At a recent meeting of Fordham’s Spirituality and Politics Across the Atlantic course, Robert Ellsberg, former managing editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper, had this to say about his late friend and colleague Dorothy Day: Pope Francis would have been her dream pope.
It was a confirmation of sorts of a kinship the students had already contemplated. Earlier in the semester as part of their study of the Catholic Worker movement, they’d visited Maryhouse, the rundown East Village headquarters of the 80-year-old newspaper, which Day established, and which still costs a penny. They’d also been discussing Pope Francis and his commitment to the poor, which the instructors said “ran like an undercurrent” through the course.
“It was a really good introduction, learning about the Catholic Worker in class and then going down there,” said Rachel Dougherty, a junior in the class.
Also there were Friday night regulars: the newspaper’s writers, elderly nuns who’d spent time doing missionary work in Latin America, and homeless folks who may have been spending the night at Maryhouse—a Catholic Worker “hospitality house” where women can find free meals, showers, and even a place to stay. The longstanding Friday night meetings began as “clarification of thought” sessions for the Catholic Worker movement, founded in 1933 by Day and Peter Maurin and focused on Catholic social teaching, pacifism, justice, and helping the poor.
“It felt like such a great community—these things that they want to do in theory they’re doing in practice, like war tax resistance,” said Dougherty, who is Jewish. “It was really nice to see the contemporary issues of how people are responding to war in the Middle East while we’re studying the roots of nonviolence.” Dougherty said the experience made her want to volunteer at Fordham’s Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice, named for Day and modeled on her commitment to service.
Students in the new Spirituality and Politics class examined three 20th-century Catholic movements across three continents, each of which espoused a novel approach to spirituality and distinctive political views: the Catholic Worker in New York, the French Catholic revival, and liberation theology in Latin America. The course satisfies Fordham’s core curriculum requirement of an interdisciplinary capstone seminar. Students’ final projects examined such topics as civil war in Syria, immigration, and sexuality and the church.
Assistant theology professor Brenna Moore and Michael Lee, associate theology professor, conceived the idea for the course when they noticed many similar themes and figures in their research and teaching. The writers Moore studies from the French Catholic literary revival figured heavily in the works of liberation theologians—a focus for Lee.
“That tradition of mysticism and spirituality was deeply attentive to the crises of the 20th century,” Moore said.
Junior Christopher Morel noticed a lot of similarities between modern-day Dominican Republic, where his parents were born, and the struggles faced by liberation theologians in the 1970s and earlier. For the class he read works in the original Spanish by Camilo Torres, a Colombian priest who fought with the National Liberation Army in the 1960s.
“The principle in Catholicism is love for thy neighbor, but [Torres] felt that wasn’t always possible in the circumstances in Colombia,” he said, where the wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few. “When I was reading it I was sort of able to identify with issues going on in the Dominican Republic, especially in the rural areas where my parents come from.
“And reading it in Spanish—there’s just something to it. There’s a feeling that you get. You’re reading the actual document. I feel it’s much more powerful,” said Morel, who has interned at the same Harlem law firm since high school and wants to practice criminal law.
During the final week of classes, students visited the Jewish Museum for a tour of the exhibit “Chagall: Love, War, Exile,” which dovetailed with a major course theme of Jewish-Catholic relations during World War II and European exiles in New York during that time.
“Michael and I are completely stunned by this group’s ability to deeply engage the disciplines of both history and theology, and make connections between innovations that were happening in France, Latin America, and New York and connect it all to our contemporary situation,” said Moore. “It’s been a highlight of our careers.”
Spirituality and Politics Across the Atlantic will be offered again in fall 2015.