Margaret Pfeil: Tradition is a living thing
For Margaret Pfeil, an assistant professor of theology at Notre Dame and a member of a Catholic Worker community in South Bend, Dorothy Day is an exemplar of leadership.
September 15, 2009 | Sometimes you lead by accident and other times by unwavering conviction. Dorothy Day did both, said Margaret Pfeil, an assistant professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Pfeil specializes in Catholic social thought and the development of moral doctrine and also is a founder and resident of the St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker House in South Bend, Ind.
Catholic Worker houses were founded by Day (1897-1980) and seek to foster practice of the church’s traditional corporal works of mercy (to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit and ransom the captives, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and bury the dead) and spiritual works of mercy (to admonish sinners, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries and pray for the living and the dead). Catholic Worker houses also advocate for social justice in their local communities and beyond.
Pfeil spoke in June 2009 with Faith & Leadership’s Jason Byassee about the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, and an “anarchist” vision of leadership. At the time, she was teaching at Duke Divinity School’s Summer Institute: “Shaping the Beloved Community.”
Q: How did the Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality get started?
It began during the Depression in New York. Day’s visionary partner Peter Maurin envisioned combining the works of mercy with scholarship. He and Day started a newspaper, which still sells today for a penny per copy. Day had been a journalist previously, and he came to appreciate her journalistic skills. And at first he wanted to run the paper. He envisioned Dorothy just doing the menial tasks involved in publishing. But she made it clear that this is going to be a joint effort. They wrote together about the making of a new society within the shell of the old.
Maurin wanted to light the fuse he saw leading to the dynamite of the social teachings of the church. We have these wonderful teachings, Maurin said, but who's actually practicing them? What about within the life of the institution of the church itself? Are we falling short? Aren't we called to something much more radical? The name, Catholic Worker, was a takeoff on the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker. Maurin and Day would stand in Union Square and sell it. And they'd stand next to the Communists reading the Daily Worker and announce, “Well, read the Catholic Worker daily.”
Then, unexpectedly, workers started coming to the door where they published, saying, “This sounds great: hospitality, agronomic universities. Where do I find it?” Day said, “We put on a pot of coffee, opened the doors and have kept them open since.”
The houses of hospitality grew organically, in response to a need, through the mass communication of Day’s and Maurin’s ideas, which grew from their commitments of faith. That was a crucial moment. If Dorothy and Peter had said, “We're just writing this newspaper. That's all we're called to. We think these ideas are great, but that's as far as it goes,” there wouldn't be a Catholic Worker Movement today.
Q: You speak of the Catholic Worker house you live in as trying to institutionalize patterns of virtue rather than vice. How do you do that?
It has to happen at the level of relationship. At the Catholic Worker we try to welcome people as they are, without necessarily giving them a spiel about who Dorothy Day was. We try to live in a way that makes guests feel comfortable and welcomed. We want them to understand that we intend to be a house of hospitality (I’m sure we do this imperfectly, by the way). Hopefully after awhile people begin to feel comfortable and will start asking questions, “What is this all about? Why are you doing this? Who is this Dorothy Day?”
Q: You argue that, for Dorothy Day, Christians need to be doing the works of mercy and creating faithful institutions. What does that look like?
Dorothy was a Christian anarchist. By that she meant that we Christians tend to foist upon the state things that we need to take responsibility for at the personal level and as Christian communities.
Dorothy was envisioning something like what Bethel New Life does in Chicago under Mary Nelson -- gathering groups of people at the local level and meeting needs in a relational way. It's not meant to grow into a multi-billion-dollar corporation. It's just meant for the people who actually live in that area.
Maurin meant something similar with his idea of “agronomic universities.” They wanted to connect each Catholic Worker house with a communal agricultural setting where people who would never come into contact with the dirt can come to know creation in that way. All people then can leave the city and be recreated in their spirits through the land and with one another and get to know God more deeply. For people from very privileged backgrounds to engage in manual labor and get their hands dirty creates a sense of community where gradually the alienating effects of the Industrial Revolution can be healed.
For Dorothy, the Eucharist was key. She didn't mandate that everybody go to daily Mass, but she did herself. She invited people to join her, and then explained how important it was for her as the culmination of everything else. It didn’t have merely instrumental value. She didn't go to Mass to work more effectively. It was to go deeper.