O let none say I Love until aware
What huge resources it will take to nurse
One ruining speck, one tiny hair
That casts a shadow through the universe:
We are the deaf immured within a loud
And foreign language of revolt, a crowd
Of poaching hands and mouths who out of fear
Have learned a safer life than we can bear.


New forms are beginning to take shape.
Once occupied minds are activating.
People are waking up
The insurgency is alive and well…
We are building up a new world.

In the last few minutes before sunset on July 10, 2008, a brilliant golden-red light infused the gymnasium at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Worcester, Massachusetts. Here, a decidedly remarkable group of people had gathered together: Catholic Workers from scores of Catholic Worker communities. Hundreds had traveled from across America and the world to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Catholic Worker movement. After an afternoon of smaller panels on a range of issues, everyone had joined together to collectively discuss “what the Catholic Worker has to say about the making of peace, and what do we need to do now?”[3] In those early days of July 2008 — as the American Presidential campaign began to heat up and anxieties ran high about military action against Iran — this conversation took on special gravity for a movement grounded in nonviolence. After the three panelists had opened with impassioned expositions of Catholic Worker peace efforts, the conversation shifted to open discussion. Individuals began to line up at the microphone.

The first speaker, an elderly woman who did not give her name, addressed a shocking challenge to the gathering: “What if Iran decides to come after us first, then what? We’re annihilated and that’s the end of it?” The question lingered in the air, charging the room with an unexpected tension. People glanced to one another and to the panel, palpably distraught. The silence, though only a few seconds, felt infinite.

Then — suddenly — someone cried out in a clear, deep voice from the audience: “Forgive ‘em!” The audience broke into loud, sustained applause and cheering. The tension dissolved instantly into a joy whose core reality is relief at having passed an important test. This question and response sparked a sprawling, lively discussion of differing views of the movement’s political future. A common conviction animated all those who rose to speak: For Catholic Workers, the practice of politics, within and beyond the movement, not only can — it must — be nonviolence at all levels of human society.

This refusal of violence poses a radical challenge to the dominant logic of modernity as it understands politics and social movements. While it is one thing to articulate a theory of nonviolence, it is quite another — many argue an inevitably failing thing — to practice nonviolence as the basis of politics and a social movement.

The existence and success of the Catholic Worker represents a riddle in modernity. For over 75 years and in over 200 communities, it has been an American social movement built around this outlook. Today, the contemporary Catholic Worker represents the single most sustained, widespread, and ongoing American social movement of nonviolence.[4]

There are three central areas of Catholic Worker daily practice — community, work, and faith. The interrelation of practices transforms the meaning of each individual practice. These transformations culminate in the archpractice of nonviolence, whose underlying logic is moral unity. All this amounts to what I call an “alternative logic of modernity,” which coheres and sustains the success of the movement at all levels. Yet, before engaging the heart of this argument — and the experience of the contemporary movement — I must provide the project’s historical backdrop, theoretical frameworks, and orientation to where it intervenes in current scholarship.

The Catholic Worker began at a moment of great crisis for modernity and a crisis in the life of an individual. Dorothy Day, a journalist involved with the interwar Greenwich Village Left scene and a recent convert to Catholicism, reached a point of despair when she covered the a massive march of unemployed individuals on Washington, D.C. in 1932. Witnessing the severity of material inequality in Depression America, she felt unable to reconcile her old Left passion for radical social justice and her new religion’s antiquated teachings on social change. Praying in the National Shrine, she returned to New York City to meet, for the first time, Peter Maurin — a wandering French peasant mystic.[5] The two soon began publishing The Catholic Worker newspaper, fusing American radical thought with Catholic theology. Almost unintentionally, Day and Maurin began welcoming homeless people to stay in their makeshift apartment. This became the first Catholic Worker community. The community rapidly expanded into a soup kitchen and a larger house. Soon communities began to appear in other American cities, spread by the newspaper or individuals who had stayed at the New York Worker.

