US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Meet the pioneers who cleared the path for today‘s Catholic activists

The legacy of towering figures such as Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan still guides the work of Catholic activists today.

By Kaya Oakes | Print this pagePrint |
Article Justice

The photograph is iconic, reproduced in magazines, websites, and blogs. An elderly woman, physically frail but with a stubborn facial expression, sits cross-legged on a stool, looking up toward the line of armed policemen who surround her. She wears a wide-brimmed straw hat and a plaid dress, and she squints up at the cops through horn-rimmed glasses. Most Catholics know this is Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, single mother, journalist, and lifelong activist.

But fewer may know where and when this picture was taken. Day, whose life was just as devoted to faith as it was to activism, was in Fresno, California, and it was 1973, the height of the United Farm Worker movement’s mass civil disobedience actions.

Another Catholic activist, Cesar Chavez, was behind the actions, which made national headlines. According to Chavez scholar Michael Jiminez, Chavez’s religious convictions weren’t as well-known as Day’s, but Chavez was a modern Catholic mystic who idolized St. Francis and tried to live a Franciscan charism, weaving Christian symbols of prayer and fasting into the UFW protests. Chavez even kept a picture of Day in his office along with those of other prophetic Catholic icons such as Father Daniel Berrigan and Robert Kennedy. 

During the UFW demonstrations in 1973, dozens of faith-based activists, including Day, were repeatedly arrested and jailed. Day was in her late 70s and would die a few years later. Chavez was in his 40s, but would also be dead by the early ’90s. It was, in some ways, a swan song for the age when Catholics in social movements made national news.

Nearly 50 years later, the legacy of Day, Chavez, Phil and Dan Berrigan, and other Catholics who rose to national prominence in the time from the early days of the labor movement to the late days of the civil rights movement leaves a long shadow over Catholics in social movements today. Among younger Catholic activists, it remains unclear whether they will ever regain the kind of momentum and platform Catholic activists had in the past. This new generation is still driven to answer the same gospel call to work for the poor and marginalized, but they came of age in an America that has a more complicated relationship with religion, a time when Catholic identity is being fractured and fragmented, and when the Catholic Church’s image is stained by scandals of its own making.

The attrition of younger Catholics away from the church is part of the question of what it means to be a Catholic activist today, but the growing separation between faith-based and secular activism is part of the puzzle as well. Secular activists have become more suspicious of faith-based language and culture as a result of the Christian right’s return to national prominence during the Trump administration, and the most prominent activist faith leaders today, such as the Rev. William Barber, are not Catholic.

So while Catholics continue to do work in social justice movements, much of it happens on the ground, in quiet ways, while disruptive secular movements like March for Our Lives, the Women’s Marches, and the Black Lives Matter movement achieve greater prominence.

But is there a chance for a revival of the Catholic presence in American social movements? This feature is the first installment in a two-part series that will explore where Catholics have been historically in American social movements and where they are today. First, to understand the life of contemporary Catholic activists and why they have become a decentralized mobile force for good rather than staying bound to physical church spaces, we must begin in the past, with those towering figures who created the framework in which many younger activists work.

The Catholic Church and workers’ rights

Catholic activism in America began with workers. In the late 19th century, early generations of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other parts of Europe found themselves working under inhumane conditions as the second Industrial Revolution swept through America. Just like immigrants today, these European arrivals were subject to exploitation from bosses more concerned with the bottom line than with workers’ rights.

According to Fordham emeritus professor and historian Jim Fisher, the Catholic Church was initially hostile toward the labor movement’s agitation for workers’ rights through unionization because, he says, “anything that smacked of a socialist or collectivist radical movement” was suspicious.

A shift came in 1891, as the Industrial Revolution was coming to a head and the rights of workers were becoming an international crisis. It was then when Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Rerum Novarum (Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor). Rerum Novarum is a remarkable document for its time and one of the foundational documents of Catholic social teaching. It calls for an end to “the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class” and points a finger at capitalism for its lack of moral thinking.

While Rerum Novarum does not go so far as to reject capitalism altogether, it clearly takes the side of workers rather than bosses. “If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better,” Pope Leo states, “he is made the victim of force and injustice.” It is also one of the first Vatican documents to define the preferential option for the poor, reminding readers that “God Himself seems to incline rather to those who suffer misfortune.”

