The Catholic Worker Movement’s Lessons for the Democrats

Outrage at the Republicans’ health care bills is brewing among Democrats, but the party has yet to unite around an alternative health care system. Internal factions are debating whether the Democratic Party should be a party of the working class or one of identity politics. The persistent idea that class-based politics is incompatible with identity politics lurked just beneath the surface of the 2016 Democratic primary, and it continues to color contemporary debate. Some liberals think that to move any further left is to subordinate racial, and generally identity-based, issues. But this is not necessarily true. As the Catholic Worker movement’s pointed critiques of the New Deal demonstrate, a left-wing movement can fight for economic and racial justice when united by a sense of moral outrage. The modern Democratic Party should channel such outrage and unify its factions around a public health care system.

The Catholic Worker movement began in 1933 when Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin co-founded a New York-based newspaper called the Catholic Worker. In the pages of this newspaper, members of the Catholic Worker movement espoused an anarchistic, radical vision of the future. Catholic Workers believed humanity was united in the community of Jesus Christ, and that this spiritual solidarity endowed everyone with dignity that no state or economic system could violate. According to one editorial, the movement believed that “all people are brothers and sisters in the Fatherhood of God. This teaching, the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ,” led the movement to support unions and cooperatives, and to address racism.

All of this might suggest that the Catholic Worker movement would not support a New Deal program like the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which discriminated against black workers. The NRA allowed the federal government to regulate industry prices and wages, and to enforce stricter labor standards. At the same time, it excluded jobs typically performed by black workers, and applied weaker standards to southern states. This meant that minimum wage standards effectively applied only to white workers, and that employers could apply different geographic classifications to different parts of the same state. For example, Delaware was considered a Northern state in 449 industries, but a Southern state in the fertilizer industry, in which ninety percent of workers were black.

Yet Catholic Workers offered their qualified support to the NRA in an effort to achieve the movement’s goal of a more just society. They thought the NRA was working toward what Pope Pius XI called a cooperative socioeconomic order, but they understood its racist labor codes as contrary to the Pope’s teachings. Catholic Workers demanded reforms to include black worker-dominated industries in NRA codes and to appoint black members to the NRA’s labor advisory board. Although the movement’s leaders claimed to oppose the very idea of the state, Catholic Workers thought it could guarantee human dignity for victims of NRA discrimination. The state had sanctioned racism, but Catholic Workers believed that only expanding the state’s regulatory power could fix it.

Catholic Workers embraced the New Deal’s politics of economic reform, but they did not acquiesce to its racist labor codes. Motivated by the belief that God endows every person with innate dignity, Catholic Workers wanted to use the federal government to guarantee that dignity. Today’s Democratic Party could learn from the Catholic Worker movement’s sense of moral outrage. For example, advocating for a public health care option would greatly expand the government’s role in social welfare as well as cover poor Americans, who are predominantly racial minorities. Democrats do not need to believe in the unifying power of the Christ in order to do this. Rather, united by the belief that the current health care system is a moral outrage, Democrats could be the party of racial justice and working class politics.

Left-wing economics and identity politics are not mutually exclusive, and the working class is not monolithically white. The Democratic Party under Roosevelt deliberately chose to subordinate racial justice to economic reform. But, as the Catholic Worker movement was, the contemporary Democratic Party can and must be a vehicle of social justice for all.