Officially, the Catholic Worker Movement started on May Day, 1933, when the first issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper was distributed in New York City. Sold at a penny a copy, the publication promoting the cause of the poor and the worker and advocating agrarian and personalist ideals reached a circulation of 150,000 by 1936. The Catholic Worker Movement was more an “organism” than an organization meaning that it lacked a rigid and fixed structure. The basis of the movement was Christian utopianism. The emphasis of the Worker was on Christian love for neighbor and community; as well as prayer and the dignity of each person. It would be a counter balance to the materialism and economic determinism that industrialization had brought to modern society.
The Catholic Worker Movement was a compilation of many ideals, ideas and movements in the historical flow of economic and social history as well as the personal religious journeys of Dorothy Day (1897-1980) and Peter Maurin (1877-1949). The Worker developed from the response of these two individuals to the political and social circumstances of their times, countering what they saw through the eyes of their Christian faith.
In addition to their attraction to the ideologies of the Left, Day and Maurin shared Christian ideals such as the concept of hospitality, originated in the medieval Church. The concept of “voluntary” poverty came from St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). He insisted on poverty for his followers as a way to break away from the materialism of his own day. Other influences included the former Russian communist, Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948). He is known as the prophet of The Catholic Worker. Originally a Marxist, Berdyaev was exiled by the Bolsheviks to France in 1922. Berdyaev had become a Christian communitarian in 1950. Reacting against the hedonism and the lust for power that he had witnessed in Russia, Berdyaev found solace in the dynamism of the Christian Gospel. He spoke of the Mystery of Freedom, an active life founded on the Works of mercy and prayer, and it was here that he believed true liberty to be found. Christians would lead by example in the service of others. Further, Berdyaev was convinced that the bourgeois mindset was hampered in its response to God because it was set in the small arena of mediocrity.
Berdyaev was a friend of Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950). Mounier was also a communitarian but his ideas surrounded what is called “personalism”. Personalism gave each person a dignity; each had a unique vocation and because of that, they were special as a person created by God. Persons were never objects; they were to be treated as unique creations as each soul was a beautiful gift. Mounier also opposed bourgeois individualism and the crushing machine of persons that industrial capitalism had become. Ethics and responsibility were central to Personalist philosophy.
When Peter Berdyaev met Dorothy Day, he had already perfected his three crowned approach to a new society, what he called his Green Revolution. This new society was profoundly personal, yet community based. His ideas were the result of what he called the Clarification of Thought. This Clarification of Thought occurred at the meetings held at Houses of Hospitality where ideas were freely exchanged. These Houses of Hospitality were places where anyone could come and freely obtain shelter, food and clothing. The last part of Peter’s plan was a return to the land. G.K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc and Fr. Vincent McNabb, English Distributists, had advocated such solutions. Distributism was an economic understanding that mistrusted the materialism of both socialism and capitalism. According to the Distributists, industrialization was the root of all the problems. The Catholic Worker encouraged faith-based voluntary poverty and a return to the simplicity of the soil (this has also been called "Agrarian Romanticism”).
The Roman Catholic Church had called all the Church to social justice, in the encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, (1881), which demanded dignity for the worker as well as a living wage. It was a unique document for its time. A further encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (1931), emphasized the protection of the helpless and stressed workers’ rights. Economics had become separated from ethics, thus the isolation of the individual and lack of community to solve the problems that industrialization had brought. This is what Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement wanted to make clear in the newspaper they began publishing on May Day 1933. The principal idea of The Catholic Worker was that through a return to serving one’s neighbor through the Corporal Works of Mercy and the humble acceptance of voluntary poverty, a renewal might begin in all society.
It was a truly unique entity. Although founded on Catholic principles, it was a lay organization, and not associated with the Catholic Church proper. It lacked a rigid structure and anyone could join. It was strictly voluntary. One could be married or unmarried. The lifestyle included meetings of clarification of thought, voluntary poverty and helping others in the community, as well as prayer. In the beginning, these were the simple aims; however, as the Worker matured, it found itself involved with pacifism particularly during World War II. The issue of pacifism deeply divided the members of the Worker. In addition to pacifism, the Worker became involved with racial issues and civil rights.
The Catholic Worker Movement’s care for the dignity of all humans and the sharing lifestyle and prayer attracts many members. The roots of the Worker spring from a Christian attempt to deal with the social issues and problems of the modern world, and are a composite of the many ideas and idealism that Christian thinkers have tried to make the Gospel message alive in such complex times as our own. The movement had a great influence on the formation of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, The Catholic Peace Movement and Pax Christi.