Glad You Asked: What is a Catholic Worker?

On this episode of the podcast, Renée Roden talks about the history of the movement, and what it means to be a Catholic Worker today.

As co-founder of both the Catholic Worker newspaper and the movement of the same name, Dorothy Day is probably the most widely-known social justice Catholic in the modern American church. Even if you haven’t read Day’s writing, you’ve probably seen some of her more popular quotes reminding Catholics that living the gospel has a socio-political component. You may have read something from the newspaper she helped found, or even visited a Catholic Worker farm. 

But what does it mean to be a Catholic Worker? What’s the nature and structure of the movement, and what does a person have to do, if they want to join up? And does the institutional Catholic Church have any jurisdiction over the movement, the newspaper, or the Catholic Worker communities?

On this episode of the podcast, Renée Roden talks about the history of the movement, and what it means to be a Catholic Worker today. Roden is a journalist and Catholic Worker based in Pennsylvania, and a frequent contributor to U.S. Catholic

You can learn more about this topic, and read some of Roden’s writing, in these links.

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic.

Emily: And I’m Emily Sanna, the managing editor of U.S. Catholic. If you’re at all familiar with social justice Catholicism, you probably know something about activist and journalist Dorothy Day.

Rebecca: And you probably know a bit about the Catholic Worker movement she co-founded, along with Peter Maurin. You may have read something from the Catholic Worker newspaper, or even been to a Catholic Worker farm. 

Emily: But for a lot of people, the concept of the “Catholic Worker” is a little amorphous. What are the goals and principles of the movement? Is it something anyone can join? Do people have to make promises or sign contracts or pay dues? And what’s the relationship between the Catholic Worker movement and the institutional church? 

Rebecca: Our guest on today’s episode is going to talk to us about the Catholic Worker movement, and what it means to be a Catholic Worker.  Renée Roden is a Catholic Worker based in Pennsylvania, a journalist, and a frequent contributor to U.S. Catholic

Emily: We’re so glad you could join us on the podcast.

Renée Roden: Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Rebecca: Can you start by giving us a little background on Dorothy Day and how she and Peter Maurin came to found the Catholic Worker movement?

Renée: Yeah, how much time do I have? A little background. So Dorothy Day was born in 1897. And she was always a spiritual seeker. She came from a basic American Episcopalian Protestant family. She was born in Brooklyn, but moved around the country to San Francisco and Chicago. 

She writes in her different autobiographies about her early life, she’s always drawn to God. Like she was drawn to faith. She was drawn to religion, to the sort of mysticism of that and even the ritual of that. And also she was drawn to justice. She writes about witnessing her mother and other women feeding people who were homeless after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. She writes about getting involved, you know, reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, getting involved with communist organizing. So she had a very strong passion for justice. And she converted to Catholicism right around the time when she had her daughter, when she was in her late 20s, I believe. I think she was 27 or 28. 

And she kind of was like, all right, I’m Catholic now, but how do I live out this faith? And how do I live out this call to serve the worker and the poor and to create a society that’s based on justice and not on depriving the poor of the food that they’re owed, right? So she was Catholic for about five years before she found an answer to this question. So when she was covering a march on Washington during the Depression in 1932, there was a farmers’ conference and there was also a communist-led workers march. And she writes in her autobiography and several autobiographies about watching this march and seeing the workers attacked by police and being sprayed water on, and she just recalled, “This is where Christ would be, right?” Christ would be with these working men and women, probably mostly working men, who were there. But Christ is among them, these are Christ’s poor, why is the church not with them? 

So then she went to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, for Mass. And she prayed for a way to bring her faith and her passion for justice together. And she says in From Union Square to Rome, which was the first autobiography she wrote, that she prayed this prayer and it was so essential because the next one or two days later, she met Peter Maurin, who was this French peasant philosopher. The title he loved most was one Dorothy and the Worker gave him, which was “master agitator.” So someone who read a lot of French philosophy and was very engaged in the political discussions in France that were really wrestling for the same question she had: How do we have a society based on the dignity of each person that’s based on fraternity and equality, that’s based on our unity, our belonging to one another? That’s also based on a just economic system? 

