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Article about Peter's Maurin's legacy

"Peter Maurin: To Bring the Social Order to Christ - Part II"

Marc Ellis

Reprinted with permission from A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker, Patrick G. Coy, Ed., (Temple University Press, Philadelphia: 1988), pp. 15-46.

BY THE EARLY 1940s the world and the Catholic Worker movement had changed considerably. To be sure, discussions for clarification of thought continued and hospices opened around the country, but the farming venture, the key to Maurin's vision of a new society, was failing. This failure was attributed to a variety of factors, not the least of which were the urban background common among those attempting to work the land and the poverty that the movement had adopted. Both mitigated against efficiency and planning. In addition, the refusal to discriminate among those who came to the farm meant that what began as an intentional community hoping to build a Catholic culture on the land ended as a refuge for many of the unemployed and the mentally disturbed fleeing the harshness of urban-industrial life.

But some reasons for failure must also be assigned to Maurin. Always willing to sacrifice order and success for the sake of making his point, he was even criticized by Dorothy Day.

"Be what you want the other fellow to be," he kept saying. "Don't criticize what is not being done. See what there is to do, fit yourself to do it, then do it.... Everyone taking less, so that others can have more. The Worker a scholar, and the scholar a worker. Each being a servant of all, each taking the least place. A leader leading by example as well as by word." 30

Leadership was also a problem. On the question of majority rule Maurin was clear: "I do not believe in majority rule. I do not believe in having meetings and elections. Then there would be confusion worse confounded, with lobbying, electioneering and people divided into factions." For Maurin, the ideal was the rule of the monasteries with an abbot who was accepted and obeyed by his subjects and whose decisions came after consultation with them. The problem with this concept of authority was that, while it fit the monastery in demanding the responsible independence of each monk, it did not fit the farming commune where many of the people had trouble just governing themselves. When Dorothy Day asked Maurin if he ever became discouraged over the failures he replied, "No, because I know how deep-rooted the evil is. I am a radical and know that we must get down to the roots of the evil." 31

Equally significant was Dorothy Day's uncompromising opposition to America's participation in World War II. This opposition arose from her Christian pacifism and her desire to break the cycle of violence that enriched the wealthy and destroyed the innocent and the poor. It also effectively split the movement, for those who saw the war as justified disassociated themselves from the Catholic Worker. 32

Maurin's stand on conscription and the war was less succinctly stated than Day's, and his general view of both can only be suggested through his own essays and his arrangements of the words of other authors on these subjects. However, his own choice was clear, as demonstrated in his earlier refusal to accept military duty in France and in his later emulation of the life of Francis of Assisi. Both showed a deepening fear of organization and coercion and a desire to follow the counsels of perfection, one of which was a refusal to do harm against neighbor even if endangered.

As early as May 1934, Maurin had written a short essay in response to a talk given by Carlton Hayes. In it, he questioned subservience of conscience to national aspirations by playing on the theme of supporting one's country regardless of the merit of its position. To stand up for your country regardless of its correctness was wrong. Sometimes, to correct that position, one had to say no. In the December 1937 issue of the Catholic Worker, he expanded the theme of conscience in reference to propaganda about the barbarian quality of the adversary indeed, in Maurin's view, the distinction between barbarians and civilized peoples was often blurred by the actions of the "civilized." If barbarians were those living on the other side of the border, the civilized were not ashamed to arm themselves for protection. And if the barbarians invaded, there was no hesitation in killing them before trying to civilize them. With this attitude, the persistence of calling one side civilized seemed ironic to Maurin. A classic example of this barbarian-civilized dichotomy was the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, ostensibly done to "civilize" Ethiopians. The Italians still retained the notion that "invaders can civilize the invaded." In Maurin's view, if Ethiopians needed to be civilized, the best way was to prepare the young men of Ethiopia for the priesthood. This example served to reinforce Maurin's major point that civilization came not through force but through religion. 33

By April 1938, in an essay published in the Catholic Worker entitled "Peace Preparedness," Maurin was calling not only for physical disarmament but for disarmament of the heart.

They are increasing armaments 
in the fallacious hope that they 
will preserve peace by preparing for war. 
Before 1914 they prepared for war and got it. 
Nations have too long prepared 
for war; it is about time they prepared for peace. 34

Maurin quoted Archbishop McNicholas to the effect that governments had no fixed standards of morality and thus could scarcely settle the question of war for Christians. That Christians affirming the supreme domain of God knew the injustice of modern wars raised a very practical question: would such Christians form a league of conscientious objectors?

