Dorothy Day and Catherine de Hueck’s lessons for thinking

3 mins read

“The modern man looks for thought / so he can have light,” Peter Maurin wrote in one of the short poems he called “Easy Essays.” Dorothy Day’s inspiration, mentor and friend, and possibly a saint, Maurin believed that everyone needed to think about the world in which they lived. The poor aren’t just people with needs, they’re people with minds. And so are the average, everyday middle-class Catholics.

But the Church doesn’t really encourage us to use our minds. In theory, yes. A bishop writing in his diocesan newspaper might encourage his people to read the latest papal encyclical or a good book he likes, and that’s good. But few if any of his parishes will organize people to do that. The bishop won’t be urging his priests to start reading groups. That’s not how parish life works these days.

The great Catholic social movements of the last century, now so lionized, insisted on learning in a way few if any movements do today. Maurin and Day’s Catholic Worker house on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for one. Most Catholics know about and admire that one. Others did as well, like Catherine de Hueck’s Friendship House in Harlem and the now not well-known Antigonish movement in the Canadian Maritimes.

The Catholic Worker community had “a little taste of homelessness and hostility,” Day wrote in her diary in 1950. They needed a new home and didn’t have enough money to buy one, with the archdiocese opposed and time running out. “It occupies so much of one’s thoughts, one can well see how people can think these days so little of God.”

Even then, suffering all that stress, she found thinking about the world a blessing. The house sponsored a lecture every Friday. The workers came as did a good many of the people they served. “There was a gentle breeze after a hot day and there was room for the 50 who were there to listen to a good talk on Augustine and Thomas, and the soul and heart expanded in joy and worship and thankfulness that even here now, in the midst of stress and anguish, one can hold fast to goodness, truth, beauty ineffable.”

Because Day’s movement saw learning and study as normal and normative, they drew in for the teaching a lot of the people who came to them for help. De Hueck saw this as well. The English Catholic writer Maisie Ward lived not far from the Friendship House in Harlem during World War II. In her autobiography “Unfinished Business” she wrote: “Each house had its library as well as its bread-line, discussion groups as well as clubs and clothing rooms. … The books read and reread were such as ‘Dawson’s Religion and the Modern State,’ Fanfani’s ‘Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism,’ and the papal encyclicals.” Those aren’t easy books.

“We Catholics,” de Hueck said, “live under the illusion that we must ‘talk down’ to the workers. We worry about their ‘understanding’ the encyclicals and decide against having them read or explained publicly — this is in spite of the fact that Communists have been reading these same encyclicals to millions of workers only to criticize them.”

Day, de Hueck and the Antigonish people clearly saw knowledge as liberating. Not primarily practical or technical knowledge, but knowledge of how the world works and, more deeply, of how God works in the world. We learn this only through study, and study through reading. One can absorb a lot from watching people, talking with them, hearing homilies, etc., but those train one’s feelings and instincts more than they teach one’s mind.

Of course, people like Day and de Hueck would think that, you may think. She was an intellectual. We tend to assume that only intellectual types read hard books and think about hard subjects. Indeed, that only they can. It’s a modern error. A convenient error, if I may say this, for people who don’t want to think well, because thinking well takes work. More work than reading your favorite websites.

Take the hot button issues that constantly come up in different ways, like “capitalism” and “socialism” or “freedom” and “government.” They’re not simple matters to understand. What does the Church teach about the way the market works and whether it works well enough? What does she teach about the government’s responsibility to care for people the market hasn’t helped, or has actively hurt? What does the Church say about individual rights and government authority in managing public health?

The Church and her thinkers have thought a lot about these matters and offer a subtle understanding of the issues that isn’t what you’re likely to get from your favorite websites, left or right. You have to read a lot, carefully, with others who also want to think with the Church’s mind, and with the guidance of people who’ve already done the work. There’s no other way to do it.

David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.

David Mills

David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.