So he was very involved in these conversations. He was very well-read in philosophy, theology and history. And he had gotten Dorothy Day’s name from the editor at Commonweal, George Shuster, the managing editor. And Peter had been going to lots of different people looking for someone who could help him write a newspaper for lay Catholics and the working poor and trying to help spread this message of this sort of like third way, this way of using Catholic social teaching, the encyclicals that popes had just started writing, that had started becoming available because printing was a lot easier now than it had been 200 years ago. So these messages about how to take the gospel and renew the social order were catching fire. And Peter wanted to create a newspaper that would sort of help propagate these ideas.

And George Shuster at Commonweal said, you need to go talk to Dorothy Day, this journalist. You need to go talk to her. And so Peter Maurin called. She was out of town in D.C. But when she came back, he came back. And she describes his ideas in The Long Loneliness as being ideas that would dominate the rest of her life. So she heard in that moment, this answer to the prayer. She’s like, if I hadn’t prayed this prayer, I would never have listened to Peter Maurin and written something. But I never would have said, this is for me. This newspaper he’s telling me to start is the one that I, this is what I want. And she recalled him talking about creating a newspaper for clarification of thought, creating a farming commune. 

And I’m trying to think of what the third thing was. I think it might have been the house practicing hospitality. But basically a call to renew the social order. And she said, perfect, that’s for me. And they published the first issue of the paper on May 1st, 1933.

Emily: So I think a lot of people still associate the term Catholic Worker specifically with the newspaper, right? What’s the connection between the publication and then the broader Catholic Worker movement?

Renée: So yes, I think it’s important to note that the Catholic Worker is the name of a newspaper. There’s a Catholic Worker publication. They incorporated it soon after they made it. So that’s the name of the publication, the Catholic Worker, a direct response to the communist publication, The Daily Worker. So it’s very clever, if you’re someone who read that paper, that would instantly catch your eye, like,”The Catholic Worker? There’s a Catholic version of this? So I think it’s important to note that because it’s responding to a historical context that most of us don’t know. Like I don’t run across The Daily Worker, you know, when I’m browsing So I think it’s important to note that. 

So that’s the name of the newspaper. And then pretty soon after they started it, I think there is the beauty in beginning with clarification of thought that we’re gonna put these ideas out there. They said in their first editorial, the mission of this paper is to make known the encyclicals of the popes and the social teaching of the church. They want people to know these ideas–that are in some ways similar to communism, in some ways not–these exist in our tradition. And in the first paper, they also, I think they dedicate it or they have a special message to the New York City police. So it’s kind of this idea of like, we’re talking to the strikers and the strike breakers saying, “Both of you are Catholic and both of you have this sort of common tradition that calls you to justice.” 

So the paper took off, and then they were asked to put their ideas into practice. So people came to the Worker’s newspaper offices, which I think the first one was just in a storefront below the apartment where Dorothy lived with her brother, her sister-in-law, and Tamar, her daughter. So it was in the home, and basically people would just come by the office. And it was the Depression, so people were out of work and needed housing. So they started this cooperative apartment called St. Joseph’s. And then that became the heart and soul of the movement, right? Sort of this place where Dorothy lived, the paper was being published, it was a place people could go for housing, and young people would come to get formation to learn from Dorothy and Peter.

And soon after that, or in the years following 1933, other Catholics read the paper and said, “We want to put these ideas into action in our places, in our homes as well.” Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays talk about creating farming communes, they talk about–he calls initially on bishops to do this, but also the laity–to tell bishops, “Take in people into your house, practice hospitality.” But I think also the houses of hospitality are shaped by the fact that when Dorothy and Peter were starting off, living more communally was a lot more standard and a lot more a common experience, right? Where it’s like, okay, a brother, a sister, kind of this extended family living together to pool resources was normal.