Maurin identified strongly with a lecture delivered by Cardinal Innitzer in Vienna, which he arranged and published in the September 1939 edition of the Catholic Worker. Innitzer believed the church did not bless arms, but peace. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ had specifically blessed the poor and those who made peace, as he declared himself as the one who brings peace. He enjoined all to make peace with each other, to love enemies, and to be perfect in imitation of God's perfection. This call to perfection was Christ's wish to refuse every way of violence. Two passages in the New Testament were conclusive, the words of Jesus to Peter: "Put back your sword in the scabbard for he who draws the sword will perish by the sword" and "I give you peace, I leave you my peace, peace be with you." These words were sufficient to prove that the gospel excluded all violence and nothing in it could be interpreted as authorizing war. 35

Three months later, Maurin published an arrangement of an address delivered by Eric Gill to the Council of Christian Pacifist Groups in September 1938. This address went beyond the call of conscience and the commands of Jesus to discuss the nature of modern warfare itself. Gill began by comparing modern work and war. As in work, war was made impersonal by modern machinery and weapons, which reduced the soldier to a subhuman condition. Because of technology, war was less ennobling than it was destructive and degrading. The entire structure of warfare had changed: instead of small professional armies manned by mercenaries fighting limited engagements, war had become mass war with entire populations mobilized. The result was that the vast majority who fought and were killed were involved in a struggle about which they knew little. If war had ever had a heroic aura about it, modern warfare had none. It was not a question of heroism, justice, or defense, but of plain and simple terrorism. 36

Other evidence of Maurin's opposition to conscription and war is fragmentary, yet interesting. Two of Maurin's closest friends and disciples, Bill Gauchat and Arthur Sheehan, refused to cooperate with the war effort, and both saw this opposition as being in concert with Maurin's position on conscription and the war. With Maurin, they viewed their stance as the choice of the counsels of perfection as a higher calling but not an absolute duty. Sheehan, who was spending a great deal of time with Maurin, understood that Maurin's pacifism was the pacifism of the early church. At that time, church members refused to become judges because they might have to sentence men and women to death. Larry Heaney, a friend of Maurin, wrote to a priest in January 1942 that in regard to war, Maurin believed that the reestablishment of a rugged peasantry, with its common culture and unifying bond, would contribute much to peace. If Maurin personally opposed the war, he was also cognizant of its tremendous popularity. Realizing the difficulties Dorothy Day was having in her vocal opposition, Maurin counseled her that for a time silence would be better. The world was not ready to listen .37

The popularity of the war significantly decreased participation in and contributions to the movement; many hospices closed, and the circulation of the Catholic Worker dropped below fifty thousand. As the war years progressed, a question was no longer whether the movement would be a catalyst for social reconstruction but whether it would survive at all. A movement begun in hope entered into exile.

The movement, its basic position unchanged, from this time on saw itself in a new way. It might still hope ultimately to reconstruct the social order; but, in a more sober self -assessment, it knew it must and could bear constant witness to peace in a world scarred by massive dislocation and death. In this way the Worker represented the division of the century itself: before 1940, hope that a new order was about to arise; after 1945, the attempt to cope with a world poised on the brink of self-destruction.

The Worker's exile has not been a quiet one. The Worker community protested against the development and use of atomic weapons in the 1940s and 1950s by publishing lengthy articles in the Catholic Worker and organizing demonstrations in New York City. In the early 1960s when the Cuban revolution was the target of American foreign policy, Dorothy Day traveled to Cuba to witness the revolution firsthand. Like her stand against World War II and the atomic bomb, Day's report on the revolution was controversial and lends insight into the character of the Worker movement. She found the revolution to have problems, of course, but also hope; a genuine movement toward a communal life was taking place. To her fellow Catholics who wondered how she could condone an atheist revolution, she replied that if Catholicism was not in the forefront for the revolution it was because Marxists had taken seriously the needs of the people where Catholics had not. Of the revolution she wrote:

The motive is love of brother, and we are commanded to love our brothers. If religion has so neglected the needs of the poor and of the great mass of workers and permitted them to live in the most horrible destitution while comforting them with the solace of a promise of a life after death when all tears shall be wiped away, then that religion is suspect. Who would believe such job's comforters? On the other hand, if those professing religion shared the life of the poor and worked to better their lot and risked their lives as revolutionaries do, and trade union organizers have done in the past, then there is a ring of truth about the promises of the glory to come. The cross is followed by the resurrection. 38

Day's trip to Cuba was just the beginning of a turbulent decade. The Worker wholeheartedly supported the civil rights movement and later initiated a Catholic, then American, dialogue on the Vietnam war. By the mid-1960s--to a new generation--the Catholic Worker became a symbol of good in the world. When Dorothy Day visited the universities and hospitality houses across the country, her talks drew large audiences. What seemed to many an ancient voice was rediscovered, an exile movement reborn.

