St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was one of the original communities founded during the Depression by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. When I lived there a few years ago I observed up-close the often tense, sometimes funny interactions between the Catholic Worker and government bureaucracy. At first I found it perplexing, even slightly absurd. But over time I learned an important lesson in spiritual freedom.
From the beginning, Day and Maurin were adamant that Catholic Worker communities not be tax exempt, officially nonprofit organizations. They believed those who gave to the Worker should do so at personal cost, motivated by others’ poverty, not their own surplus, and that tax write-offs therefore undermined the true practice of charity. They were convinced that one of the Catholic Worker’s most important works of mercy was to offer the rich the chance to participate in the Kingdom of God through giving directly to those in need, solely because they were in need. I can attest, having been hung-up on twice in eight months at St. Joe’s after telling a potential donor we couldn’t provide paperwork for tax breaks because we weren’t a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, that Day and Maurin were onto something.
Moreover, Day and Maurin saw that governmental recognition invites governmental interference. If the Worker allowed itself to be named and numbered by the state, and benefited from that status, then it would be inconsistent to claim that the state had no right at all to enforce any of its own rules on the movement. And since the state has no right to regulate or limit the works of mercy, they refused the state’s offer of a codified, ostensibly mutually beneficial relationship. The Worker has also refused since its inception to fund war by paying federal taxes. To accept assistance or advantage from the federal government through nonprofit status while refusing to pay taxes would be morally inconsistent.
In any event, Day and Maurin believed that the terms “nonprofit,” “organization,” and even “soup kitchen” were simply inaccurate descriptions of the communities that they had founded. Under the Catholic Worker’s particular flavor of anarchism, if any group of people decides to do the works of mercy together and call their group a Catholic Worker, they are a Catholic Worker.
When in my first few weeks at St. Joe’s I accidentally used the term “organization” to describe the Catholic Worker, I was quickly corrected that it is a movement only. Catholic Worker communities are homes—houses and farms—not institutions. How could they be? There is no oversight. There is no fund-raising, no boards or directors, no requirements for membership, no salaries, no hierarchy beyond that established by the individuals living in a particular house (though these implicit hierarchies are sometimes the more immovable). A Catholic Worker community cannot articulate and be held to some “mission statement,” since their mission is the entirety of the Gospel lived out in ever-changing situations and according to communally discerned practices. For these reasons, accepting the label of “nonprofit organization” would be a type of lying.
To the same degree that Day affirmed clarity of principle, she also knew the messiness of principle in action, of ideals being lived out in the world. In an article she wrote in 1972 for the Catholic Worker newspaper, entitled “We Go On Record: CW Refuses Tax Exemption,” she acknowledged that “nothing is ever clear-cut or well defined. We protest in any way we can, according to our responsibilities and temperaments,” while recalling that Christ commanded His followers to perform what Christians have come to call the Works of Mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the harborless, visiting the sick and prisoner, and burying the dead. Surely a simple program for direct action, and one enjoined on all of us. Not just for impersonal “poverty programs,” government-funded agencies, but help given from the heart at a personal sacrifice.
The New York City Catholic Worker has largely embraced these ideals and has had ample opportunity to protest according to its “responsibilities and temperament” when it comes to dealing with the government.
The New York City Department of Health has sent health inspectors to St. Joe’s with varying regularity since the house was opened in 1967. As the volunteer community has changed over time, so has their response to these inspections, though in general the attitude has been “we will gladly let you in to see our home and we will hear your advice, and if we think it’s good advice, we’ll comply.” When the city’s mandates ran against the spirit of the house, the “advice” was ignored.
When the health inspectors demanded that the people serving soup, coffee, and bread to men coming in off the street wear hairnets and gloves, the community ignored the demand because they felt that it would magnify the difference between server and served and be a barrier to human touch, such as shaking hands with the incoming guests. However, they agreed that there was a hygiene issue with handing out bread with their bare hands. A sympathetic inspector suggested that they use tongs for distributing bread, and when they found that the guests generally preferred the tongs, the practice stuck. Meanwhile, at every health inspection since, the Worker has been cited and reprimanded for neglecting to use hairnets and gloves.
Some of the messy scenarios involving the Worker and city bureaucrats have been more serious. Besides sending the health inspectors, the city has regularly demanded that St. Joe’s apply for a soup kitchen permit. The community, however, decided that they would not apply for a permit to feed the hungry, since to ask the city for permission implies that the city also has the power to withhold permission. The New York City Catholic Worker does not acknowledge that the city, or any human institution, has the right to regulate the works of mercy. The city took the Worker’s refusal seriously and began exerting what pressure it could to force the issue, sending St. Joe’s notices of increasingly high fines. Amid the community’s ongoing discussion and discernment, they paid a couple of the fines but eventually ignored the rest. The city sent letters threatening legal action to close down the community, along with additional inspectors.
Seeing the fines unpaid and the inspectors politely disregarded, and having run out of other forms of punishment, the city eventually put a lien on the Catholic Worker property. The threat remained of additional legal charges and forced closure for serving food without a license. The volunteers at St. Joe’s met and discussed their options. They decided that their central argument against the permit was that St. Joe’s was a House of Hospitality, a home, and that they had a homeowner’s right to invite their friends in for a meal. To prove they were a home, not an institution, and that their guests were guests—not “clients” or a “population” or “service recipients”—they would alter their morning soup line routine slightly: Rather than simply greeting guests at the door, they would invite each one in by name, with a paper invitation if necessary. “After all,” they told the inspector, “doesn’t the mayor have a Thanksgiving meal every year with many more guests than we do? Does he get a permit?”
In the end, the protest was unnecessary. As a result of the economic downturn the inspectors stopped showing up, presumably because harassing the Worker was no longer seen as a good use of decreased resources. The lien remains to this day.
Each time I go over this story in my mind, it seems more inspired, more amusing, and more perfect as an illustration of Catholic Worker principles. There was no self-serious petitioning of the mayor’s office, no scramble for media attention, no capitulation, and, ultimately, nothing to fear. This has given me a glimpse of the broader spiritual freedom envisioned by Day and Maurin. It is not just a freedom from the state, but a freedom to supplant the state through building what the state never can: the Kingdom of God among us. At this cultural moment in the U.S., as we scrutinize our relationship with the government as people of faith, the Worker offers a compelling example of a different way of doing things.
Nora Calhoun is a Catholic convert, mother, and future midwife.