What Is Required of Us?

July 27, 2016 at 11:30 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The following is a book review that was published today on the web page of Pax Christi Metro New York, the New York branch of the Catholic peace movement.

The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross, by Jack Lee Downey. (Fordham 2015).

It’s almost a truism among progressive Catholics, myself included, that the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council were good ones. But it also seems that the world is not in much better shape—is perhaps in worse shape—than it was in 1965. In The Bread of the Strong, Jack Lee Downey, assistant professor of religion at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, offers some hints as to why this may be the case.

The Bread of the Strong is a study of the distinctly pre-Vatican II spirituality of a French-Canadian Jesuit, Onésime Lacouture, and his followers, and of the massive impact of that spirituality on Dorothy Day. The book traces the trajectory from Lacouture’s maximalist spirituality to Day’s radical politics.

The first three chapters of The Bread of the Strong explore Lacouture’s life and the development of his spirituality. Once intending to become an academic, Lacouture underwent a series of powerful mystical experiences during his formation at a Jesuit mission in Alaska. He emerged from these experiences with a radically changed vision of the faith in which academic theology, and even much of the Catholic Christianity of the time, were vile, inadequate pursuits.  Fundamental to Lacouture’s transformed world-view was an absolute dichotomy between nature and grace, Christianity and paganism, self-mortification and pleasure. Lacouture preached this ascetical theology passionately in clergy retreats over the next several decades. So absolute and unambiguous was his position that the Jesuits eventually silenced him.

One participant in the Lacourturist retreats, Pittsburgh diocesan priest John Hugo, was so profoundly influenced by their ascetic spirituality that he began giving his version of the retreats to Catholic laypeople in the United States. And let me be clear: these were retreats aimed at “spiritual withdrawal and moral perfectionism,” albeit with a social-justice dimension that Lacouture himself did not include.

Dorothy Day was one of the laypeople who participated in these Hugo-led retreats. Day, after her conversion, had struggled to integrate her radical socio-political activism with her newfound Catholic faith. Peter Maurin’s spiritual iconoclasm helped Day to integrate these seemingly contradictory dimensions of her identity. But Downey shows that it was the Lacouture retreats, with their emphasis on  “a redemptive spirituality of suffering” and ego-transcendence that solidified Day’s spiritual/political identity. This identity in turn undergirded Day’s heroic leadership of the Catholic Worker from the early 1930s to her death in 1980.

I myself am not much inclined toward asceticism or self-mortification. And as a feminist theologian, I have argued vociferously against the nature/grace, spiritual/material, male/female binaries that characterized the Church for millennia.

Yet I am also aware that the challenges facing the human race, and perhaps especially those of us who consider ourselves non-violent, or justice seeking, are nearly incomprehensible. Take, for example, the climate crisis that Pope Francis addresses in Laudato Si’.  The vast majority of us do not begin to comprehend the changes in our consumerist, convenience-oriented way of life that saving God’s creation demands. What kind of spirituality, what return to self-sacrifice and self-mortification, may be required so that we will be able to face up to these inconceivable challenges?


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  1. These are profound questions you are asking, Marian. Will Dorothy Day be a guide for any of us? I also think of a passage in your manuscript, Lydwine’s words: “I think the most beautiful spirit lives at the moment among the Grail women in Africa. They stick to the first idea of simplicity of life, of living as poor as can be, of giving themselves totally withiut reservation. They are in the first era of beginning, the joy of the beginning. And I feel that, at the moment, we have to learn from them.”

    Could we experience a new beginning and its joy, if we faced the challenges you mention? It would require inspired community, wouldn’t it?


  2. Thanks for this thoughtful response, Ieva. I too was deeply moved by Dr. van Kersbergen’s statements and many of those by the other Grail women in the founders’ volume you are copy-editing. They were so much stronger than most of us seem to be today, so much more committed. Inspired community indeed.


  3. Thank you for this thoughtful review. You might also be interested in another recent book “Called to Be Saints: John Hugo, the Catholic Worker, and a Theology of Radical Christianity” by Benjamin T. Peters, Marquette University Press. Peters argues that the retreat was not as dualistic as it is typically portrayed. He makes an interesting analogy between neo-Thomist criticism of Hugo and contemporary criticism offered to CW-influenced theologians.


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