Peter Maurin was born in the small village of Oulet in France, the firstborn of 22 children. In 1893 he went to Paris and joined the Christian Brothers. From 1895 to 1902 Maurin was sent from one school to another in France teaching, never staying more than two years at any one place. The only interruption came during 1898 and 1899 when he was called to military service. This disturbed Maurin, who deeply objected to war. He joined the Sillon movement in 1903, a movement dedicated to preparing France for her future of becoming a Christian republic, but left in 1908 due to the movement’s shift from a spiritual to a political interpretation of social questions.
He left France, traveled to Canada, and eventually came to America in 1911. He wandered from job to job and city to city, penniless. In 1925 he accepted an invitation to move to New York City and teach French lessons. In New York Maurin began to speak out about his convictions, meeting with people to discuss how to implement his ideas. At the suggestion of George Shuster, then the editor of Commonweal, he met with Dorothy Day in December of 1932. By May of 1933 the first issue of the Catholic Worker was published. He saw parts of his plan come to fruition during the next several years, including round table discussions, houses of hospitality, and farming communes. In 1944 Maurin’s health began to decline. At one point in 1947 he wandered the streets of New York City for several days not knowing where he was. He died on May 15, 1949 at the farming commune of Newburgh.
A life of poverty is a life that emulates the person of Jesus Christ. Suffering through giving up all material goods on this earth is to join in suffering with Christ because he gave up everything. After the model of Saint Francis, Maurin dedicated his life to poverty. Through becoming poor, one followed Christ and embodied the salvation message that Christ preached. For Maurin this poverty was also a witness to the community around him. It challenged them to forget the material and embrace the spiritual. If the community would adopt poverty, they too would emulate the message of Christ. Maurin believed this to be the road to the spirit and freedom. A person became free through giving up everything and becoming dependent upon God. By giving up all, life became focused on prayer and service. The community was now easily able to encourage cooperation and tend to the spirituality of the individual. This was the way to rebuild the Church and a new social order—through faith and contemplation, not through seeking affluence.
Maurin wanted to transform society. The Catholic Worker movement was founded to Christianize the social order. Along with Dorothy Day, he proposed a personal, decentralized society, a village-functional economy, and a life with spirituality as its center and an obligation to neighbor. Maurin’s plan included three programs. The first was what he called “Round Table Discussions.” He wanted was to see people from various philosophical viewpoints come together and discuss their thoughts. By engaging in conversation, intellectual positions could be clarified. Maurin wanted both scholars and workers alike to attend. He felt that society had placed a sharp division between these two groups and that at the round table a common understanding could be reached that would benefit both. It was at these discussions that Maurin would reveal his plan for society. Instead of commercial industrialism, Maurin proposed cultural agrarianism. Instead of the sociology of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, he proposed the sociology of Francis of Assisi and Leon Harmel. In place of dictatorial pagan communism, Maurin proposed a utopian Christian communism. Maurin wished to discuss the ills of society, the ideal solution, and then discover the path that would lead the social order where it ought to go. Then both the scholar and the worker would be prepared to do his part in forming the new social order.
The next part of Maurin’s plan was to develop “Houses of Hospitality.” Drawing from the medieval practice of providing shelters for the wanderer, Maurin wanted to see houses where the more fortunate could help those who were in need. This met a variety of needs, not the least of which was to help alleviate the suffering of many from the Great Depression. But the House of Hospitality was also a place where the rich had the opportunity to fulfil Christ’s command to love and serve others. The hospices were to remind society of the vision of sacrifice and service to those in need.
The final part of Maurin’s social program was farming communes, which were his attempt to bring about a cultural agrarian economy. The machine was increasingly replacing workers in the factories of the cities, which meant that workers were being increasingly displaced. The solution was to return to the land and let it support them. A return to the land would stop the unemployment that Maurin felt was inherent within an industrial economy and would provide for a more just and stable society. Agronomic Universities of Farming, as Maurin called them, were places where the city dweller could go and receive training in farming and crafts. Here subsistence farming and crafts were practiced; these would direct the forces of production toward need as opposed to profit. Values of cooperation and the spiritual dimension of man would be recovered here as well. This commune movement was to be a personalist movement in which cooperation and goodwill were emphasized as an essential dimension of community life. Maurin believed in his idea of returning to the land so strongly that he later equated returning to the land with returning to Christ.
Maurin agreed with St. Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of the common good. Man is an individual with rights, but he is also a person with personal duties toward God, himself, and others. Therefore, according to Maurin, man serves God by serving the common good. Society needs to be oriented in such a way that the good of the whole is met. Society’s possessions are to be held for the good of all. The individual is responsible to meet the needs of all within society. The person is held in high esteem because each individual’s needs are thereby met through society. The starting point for devising economic and political structures is therefore an ethical view of the person.
Maurin’s political and economic views are seen in his advocacy of a personalist democracy. His idea of democracy was one that had both hierarchy and authority, but where each was oriented toward the person. This allowed the person to seek out his own freedom, through finding vocation and serving the common good. In Maurin’s thought, democracy requires more than just the ability to vote or other outward forms of a constitutional government. Freedom must be the core of society because it is the core of the human personality. Politically speaking, a person is not free unless he has economic power. To have economic power one must have property, for without it the system basically ignores the individual even though he can vote.
Maurin argued that the economic problem could not be divorced from its spiritual or ethical dimensions. He fought to arrange society in such a way that people could have property and thus economic power. In this struggle, Maurin incorporated the principle of subsidiarity, stating that nothing should be done by a higher institution that a lower one can do equally well. He felt that the economic order must benefit the entire society. Neither capitalism nor socialism, according to Maurin, benefited all mankind. In neither system was the common good was the starting point; instead, materialism and an insatisable thirst for more were the underlying forces. Furthermore, neither system respected the dignity of the person.