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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

September 17, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 112




Dennis Coday The common good is the greatest good

Dennis Coday, NCR staff writer

Dreadful Conversions: The Making of a Catholic Socialist by John C. Cort. Fordham University Press, 2003.
This book is about one man's intimate conversation with the intellectual and political forces that have shaped our world over the last 100 years. John C. Cort not only is a scholar of Catholic social teaching, he helped form a good deal of it and lived most of it.

The book is for the most part much of what one would expect a memoir to be: reminisces and reflections, a look back from the better perspective of the present. It has a number of memorable anecdotes, such as how Dorothy Day sneaked into a General Motors plant in Flint, Mich., to interview workers on strike; moving a large Catholic family into Boston's racially mixed Roxbury neighborhood in the late 1960s; a candid, first hand account of Boston's school busing battles.

The first part of the book traces the intellectual education of a bright, questioning young man and his first conversion: he became Catholic soon after graduating from Harvard University in 1935. After a comfortable middle class upbringing, Cort spent 1936 at the New York Catholic Worker's Mott Street house, editing The Catholic Worker and helping with a seaman's strike. This exposure to Dorothy Day and her movement radicalized his faith.

The middle part of the book looks at how Cort gradually engaged the world, testing his newly gained knowledge and building a life view that embraced his Catholicism, labor activism and liberal politics. The binding force for all of this was Catholic social teaching.

Cort walks the reader leisurely through the founding days of the Association of Catholic Trade Unions, union and political work in the 1940s and 1950s, his work with the early Peace Corps and the 1960s' War on Poverty. These experiences led Cort to his second conversion in the 1970s, declaring himself a socialist. Truth be told, I thought it was more an acceptance of the obvious than a conversion.

I would recommend this book to church and political historians, anyone interested in the history of people's movements and Catholic Worker scholars. It has a fine annotated bibliography. However, the most important group of people who should read this book are people trying to figure out what the next step should be.

The concluding chapters, particularly Chapter 18 the book's strongest, draws on Cort's experience in eight decades of justice work to give us a Christian Socialist vision for the 21st century.

"'Tax and spend,' he writes, "the phrase that turns a politician's backbone to jelly, is actually a three-word summary of Christian political theory, as long as the taxing is on those who can afford it and the spending is on those who need it." Such a proposal is not likely to win many friends, but it is a bold statement of Cort's priorities.

Another place he writes: "The hungry child lying by the rich man's table is a most appropriate image to describe our situation in the wealthy United States of America. The child has a moral claim, a right (his emphasis) to that food in justice, not simply in charity."

Cort's conclusion: the common good is the greatest good.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer and coordinates NCR's Web site. His e-mail address is

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