And so that’s just sort of naturally how these houses started. But yeah, that’s kind of the historical connection. And today, I think that’s just a helpful grounding because Catholic Worker means many things to many people. These are ideas of Dorothy’s and Peter’s that people are supposed to read and take on and incarnate in different ways in their own particular context, so there’s very little limitations on what that can look like. I think it’s always helpful to reach into the history and see what these words mean and how they started. 

There was an article I found in the Worker that I’ve never been able to refind, but I love this sentiment where Dorothy says that a Catholic Worker is anyone who reads the paper and agrees with our ideas, and a reader of the Catholic Worker is someone who reads the paper and disagrees with our ideas. So it’s this really lovely, funny way of suggesting what membership might mean in an organization that doesn’t really have membership rules.

Rebecca: So what are the basic goals and principles of the Catholic Worker movement itself?

Renée: They’re both large and small. So in essence, it’s to reconstruct the social order. And in practice, it often looks very small. The “Means and Purposes of the Catholic Worker” come in many different versions that have been published in the paper, and that will be republished every May. 

I think some fundamental principles are first, voluntary poverty, that was very important to Dorothy and Peter. I think one principle that is really important in Christian anarchism in this tradition in the 19th century is non-cooperation with evil–that’s a big catchphrase of Christian anarchists like Leo Tolstoy. And so that idea becomes this underlying idea of a lot of Catholic Worker nonviolent resistance, which can take many different shapes. In the 1960s, you have burning draft cards, right? Not signing up for the draft. You have protests of weapons manufacturers and nuclear power plants and, you know, Department of Defense contractors. So there is this prophetic resistance saying this is a war and we Christians cannot cooperate with evil in this way. 

There’s also an economic dimension to that, which is where voluntary poverty comes in: it says, “How can we participate in a system that exploits others and makes a profit for a few based on the exploitation or misery of many?” So that’s where you have a lot of resistance to capitalism and attempts to construct other more humane ways of living.

So whether that’s living simply, not partaking in financial systems like systems of credit or systems of usury, of making money off of endowments or interest bearing loans. Peter Maurin wrote a lot about that, of how most Abrahamic traditions all prohibit usury at some point in their existence and usury, right, is the gathering of interest on a loan. 

So I think for Catholic Workers, a lot of that looks a lot like 1960s and 70s counterculture as well. A lot of dumpster diving, living like kind of crunchy-granola lives, trying to live gently on the earth, not participating in the systems of cheap creation and, you know, easy waste that a lot of our like clothing, food, you name it. We live in this system where it’s very profitable for companies to make a lot of cheap goods and then just throw them away. So Workers are trying to create more craft-based or more humane-based ways of creating and producing and using.

And I think, one great text that sort of summarizes the goals and aims of the Catholic Worker movement to create a new society in the shell of the old, is the Sermon on the Mount, to really take that seriously. Like Dorothy Day says, the Sermon on the Mount is our manifesto. To be a peacemaker, to be one of the poor, you know, to be someone who hungers and thirsts for justice. And so the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, these 14 practices that Catholic tradition derives from the Sermon on the Mount, that’s another great central text. These practices of feeding the poor, clothing the naked, I would say those are what the Aims and Means are based off most concretely. 

And I would say too that I think what makes the Catholic Worker the Catholic Worker instead of just a bunch of people practicing the ideas on their own as all Catholics are called to do, is that there’s a real political vision for that. I don’t mean politics in the way that like, you know, we think of politics with an election coming up this fall. I mean politics in the sense of how we organize a society together, right? How do we begin, this concept of personalism is really like a big Catholic Worker buzzword.

