Reading or watching the news is often a trying experience. So many senseless killings, public scandals and unrelenting political vitriol. There is one newspaper, though, whose pages I look forward to reading. An issue still costs the same as when it was first published in 1933, a penny a paper — 25 cents for a yearly subscription.
I’m speaking of The Catholic Worker, the newspaper that Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded, now in its 90th year. Day and Maurin launched the in the midst of the Great Depression. They sought to draw attention to events and causes that might inspire others to work for a more just and merciful world. Or, as Maurin was fond of saying, “to create a society where it is easier for people to be good.”
It seems apt this Labor Day weekend to honor the 90-year legacy of The Catholic Worker. On the front page of its first issue, Day described the readers whom she hoped the paper would attract:
“For those who are huddling in shelters, trying to escape the rain, for those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work, for those who think that there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight, this little paper is addressed.”
Day once said that The Catholic Worker would never stop writing about poverty lest “people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.” Today, you will find vivid stories in its pages of the inhuman conditions asylum seekers suffer in their quest to find a home in the U.S. and what it is actually like for a family of four to live below the ridiculously-low federal poverty level.
Over the decades, The Catholic Worker took controversial and pioneering positions. The paper editorialized against Nazism and anti-Semitism before World War II broke out; condemned the atomic bomb one month after it was dropped; warned against U.S. involvement in Vietnam as early as the 1950s; fervently supported the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and was among the early champions of the striking California farm workers in the 1970s.
The newspaper never wavered in its opposition to war, which Day considered opposed to all gospel values and a key cause of suffering for society’s most vulnerable. Day and her followers were labeled national traitors for opposing the U.S. entry into World War II.
Every time I open the current pages of The Catholic Worker, I find the kinds of articles I wish I saw more frequently in the mainstream media. Last summer, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the paper ran a front-page story written by a woman who had become pregnant at age 19 in her second year of college. “I had become what U.S. society ridicules and despises: an unwed Black teenage Mom,” Alessandra Harris wrote.
Harris chose to give birth. She described the support system that helped her raise her child. She also wrote about other young women she knew who were less fortunate. Those women, she said, “made the hardest choice of their lives and chose to have abortions.” What was striking was the compassion with which Harris wrote of those who made a different decision. “Though I always encouraged them to choose life, I also refused to judge them when they didn’t,” she said.
The most recent issue of The Catholic Worker contains excellent articles on the American peace activists who have traveled to Ukraine to help people there engage in non-violent acts of resistance against their Russian invaders.
In its 90 years, newspaper has been edited by writers who went on to become distinguished authors and peace activists, including Jim Forest, Robert Ellsberg, and Tom Cornell. Day’s granddaughters, Martha and Kate Hennessy, sometimes write for the paper and Tom Cornell’s son, T. Christopher Cornell, is an associate editor.
Occasionally, the paper will republish articles or talks by Day herself, who never stopped seeking the transcendent amid the misery she often witnessed at the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality where she helped to feed and house the poor, the ill, the alone and marginalized.
In a talk called “The Holy and the Ordinary,” Day told of men who would line up for food at the New York Catholic Worker soup line, reading a copy of the New Testament as they waited to be fed. “When I saw them reading in this way, I could only accept this as another incident of transcendence,” Day wrote. “It was their destitution which they had transcended. They were poor men, they were not destitute men.”
She wrote too of her mother’s last day on earth. “She sat up in bed, and sipping a cup of tea, remarked on how comforting it was. She had taken up a little bouquet of violets, her favorite flower, and holding it up to her face, smiled with happiness. Life was sweet, even in her last illness.”
Day’s politics once were attacked by members of the Catholic clergy and even some of her fellow Catholics. Her bishop even suggested she remove the name ‘Catholic’ from the paper. Now she is on a path to canonization. The church has given her the honorific, “Servant of God.” While she once reportedly said, “Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily,” she was surely, in every way, a servant.
This Labor Day weekend, please consider subscribing to The Catholic Worker. There is no way to subscribe online. You must mail your 25 cents to the St. Joseph Catholic Worker House at 36 First Street, New York, New York 10003. Every month or so, a folded broad sheet will arrive in your mailbox full of news we can use — and truly need.