The Catholic Worker After Dorothy:
Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation by Dan McKanan
Liturgical Press, 2008
240 pgs., $19.95
Reviewed by Chris L. Rice
The appearance of this slim volume finally gives the many Catholic Worker houses across the world their due. Dan McKanan, assistant professor in peace studies at the College of St. Benedict and St. Johns did hundreds of hours of interviews with Catholic Worker members and put in time himself in a communal kitchen in order to really understand his subject. The Catholic Worker After Dorothy accomplishes two goals simultaneously: it answers the movement’s serious critics who charge that after Dorothy Day’s death the movement has been on the wane, and it carefully unpacks the actual vision set up by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.
McKanan says that the Works of Mercy themselves form the hermeneutic by which to understand the creative differences in the many different approaches to the different Catholic Worker houses today. I find this compelling, especially since McKanan is candid about the many tensions within the movement. On issues such as abortion and gay unions different houses do hold very different views. The decision within the Movement overall to concentrate specifically on the Works of Mercy, showing hospitality and identifying with the least of these, seems to create space for disagreement and yet continued involvement.
Many, many different issues get raised within this book. How do families with children create space for themselves and still stay active with hospitality? What does nonprofit status do to the Catholic Worker vision? How does the movement include nonCatholics in its spiritual vision when the founders vision is so Christian in nature? These issues and many more are reviewed in this book. Dan is not afraid to ask the hard questions of this generation of members as they look to the future. He notes for instance that not as many houses are applying the Works of Mercy to this generation’s challenges as was done previously. Nor are they engaging recent papal encyclicals. In this way this is a challenge to continue the work by engaging the spiritual sources.
This book is important reading for anyone interested in doing community with the poor. It is ambitious in its scope, doing what many other histories neglect, namely the socialization process. This served as my first real introduction to the Catholic Worker movement. Reading it caused me to dig into the movement’s writings like the online Dorothy Day archive at catholicworker.org. It also caused me to finally go visit my neighborhood Catholic Worker house. I’ve found these to be sources of spiritual refreshment, and I’m sure this is only the beginning. One other source that I’ll be plumbing is Marquette University’s archive of audio/visual materials. I found out these are available through my local library’s interlibrary loan program. In Christian ministry we need all the witnesses we can get. Brothers and sisters on similar journeys. Saints whose lives testify to God’s enduring love for ordinary people. This book is a great point of entry.