Christian anarchism and the Catholic Worker movement: Roman Catholic authority and identity in the United States
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
James G. Williams
Christian, Anarchism, Catholic Worker, Authority, Identity, Personalist
Arts and Humanities | Political Science | Religion | Social and Behavioral Sciences
"Anarchism" is a term frequently misunderstood within U.S. society. By examining the Catholic Worker movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, I clarify four distinct expressions of Christian anarchism: (1) an alternative to state definitions of social life, (2) the practice of personalist community, (3) the practice of a personalist social movement, and (4) prophetic discipleship as an alternative to church definitions of Christian living. Thanks to Day, Maurin and Ammon Hennacy, the movement can be located within the larger anarchist tradition through their embrace of the needs-based political economy espoused by Peter Kropotkin, Leo Tolstoy, and the Industrial Workers of the World. The Catholic Worker movement distinguishes its anarchism from most anarchist groups through its radical interpretations of Roman Catholicism and Christianity, specifically, the primacy of conscience, the principle of subsidiarity, the New Testament, Christian nonviolence and Christian personalism.
Since Day's death in 1980, with neither co-founder to offer charismatic leadership for the entire movement, today's Catholic Workers raise questions of identity and authority. What makes a person (or a community) a Catholic Worker? What makes a Catholic Worker Catholic ? As more Catholic Workers publicly criticize the Roman Catholic church, as both institution and as people of God, I observe a para-institutional model of church. Such a model fosters a deconstruction of the institutional church while offering an alternative model to the human community in terms of meeting the needs of all through unconditional love. Since 1980, the movement continues without a leader, a set of policies, or a mechanism for decision-making. I conclude that the Catholic Worker movement continues to thrive because of anarchism. It continues not in spite of but because of the back-and-forth movement of conversation over questions of identity and authority. Such questions never lead to a definitive set of conclusions for all within the movement. However, it is in the community of conversants where the discussion of such questions provides experiences of great satisfaction, embracing the hope of meeting the needs of all, one person at a time.
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Boehrer, Frederick George III, "Christian anarchism and the Catholic Worker movement: Roman Catholic authority and identity in the United States" (2001). Religion - Dissertations. Paper 27.