Reimagining American Community

Dorothy Day (right) at the Kansas City Catholic Worker house in a photo first published in July 1974. National Catholic Reporter / Albert de Zutter

Assuming, perhaps tenuously so, that the United States still qualifies as a democratic republic, we do well to remember that in such a democracy, the people supervise the state through regular elections, the peaceful exchange of power, the free press, and citizen-led advocacy groups. However, French Catholic political philosopher Jacques Maritain maintained these are not enough. Less obvious but more fundamental, the men and women who make up political society must be willing and able to govern themselves in their daily affairs so that they can develop and maintain the capacity to offer to those in authority programs, initiatives, and reforms which serve their needs and their good and which thus truly come from them, from the roots.[i] The capacity of the people to fulfil this responsibility is significantly limited by an overreaching State that lulls people to sleep with welfare programs which handicap and entertainment which anesthetizes. Another means is necessary to awaken the people, what Maritain calls the “means of spiritual warfare.”

Spiritual warfare cannot rely on material force but rather reflects the principle act of fortitude, which is not the courage to attack, but that of bearing suffering patiently, courage in enduring.[ii] This was most precisely the poor means to which Maritain referred in his earlier work Freedom in the Modern World and which so influenced and captivated the Catholic Workers’ call for pure means. These spiritual means are vital in the struggle “of the people to maintain or gain control over the State” and in the struggle of Christians “to transform civilization by making it actually Christian.”[iii]

They are the existential element which serves to foster the dynamic political movement that is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. This activity is generally accomplished by the work of the few, “the prophetic shock minorities.”[iv] If democracy is government by the people, then the people need prophets to awaken them to “something better than everyone’s daily business,” to the fact they are the people.[v] Maritain suggests Gandhi and Thomas Jefferson as prophets in this sense. We might add Martin Luther King, Jr.[vi]

In light of the historical circumstances surrounding the rise of modern democracy, that is, its connection with liberalism and absolutism, the modern democracy needs Christian prophetic minorities to awaken the people to their dignity as persons who are not mere individuals, to the freedom and justice on which legitimate democracy depends, and to the sovereignty of God who alone possesses the transcendent independence and power for such a claim.

Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and the Catholic Worker movement represent just such a prophetic minority and offer lessons for building a new society in the shell of the old. They recognized the importance of going to the roots, and consistently going back to them, in order to remain radical in the best sense of the term. Dorothy explained, “If we do not keep indoctrinating, we lose the vision. And if we lose the vision, we become merely philanthropists, doling out palliatives. The vision is this. We are working for ‘a new heaven and new earth, wherein justice dwelleth.’ We are trying to say with action, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ We are working for a Christian social order.”[vii] Maritain would go a step further, stating that “the democratic state of mind…cannot exist without [the inspiration of the Gospel].”[viii] Thus, when Dorothy saw the poor and the worker being driven into destitution, when she saw the violence of a system which prioritizes the wealth of the few over the good of the many disintegrating into forms of tyranny, then she recognized the Christian responsibility to wake up political society. Dorothy explained their position well in the June 1940 edition of the Catholic Worker: “Instead of gearing ourselves in this country for a gigantic production of death-dealing bombers and men trained to kill, we should be producing food, medical supplies, ambulances, doctors and nurses for the works of mercy, to heal and rebuild a shattered world.”

I think we at Solidarity Hall share much of this mission. Our focus is more local than Dorothy’s often was. I am closer to Peter Maurin here, who was known to quip, “strikes don’t strike me.” He wasn’t interested in political posturing, but he was interested in the works of mercy, community building, and getting back to the land. Nevertheless, C-Labs (community-building teams) can be radical and prophetic alternatives, attempts to build something new within the shell of the old, and a renewal of substantive community life is sorely needed. What can we learn from Dorothy, Peter, and the Catholic Workers here?

Through their placement of farming communities as a plank of their social theory, their persistent return to the Gospel, their avoidance of the radio and other technologies, Dorothy and Peter bore witness to the importance and power of withdrawal for the sake of waking up. Many are now drugged into evil indifference by opiates and alcohol, but more often by soft cushions, excessive consumption, and glowing screens. Dorothy Day’s prophetic minority can both remind us of the need for withdrawal from internet opiates and evil economics in order to become community. But, if we aren’t willing to be on the front porch with our neighbors, to stop hiding behind our phones and our fences, nothing will change.

Their integration of monastic and liturgical piety with personalist radicalism allows them to transcend the many polarizations of modern society. They do not neatly fit labels. The too common race riots, gender tyranny, and capitalist cronyism, school shootings, instances of euthanasia, and attacks on the unborn, make it clearer now than it was when Dorothy said: “People are just beginning to realize how deep-seated the evil is. This is why we must be Catholic Radicals, we must get down to the roots.”[ix] Deep rootedness in the dynamism of the Gospel placed Catholic workers outside the binary cultural categories and empowers them to bridge the gap, to be a force for unity in a splintering world. Today they can show us how to offer a third way to a troubled world and how to find the common unity any just community. Even if everyone in our community isn’t on the same page with regard to religion or politics, often shared projects on a local scale can move beyond those differences. This is why we cannot ignore the centrality of the Works of Mercy as the means for change in the CW movement. Sharing in performing the Works of Mercy and performing for others in our community is the best way to build the love that transcends divisions and pulls us out of lonely isolation.

And so, with Jacques Maritain, we ought to place our hope in prophetic minorities to remind us that the Works of Mercy are prerequisites for changing the social order, especially locally, in our own communities. As Dorothy believed “There is nothing that we can do but love, and dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as well as our friend…We are supposed to love as Christ loved…That was the New commandment. To love to the extent of laying down our lives, dying to ourselves. To accept the least place, to sit back, to ask nothing for ourselves, to serve each other, to lay down our lives for our brothers, this is the strange upside-down teaching of the Gospel.”[x]


[i] Maritain, Man and the State, 67-68.

[ii] Cf. Thomas Aquinas, ST II-II q. 123, a. 6.

[iii] Maritain, Man and the State, 70.

[iv] Maritain, Man and the State, 139.

[v] Maritain, Man and the State, 140.

[vi] Maritain, Man and the State, 141.

[vii] Dorothy Day, “Aims and Purposes,” in Modern Spiritual Masters: writings on contemplation and compassion, edited by Robert Ellsberg (New York: Orbis, 2011), 169; italics in original.

[viii] Maritain, Christianity and Democracy, (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1972), 49.

[ix] Dorothy Day quoting Peter Maurin in “Peter Maurin 1877-1977,” in The Catholic Worker, May 1977, 1, 9. Accessed at:

[x] Dorothy Day, “Love is the Measure,” The Catholic Worker, June 1946, 2. Accessed online at:

About the Author
Joshua Brumfield is Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of Holy Cross in New Orleans where he is Chair of the Theology Department and Coordinator of Undergraduate Theology. Josh is also the Vice Chair of the Board for the Newman Idea. He currently resides with his wife and children in New Orleans, where there are working with other families to develop community.