World War II, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the use of nuclear weapons posed a series of challenges to the nascent movement’s nonviolence on scale far beyond the possibility of Iranian war feared by the first speaker at the 2008 National Gathering. In each case, the majority of the movement embraced redoubled advocacy for nonviolence.[6] During the 1950s Civil Air raids in New York City, anti-nuclear activism became even more central to Catholic Worker resistance under the charismatic influence of Ammon Hennacy.[7]

By the early 1960s, the movement had already been opposing American intervention in Vietnam and deeply engaging in the emerging Civil Rights movement.[8] In the late 1960s, Daniel and Philip Berrigan initiated the first acts of ultraresistance with the Catonsville Nine burning of draft files and, a few years later, founded Jonah House as a “community of resistance” with Liz McAllister.[9] In the 1980s, ultraresistance would produce the Plowshares movement.[10] Workers stood among the first (and few) to publicly oppose the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and emerged as some of the most committed voices against torture by American forces in Guantanamo and CIA “black sites” during the second Bush Administration.[11] Meanwhile, Plowshares actions have continued, with the latest occurring in New Zealand in April 2008.[12]

Today, as historian Dan McKanan notes, the movement is as strong and vibrant as ever in terms of sheer numbers of communities and range of activity.[13] The unofficial movement website,, lists 209 communities — 190 in the US and 19 abroad.[14] These communities engage in a diverse array of work. While the movement began with mostly Roman Catholics, Workers have come always (and increasingly) from a broad range of faith traditions.

During this time (1933- 2008), other movements, ideologies, and groups rose and often faded away within the American Left and America generally: the International Workers of the World, the Communist Party, Civil Rights, Black Power, feminism, environmentalism, the United Farm Workers, Students for Democratic Society (new and old), several anti-war movements, queer liberation, and alter-globalization campaigns. But the Catholic Worker has remained, variously influenced by and influencing many of these movements with a deceptively simple and small witness.

The Catholic Worker movement represents a rejection of the dominant logic of modernity. By “the dominant logic of modernity” I mean the process Max Weber calls “disenchantment” that increasingly regulates the interactions of self and society through rationality in capitalist, liberal, industrialized societies such as the United States.[15] In this thesis, I concern myself primarily with the way the dominant logic of modernity shapes understanding of political action and, thus, social movements. The core strategy of this politics is “moral compartmentalization,”[16] and the primary tactic is “legitimate violence.”17 The contrasts between these two logics, with an emphasis on the Worker’s critique and alternative to the dominant logic, provides the theoretical framing for the rest of the thesis, manifesting itself differently against the practices of work, community, and faith.

Tactics: Violence v. Nonviolence

Contrasting this primary tactic of violence with the archpractice of nonviolence throws into sharpest relief the contrast between the two logics. The dominant understanding of politics — and the warning against those who seek to replace its violent means with nonviolence — finds one of its most famous expressions in Weber:

Whoever wants to engage in politics at all, and especially in politics as a vocation, has to realize these ethical paradoxes… The decisive means for politics is violence… He who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics, for the quite different tasks of politics can only be solved by violence. The genius or demon of politics lives in an inner tension with the god of love… This tension can at any
time lead to an irreconcilable conflict.

In this passage, Weber culminates his assertion that one must choose between the “irreconcilably opposed maxims” of the “ethic of ultimate ends”[19] and the “ethic of responsibility.”[20] For Weber and the dominant logic of modernity, a politics whose means are not ultimately violent is not politics at all. However admirable an “ethic of ultimate ends” can be for some to embrace, this ethic “must go to pieces” on any political question because political efforts, even for “‘good’ ends” inevitably involve violence.[21] Because of this, Weber warns those who embrace an “ethic of ultimate ends…above all things…should not talk of ‘revolution.’”[22]

A Weberian analysis of politics cannot make sense of the Catholic Worker as a political option or as a social movement. Any nonviolent project cannot be a social movement because social movements are political. Social movements must have as their ultimate telos seizing or influencing state power to achieve social change, engaging in actual or structural violence. A social movement without a telos in achieving such violence can never “win.” Yet the Worker movement speaks of specifically nonviolent “revolution”; this chorus of Catholic Workers “speaking of revolution” can be summarized most famously in Day’s statement in the early 1960s that “[t]he greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?” It is a revolution that transforms the very meaning of politics in modernity.[23] Through such efforts, the Catholic Worker seeks to overcome the “abysmal” gap between a nonviolent ethic and political change, which Weber thought unbridgeable — the “ultimate Weltanschauugen clash.”[24] But from within the dominant logic of modernity, the possibility of a nonviolent politics seems closed. To activate this possibility, an individual or group must begin to dismantle the moral compartmentalization that legitimates forms of violence.