Although Rerum Novarum is still echoed today in some of Pope Francis’ comments about the rights of workers, according to Fisher, its existence is partially the result of the church’s hand being forced. If the church hadn’t eventually sided with workers, he says, “they knew that they would lose the working class. It was a pretty stark choice.”

Without the support of the church, workers might have drifted toward the secular left as Marxism and socialism grew, so the Vatican’s shift was both a moral and pragmatic move. This also had consequences in America, culminating in Roosevelt’s New Deal, one of the first times, according to Fisher, that a political regime in America was influenced by Catholic social teaching.

A social justice champion

For all the progress made with Rerum Novarum, social justice-oriented American Catholics were still lacking a prophetic central figure. This person came not in the form of a pope, cardinal, bishop, or priest, but in a shabbily dressed, often cantankerous female journalist who spent the early years of her career writing for the very kind of socialist newspapers the Vatican was worried about.

Dorothy Day’s conversion to the church is the narrative of a lifelong activist drawn to the Catholic Church “because it was the church of the poor.” But even in her early days as a convert in the late 1920s, Day saw the church “did not set its face against a social order which made so much charity in the present sense of the word necessary.” In the Gospel of Luke, the kingdom of God is found both “within” and “among” us, depending on the translation. It was within and among the poor that Day set her stake.

Peter Maurin, who cofounded the Catholic Worker newspaper along with Day, was a former member of the Christian Brothers, but his role model was St. Francis. Maurin, like Francis, advocated not only for the rights of the poor but for living with and among them. The first issue of the Catholic Worker, published in 1933, one of the worst years of the Great Depression, told readers it was dedicated to “those who think there is no hope for the future” and reassured them that there were still people of God working for the “spiritual and material welfare” of the poor.

Day and Maurin quickly turned their words into works, opening the first Catholic Worker House of Hospitality on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which provided food and clothing to the Bowery’s poor. By 1941 there would be more than 30 Worker-run houses of hospitality spread across America, many of which are still in operation today.

The ripple effects of the Catholic Worker movement were multifold. Not only did Day’s work inspire many to join the Worker movement, but as America moved into the 1960s and the nation’s political awakening surged with the overlapping movements for civil rights and against the war, Catholics played a public role throughout.

Day’s example drove many to work harder for social change. Jack Downey of La Salle University, who authored a book on Day’s experiences of Jesuit retreats, says that “what people admire about her is the extreme way that she gives of herself.” By the time the ’60s and ’70s arrived, Day had a national profile and she was gone a lot, giving talks and coming home tired. For Day, selfabnegation was part of her mission. She gave everything and expected others to do so as well.

Spiritual resistance

On May 17, 1968, during the thick of the Vietnam War, nine Catholic activists went to the draft board’s offices in Catonsville, Maryland, poured homemade napalm over draft files, and set them alight. Among the nine were Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip, at the time a Josephite priest.

The Catonsville Nine’s action and arrests represented the same self-abnegation in the name of social change that Dorothy Day’s word did. Their willingness to risk incarceration represented a new public face for the Catholic pacifist movement. These activists, lay and clergy working together, would go on to stage disruptive protests as part of what became the Plowshares movement, an antiwar and antinuclear group that still performs actions today.

Daniel Berrigan remained with the Jesuits for the rest of his life, but Philip was laicized after his marriage to Elizabeth McAlister, a former nun and activist. Phil and Liz founded Jonah House, a nonviolent resistance community that eventually became part of the Atlantic Life Community, a network of houses and individuals connected by a commitment to nonviolent resistance work.

Anna Brown, who teaches at St. Peter’s University in New Jersey, befriended the Berrigans and McAlister as a graduate student at Fordham and protested alongside Dan Berrigan for 25 years until his death in 2016. Brown says what the Berrigans represented to her was living an activist life over the long haul.

Dan taught Brown that to be a faith-driven activist, “you need some type of prayer life and a sustained community to do this work of resistance,” she says. At an action during the Gulf War, Brown recalls asking Dan if he wanted to hand out flyers and him telling her he needed to pray first. “It’s that spiritual ground,” she says of Berrigan’s contemplative practice even in the midst of demonstrations, “that we start from.”

