Catholic Workers and institutions

posted by Mike on November 25th, 2006

This review of Kristen E. Heyer’s Prophetic and Public starts by recalling a visit to the South Bend Catholic Worker community and a presentation by Margie Pfeil. It continues by referencing the academic work of SBCW member Mike Baxter.

Margie & Mike DSCN7715
Margie Pfeil and Mike Benedetti, Mike Baxter with an axe

I have a couple comments on the review; if I can get my hands on the book, I’ll comment on that, too.

The SBCW is not as loosely-organized as the article might imply; they’re not tax-exempt, but they are incorporated. There’s an interesting tension at the SBCW between the personalist/anarchistic leanings that many Catholic Workers have, and the responsibilities of opening a big drop-in center.

Now a good chunk of Catholic Worker communities are non-profits and/or run big operations, and they a good job of it. I’d never think of complaining about them, but part of what interests me about the Catholic Worker “model” is that it works so well with small-scale, personalist/anarchist efforts. Before coming in contact with the CW, I always assumed that to be effective in doing good you had work with an “official” organization, or else be an extraordinary person. I no longer think either of these is necessary.

I want to do big things, but without a big operation, and Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day is an obvious inspiration here. Ammon Hennacy (a sometime Catholic Worker) and Henry Spira are two others. Hennacy wrote of the “one-man revolution” (which also included women like Day and Emma Goldman) and lived it too. Spira worked with big organizations but kept his autonomy; his own organization remained tiny.

I guess for some people the tension between efforts “rooted in the local community, highly personal and against the grain” and “global in orientation, corporate and unmistakably intertwined with secular culture” is religious or philosophical. For me, it is a matter of style and temperament. If I can do a great job loving God and serving others without a lot of overhead, who needs it? Not everyone thinks this way, and I’d never argue that they should.

Introduction to the book: PDF.

Approving blurbs from Ms. Pfeil and Holy Cross’s David O’Brien.

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