Strategy: Moral Compartmentalization v. Moral Unity

In the dominant logic of modernity, moral compartmentalization is the central moral-cognitive strategy with which individuals and social structures rationalize violence and inequality. Economic theorists, building on Weber[25], coined the term “moral compartmentalization” to develop a framework that brings the normative claims of morality into a mode of analysis that is quantifiable, “values-free,” empirically verifiable, and objective.[26] Understanding these theoretical re-expressions as distilled evidence of a general social psychology pattern in modernity reveals the core logic of moral compartmentalization.

Economist Timur Kuran asserts that modern social life has produced a tremendous level of “moral overload” through the embrace of liberalism.[27] The goal of economics and sociology, for him, is to find a way to “alleviate” this inevitable byproduct of modernity. He offers several strategies, focusing on moral compartmentalization, which “[restricts] the values relevant to each of many contexts.”[28] Importantly, Kuran posits moral compartmentalization as a laudable strategy for processing moral overload. He writes:

If the individual can learn to consider two values applying to separate contexts, he may lessen, even eliminate, his guilt… For example, he must enjoy financially motivated work in settings where his operative moral drive is monetary gain; likewise he must enjoy religious activity in settings where he feels morally compelled to worship.[29]

Kuran argues this strategy must expand beyond the individual level into a social ordering of values: “For moral compartmentalization to work, the society’s public discourse must separate the issues that generate moral clashes…it [must partition] human activities into spheres governed by distinct moralities.”[30] These “spheres [of] distinct morality” make possible the legitimatization of varying levels of violence in different areas of social life.[31]

The witness of the Catholic Worker movement has much to teach participants and scholars of the broader Left, America, and social movements. However, current scholarship largely fails to perceive and articulate these points of tension. I argue that this failure is not one of mere neglect. The alternative the Catholic Worker movement presents to the dominant logic of modernity is also a destabilizing challenge to the reigning paradigms of the field that might logically study it: Catholic Studies (and religious studies generally) and studies of the American Left (including scholarship on Left social movement theory and Leftist intentional community.)

Catholic Studies, as a scholarly field, strives to examine all issues — especially cultural productions of Roman Catholics — “through the lens of the Catholic intellectual tradition.”[32] Scholars have pigeonholed the Catholic Worker movement as adequately and completely describable as a form of “Catholic radicalism” and as simply an expression — usually an aberrational one — of Roman Catholicism in America. This simplification marginalizes discussion of “non-Catholic” elements of the movement, such as its deep roots in the American Left. These methodological biases and their attendant conclusions have critically impaired understanding of the movement. These problematic simplifications have been transmitted to studies of American Left social movements where the Catholic Worker movement would be best incorporated.

Scholarship on American Left social movements is virtually silent on the Catholic Worker movement. For example, in A People’s History of the United States — the definitive work of Leftist social movements in America — historian Howard Zinn does not mention the Catholic Worker once. This omission cannot be ascribed to mere ignorance.[33] He does briefly mention the ultraresistance of the Berrigan brothers, but renders this as a part of a “general revolt” in the Catholic Church and a “small” subcurrent of American society overall, rather than connecting it more substantially to wider Left anti-war activism.[34] He subsumes the resistance of the Berrigans into a Roman Catholic framework, even though ultraresistance involved non-Catholics. This suggests that he builds from the conclusions found in Catholic Studies and religious studies scholarship.

Such silences and misinterpretations can be best explained as a confluence of a facile acceptance of the conclusions of Catholic Studies and religious studies scholarship already discussed and two deep biases within scholarship of the American Left.

