass, that act of love—that moment of union with God” (cf. The Catholic Worker (June 1956), 2).

Both personalism and sacramentality, thirdly, inform the Catholic Worker movement’s articulation of “Christian anarchy.” McKanan notes that Dorothy drew “simultaneously from Catholic and anarchist sources” (130), but it would be more accurate to say that her radicalism, including her understanding of anarchism, sprang primarily from the ground of Christian tradition. Even though she was conversant with both authors, it is not surprising that she invoked St. Jerome rather than Kropotkin to argue for hospitality as a radical practice, a personal responsibility to care for a neighbor in need that ought not to fall by default to state intervention.

McKanan’s tendency to attribute the Worker’s radicalism to secular rather than religious roots may explain his assessment of the Syracuse Unity Kitchen Community’s expression of kinship with Anabaptist practice as an ill-fitting match, given Peter Maurin’s enthusiastic embrace...


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pp. 120-122
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