How the Catholic Worker is and isn’t an Institution and How an Anti-Racism Statement can be Racist

A response to Lincoln Rice and “The Catholic Worker as Institution”

Brian Terrell, Strangers and Guests CW Farm

Lincoln Rice and Maria Bergh presented a powerful roundtable discussion at the national Catholic Worker gathering in Rochester this summer concerning racism and the CW movement. This followed a similar discussion with several Midwest CWs at Mary House in New York last year. Good advantage was taken of these opportunities for meaningful and constructive dialogue. I was particularly discouraged, then, that so much of the second issue of the Anti-Racism Review, as was the first one, is devoted to less than meaningful and constructive rehashing and defending the 2017 statement, Lament. Repent. Repair.

In Lincoln’s article, “Catholic Worker as Institution,” he purports to “address arguments against the open letter from longtime Catholic Workers—all white men who have been in the movement since before the 1980s.” “Their disapproval was communicated through an online CW discussion and for the purposes of this article I will not use their names. I would rather focus on their arguments” he says. “Those defending the statement share narratives that rightly illustrate the institutionalized shortcomings of the CW movement regarding racism. Those who disagree maintain that these shortcomings are only individual examples, since the CW is not an institution.”

As one of the white men who have been in the movement since before the 1980s who disapproves of the statement, I feel that our tradition of clarification of thought requires me to point out how the disapproval that I and the other old white men have expressed in the on line discussion is being misrepresented and falsified. Not naming us is not a kindness, but it aids in the process of maligning our positions, making of them images of straw all the easier to knock down or dismiss.

I assume that the other old white men referenced are Ciaron O’Reilly and Scott Schaeffer-Duffy. I am sorry if I am leaving anyone out and know that I might have missed something, but I am unaware of anyone raising the argument that Lincoln addresses in his article. While each of us rejects the accusation made in the statement that the Catholic Worker is a “racist institution,” the allegation that we dismiss or minimize our collective responsibility for racism in the movement as “only individual examples” is false, at least as it attributed to any of us.

From Scott’s contributions to the on line discussion that Lincoln references: “That activist communities like the Catholic Worker can be organized in ways that exclude, demean, or disempower racial groups is also racist. It is self-righteous to assume that any group is entirely free of bias, prejudice, and bigotry.” From Ciaron: “For our part, we in the Catholic Worker movement will continue to pursue the path of radical discipleship with the awareness what racism we find in our communities, we bring it, just like we bring in sexism, classism and all the other ‘isms’ that plague Empire America.” From me: “The authors of the open letter, Lament. Repent. Repair. ask the Catholic Worker movement some critical and essential questions to be addressed. The first, ‘Is there racism in the Catholic Worker?’ unfortunately, can only be answered in the affirmative. We have made our own the old Wobbly slogan, to ‘build the new society in the shell of the old,’ but with the shell of the old, we have retained too many vestiges of the evil of the old. For all of our critique of bourgeois culture, we have adapted to and adopted some it worst sins.” And “the Catholic Worker movement is not immune to the racism endemic to the broader culture and we have much to repent of.” And “institution or not, it is fair and accurate to say that the CW not blameless of institutional racism, that the movement is not ‘free from the clutches of racism and White Supremacy’”.

I am the old white man Lincoln quotes and whose position he misrepresents here: “Another critic did not explicitly deny the institutional nature of the Catholic Worker, but betrayed a misunderstanding of how racism functions. He wrote, ‘When Catholics or Catholic Workers are racists (as we all are at times) we are betraying what we claim to believe in. When a Klansman or a Nazi, on the other hand, is a racist, they are being true to their beliefs. When Catholic Workers are racist, to use the language of the open letter, it is despite our intentions. Klansmen and Nazis are racists because of their intentions.’ Essentially, he claims that the CW is not a racist institution because it is not the intention of the CW to be racist.” No, I do not.

Good intentions are never enough. There is an obvious distinction, though, between racism in the Catholic Worker, which Lincoln admits in his article “had always condemned racism,” for the more than 80 years of its history and the racism of the Nazi party, which for even longer has promoted a doctrine of racism, to what Martin Luther King described as its “ultimate logic,” genocide. Refusal to acknowledge that distinction is irresponsible and dangerous. It betrays a shocking misunderstanding of how racism functions, just as the statement’s strange silence on our county’s decades of racist wars suggests of its authors, in the words of Martin Luther King, “that they do not know the world in which they live.”