The Berrigans, both of whom would be arrested multiple times over their lives and who continued to participate in actions well into their senior years, were operating from “not just a liberated consciousness,” according to Brown, but from “a liberated heart. You need both.” For Catholics drawn to activist work, Brown adds, “it’s not enough just to say these things” about nonviolence, “you have to embody them.”

An intellectual vocation

The same liberated heart drew Robert Ellsberg to the Catholic Worker as a burned-out college student in 1975. Ellsberg, the son of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, says he was traumatized by the Vietnam War and its repercussions on his family and his generation. He dropped out of Harvard, seeking to be among people who weren’t just reading about ethics, but “living the way.”

Ellsberg wasn’t Catholic at the time, but he’d read Thomas Merton and seen issues of the Catholic Worker, and he saw in both models “Christians living out their faith in a radical way,” he says. Ellsberg joined the Worker community in New York and soon began writing articles for the paper. When its managing editor departed, Dorothy Day suggested he take over editing. Whether it was a case of Day “seeing something in me or a lucky break, it really did point me in the direction of my life’s vocation,” Ellsberg says.

Years later, Ellsberg would become publisher of Orbis Books, a publishing house dedicated to liberation theology, where he would elevate the voices of many Catholic scholars and activists. But when he met Day, he knew almost nothing about news writing and had to “learn on the job,” editing and writing while others were cleaning, cooking, and serving the poor.

Day, Ellsberg says, seemed to appreciate that he was attracted to the “intellectual background of the Worker,” and she would become one of the main reasons he eventually converted to Catholicism and found his niche as an activist by lifting up the work of Catholic writers who challenge the social and clerical status quo.

The changing face of American social movements

Even while activists such as Ellsberg were learning from Dorothy Day, the 1970s brought with it a shift in the face of American Catholicism, and the face of Catholic activism changed along with it. Immigrants still made up a large percentage of American Catholics, but these new immigrants had black, brown, and Asian faces instead of white ones. As the Vietnam War staggered to a close, so did the anti-war movement. Protest movements became edgier; the emergence of the Weathermen, the Black Panther Party, the Chicano Power movement, the Asian American Political Alliance, the American Indian Movement, and the fight for LGBT rights showed the nation a different face and a different kind of political messaging.

This same kind of fierce messaging, however, empowered Catholics of color to speak up and demand change in the church. Matthew Cressler, the author of Authentically Black and Truly Catholic (NYU Press), says that the deaths of Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X led black Catholics to issue a statement in 1970 calling the American Catholic church a “white racist institution” and calling for black Catholics to exercise “self-determination.” They stated that racism is a categorical evil and that black Catholics, including clergy, needed to call out church leadership for racist behavior, and they called on black clergy to bring black liberation messages into their liturgies and communities.

This, in addition to the rising Chicano Power movement embodied in Chavez and his UFW collaborators, presented what Cressler calls a challenge to “the normativity of Euro-American ways of being Catholic.” As the American Catholic Church became less white in the following decades, Catholics of color and their white allies would turn out to be prophetic in calling the church to repent for its racist legacy, including its history of slaveholding clergy.

But in the 1980s, Catholic activism effectively went underground as evangelicals ascended into powerful government positions. No longer making headlines, no longer able to shift social policy as effectively as it may have done in the past, Catholic activism changed. At the same time, John Paul II’s papacy reoriented the church toward issues of the physical, individual body rather than the collective body.

With the deaths of Merton, Day, and the Berrigans, younger Catholic activists needed to find new role models, and they were just as likely to find those models outside of the church as within it. While this new generation is still answering the gospel call to radical discipleship, increasingly they hear it outside of institutional church structures. Much as the first generations of American Catholics in social movements were the product of their times, so are current ones. And the times they live in are as dark and foreboding as any that have come before.

This feature is the first in a two-part series on Catholics in social movements throughout U.S. history and appears in the February 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 2, pages 12–16). The second part of the story focuses on today’s Catholic activists and will be published in the March 2019 issue.

Image: Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries

Published: 
Thursday, January 31, 2019

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