First, there is a widely recognized anti-religious bias of scholarship of the Left. Self-identified Leftist scholar Cornel West offers an incisive critique of this phenomenon, writing “most Leftist intellectuals and activists” within the West have displayed an “excessive hostility” towards religion, derived from “Enlightenment prejudices.”[35] These “hermeneutics of suspicion” have kept large strands of Leftist scholarship from “[taking] religion seriously.”[36] While this bias enters into many studies of the American Left — including Zinn’s — this alone cannot account for the absence of the Catholic Worker. Zinn is sensitive to the role of religion in some social movements, such as abolitionism and Civil Rights. There is something else about the Catholic Worker — at a more fundamental level — that renders it invisible to scholars of Leftist social movements.

The Catholic Worker destabilizes the dominant paradigm of social movement theory — derived from the dominant logic of modernity described above. Social movement theorist Lawrence Goodwyn, in his seminal study of Populism, articulates a paradigm of reading social movements that identifies four steps in movement-building:

(1) The creation of autonomous institution where new interpretations can materialize…“the movement forming” (2) the creation of tactical means to attract masses of people…“the movement recruiting” (3) the achievement of a heretofore culturally unsanctioned level of social analysis…“the movement educating”…(4) the creation of an institutional means where by the new ideas…can be expressed in an autonomous political way — “the movement politicized.”[37]

Goodwyn argues all four of these steps must be observed to interpret a social dynamic as a “movement.” In the American context, abolitionism and Civil Rights fit easily into the paradigm, culminating in the legislative victories.[38]

The Catholic Worker movement provides ample evidence of the first of Goodwyn’s four “stages” in the formation, spread, and sustained existence of over 200 communities incubating an alternative logic of modernity. Catholic Workers — individuals and individual communities —have supported or even led campaigns with concrete political goals (e.g. the Witness Against Torture). However, no efforts to create a Catholic Worker party, place Workers in positions of state power, or put the stamp of the movement on national legislation have ever been made. This situation is not accidental, but intentional. The Catholic Worker movement’s non-achievement of the fourth goal — “the creation of an institutional means where by the new ideas…can be expressed in an autonomous political way” — is a rejection of the telos and means of dominant social movement theory and practice. But, they provide an alternate telos — radical transformation of society towards greater equality.[39] From this alternative, the Catholic Worker derives logic profoundly different from the dominant logic of modernity.

The Catholic Worker defies the narratives of the major scholarly disciplines that could provide a site of study. The very destabilization and confusion generated by the movement within and between these disciplines indicates the challenge it poses to the dominant logic of modernity as a movement. A more comprehensive understanding of the movement requires the destabilization of disciplinary boundaries around the Catholic Worker. But this destabilization begins with the correction of the error common to most of the flawed scholarship: A regrounding in actual lived experience of contemporary Catholic Worker-inspired communities.

I return to National Gathering Peace-making Panel, where Claire Schaeffer-Duffy offered this articulation of the interrelation of the Catholic Worker practices of community, work, and faith, sparking the question that opened the Introduction:

The beauty, the genius of [the Catholic Worker movement] is that…from its very inception, it’s realized and practiced a…fundamental way of making peace… They embraced the outcast, the poor, the disregarded, the enemy… [T]hey did this by living with them, learning their stories, sharing these stories with others, even taking their side… They included wholeheartedly the excluded ones… Who merited that categorization changed over time, but always Catholic Workers made it their business to attend to the ill-considered, the unpopular… Christ not focused on a single issue or party…a Christ for the whole human person. This willingness, however fumbling…to embrace the outcast, is the first movement toward peace…. It really goes to the root…for we know that violence requires walls…reducing the other to an anonymous, one-dimensional entity…less than human.[40]

[This is my message:] [Keep] knowing the outsider, keeping the doors unlocked, crossing the borders…making friends with those we are told are our enemies…people we are asked not to consider… We know this is not easy; people are segregating themselves more and more… The country is at a point where violence is part of our national DNA… It’s deep within us, this idea that we are people that have to have the Bomb, have to have the walls. The way we can break this is to be faithful in a subversive, defiant way…if it’s an us-them reality that we’re in, let us go to the “them.”[41]

More than any other expression, these words convey for me the beating heart of the contemporary Catholic Worker movement: an interrelation of the practices of community, work, and faith, culminating in an archpractice of nonviolence and moral unity. This is the alternative logic of modernity the movement offers as a challenge to the dominant understanding of politics and social movements grounded in moral compartmentalization and powered by violence.