In the on line discussion, I questioned the statement’s lament- “Communities of color have been ignored, undermined, and undervalued in the Catholic Worker movement, particularly since the beginning of World War II, when pacifism became a greater focus for the movement,” suggesting instead that “it was particularly after the beginning of World War II that these and other communities of color got noticed.” I mentioned several communities of color that have been held in high esteem in the movement in general but ignored and undervalued by the authors of Lament. Repent. Repair, including Helen (Caldwell Day) Riley. (A poem by Helen, an associate editor of the Catholic Worker, originally published in that paper in 1963, “A Black Man’s Prayer,” was featured in the first number of the Anti-Racism Review, a small gesture by the editors at repair, but lamentably lacking in repentance.)

I confess that I also cited Llewellyn Scott, a Black man to whom Dorothy Day gave her last $5 for the first month’s rent on the first CW house in Washington, DC, and who was an important figure in the post war movement. (From Dorothy’s September 1961 column: “One of the highlights of that week end was meeting our dear friend Llewellyn who has been running the three houses called Blessed Martin House of Hospitality for almost twenty years now in Washington, DC) It might be noted that the disapproving old white man, Scott Schaeffer-Duffy, lived for years in a CW house named in honor of Llewellyn Scott. The existence of Llewellyn Scott, though, undermines the statement’s narrative that “Communities of color have been ignored, undermined, and undervalued in the Catholic Worker movement, particularly since the beginning of World War II”. It also questions the perception that the proposition that “we can create our own Jubilee by tithing money to support communities of color in their selfdetermined pursuits” is a new invention by the authors of Lament. Repent. Repair. and not a CW tradition of long standing.

Apparently, Llewellyn’s story is inconvenient to the “racist institution” narrative of the statement and so he is ignored, undermined, and undervalued by its authors. “We give lip service to the truth that the Movement needs more racial diversity, but this is often done without honoring the voices and aspirations of people of color in the Catholic Worker movement,” says the statement. In the on line discussion, both before the statement was published and after, to remember those voices and to honor the contributions of people of color past and present in our movement has been to be excoriated and called out for “distancing from our personal and institutional racism” by the statement’s supporters.

In the on line discussion, Brenna Cussen Anglada argued that I am wrong, citing that “one strong example of” communities of color being ignored, undermined, and undervalued in the CW, particularly since the beginning of World War II and pacifism’s increased prominence, “is Dr. Arthur Falls, a black Catholic physician, who opened a CW house in Chicago in the 1930s. …Lincoln Rice has written extensively about this.” (Arthur’s association with the CW was before the “the beginning of World War II,” a small matter.)

I had written about Arthur: “Shortly after Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded the movement, a black physician in Chicago, Arthur Falls, wrote a letter suggesting that on the masthead of the Catholic Worker newspaper be changed to include a black worker. Not ignored, his suggestion was taken up immediately and further, Dorothy appointed him the paper’s ‘Chicago editor’ and his columns were a regular feature in the paper for years.” Arthur himself believed that the CW was a strong ally to his anti-racism work, and Lincoln agreed with him when he wrote his book, Healing the Racial Divide. Lincoln explained to me that later, that “after years of looking at and processing info on the CW and race” he decided that Arthur was mistaken. Arthur Falls said that he found a great friend and ally in the CW. Lincoln says that he didn’t. There are plenty of primary sources of Arthur’s writings and interviews with him. Arthur Falls could and did speak for himself, but it appears that the supporters of the statement can overlook the voice of a Black man recounting his struggle against racism and choose to believe instead what a white man with a PhD says about him.

The distinction between the racism of a racist institution like the Nazi party and the racism found in a movement like the CW that Lincoln says betrays a misunderstanding of how racism functions is not something I made up. I got it from Arthur Falls. Considering the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ, Arthur knew that it was not Catholicism per se that was racist, but that racism was the result of the failure of Catholics to live up to true Catholic doctrine. Racism is a heresy. Racism in the Catholic Church, in the CW by extension, is a deviation from, not a fulfillment of what we claim to believe. I have heard Arthur speak about the racism that he encountered in the church, much of it blatantly intentional some of it unconscious. The distinction that Arthur Falls made between the racism of the Catholic which is heretical and the racism of a Klansman or Nazi, which is not, is lost on the authors of Lament. Repent. Repair. It was essential to Arthur, though. It enabled him to stay in the Catholic Church, despite the racism he experienced in it.