And what that does mean, yes, is that I take personal responsibility for my neighbor. If my neighbor is hungry, that is my problem, right? That I am my brother’s keeper. I do have the ability. I don’t say, you know, go to the soup kitchen down the road or, you know, go to Catholic Charities. It’s like, okay, like how can I solve this problem? Like how, your hunger is my problem. Your hunger is my hunger. Maybe we’ll go to the soup kitchen together. You know, so it’s like this idea of how do I, like it is my, it is my problem. It is my problem, not the corporation that exists to solve hunger or the person who will walk down the street after me to answer this need. So that is what personalism means. But what it also means is that it is not bourgeois capitalism or communism. It’s this third way of saying we are all persons and we all have the freedom and agency to create. To create good work, to create a society, to create relationships with our neighbor. That personalism is sort of the basis of a whole political vision, which Dorothy and Peter were immersed in, and we’re trying to transmit through both their work, living it out, and in the pages of the Catholic Worker movement.

Emily: Another thing that I think people often associate with Catholic Worker are Catholic Worker houses. So what is a Catholic Worker house and how does that play into this vision of what Catholic Worker is?

Renée: Well, the good news is it doesn’t take much to make a house a Catholic Worker house. Some people say you just have to put out a shingle that announces it as a Catholic Worker, do a work of mercy and publish a newsletter. So the good news is it could be any of, anyone can do it. 

At the beginning, like I said, the first sort of Catholic Worker house was this cooperative apartment for, I think it was actually women who needed work, was the first one that quickly changed to men, if I recall correctly. In the 1930s, shortly after they started the paper, they opened up this cooperative apartment. And so there’s always been a large home in New York called St. Joe’s. And now there’s Maryhouse, which was built in 1975. And then there’s St. Joe’s. So yeah, there’s always been large sort of group homes in New York. And traditionally at the New York Catholic Worker, there has been a soup line most days of the week and a Friday night meeting for clarification of thought. And that has been what the New York houses have looked like for most of their history. And there’s a whole fun sort of history there of them bouncing around the city, because eventually landlords would get you know, mad at them for all the recklessness they were causing. Until finally Dorothy was like, you need to just like, they got donations, they owned their own spot where they’ve been to this day. 

And yeah, then one of the first Catholic, the first Catholic Worker house in Chicago actually has an interesting history. It was started by Dr. Arthur Falls, who was a Black doctor who was involved with desegregating Chicago hospitals and he, he also, he read the newspaper and he was very excited about it. And he wrote to Dorothy and suggested that one of the Workers on the masthead, which was originally, yeah, it was originally kind of copied from The Daily Worker and it was two workers, two white male workers. And he suggested that one of them be a Black man. So they changed it to a white worker and a Black worker. I think they changed one of the workers to a woman, I believe that was in the 80s.

So he suggested that there was this Black representation on the newspaper masthead. And his Catholic Worker house was not a house of hospitality, but it was dedicated to clarification of thought and round table discussions and dinner meetings. And then around the time that closed or maybe right after they started, kind of more of a house for men who were out of work in Chicago.

Yeah, so if you visit a Catholic Worker house, usually there will be some sort of community meal of some kind, often liturgy or a weekly Mass or a, you know, Friday night meeting, clarification of thought, round table discussion. Houses are supposed to put out a newspaper that has often become an email newsletter or something like that. But those are sort of the basic ingredients is hospitality of some kind, sharing food, sharing resources. Prayer usually takes place in some form at a Catholic Worker house. 

And also, of course, this commitment to voluntary poverty, which is very, you know, it’s a mystery. It’s not meant to be solved. Even if you take vows in a religious order, you’re still kind of grappling with what that means. So I think kind of like wrestling with that reality of voluntary poverty and living both with and from the generosity of others and trying to like garden and live self-sufficiently. These are like kind of the tensions that a lot of Catholic Worker houses live in.

Rebecca: So what about the Catholic Worker communities? I know there are quite a few of those all across the nation now. What does that mean to be a Catholic Worker community?

