Catholic Worker after Dorothy, by Dan McKanan

October 3rd, 2013

Title:             The Catholic Worker after Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation

Author:       Dan McKanan

Publisher:  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008

Reviewed by:   Josh Sweeden, Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology

This text serves as the culmination of Dan McKanan’s eight years of research on The Catholic Worker Movement and its communities. In the Acknowledgments McKanan states that the basis for this text was to make use of material previously developed for Touching the World, his book published in 2007 on Christian communities and transformation (225). Readers might expect this text, therefore, to seem contrived and dispassionate, as if what is being offered are McKanan’s leftovers from his previous text. This is certainly not the case. Readers will quickly notice McKanan’s depth of research, precision of writing, and willingness to grapple with key issues of the Catholic Worker Movement. Though the text is not a thorough treatise on the Catholic Worker Movement or an attempt to deal entirely with its theology and history, it does accomplish what it sets out to do: establishing the Catholic Worker as “a movement built around the practice of what they call the ‘works of mercy’” (2).

Maintaining his focus on works of mercy, McKanan declares the books purpose as twofold. First, he wants “to offer a general account of the Catholic Worker movement that takes the past few decades as seriously as the founding generation and takes the houses and farms spread across the nation as seriously as the New York houses of hospitality” (3). Second, McKanan wants “to identify the key factors that have allowed the movement to survive, relatively unscathed, for such an extraordinary span of time” (4). Immediately, he cites Dorothy Day as a key factor, who more so than Peter Maurin, “sustained the movement for the first half century” (4).    It is through the stories of numerous Catholic Worker communities and individuals that McKanan accomplishes his purposes. His analysis is excellent. His research extends beyond various insightful interviews and into a plethora of mediums—everything from official documents to community flyers—which were developed either by or about a Catholic Worker communities.

McKanan hopes to put to rest the assumption that the Catholic is in decline. By the conclusion of the text he admits the movement is “precarious” and that “‘precarity’ is as much a mark of the Worker as poverty, hospitality, and nonviolence” (214).   Nevertheless, McKanan finds this “precarity” to be part of the movement’s strength. For example, in chapter seven, “Wrestling with the Church,” McKanan shows extensively the diversity of opinion, commitment, and interaction with the Roman Catholic Church and its official positions and forms of hierarchy. Such diversity within the Worker communities may appear to be a sign of disintegration. McKanan argues, however, that “Catholic Workers are reluctant to resolve that tension through polarization or division” (207). This is a mark of the movement for McKanan; ultimately a strength that has sustained the movement over time. McKanan even writes that the “Worker movement may actually be less vulnerable to schism than the American Catholic Church as a whole” precisely because of their willingness to put up with “precarity” (207).

McKanan goes to great length to illuminate Dorothy Day’s leadership style as a significant reason for the Catholic Worker Movement’s continued vigor.   He notes that “it is a rare thing for a movement of this sort to last three-quarters of a century. One influential study of communal groups in the nineteenth century classified communities as ‘successful’ if they endured for a single twenty-five year generation” (2). He goes on to say that “the Catholic Worker’s endurance is a token of the relevance Dorothy Day’s vision has had for generations other than her own” (2). But it is more than Day’s relevant vision that has sustained the Catholic Worker. McKanan time and again notes that Day “deserves much of the credit for the endurance of the Catholic Worker Movement not because she was a powerful, charismatic leader—though she was that—but because she modeled a practice of friendship beyond the boundaries of her movement…everywhere she traveled she befriended people who were practicing the works of mercy” (23). A distinct identity of the Catholic Worker, something that sets it apart from many other movements, is its ability to incorporate diversity and difference. McKanan argues that it was Dorothy Day who “nurtured the full diversity” of the movement by taking more interest “in the people who were drawn to the movement than in the preservation of the movement itself” (127, 4). There is no “rule” for the movement, and though certain ideals are central, there is a plurality of embodiment and practice of those ideals. Indeed, various Catholic Worker communities are free, and “do not hesitate to write their own rules,” but there is no institutional structure acting hierarchically (144). McKanan even notes how such an ethos is evidenced by the remarkable fact that “no individual and no community presumed to step into the leadership vacuum that had been left by Dorothy Day.” In the final years of Day’s life the Catholic Worker Movement had become, McKanan notes, “what Dorothy Day had always said it was: an organism rather than an organization” (28).

Ultimately, McKanan’s text focuses on the centrality of the works of mercy for establishing, defining, and sustaining the Catholic Worker Movement. McKanan identifies works of mercy to function both as practice and hermeneutic for the Catholic Worker. He states that “one cannot claim to be a Catholic Worker unless one is practicing the works of mercy, and for most Workers the works of mercy are not merely a practice but also a way of seeing the world” (4). McKanan’s point is that in addition to the everyday ‘works’ of the Catholic Worker—feeding the hungry and clothing the naked—the works of mercy inform the way the Catholic worker interacts with the individuals, other communities, the church, and the world. The diversity within the movement is unsurprising in light of this claim. McKanan states that “virtually all [Catholic Worker communities] underscore the movement’s centered commitment to the works of mercy” (143). Though communities differ drastically with regard to civil engagement, forms of protest, views on specific issues, and actual forms of hospitality rendered to the poor, all have been uniquely formed through their commitment to the works of mercy. In essence, it is the capacity of the works of mercy to envelop a variety of practices and inform one’s worldview that gives each Worker community its unique flavor. Furthermore, since the core commitment of the movement is to the works of mercy, this plurality of practices and worldviews is embraced because ultimately, the works of mercy “announce” an alternative way of life.

On a point of strengthening for the text, I offer one critique. McKanan never identifies specifically what might be considered the Catholic Worker’s ‘works of mercy.’ He does offer a general definition as “attending directly to the physical and spiritual needs of the strangers and guests in who they [the Catholic Worker] glimpse the face of Christ” and also, “acts of care for the ‘least of these’” (2, 4). The absence of a specific identification of works of mercy may be the result of an assumption that readers are familiar with the Catholic Worker Movement and its practices, or simply a desire to uphold the plurality of practice evident in the movement by avoiding a narrow definition of works of mercy. Nevertheless, McKanan’s failure to more fully articulate what constitutes a work of mercy offers few concrete practices for readers to emanate.   I agree that works of mercy generally “announce” an alternative to the world and its structures, and that “announcing” and not “denouncing” is more in line with the vision of Day and Maurin. Nevertheless, I still think a substantive engagement with key Catholic Worker practices is needed. No doubt, the specific embodiment of practices change as culture shifts, generations alter, and needs are re-evaluated. It seems, therefore, that the tough work of acknowledging practices that are and aren’t faithful to the gospel and the original Catholic Worker vision of works of mercy is still desperately needed.