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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 158-159
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Dreadful Conversions: The Making of a Catholic Socialist. By John C. Cort. (New York: Fordham University Press. 2003. Pp. xvi, 355. $30.00.)
We are lucky to have this memoir from John Cort. Born in 1913, Cort has been fighting the good fight for a very long time. After converting to Catholicism while at Harvard (!), he joined the Catholic Worker movement and played an important role in the founding of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists(ACTU). He then was managing editor of The Labor Leader—during whichtime he also covered labor for Commonweal—and served as business agent for the Boston Newspaper Guild during the 1950's. Having "burned out" there, Cort went to work for the Peace Corps in the Philippines and afterwardsran anti-poverty programs in Massachusetts. Through all this, he faced endless challenges to his refusal to disconnect his social activism and Catholicism.
Cort's "second conversion," as he puts it, was to socialism. As the danger of communism decreased and (apparently) influenced by the turmoil of the 1960's, he increasingly came to see the "convergence" of socialism and Catholicism. After joining Michael Harrington's Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in the 1970's, Cort helped found its Religion and Socialism Committee and served as long-time editor of its newsletter, Religious Socialism. One result of all this was the writing of Christian Socialism (1988).
This, of course, is not all there has been to Cort's life. He spent about five and a half years—intermittently from 1938 to 1950—flat on his back with tuberculosis. In 1946 he married Helen Haye, whom he had met while doing ACTU work; they had ten children. We do not see nearly as much of her or their children as we would like, but there are glimpses enough to have some idea of Cort's personal life. Of particular note here is his defense of "patriarchy" that revises his earlier thinking about gender and the family (presented in the reprinting in the text of an article he published in 1981 about a Cort family meeting in which a spirited debate about the politics of housework occurred).
This reviewer's wish that Cort would have revealed more of his person and his personal life here is connected to a certain aridity that pervades some sections of the book. Even though his discussions often contribute to an understanding of what it felt like to be in a certain place at a certain time, this is not the first place to go for that. One place where we do get that sense is when he [End Page 158] reprints long excerpts from his letters to Helen during his stay in sanatoriums in the 1940's. One place where we do not get this is in his discussion of ACTU in the 1940's. I very much would have liked to have been taken inside ACTU, to have learned much more about its personalities and its internal politics.
That said, Dreadful Conversions is a must-read for anyone interested in twentieth-century social Catholicism. From the cover of the book—which features Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and a young Cort—to its end—a spirited bibliographic essay on the ACTU—it is a delight; it is pure John Cort. He has lived a wonderful, passionate, and faith-filled life.
Lake Forest College