Peoria, Tazewell, And Woodford: Here, There & Everywhere

A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement by William D. Miller, reviewed by Mike Foster.

Dorothy Day


While the gospel mandates for charity, kindness, and peace have sparked many to respond in words, far fewer have responded in deeds.

Dorothy Day did.

The Catholic Worker movement that she and Peter Maurin began on May 1, 1933, was designed to work in three ways to embody their “personalist” philosophy: hospitality houses that fed and clothed the poor; communitarian farms that broke away from capitalism; and a newspaper that was a voice for those goals and others, like pacifism and integration.

In this 1973 biography of Day and history of the Catholic Worker movement, inseparably entwined like the red rose and green briar of the folk song, Marquette University historian Bill Miller writes that “The particular kind of economic and social anarchism that she and her friends did espouse was one that had been set forth in the thirties by a group of English Catholics who styled themselves ‘Distributists.’ Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and Father Vincent McNabb urged a rejection of machine technology and urban civilization in favor of a system where the value of creative work would take precedence over mass-production goals. This would be done by a return to simple, self-contained agrarian, handicraft society, which, in view of the industrialist-capitalist crisis at hand, seemed plausible.”

She converted to Catholicism in 1927, two years after the birth of her daughter Tamar, whose father refused to marry her. For all her ructions with the Catholic hierarchy, she never turned away from the Church: “Where else shall we go?…Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”

Day credited the French-born peasant-philosopher Peter Maurin, who she met in 1932 when he was 55 and she 20 years younger, as the movement’s catalyst. Moving to America in 1909, he incarnated the first beatitude: The poor in spirit are blessed with the Kingdom of heaven.

In Day, Maurin found a talented writer who would be the voice of the movement. Sold, as it is still, for a penny a copy, the Catholic Worker newspaper articulated views that were often unpopular. Day lost many subscribers for her pacifistic platform during World War II and subsequent wars. She was jailed, vilified as a Communist, shot at.

Journalism and travel were both in her blood. Her newspaperman father had never settled in one place for long, and Dorothy would wander the country on long bus and train journeys which inspired some of her most luminous prose.

Miller’s book is at its best recounting the early days of the Catholic Worker houses and farms and the colorful characters who populated them. By its principled stance against accepting any government assistance, the movement’s task became more difficult but more uncompromising than it would have been.

Reissued in a new paperback edition by Marquette University Press, with photographs from Marquette’s archives and errata corrections by archivist Phillip Runkel, A Harsh and Dreadful Love chronicles this great and ongoing experiment with living out the mandates of the Sermon on the Mount in modern times. Miller later published the more comprehensive and less hagiographic Dorothy Day: A Biography in 1982; this earlier book is as much the story of the life of the Catholic Worker movement as of its foremost figure.

Day died in 1980, at 83. The movement lives on, with over 150 communities worldwide.

As Dostoyevsky wrote and Day reiterated, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing.”

But what other love will do in a world too often harsh and dreadful?  Only courageous and conscientious love like the kind Dorothy Day embodied seems fitting.




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This entry was posted on March 7, 2016 by in Uncategorized.
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