DURING THE EXILE, the ideas of Peter Maurin, who had died in 1949, continued to illuminate the Worker's path. The vagabond peasant-intellectual had brought with him from France an intact and meaningful Catholic tradition capable of orienting the person toward transcendence. He had brought, too, the dissenting European Christian thought of the day--the ideas of Berdyaev, Christopher Dawson, Eric Gill, Maritain. As a result, the Worker saw (and sees) its struggle not in a parochial American context but within the larger framework of Western civilization.

The themes that Maurin preached and lived--the emphasis on a dynamic Catholicism, the social apostolate, and the role of the laity in social critique and reconstruction--came to fruition in the Second Vatican Council. He was one of the first Catholics to seriously entertain dialogue with Marxists, a dialogue that is being pursued with new vigor today. His understanding of hospitality as a Christian obligation is also flourishing, especially in the works of the contemporary theologian Henri Nouwen. Maurin's belief that decentralized political authority and simplicity of life provide not only the necessities for living but the context for research and freedom have similarly experienced a resurgence in recent years, most strikingly in E. F. Schumacher's popular book Small is Beautiful. So, too, Maurin's understanding of the Christian mission as a witness to faith and justice in a secular world has become central for many. Critical is Maurin's insistence on the role of faith and tradition in providing the context for nurturing both the person and the social order, and on the way of poverty and simplicity as a sign of judgment on a world in pursuit of affluence. Maurin's dream of the movement back to the land finds embodiment in small experimental communities in New York, West Virginia, and dozens of other places around the country.

But if Maurin's program has gained adherents, in the larger world his thought and program have been controversial and more often dismissed. To many, his insistence on a return to the land seemed then and seems today unrealistic. The question that Paul Hanly Furfey posed in 1939 in a series of articles in the Catholic Worker remains: is agrarianism, and those who espouse it, romantic both in content and possibility? Does it not reflect a bias against city life and a diversion from the necessary reforms of permanently urban civilization where most people will make their lives? Maurin's critique of industrialism, with its alienation of labor and the loss of personality in organized and bureaucratic processes, has similarly come under attack. The question that John Cort posed in 1948 in a series of a articles in Commonweal is relevant: is it not true that urban-industrial life with all its faults, can be humanized, even Christianized, through organization that has as its end the person and justice? Similarly, can a worldwide village economy with subsistence agriculture and crafts support a population curve that grows exponentially? just as difficult is the predicament of religious traditions: is the form of religiosity that nurtured Maurin available to those who must struggle in the present? 39

There is no denying the perhaps insurmountable difficulties involved in moving from a secular, urban-industrial society to a ruralvillage culture rooted in faith, even if that were desired by a majority of people. Maurin, in thought and experience, could hardly deny these difficulties. However, the criticism that Maurin's vision represented little more than a romanticized version of the Middle Ages is equally difficult to sustain. To be sure, Maurin's recitation of secular and church history suffers when compared with the complexities of historical investigation. His vision of reality, however, was never simplistically romantic. If Maurin's hope that personal and community witness could redirect, even dismantle, the power of modernity seems naive, his vision of the new social order was not superficial. If anything, Maurin was willing to confront what contemporary society, at its own peril, labors so hard to forget: the need for meaningful work; the development of the interior life; the connection between purpose and the mysteries of life found on the land and in worship; the importance of community; the reality of death.

For the powerful and the passive Maurin had the ability to function as a dangerous memory, to shock the contemporary world into a reassessment of its values and directions, to question "business as usual" in the midst of holocaust. Johannes Metz, a German Catholic theologian, describes a dangerous memory in a context that applies to the life and vision of Peter Maurin.

There are memories in which earlier experiences break through to the center-point of our lives and reveal new and dangerous insights in the present. They illuminate for a few moments and with a harsh steady light the questionable nature of things we have apparently come to terms with, and show up the banality of our supposed realism. They break through the canon of all that is taken as self-evident, and unmask as deception the certainty of those "whose hour is always there." They seem to subvert our structures of plausibility. Such memories are like dangerous and incalculable visitants from the past. They are memories we have to take into account: memories, as it were, with future content.40

In the final analysis, Maurin was in the unenviable position of all those who oppose the present: to oppose the present is to propose a reality that by definition does not as yet exist. However, Maurin compounded the problem by proposing for the future a society that had imperfectly existed in the past. This rendered his vision less accessible to the modern imagination used to seeing the future, progressive or not, as an extension of the present. The terror found in the modern imagination made it easier to contemplate the antiutopian writings of Aldous Huxley in Brave New World and George Orwell in Animal Farm and 1984 than to construct the radically human vision of the future proposed by Maurin.

