The Catholic roots of the New Socialism

The “patron saint” of today’s Democratic Socialists of America got his start with Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement. But for Day, prayer and the sacraments came first, not “the revolution.”

By Anne Hendershott The Dispatch, July 3, 2018

In a primary defeat that the New York Times has called “the most significant loss for a Democratic incumbent in more than a decade,” ten-term Representative Joseph Crowley of New York was defeated in a Queens and Bronx district that is majority-minority by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Latina. A native of the Bronx and a former community organizer for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, declared that it was “time for generational, racial, and ideological change.” She garnered more than 57 percent of the vote in the primary.

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) rhetoric played well in the 14th District, which is 70 percent people of color, and 50 percent immigrant. Founded in New York City by Michael Harrington, an Irish Catholic and Holy Cross College graduate, the DSA still draws upon the same rhetoric surrounding Catholic social teachings on human dignity and human flourishing that Harrington promoted in his early days of community organizing in the 1950s. In 1951, Harrington got his start in socialism at what the DSA website calls “Dorothy Day’s anarchist-pacifist Catholic Worker movement.” In the early days, Harrington was devoted to the Catholic movement, residing at the group’s “House of Hospitality” on Chrystie Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “There, with other volunteers, he worked in the soup kitchen which catered to the homeless alcoholics who crowded the nearby Bowery District,” according to the DSA website.

Although Harrington eventually abandoned Catholicism and joined the Young People’s Socialist League, a youth affiliate of the Socialist Party, Catholic social teachings on the importance of dignity in work and human flourishing continued to shape Harrington’s rhetoric and his organizing strategies. He inspired the formation of faith-based organizing that we still see today in Catholic Churches throughout the country, many of them funded through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum was used in these early days to provide a guiding force in organizing workers because it gave a Catholic rationale for the worker’s right to organize and secure what Harrington called “economic dignity.” In 1973, Harrington broke away from the Socialist Party, creating the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, which merged with the leftist New American Movement in 1982. The merged organization became the Democratic Socialists of America.

Ocasio-Cortez is a direct descendant of Harrington, drawing from the same rhetoric and strategies. But, today’s movement is a Democratic Socialism that has been emptied of any pretense of Catholicism. In an interview with Vogue magazine earlier this month, Ocasio-Cortez tried to explain Democratic Socialism:

I think what it really means is just democratic participation in our economic dignity, and our economic, social, and racial dignity. It is about direct representation and people actually having power and stake over their economic and social wellness, at the end of the day. To me, what socialism means is to guarantee a basic level of dignity…to examine the historical inequities that have created much of the inequalities—both in terms of economics and social and racial justice.

For Ocasio-Cortez, and quite possibly a majority of the voters in the 14th District in New York, socialism is the only way to “guarantee a basic level of dignity. … There is no other force, there is no other party, there is no other real ideology out there right now that is asserting the minimum elements necessary to lead a dignified American life.”

Tapping into the resentment of her constituents, Ocasio-Cortez was the first New York primary candidate to call for abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), and for clearing the path to citizenship—claiming that “ICE operates with virtually no accountability, ripping apart families and holding our friends and neighbors indefinitely in inhumane detention centers.”

Outspent by the Crowley campaign by a 10 to 1 ratio, the Ocasio-Cortez campaign received 70 percent of its contributions from individual contributions under $200. Progressive PACs including Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, as well as MoveOn, Democracy in Action, and People for Bernie, provided valuable endorsements.

While Ocasio-Cortez’s economic rhetoric draws heavily from Catholic social teachings on human dignity, it is a redefined and hollowed-out Catholicism in many respects. Human dignity for Ocasio-Cortez and the Democratic Socialists of America requires full reproductive rights. On her website, Ocasio-Cortez demands “reproductive freedom for all individuals of marginalized genders, including cisgender women and trans people…Alexandria does not accept any federal, state, or local rollbacks, cuts, or restrictions on the ability of individuals to access quality reproductive healthcare services…open access to safe legal, affordable abortion.”

Notably absent from Ocasio-Cortez’s supporters were the usual progressive Catholic organizations. There are not (yet) many Catholic colleges and universities with chapters of Democratic Socialists of America on campus. And, although Georgetown University is listed on the Democratic Socialists of America website as having an active chapter on campus, the chapter website is unavailable.

It is likely that others will follow the Ocasio-Cortez socialist playbook as they try to carve out a new niche in the Democratic Party. Her stand on open borders and a path to citizenship for all is appealing to many progressives. The abolition of ICE has quickly become a mantra for progressive Democrats like Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY.

That creates a problem for progressive Catholics. In some ways it is similar to the dilemma that DSA founder Michael Harrington faced in 1952 when he departed both the Catholic Worker movement and the Church to join the Young People’s Socialist League. Harrington is idolized by the DSA today—and his religious connection is part of the pseudo-sainthood he has achieved within the DSA. There has been a recent re-launch of the DSA publication Religious Socialism and although there is not yet a Catholic presence on the editorial board, there are a number of prestigious professors, including Princeton philosophy professor and honorary chair of the DSA Cornel West.

Harrington recalled in his 1973 memoir, Fragments of the Century: “All I knew of the Catholic Worker when I walked into the House of Hospitality in 1951 was that it was as far Left as you could go within the Church.” When Harrington left the Church, he called it an act of “pious apostasy.” Harrington, like many of today’s progressive Catholics, wanted to go further left than the Church could have allowed; but unlike Harrington, many of today’s Catholics are attempting to change the Church from within.

In the opening lines of The Other America, Harrington’s best-selling sociological study of poverty in the United States, he credits Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement with opening his eyes to the “terrible reality of involuntary poverty and the magnificent ideal of voluntary poverty.” But, as Patrick Jordan recently pointed out in an essay titled “Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker, and the Liturgy,” Dorothy Day’s commitment to alleviating the pain of the poor was always “a personalist and communitarian movement, inspired and maintained by sharing the poverty of the crucified Christ in the poor.” Jordan recalls that Day once wrote:

Without the sacraments of the Church, primarily the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper as it is sometime called, I certainly do not think that I could go on… Only by nourishing ourselves as we have been bidden to do by Christ, by eating His body and drinking His blood, can we become Christ and put on the new man.

For Day, faith and prayer came first. An obedient daughter of the Church, Day supported Catholic teachings on divorce, contraception, and abortion. She often spoke of the need to return to the spirit of Franciscan poverty, charity, and obedience. So obedient, it has been said that Day would have closed down the Catholic Worker movement if Rome had asked her to do that. In contrast, for Michael Harrington, the socialist revolution came first. It is difficult to predict whether progressive Catholics will follow the sacramental model promoted by Dorothy Day, or the “pious apostasy” of Michael Harrington.


Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books).