Radical Orthodoxy: Civil Religion and the Witness of the Catholic Worker (Part 2 of 2)

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by Christopher Klopp

(Editor's note: In last week's ePistle, Christopher Klopp asked, "Is there any hope that American Christians may unlearn this false [civil] religion, or are we so mired in our culture's way of thinking that we can no longer recognize the radical nature of God's Kingdom?" And he asserted, "To be truly Christian the people called evangelicals need to remember what our name signifies, to re-learn the gospel…, we desperately need examples of how to follow Christ authentically…." Here follows part 2 of this essay, a discussion of the example we find in the Catholic Worker Movement.)

One of the most challenging of these witnesses is the Catholic Worker Movement (CW). Founded during the Depression, this predominately Roman Catholic social justice movement shares many traits in common with evangelical Protestantism. Noticing these connections may help us to see that a truly orthodox Christianity should lead to a rejection of the American ethos, not a legitimation of it.

In 1933 when the CATHOLIC WORKER newspaper was first published, Catholicism was engaged in the project of "Americanization." Having begun its career in the United States as an "outsider" to the dominant evangelical culture, subject to its prejudices and fears, the R.C. Church was working hard to convince Protestant Americans that Catholics were equally patriotic and could be model citizens. In the words of Archbishop James Ireland: "There is no conflict between the Catholic Church and America. I could not utter one syllable that would belie, however remotely, either the Church or the Republic, and when I assert, as I now solemnly do, that the principles of the Church are in thorough harmony with the interests of the Republic, I know in the depths of my soul that I speak the truth…"

Although evangelicalism had long been the national religion of the country, and Catholicism a newcomer, neither group saw any inherent conflict between nationalism and Christian religion. But when the first issue of the CATHOLIC WORKER newspaper addressed itself to unemployed workers during the Depression, it clearly sided with the victims of America's military-industrial complex and racial prejudice, thereby calling into question the validity of a close relationship between church and state.

The CW called Catholics back to their traditional theology, reminding them that the teachings of Jesus applied to all Christians (not just the saints), and that the militarism, capitalism and ethnocentrism inherent in the American ethos was incompatible with the best of Catholic teaching. Their project was essentially the same as Yoder's, to exhort people who considered themselves "orthodox" to live as if their orthodoxy meant something.

Although conservatives in the Catholic hierarchy saw their radicalism as an "innovation," Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin repeatedly emphasized their continuity with the tradition. In her writing, Day often drew on "the words of Christ who is with us always…our Pope, our saints, our priests," and proclaimed that "our manifesto is the sermon on the mount." Their intention was not to create a new theology, but to "blow the lid off" the "dynamite of the Church." The founders of the CW believed that the church could be a dynamic force for change, if it would simply follow its own teachings!

As Day and Maurin saw it, the central dynamic doctrine of the church was the Incarnation. They took Jesus' parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25) literally, finding Jesus in the "disguise" of ordinary people. This was a theme Day emphasized many times in her writings:

If you feed them, clothe them, shelter them, visit them in prison…, serve the sick, in general perform the works of mercy, you are serving Christ and alleviating poverty by direct action. If you are persecuting them, killing them, throwing them in prison, you are doing it to Christ. He said so… We must do it for love of Jesus, in His humanity, for love of our brother, for love of our enemy.

The christology of the CW emphasized both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus, but made no false dichotomy between the "Historical Jesus" and the "Christ of Faith." Instead, they stressed that since Jesus is Lord, his life on earth was normative for Christian discipleship. As Eileen Egan writes:

The dilemma facing Christians from the fourth century onward, of how to get around the Sermon on the Mount with its hard sayings of loving enemies and praying for persecutors without renouncing Jesus, did not present itself to Dorothy Day and the majority of those in the Catholic Worker movement. These and other hard sayings were at the core of the life of those committed to the movement.

Their commitment to follow the example of Jesus and obey the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount was expressed in direct action and personal involvement with the lives of those people who had been victimized by the capitalist system. It was Day's willingness to personally care for the homeless victims of the Depression by inviting several men to stay at her apartment that gave birth to the first "house of hospitality." There are now hundreds of these houses throughout the United States.

Like evangelicals, the CW places more emphasis on person-to-person direct action than on government intervention. In one essay Dorothy Day says,
"…it is not to discuss solutions proffered by government or city agencies that I wish to write…" Instead, she insists: "War, and the poverty of peoples which leads to war, are the great problems of the day and the fundamental solution is the personal response which each of us makes to the message of Jesus Christ."

CW volunteers live in the ghettos and barrios; they do not merely visit. They become personally involved in the lives of addicts, prostitutes, AIDS victims and criminals. They show through their praxis that God's love calls for a rejection of the present order and they strive to bring justice to the world as it is. While it is true that many evangelicals are also personally engaged in social activism, it often seems that the content of their activism is contrary to the spirit of the gospel. The majority of evangelicals in this country are middle-class supporters of socially conservative political agendas. They are relatively unsympathetic to the concerns of marginalized people, they give rather little of their time and money to charities, and yet they continue to claim that personal relationship is the way to change society.

At one time in their history evangelicals recognized that a personal love for Jesus and a respect for the Bible demanded active participation in the "works of mercy." Evangelicals were at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement and the effort to gain rights for women. They created hospitals and soup kitchens, and their charitable efforts helped to improve the quality of life for many people. Their piety and their social action were united. Unfortunately, the social conscience of most modern evangelicals seems to have atrophied.

My friendship with Catholic Workers and my study of their history and philosophy has taught me that many of the values they hold and practice are exactly the values held by conservative evangelicals. Day and Maurin called for a "return to the sources" of the faith, for an orthodox theology, and a commitment to the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. Hopefully the witness of the CW may serve to remind evangelicals of our heritage, and to call us to examine the content of the orthodox theology in which we claim to believe.

Perhaps if more evangelicals would heed the call of Christ in the radical manner of the CW, they would come to understand, like Day and Maurin, that Jesus is most truly found in the disguise of the poor and broken. Perhaps if we resisted the temptation to make our theology the servant of anti-Christian political agendas we could be shaped by the Bible's prophetic call to practice justice in this world, and learn how to live the "Good News" in the United States.

Christopher Klopp is earning his Master's degree in theological studies at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.


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1 Response

  1. Chris Middendorf says:

    It seems that in 21st century Social humanistic agenda we have created a US government that has come to the point where people in need turn to the government to supply their need Instead of God and his church. Removing the Bible from schools, welfare programs , Medicaid, social security and other programs of this nature which were once the area of the religious community are now the area that the government tries to supply the needs of the people. This secular approach with its no moral value run counter to what the Founding Fathers established at the foundation of our nation. The church in The Acts of the Apostles practiced Commonism not communism or socialism. Those with extra gave to take care of those in need which was shared in common. Nothing was demanded only requested. Far different from the heavy burden of taxation which is abused by government and recipients in the US today.

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