It has been a whirlwind of activity for the Ramonat Scholars over the past two weeks. From toiling on the White Rose Catholic Worker farm during a weekend in Missouri to hearing about Jesuit ministry in Manila during the first half of the 20th century from author John McGreevy, our class experienced all of the extra-academic aspects of the Seminar within a relatively short period of time (in beginning to look ahead to next semester we also fit in a session on research methods hosted by Loyola’s librarian). We have not only been able to engage with the material in a deeper way over these weeks but have gotten closer to each other as a class.
The big event was our weekend trip to La Plata in northern Missouri to stay with John and Regina Bambrick-Rust and their toddler Johanna to experience life on a Catholic Worker “agronomic university”. The Catholic Worker movement was launched by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933 to promote Catholic Social Teaching and pacifism. Maurin owned a set of ideals, and in meeting Day he found a partner who owned the passion and capacity to implement such ideals. Maurin had a vision in which people moved away from cities to escape from industry’s wage labor in order to work the land in small, cooperative communities. John and Regina decided to move from Chicago to rural Missouri, responding in a very real way to Maurin’s call to live according to the ideals of voluntary poverty, communitarianism, and social awareness. They have no running water nor electricity, not common within the Catholic Worker network. Their outhouse uses a compost toilet and the workshop includes a sustainable gutter system. They discouraged the use of electronics and asked us to avoid consuming any snack or drink with addictive qualities (such as chocolate and coffee). Use of currency is minimized, in an attempt to transition to a “gift economy”. We lived for the weekend as the family does, in a simple way focused on work, prayer, and community. View a slideshow from the weekend on the Ramonat Seminar’s website.
It was a remarkably eye-opening experience. Firstly, I was struck by the challenges and sacrifices of living in such a way, especially considering they (or at least John) had grown up in a suburban environment. Such a lifestyle requires an intense commitment to living out one’s values, which was clear in that John gave a specific moral reason for everything that they did. This focus on personal morality seemed to me and others to supersede outreach to affect change on a wider level. They invited school and church groups to visit on weekends and would occasionally attend protests against torture and other social justice issues in other parts of the country, yet they nonetheless live removed lives. This lifestyle is in many ways consistent with Catholic Worker beliefs: as an anarchist, Dorothy Day never voted in elections (though she did fight along with suffragists).
Place, the focus of my last blog post, was a recurring thought for me during the trip. Edward Glaeser is a leading urban economist from Harvard. He has stressed in his work the many merits of cities and why urban areas don’t deserve the bad reputation they get. He notes how ideas collide in heavily-populated areas, resulting in greater tolerance and knowledge and how urban density decreases an individual person’s carbon footprint. One of his most intriguing arguments is that high unemployment actually reveals the great benefits of cities: cities do not create homelessness, but rather as centers of opportunity attract the poor (which explains the phenomenon of urbanization). He considers rural poverty to be considerably more dismal. His viewpoint strongly contrasts with Maurin’s pre-industrial agrarian ideal.
Class discussion since the trip has also brought up the question of voluntary poverty, another ideal of the Catholic Worker movement. Does the fact that voluntary poverty is driven by choice make it possible for Catholic Worker members to truly be in solidarity with the poor? It is something to mull over.
Overall, I saw much overlap between the Catholic Worker movement’s original ideas and those held by John and Regina. The one important difference, though, was an emphasis on environmentalism and sustainability at White Rose, which reflects evolving global crises from then compared to today.
There was no rest for the weary after the weekend. On Tuesday of this week, we welcomed our first guest of the speaker series– John McGreevy of Notre Dame, who presented his recently published book American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global, during which we were able to also meet our sponsor Susan Ramonat. McGreevy’s book, which we read for class, explains how the Society of Jesus resisted what they viewed as a hostile modern nationalism throughout the 19th century before coming to identify more strongly with the nation-state during the world wars. A second paradigm shift took place after WWII when the Church opened itself up and became supportive of democracy, not just in the United States but beyond. McGreevy focused on his final chapter during the talk, which follows the story of American Jesuits and their work in the Philippines after the Spanish-American war. According to one Jesuit from New York, “For the first time in the history of our Province, God seems to open up to us a real foreign Mission” (186). American Jesuits played a very interesting role: acting as Americans in representing the Protestant-majority occupier and acting as Catholics in representing the religious interests of the occupied nation. Despite the fact that the Jesuit community in the Philippines was mostly Spanish during the first two decades of the 1900s, the Americans were key in easing the transition from Spanish to American control. Yet early competition between American/Spanish Jesuits and American Protestants gave way to internal conflict between American and Spanish Jesuits over language in schools, politics, and even clothes and sports, revealing an increased identification with the nation-state. By the 1930s, a new accord had been reached between the two groups, but largely on American terms, as by then twice as many American as compared to Spanish Jesuits served in the country.
A conclusion reached by McGreevy was of the Society as an early carrier of globalization: “The career of a Jesuit expelled from Sicily in 1848 who moved to Ireland, then to Spain, then to the Philippines, and then to France before ending his career in New Mexico resembles that of a contemporary management consultant or international aid worker. A newly self-aware and global Catholic community bounded his life and work far more than any particular nation-state” (217). After a movement towards nationalism during the first half of the 1900s, Vatican II marked a recommitment to a global vision, led by an institution (relatively) more open to change.
Jesuit history in this country in many ways differs from the experiences of those part of the Catholic Worker movement. The Jesuits identified strongly with the Pope, doctrine, and tradition. They felt it their mission to expand the Church and “civilize” unreached corners of the earth. Suffering was part of the Jesuit journey (a longtime Christian ideal, anti-Jesuit sentiment in the US strengthened Jesuit affiliation with suffering): according to one Boston Jesuit in 1863 “God can give us no greater proof of His love than by sending afflictions” (115). Education was an important aspect of Jesuit outreach and was an insulator against the threat of the state and Protestantism. In 1900, the Jesuits in America ran twenty five colleges and managed more schools than any other group.
Day also was suspect of the state and valued minimal state interference. Similar to the Jesuits in their ideological battle against liberalism, Day and the Catholic Worker movement competed against socialists in projecting their vision. Unlike the Jesuits, she had a radical social platform rather than a conservative agenda. It was a sense of compassion, rather than Jesuit adherence to tradition, that compelled her movement. Her movement was decentralized, unlike that of the Jesuits led by the Father-General. Both movements ultimately had successful results. Just as the Jesuits forged a global faith by the mid-20th century after being dissolved from 1773-1814, Day’s work not only led to the existence today of 236 Catholic Worker communities throughout the country and beyond but also to a greater social conscience within the formal institution. In Day’s words, “It has been said that it was The Catholic Worker and its stories of poverty and exploitation that aroused the priests to start labor schools, go out on picket lines, take sides in strikes with the worker, and that brought about an emphasis on the need to study sociology in the seminaries” (221).