For that was what Maurin was addressing: not how the present was to be reformed, not how the future was to be an extension of the present, but the need for a radical departure in order to ensure a future that could honestly be called human. To the complex questions of agrarianism and industrialism, Maurin replied with his own questions. Were material affluence and sensual desire the ends of life? Or were its ends involvement in the spirit and renunciation in service? Did the pursuit of affluence lead to the sharing of wealth, or to more and more destitution? Were the foundations of freedom and community found in the individual right to self-fulfillment, or were freedom and community found in the obligations of faith and service to neighbor? Did the pursuit of individual rights lead to securing these same rights for others, or to securing them from others? Did not the increasing organization of personal and institutional life to pursue affluence lead in its final form to totalitarianism on the left and the right? Was the function of the social order to ease the pursuit of materialism or to nurture souls bound for eternity? Maurin's most radical reversal of all was his understanding of poverty: to the world a sign of shame, to Maurin a sign of fidelity and salvation.

Despite obvious obstacles, Maurin's legacy, the Catholic Worker movement, continues to provide a way of life that addresses the seeming disjunction between contemporary life and the demands of Christian faith. This comes from the radical and thus freeing perspective of commitment, which Maurin articulated and lived. The essence of this commitment--being present among the poor and engaging in social critique--is both an affirmation and negation. It affirms the continuity of persons in community over time as it asserts the integrity of all persons, especially the outcast and the marginalized. It sees persons and history in a spiritual light: the movement of persons and community is not toward affluence and power but toward God. The commitment is to embody these beliefs. By acting, personally and at a sacrifice, the vision becomes a reality. The world is no loner foreign or abandoned; the people of the earth are no longer orphans. The negation is also clear. That which denies life and spirit is to be opposed, and in this affirmation and negation the presence of the spirit once again comes into focus.

At the close of the twentieth century one can hardly contemplate a more difficult and important task than embodying such a clarification, and it is fortunate that the Catholic Worker movement is not alone in this quest. The past fifteen years have seen a revival of prophetic thought and activity in the United States and throughout the world. The Basic Christian Communities of the Third World in particular carry this witness forward, and it is remarkable how similar the values and sensibilities of such diverse communities are to one another. Like the Catholic Worker, Basic Christian Communities have grown from the experience of dislocation and unemployment, from oppressive and misguided social, economic, and governmental policies and the desire among the poor and the middle class to address the situation from the perspective of a newly dynamic faith. We might say that Basic Communities and the Catholic Worker movement participate in a tradition that stretches back to the early Christians even as they now participate in the transformation of faith traditions. It is not too much to claim that there is now a worldwide rebirth of the message of commitment and community and, though chastened by the power of modern life, the movement toward a just world order grows stronger.

The struggle to be faithful to the holy events of the exodus and the coming of Jesus within the complexities of history is never easy. Despite a renewal of faith among the prophetic communities, there is a peculiar urgency about our age that threatens to overwhelm the transcendent forever. The victors and victims of the twentieth century, caught in the terrible spiral of hubris and abandonment, are breaking the tension that allows the search for meaning to continue. In such a time the struggle to be faithful is of critical importance because it holds forth, even in exile, a renewed connection between the divine and the human. Within our own history, exile is the fate of such a struggle, and yet it is precisely here that the seeds of clarity and reconstruction are stored and nurtured.

< Notes for Part II:

30. Dorothy Day, "Farming Commune," CW, February 1934: 1, 8.

31. Ibid., 8.

32. See Miller, A Harsh and Dreadful Love, 154-70.

33. Peter Maurin, "War and Peace," CW December 1937: 1, 8.

34. Peter Maurin, "Peace Preparedness," CW April 1938: 1.

35. Cardinal Innitzer, "Peace and War," arranged by Peter Maurin, CW September 1939: 3.

36. Eric Gill, "Work and War," arranged by Peter Maurin, CW December 1939: 6.

37. Arthur Sheehan, Peter Maurin: Gay Believer (New York: Hanover House, 1959), 199; Heaney to Father Kenpenny, January 2 [1942?], CW Papers, Nina Polcyn Moore Papers, W- 17, box 1; Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper & Row, 1952), 180, 181.

38. Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage (New York: Curtis, 1972), 100.

39. Paul Hanly Furfey, "Unemployment on the Land," CW October 1939: 8; "There Are Two Kinds of Agrarians," CW December 1939: 1, 8; John Cort, "Reform Begins at the Plant Level," Commonweal 48 (October 1, 1948): 597; "Is a Christian Industrialsim Possible?" Commonweal 49 (October 29, 19481: 60-62.

40. Johannes B. Metz, "The Future in the Memory of Suffering," Consilium 36 (1971): 15.

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