Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Catholic Worker

"The trouble with the world is that the man of action does not think and the man of thought does not act." -- Peter Maurin.

Short, stocky, unkempt and possessed of a strong French accent, Peter Maurin pushed his way into the cloistered consciousness of Catholic America, posing as the belching tramp at the country club picnic to call attention to the religious component of political issues such as economic inequality, workers' rights, anti-Semitism and the U.S. war machine.

Born on this day in 1877 in Oultet, Languedoc, France, the son of a landowning farmer, Maurin became a novice in the Christian Brothers order at age 16, and during his early adulthood (after his vows expired in 1903) he worked with Le Sillon, a pro-democratic, anti-capitalist Catholic youth movement. He soon left the movement, impatient with its being long on parades and short on substance. Influenced by the writings of Peter Kropotkin and Leon Bloy, Maurin cultivated the impoverished lifestyle of the wandering manual laborer, arriving in the U.S. in 1911 to work in the Pennsylvania coalfields and in other physically demanding jobs. He also dressed the part, wearing rags and bathing rarely.

While acting as a caretaker at a Catholic day camp, he gave free French lessons at an artist's colony in Woodstock, New York, traveling to New York City on the weekends to read in the public library and talk to the radicals in Union Square. Informed by his reading and experience among the social outcasts, Maurin began to aggressively advocate "Utopian Christian Communism," which featured voluntary poverty (so as to decrease dependence on government), Christian communal housing and a return to agriculture and manual craftsmanship, with worker ownership of the means of production.

Through his radical connections he met Dorothy Day, a Catholic journalist who eventually masterminded the development of a movement based on Maurin's philosophy, named after the newspaper the two founded in 1933, the Catholic Worker. Maurin contributed regularly to the newspaper, writing "easy essays," short expositions of social observation sharpened with expressions of Catholic faith.

Although Maurin was perhaps more radical than some of his colleagues (he sometimes gave frigid support to unions and Roosevelt's New Deal on the grounds that they perpetuated capitalism), the Catholic Worker movement attracted young Catholic intellectuals and inspired the establishment of several Catholic communal farms. From his position of influence, he spoke out against Catholic support of Franco in Spain, the bigotry of Father Coughlin, and U.S. involvement in World War II -- all the while continuing to work at manual jobs. He retired due to ill health in 1944, and when he died on May 15, 1949 in Newburgh, New York, he was buried in a donated burial plot wearing a donated suit.



Blogger Steve Hayes said...

Thanks for that -- I'd heard of him, but your biography was more concise and clearer than most.

9:30 AM  

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