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The Catholic roots of the New Socialism

In a primary defeat that the New York Times has called “the most significant loss for a Democratic incumbent in more than a decade,” ten-term Representative Joseph Crowley of New York was defeated in a Queens and Bronx district that is majority-minority by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Latina. A native of the Bronx and a former community organizer for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, declared that it was “time for generational, racial, and ideological change.” She garnered more than 57 percent of the vote in the primary.

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) rhetoric played well in the 14th District, which is 70 percent people of color, and 50 percent immigrant. Founded in New York City by Michael Harrington, an Irish Catholic and Holy Cross College graduate, the DSA still draws upon the same rhetoric surrounding Catholic social teachings on human dignity and human flourishing that Harrington promoted in his early days of community organizing in the 1950s. In 1951, Harrington got his start in socialism at what the DSA website calls “Dorothy Day’s anarchist-pacifist Catholic Worker movement.” In the early days, Harrington was devoted to the Catholic movement, residing at the group’s “House of Hospitality” on Chrystie Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “There, with other volunteers, he worked in the soup kitchen which catered to the homeless alcoholics who crowded the nearby Bowery District,” according to the DSA website.

Although Harrington eventually abandoned Catholicism and joined the Young People’s Socialist League, a youth affiliate of the Socialist Party, Catholic social teachings on the importance of dignity in work and human flourishing continued to shape Harrington’s rhetoric and his organizing strategies. He inspired the formation of faith-based organizing that we still see today in Catholic Churches throughout the country, many of them funded through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum was used in these early days to provide a guiding force in organizing workers because it gave a Catholic rationale for the worker’s right to organize and secure what Harrington called “economic dignity.” In 1973, Harrington broke away from the Socialist Party, creating the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, which merged with the leftist New American Movement in 1982. The merged organization became the Democratic Socialists of America.

Read more at Catholic World Report. 

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