Renée: That is such a good question. I mean, there are like 200 in the world, so there’s probably 200 different answers, right? Like they’re so individual. I just did a tour through the South with a friend of different Catholic Worker communities and we visited, there were so many, right? There was a couple that started one in the 90s in Alabama. And they have this beautiful house that houses women who need a place to stay for various reasons. And right now, it’s just this couple. So yeah, there are plenty of couples that have started Catholic Worker houses, run them. There are families who have raised children in Catholic Worker houses. Some of the communities I’ve been to, a lot of them are white, yeah, a lot of them have like a group of elders who have stuck around, whether they joined from like the 70s to the 90s. 

And the communities often, the communities don’t have any, they’re their own authority, right? So there’s no president, there’s no bishop, there’s no outside authority. The communities make decisions about what happens in the house together. They, you know, coordinate chores, they coordinate who’s on the house, who’s running hospitality, who’s greeting guests. They are, that’s often what the Catholic Worker means by anarchism is that we’re ruling ourselves, we’re governing ourselves within the community, most often on a consensus model, where one person, you have to kind of all come together to find a shared agreement about what to do about a solution. There’s no HR who can come in, you have to work things out yourself. There’s no abbot. I think in some ways Catholic Worker communities can have very, in some ways they’re almost modeled off monasteries, but I think they’re definitely more kind of free form, right? You have a lot more freedom over how you spend your time. 

We visited a Catholic Worker in Houston, Casa Juan Diego that has, you know, they’re, they might be called a Catholic Worker house, but they’re more like a small village where there’s like multiple buildings on a city block. There’s a shelter for men. There’s a shelter for women. You know, like the volunteers are kind of all mixed in. Some are living in the men’s house, some in the women’s house. And the volunteers have like a, some Catholic Worker houses just call themselves a community. There’s not much of a distinction between volunteers and guests. Some are much more, they’re doing short-term hospitality. So guests are guests and volunteers or staff members are the folks who’ve come to intentionally live in a Catholic Worker house to serve. And so at one Catholic Worker house, they’ll have a weekly or a morning prayer meeting. And then they’ll each go in to sort of the founder of the house and ask, what should I do today? Or what needs to be done? Or they’ll have their routine where they’re on the house that morning or there’s gardening in the afternoon.

At the Catholic Worker house I lived in in Chicago, we had a weekly community meeting. We were a small community. There were four Workers. And we had a weekly community meeting where we’d make decisions, talk about things. We had a Monday night evening dinner where folks would come in from the street, from the parish, wherever. And we’d all just have dinner together. And yeah, so I think in a lot of Catholic Worker communities, there’s both like the Workers who’ve chosen to live there, the folks who are receiving hospitality, either by coming to live in the house or visiting for the day or for dinner or whatever. And then there’s this outside community, right, of volunteers or folks who are part of your larger community. And I think that’s really essential, right? Because often or always, you know, like the need is so great. One house can’t solve, can’t fill the gap, right? 

A lot of Catholic Workers who’ve lived at houses talk about burnout, right? You are living in the detritus of capitalism. Like you’re getting hit with it left and right. Like you are walking through a lot of pain and taking on a lot of folks’ pain with you. And it can be really hard, right? So you need a good community to support you. And you need to feel like, you know, we are part of a network. It’s not just our house and, you know, the rest of sort of individual, individualistic bourgeois America surrounding us. You want to feel like, we exist in this sort of ecosystem of care and gift and love.

Emily: So does the institutional Catholic Church have any kind of jurisdiction over the Catholic Worker, whether the newspaper or the individual communities?

Renée: So it’s not one of those organizations where you have to get like approval from a bishop to have Catholic in the title. and I think that, you know, comes very much from this tradition of lay action. Although Dorothy said, right, like often lay Catholic action means that there’s a bishop sort of sponsoring your group. And she’s like, that’s not what we’re doing. I think. This is something that’s very important for the church to, or I think just lay Catholics, right? That Catholicism is, the work of Catholicism is the work of the laity, right? It’s our work, you know, feeding the poor and caring for our neighbor and showing Christ’s love to the world. And that’s not something you need to wait for permission from a bishop to do, you know. That’s not their role. Their role is to teach and guide and to say, how can we support you?