[1] Auden, “In Sickness and In Health” 112

[2] The Flobots, “We Are Winning”

[3] “Panel on Peacemaking,” Recording by author

[4] O’Gorman and Coy 267-268

[5] Day, The Long Loneliness 186-189; Day, Loaves and Fishes 3-12; Miller 33-78; Piehl, Breaking Bread 3-25

[6] Day, The Long Loneliness 295-307; Day, Loaves and Fishes, 71-95; Miller 154-201; Piehl, Breaking Bread 189-204; McNeal 26, 37, 41-42 67-68

[7] Day, Loaves and Fishes 166-187; Miller 216-302; Piehl, Breaking Bread 210-216

[8] Miller 79-81, 302-351; Piehl, Breaking Bread 216-239

[9] McNeal 173-213; Polner and O’Grady 195-352. “Ultraresistance” refers to the dramatic nonviolent actions that characterize the Berrigans’ protests against the Vietnam War through creative, nonviolent destruction of government property.

[10] The Plowshares movement, started in 1980 and heir to the ultraresistance tradition, carries out nonviolent property destruction of American military weaponry (especially nuclear-related.)

[11] Laffin, “Resistance Update” 4-5; “About Witness Against Torture”


[13] McKanan 2, 7-8

[14], Accessed November 18, 2008. It is important to note, however, that no process or structure exists to make a community “officially” a Catholic Worker community. Furthermore, some communities close for various reasons without notifying the site or the movement at large. Thus, no site or scholarship can immediately or comprehensively take into account every such community change.

[15] Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” 139

[16] Kuran 254

[17] Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” 78

[18] Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” 121, 125-126

[19] For example, a categorical commitment to nonviolence.

[20] A pragmatic, ends-means driven logic, backed up by force. Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” 120

[21] Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” 120-121

[22] Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” 120. By “revolution,” he means aspirations to social change.

[23] I hasten to emphasize again that this radical transformation is neither unique nor original to the Catholic Worker—Garrisonian Abolitionism, Gandhi’s Indian independence movement, and Kingian Civil Rights all represent social movements based on this alternative logic of modernity. However, unlike these examples (with the possible exception of Kingian Civil Rights) the Catholic Worker still exists in the contemporary day and far less has been written on it.

[24] Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” 117

[25] Weber foreshadows the notion of moral compartmentalization, writing: “We are placed into various life-spheres, each of which is governed by different laws” (Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” 139.)

[26] Kuran 231-267; Ben-Ner and Putterman 3-73

[27] Kuran 238

[28] Kuran 254

[29] Kuran 254

[30] Kuran 255

[31] For example, the American legal principle based on the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 forbids most uses of the military domestically, but poses no threat to its use outside of America.

[32] “Welcome to Catholic Studies!” Website of St. Thomas University, Center for Catholic Studies. Accessed November 20, 2008. St. Thomas University, claiming “the oldest and largest program” of Catholic Studies, describes this field as “a study of the Catholic intellectual tradition as a whole and how it shapes our understanding of politics, psychology, history, science, literature, theology and other aspects of
contemporary culture.” (, Accessed November 20, 2008.)

[33] He is clearly aware of the movement, as he includes writings of Dorothy Day in an anthology of nonviolent writings he edited (Zinn, The Power of Nonviolence: Writings by Advocates of Peace 47-53.)

[34] Zinn, A People’s History of United States 488-490, 538

[35] West, 372-375

[36] West 374-374

[37] Goodwyn xviii

[38] In the case of abolitionism, the 13th-15th Amendments. In the case of Civil Rights, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

[39] In this way, the movement is unequivocally Leftist.

[40] Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, Recording by author

[41] Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, Recording by author

Paul Nauert ‘09 is a Social Studies graduate from Dudley House.