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Degrees of Theology

in the Catholic Worker Movement

It is proposed to create a Chair of Catholic Worker Theology in Notre Dame and other American universities in honour of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. But as this author sees it, the best way to undermine a radical movement is to institutionalise it. The CW should stay as it is, on the margins.

By Brian Terell

When I left college to live at the Catholic Worker houses in New York City in 1975, I was not so much ending my education as beginning it. There was as much or more reading going on at First and Third Streets as there was at St. Norbert College. The books and articles we read were discussed over the soup with infinitely more insight and with a deeper sense that the ideas and events in them really mattered. Scholarship was prized; formal academic credentials were mostly ignored as irrelevant class distinctions.

At the age of 19, I was one of the youngest in the community. I had many tutors, older men and women of vast experience who took interest in what I was reading, who wanted to tell a younger person their stories and opinions. I did get more advice than I wanted, but nobody, except for visiting teachers, ever suggested I return to school.

One who was not shy about giving advice to this ignorant child was Dorothy Day. Dorothy never told me to go back to college, but she did tell me to go to jail, an experience she deemed essential to a well rounded education and to an understanding of American society.

In the early '80s, while I was at the C.W. in Davenport, Iowa, our community had a happy and productive and challenging relationship with many students and faculty members from St. Ambrose College. These scholars cooked and served meals for us and our guests, prayed with us, and took part in unending discussions on the topics of the day. Some teachers were happy their students were spending time hanging around with us and with the homeless, recognising that a better education could be pursued at our house and on the surrounding streets than by four years exclusively under the oaks of St. Ambrose.

Others were not so pleased. Administrators cringed when local newspapers reported on St. Ambrose students refusing to register for the draft. Seminarians arrested with us at the Rock Island Arsenal were warned by the college chaplain that they were jeopardising their future careers with the church by praying and acting with us in the cause of peace and on behalf of the the poor.

Many of these students, upon graduation or dropping out, spent several years at C.W. houses or doing other good work. I pray they are all well and am grateful for all they brought to us it was an education for us at the Catholic Worker as well as for the students, their parents, teachers, and for the community at large. The relationship between the C.W. and academia in Davenport during those years was real and it was fruitful. It was not institutional, though, nor could it have been.

Proposals are now being considered that would give the Catholic Worker and the thought of its founders, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, a formal, institutional place in the curricula of more than one prestigious Catholic university. Among these is the suggestion for a "Chair of Catholic Worker Theology" at the University of Notre Dame. An alumni group at Notre Dame is also working to raise two million dollars to endow (read: put out to usury) a "Dorothy Day Chair of Catholic Nonviolence". At the University of St. Thomas, two theology professors have proposed (and are now thoughtfully rethinking) a C.W. degree: "...a concentration in the thought of the Catholic Worker in the M.A. program in Catholic Studies". Interestingly, these schools that would like to add the Catholic Worker to their curricula also offer R.O.T.C. and express great pride in the contributions their institutions have made to this country's military culture.

I fear these well intentioned efforts are steps toward the institutionalisation of the movement, steps that would reduce the Catholic Worker to a tame academic discipline comfortable within the institutional confines of the university. The folks at U. of St. Thomas say, "We want to help heal some of the breach between academic life and the practice of the Catholic Worker movement". I see this "breach" as an identifying characteristic of the movement."Heal" it, and the Catholic Worker will be something it never was, something its founders never intended.

Even with these programs in place, the student seriously interested in studying the Catholic Worker will need to drop out in order to do it. A Catholic Worker course of study is best pursued not in the classroom or lecture hall but on the picketline, the soupline, in the doorway of an arms factory, in prison, weeding the garden, canning tomatoes, at the bedside of the dying, or thumbing a ride on the freeway.

In support of these academic proposals we are reminded of what great scholars Peter and Dorothy were. That they were scholars is true. It is also true that they were definitely not academics. Dorothy dropped out of the University of Illinois after one year. When Peter (who left the Christian Brothers before finishing his training) met Dorothy, he told her she needed to get a Catholic education but certainly did not send her to a Catholic university!

Peter Maurin used to anger presidents of Catholic colleges by urging the student bodies he was asked to address to quit school and get a real education on a farm! The oral tradition tells the story of how when Peter was invited to visit (and admire) the beautiful new campus of the Franciscan Duns Scotus College, he could only run around waving his arms crying, "The Bankers! ! The Bankers!"

Peter quoted Robert Louis Stevenson: "You cannot, and all our education is to try to find out how we can, serve two masters, God and Mammon". The search for a way to serve both God and Mammon could even be a mission statement for St. Norbert College, the school I dropped out of many years ago. Maurin and Stevenson have identified, I think, the guiding principle of almost every mainstream American church-affiliated high school, college, and university.

One of the many ironies of these proposals is that neither Peter Maurin nor Dorothy Day would have been academically qualified to sit in a "chair of Catholic Worker theology". One of the many ironies of these proposals is that neither Peter Maurin nor Dorothy Day would have been academically qualified to sit in a "chair of Catholic Worker theology". They spoke of educating the people on the street, not by getting them into schools but by bringing seminars, lectures, and discussions to hospitality houses and farms. Of special concern to Peter was the training and education of unemployed and unskilled graduates of Catholic universities.

This calls to mind the story of how when St. Francis of Assisi returned from a mission of peace, his "anti-Crusade" to the Holy Land, he found that the little brothers he left behind in Italy had abandoned the path Jesus had given him.So flagrant was their apostasy that they had dared to open a house of theological studies! St. Francis took direct action to correct this grievous fault and climbed up to the roof, prying loose tiles and bricks which he showered on his horrified brethren below! He'd have torn the whole building down with his own hands, too, except that cooler headed, more responsible, better educated Franciscans took stock of this disgraceful spectacle and called the cops on their Holy Founder. I wonder if the Catholic Worker is not at a similar "moment of truth" in our own history and if we are, I pray our movement comes out of this with more of our intent and spirit intact than has the Order of Friars Minor.

Some insist that marginalisation by the intelligentsia at American Catholic universities is harming the movement and hope that academic chairs and graduate programs will ensure the Catholic Worker the respect it deserves in those high places. True social change, however, is not won by appealing to and being accepted by the institutional and intellectual centres of what Dorothy named "this filthy, rotten system", even when these centres are universities named after saints or the Mother of God. True change is pursued from the margins building instead new centres that include all those presently shut out, a "new society in the shell of the old", in the words Peter borrowed from the Wobblies.

Despite being recommended by Jesus as a beatitude, being marginalised and dismissed is often hard. It is human and entirely understandable that some seek to have the Worker become respected, even accepted as a credible "theology", by the great thinkers of a great university. (We'll know we've "made it" when we have our own academic chair!)Marginalised, however, standing not with the tenured but with the criminalised, with the unemployed, the despised, the refugee, is exactly where the Catholic Worker belongs.It is our vocation, a blessing we can welcome and rejoice over when we are found worthy to be treated as the prophets were before us.
  Brian Terrell, of the Strangers and Guests C .W. Farm in Maloy, Iowa has not yet completed his education as a Catholic Worker, after more than twenty years with the movement. He has studied at hospitality houses, farms, and monasteries and includes, in his CV, court awarded residencies at some of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons' more prestigious institutions.

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