Sunday, February 18, 2018

"An Ideological Firestorm"

"An Ideological Firestorm"

Jeff Dietrich,  February 2018 Catholic Agitator, newspaper for the Los Angeles Catholic Worker

  I have been reflecting on King Lear recently as my wife and I have long passed the age where most people retire. Youth and old age, children and parents, and how and when to retire are the issues of Shakespeare’s play. And these are the issues with which we all must deal at some point in our lives.  For my wife and I, it is a personal issue that also affects the LACW community.  But recent events in the larger Catholic Worker movement have caused me to think that what is happening here in our small community is also happening within the larger movement as well.

The impetus for my thoughts came some months ago when Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, of the Des Moines Catholic Worker, took an acetylene torch and cut through the Dakota Access Pipeline, making it unusable for the transport of oil. In addition, they set fire to bulldozers used in the construction of the pipeline. The pipeline is just one of many pipelines that threaten water tables, rivers, lakes, and the earth it- self, across our nation in the event of their inevitable rupture.

   Their actions have set off an ideological firestorm within the larger Catholic Worker movement, sparking questions about the validity of property destruction, the identity of Jessica and Ruby as Catholic Workers, of Catholic Worker identity and Catholic Worker nonviolence, and whether Dorothy Day, our co-founder, would have approved.

 To be honest, I am still struggling with Jessica and Ruby’s actions.  I am challenged as well as frightened by what they did. Yet I am also honored that they did their action as Catholic Workers.

   It was, in fact, an act of property destruction that originally drew me to the Catholic Worker 48 years ago. As a young man hitchhiking from New York back to Los Angeles, I serendipitously landed at a Peace-makers conference outside of St. Louis, Missouri where I learned of the actions of young people at the Milwaukee Catholic Worker who, inspired by Dan and Phil Berrigan and the “Catonsville Nine,” burned draft files. It was the most radical anti-war action that I had ever heard of. And a few weeks later it was a major motivating force in my decision to join the newly formed L.A. Catholic Worker. The other motivational force as a young, anti-authoritarian “radical” was anarchism.  Distrusting the state, as well as all formal institutions, I was impressed with that aspect of the Catholic Worker movement.

   It is my sense that many young Vietnam protesters and resisters of my generation were attracted to the Catholic Worker because of the radical draft file burnings of the Berrigans and others. In fact, I believe that these acts of radical property destruction revitalized the Catholic Worker movement which had diminished in numbers as a result of Dorothy’s admirable pacifist stance during World War II and did not recover appreciably during the concretive post-war years of the 1950s. The draft file burnings of the Berrigans and others brought hundreds of young war protesters and resisters like myself into the Catholic Worker movement, addressing as it did the most vital issue of the day and aligning itself with the larger anti-war movement.

 Just as many in the movement, including Dorothy, had problems with draft file burnings and the subsequent property destruction of the Plowshares movement, so too many in the movement have problems with the property destruction of Ruby and Jessica.  Some say that their action did not qualify as a Plowshares action because the destruction was actual and not symbolic. Some say that it was not a Catholic Worker action because they had been Catholic Workers only briefly. Some say that it was an act of violence and thus did not qualify as a nonviolent act.

 As I read through the responses to Jessica and Ruby’s action, it seemed to me that many in the movement wanted to define, and in some cases to repudiate that action by what had taken place in the past.  But in my mind, one of the best features of the Catholic Worker is its ideal of anarchism. And because of the general commitment to that ideal, no one gets to tell anyone else what to do. As a young neophyte Catholic Worker, I was intimidated and awed by my elders and I wanted to do things the “right way.”  But as I grew more confident in my abilities, I was really grateful for the latitude offered me by the value of Catholic Worker anarchism.  No one of outside authority, no “Mother House,” no board of directors, no church official could tell our house what to do. And for that matter, no one can  tell the Des Moines Catholic Worker or Jessica and Ruby what they can or cannot do. Like Lear’s faithful daughter Cordelia, who was his youngest child and a speaker of truth despite the consequences, Ruby and Jessica are young and fearless speakers of truth despite the consequences, which could mean decades in prison.  I believe that there is the possibility that Jessica and Ruby, like the Berrigans, are the harbinger of future possibilities for Catholic Workers in the arena of environmental protection, global warming, and alternative energy.  Perhaps their prophetic action will inspire a new generation of young people and recruit a whole new ecological force into the Catholic Worker.

   As my wife Catherine and I move towards our fiftieth year here at the L.A. Catholic Worker, we do not seek to leave or retire in the way of King Lear. And as a former English major, I am well aware that King Lear is one of the greatest tragedies in the English language.  So I do recognize that it is a bit pretentious to compare our situation to King Lear’s. However, I also recognize that it would be something of a minor tragedy if we missed the possibility of insuring the ongoing life of the L.A. Catholic Worker.

 Catherine and I simply want to prepare for our inevitable human fate. Not so long ago we were a community composed of people over 60 with little probability of long-term viability.  Now we are blessed with the gift of many young people and we seek ways to make room for young leadership. We have entered into a process of discerning what from the past is essential and what the Spirit of the contemporary moment calls us to do. The process is much like the larger dialogue inspired by the actions of Jessica and Ruby:  How do we allow ourselves to be inspired by the past but open to new possibilities? We can only hope that our efforts will bear fruit.                                         

 Jeff Dietrich is a Los Angeles Catholic Worker community member and editor of the Agitator.

 Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-323-1607; Email: mobuszewski2001 [at] Go to

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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