Lincoln warns that “to dismiss the unconscious culture of racism in the CW movement is to ignore significant harm” and I agree. The statement and the unrelenting, uncritical and increasingly weak defenses of it by some of its authors is evidence of how pervasive the culture of racism is in the CW, despite the best intentions of some of the best of us.

Lincoln’s promise that “this article will explain in what manner the CW is an institution” is not fulfilled. The best that can be said of the article is that it illustrates how it is possible for a less than careful reader of Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays to see it that way and be wrong. Yes, Peter liked institutions and hated corporations, but this does not mean that he intended the CW to be an institution or that he regarded it as one. There is no contradiction between what Peter said about institutions and Dorothy’s statement, “we are not organized as an institution of any kind.”

Yes, Peter did list his “three point program for society: (1) round table discussions, (2) houses of hospitality, and (3) farming communes” under the heading, “Some Institutions.” The word “institution” has several meanings, and Peter was a master at playing with such words. The oldest dictionary in our house is Webster’s Seventh Collegiate, copyright 1972, that might give better insight to what Peter was after than newer ones on line. The first definition offered is “an act of instituting.” (not much help, that), the second, “something that serves to instruct,” (better) the third, a, “a significant practice, relationship or organization in a society or culture” (yes!) and only at 3 b does the dictionary finally name “an established society or corporation esp. of a public character” an institution.

In our house, never decorating the Christmas tree before December 24 is an institution. In some households, Thanksgiving dinner at Gramma’s house is an institution. The talent show at Sugar Creek and Football Mary are institutions. When baseball is called an “American institution,” one is referring more to Amish kids playing ball on a new mowed hay field in Indiana or to kids playing stick ball while dodging cars in a street in the Bronx, for example, than it does to the major leagues. So it is that round table discussions, farming communes and houses of hospitality might be institutions under definitions 2 and 3 a, but is the Catholic Worker an institution under definition 3 b? No.

Lincoln quotes Peter saying: “An institution, says Emerson, is the extension of the soul of a person. Institutions are founded to foster the welfare of the masses. Corporations are organized to promote the wealth for the few.” As Webster puts it, an institution is “something that serves to instruct,” and Peter says, “It is in institutions that ethics are taught and acted upon.” So, anything that is not the extension of the soul, anything that does not instruct, does not teach or act on ethics, anything that does not foster the masses, is not an institution at all, in the sense that Peter (with Emerson) is using the word in this essay. Further, “When institutions take leaves from the book of business they are no longer institutions- they are corporations.”

The article “Catholic Worker as Institution,” imagines that “Peter Maurin would disagree with these critics on how an institution is defined,” but clearly it is the supporters of the statement that Peter would disagree with. That’s OK. Those who support the statement are free to disagree with Peter (remember “there is no party line” in the CW!). just as they disagree with Arthur Falls. It is less than helpful, though, less than honest, to invoke Peter’s support for a proposition as dubious as the one made in the statement. Lincoln notes how Peter was “systematic and precise” in his writing, but he is less so in in his reading of him. “For the purpose of this article,” the Easy Essays are used like some fundamentalists use the Bible, as a proof-text to bolster what they are already convinced is true.

The statement, Lament. Repent. Repair. was written, its authors claim, in the “language of critical race theory.” As one who lacks their educational advantages, I don’t know what that means.

The first issue of the Catholic Worker paper was written by two college dropouts “For those who are sitting on park benches in the warm spring sunlight. 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.” Judging by the language in which it is written, Lament. Repent. Repair. is clearly the work of more educated, more sophisticated class of Catholic Workers than were Peter and Dorothy, and with a different audience in mind.

They call it the “language of critical race theory” but it is the language of unrestrained privilege. It is the language that one class of people uses to talk down to another that they think of as inferior. It is the language that says “I know more than you do” and that says “my opinion matters more than yours.” It is the language that is used to smack down and intimidate opposition. It is the language of those who feel that they have nothing to learn and everything to teach. Perhaps it is the language that some are so damaged by years of academic institutionalization that they cannot see its violence. In the case of Lincoln’s article, it is the language that is used as a trick to distort and dismiss challenges to the statement, Lament. Repent. Repair. that the less educated rabble dare to raise. I cannot argue with Ciaron O’Reilly’s analysis, that the statement “reads like some kid has swallowed his Masters thesis and is now spitting it up in chunks.”

