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The Catholic Worker, Communism and the Communist Party

From: American Catholic Studies
Volume 125, Number 1, Spring 2014
pp. 87-101 | 10.1353/acs.2014.0014

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The cause of Dorothy Day for canonization was unanimously approved by the U.S. bishops at their annual meeting November, 2012. Yet there remain critics who charge that Dorothy Day was and remained a Communist all her life, and that the Catholic Worker movement she and Peter Maurin founded in 1933 is and always has been Marxist. Anyone who knew her will attest that Dorothy Day was first of all a woman of prayer. A daily communicant, she went to confession weekly, spent at least an hour in private prayer daily and was deeply devoted to the Catholic Church. She was a loyal and obedient, if sometimes angry, daughter of the church. What angered her was hierarchs and church agencies not living up to the teachings of the church. But Dorothy Day refused to join the red-baiters after World War II, recognizing their agenda as racist, anti-labor, and anti-Semitic. Nor would she add to the hysteria she saw as preparation for war with the Soviet Union, nuclear war. The ultra-right has never forgiven her.

The Catholic Worker movement publishes a tabloid style newspaper seven times a year, called The Catholic Worker. The paper was first offered to the public on May Day in 1933, in Union Square, New York City, during a Communist Party rally. The name The Catholic Worker (CW) was deliberately chosen to counter the Communist Party newspaper, The Daily Worker. That point was not lost on the Communists and their supporters who thronged Union Square that day. Some grabbed copies of the CW from the hands of the few Catholic Workers who dared their rage and threw them into the gutters or trash bins. Their attitudes would change in time. The eightieth anniversary issue of the CW, published in May 2013, has excerpts of that first issue and samples from the next eight decades. One can easily see why Communists would take offense at the CW with its front page article criticizing the Communist Party for pretending to be in the lead of the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. If they read the second page editorial, they would have seen that the CW was (and is) published to demonstrate that the Catholic Church has a wealth of social teaching to transform society; that one need not be an atheist to be a radical or a revolutionary, a nonviolent revolutionary. Subsequent issues of the paper would flesh out a program "seeking to build a new society within the shell of the old, a society in which it will be easier to be good, a society based upon a philosophy so old it looks like new, the gentle personalism of traditional Catholicism." Dorothy Day, co-founder with Peter Maurin of the movement and the publisher of the paper, knew from experience how the Communists would take this. She was, as she once wrote, a Communist herself at one time.

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Union Square, 1940

Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries

In fact, Dorothy Day was never a member of the Communist Party. What she meant was that she worked, for a time, for an organization controlled by the Communist Party. It was common usage to identify as a Communist if one were in substantial agreement with the Communist Party program or worked for a Party front organization. Dorothy Day would never have been able to submit to Communist Party discipline. She was a card-carrying member of the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, the Wobblies, and she was proud of it. But she was well aware of the larger Left, democratic socialism, Communism, the Communist Party and Trotskyism. Dorothy's first job, at age nineteen, was as a reporter for The Call, a socialist daily newspaper in New York City. She interviewed Leon Trotsky just before Lenin called him back to Russia to take over the Red Army in 1917. Within a year she was on the staff of The Masses, an influential radical cultural-political review. All the significant personalities of the Left and of the post war New York literary revival passed by her desk, and most of them met...

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