Rebecca: So you’re a Catholic Worker. What does that mean? If a person decided that they wanted to be a Catholic Worker, what would they have to do?

Renée: Yeah, how does one know when one is a Catholic Worker? So I moved into a house, which is an easy way of sort of, you know, taking on that identity. But I would say I started to think about myself as a Catholic Worker. When I was reporting on the Worker, I was just reading a lot about it. I was reading Dorothy’s work. I was reading about Peter Maurin and I was reading the newspaper. And I was living in voluntary poverty. I was a freelance journalist in New York. So I wasn’t living at a house, but I was paying rent on a New York apartment. So that definitely changed my lifestyle a great deal. And yeah, when you, I think that to me, like, you know, I was doing work that I believed in, that was for the common good, it was good labor. And to me, that sort of mystery of voluntary poverty began to unlock a whole different way of seeing the world, right? Of, I’m a very privileged person. I’m a white woman from Minnesota who has some fancy degrees. And there are certain ways that I’ve been taught to think about myself. And that practice of voluntary poverty completely, I think, began to transform the way I saw how to interact with the world. So I would say voluntary poverty is sort of first and foremost. It just, that’s the most transformative part, I think, of being a Catholic Worker. Because you realize, you know, this is why houses, the house of hospitality exists. When you are practicing voluntary poverty, you can’t do it alone. You need a community, right? You need help. You need, and that help and that aid is always more dignifying and more life-giving if it exists in the context of relationship and in the context of mutuality, right? Where there’s sometimes, and some things I need help with and I need help for, but I’m also a person with agency and sometimes I can help others, right? 

So that’s, that is sort of, I think the mystery of voluntary poverty that grounds so much of the Worker movement. And then to do a work of mercy, right? So like I started giving coffee out to, there were a bunch of folks, a bunch of Workers who would comb through the recyclings, the pretty New York City thing, it probably sounds familiar to some New York listeners where the folks will go through the recycling when the recycling is out and pick up the cans or bottles that can be donated at grocery stores or whatever for a few cents and just collect that. And so I just started talking with them and we would bring out coffee when I was having coffee in the morning. So that little work of mercy, I think. So a work of mercy doing a work of mercy, practicing voluntary poverty. 

You don’t have to publish a newspaper or move into a communal house. But I think, yeah, thinking about how am I promoting clarification of thought, doing a book club with your friends, talking about these ideas, starting a discussion over Peter Maurin’s easy essays or Dorothy Day’s Long Loneliness at your parish or with a group of friends. I think trying to think clearly about, you know, one Catholic Worker said it well to me, right, that they had read Nikolai Berdyaev, who is a writer who writes very fightingly about critiquing capitalism and communism. He saw in this writer, I saw what was wrong with the world, what was truly wrong. I felt like he really diagnosed the world’s ills. And he said, I found in Peter Maurin solutions that were about solving that problem, right? So like finding real solutions. So I think it takes clarification of thought to find what is truly wrong and what are the solutions that will actually kind of solve these deeper wounds in our society. 

So yeah, clarification of thought, voluntary poverty, and I think taking personal responsibility for your neighbor. I think even if that’s, personal responsibility can just be like, you begin to see the ways that we’re formed to treat other people not like people, right? Whether it’s the cashier, whether it’s a driver in another car who’s cutting you off, right? Like we’re so formed to think of other people as obstacles or problems or machines to give me something rather than a person I have an encounter with. So I think that’s something that the Worker has taught me how to do, right? How to engage with my community more like a person.

Emily: So Renée, that’s all the questions we have today. Thank you so much for being our guest on Glad You Asked.

Renée: Thank you so much for having me.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.