At last summer’s national CW gathering in Rochester, I spoke to the idea that we should fill the jails: “For generations of nonviolent resisters, Catholic Workers among them, jail has been an experience that has redefined our lives… This does not seem to be true anymore and our movement is poorer for it, intellectually as well as spiritually…. Until recent decades, there were always more Catholic Workers with criminal records than with university degrees. It is a scandalous demographic phenomenon in these times of mass incarceration, with ever larger proportions of the population of young people of color going to prison, that fewer and fewer young Catholic Workers are. This fact may be critical to understanding the generational dissonance over the recent statement on the Catholic Worker and racism, Lament, Repent, Repair. where the convict’s perspective was not included as it was composed and then was largely ignored or dismissed as ‘push back’ by its authors when it was raised later. Graduate school has taken the place of prison in the formation of many who have joined the Catholic Worker in recent years. Far too much time spent in school and far too little in a prison cells by too many young Catholic Workers threatens to paralyze our movement with abstractions issued in the jargon of the academic elite…. A statement on racism by Catholic Workers who have largely chosen to refuse the gift and avoid the redefinition of their lives that prison offers them, who have, incidentally, kept their privilege intact and their options for upward mobility open and their resumes unsullied by criminal convictions, is by necessity limited in its prophetic potential.”

Lincoln’s defense of the statement and the decision of the Review’s editors to publish it raises a question- has there been a single critique of it that its authors can accept as valid and worth discussing as it was offered, whether they finally agree with it or not? While one of its writers has since privately expressed discomfort with the broad accusatory strokes of the statement, in the public discussion, there is only a united front and Lament. Repent. Repair. is regarded as if ex cathedra, like the ban on women’s ordination in the Catholic Church, to be accepted by the faithful without further discussion or dissent.

I am disappointed that so far, criticisms of the statement have not been welcomed as participation in the discussion that they seem to be inviting, but reacted to defensively and dismissed as “push back.” In his response to the first issue of the Anti-Racism Review, Scott expressed disappointment that none of the critiques of the statement were published or responded to. If by printing Lincoln’s article and his arguing against versions of serious, well-intended and heartfelt questions and disagreements that are so altered and bowdlerized as to be barely recognizable caricatures of them, the editors mean to correct this editorial deficiency, their effort has failed. Not allowing us to speak our questions in our own words and in our own names is an insult and renders real dialogue even more elusive.

I do not agree with Ciaron, that the statement “can only be taken as a resignation letter from those who signed it,” and I find his characterization of its writers as “identity politics kids” as unnecessarily divisive as Lincoln’s labeling those who disagree with it, “white men who have been in the movement since before the 1980s.” When some Catholic Workers left the movement over the issue of pacifism during WWII, Dorothy pleaded with them to stay, “you are bone of our bone,” she said, “not a bone of contention.”

Steps forward? I never thought that it was a good idea to compose a group statement or manifesto to address racism in the CW. If, however, issuing a proclamation is the necessary means by which some people can enter the discussion on racism, a discussion that is, in Peter’s words, “so old that it looks like new,” then it is a good thing and we can only be glad to see new life breathed into it. I am encouraged by Jenny Truax, interviewed in the National Catholic Reporter, “I am super interested in, not debating whether philosophically the Catholic Worker is racist, but doing work with the understanding that it is to dismantle [racism], to make our communities more inclusive and better allies to communities of color.” Jenny is “really excited to see where the conversation is going,” and I would like to share Jenny’s excitement. I am discouraged, though, to see that conversation hindered by the unrelenting defense of the statement, Lament. Repent. Repair. as if it were sacrosanct, inerrant and infallible. Until it stops, this will be an unnecessary obstacle to the crucial discussion on racism that we need to be having. I hope that this distraction ends soon. Regardless of the intention, continually dwelling on the statement will only cause harm. I expect that some of its supporters have invested too much in the statement to lament and repent of it any time soon, but together we can make reparations.

Scott wrote, “I am saddened by the accusatory tone of The Open Letter and by the decision of The Review to stand by it without a single retraction or modification. If it continues to be published, I hope and pray that future editions are more constructive and accurate.” We have had some worthy discussions in New York and in Rochester without demanding allegiance to Lament. Repent. Repair. Can we set the statement aside to do the work we need to do together to end the wars, open the prisons, save the environment, overthrow capitalism and overcome racism? If not now, when? I share Scott’s sadness along with his hope and I join my prayer to his.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.