The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross, 1910-1985

By Jack Lee Downey | Go to book overview

Introduction
Conversion and Catholic Pacifism

In 1976, while researching for the second installment in a historical trilogy on Dorothy Day (1897–1980) and the Catholic Worker movement, William Miller interviewed a diocesan priest from Pittsburgh named John Hugo, who had served for a time as her confessor and spiritual director. Hugo had gained some notoriety as the arch-apologist for a controversial contemplative retreat that Day once described as “like hearing the Gospel for the first time.”1 During their conversation, Hugo reminisced about his first encounters with Day in 1940: “I don’t know how many times Dorothy made the retreats. I would say perhaps a dozen times, or two dozen…. That [their introduction] was before we got involved in the war [World War II] too much, I think…. I guess she converted me completely to pacifism; I had been on the fence about it.”2 Hugo credited Day for introducing him to the antiwar movement, and himself for inspiring her to give up smoking. And then a rather bold claim: “I think I was the first priest to defend conscientious objectors. I don’t want to boast unduly, but I think I was.”3 Now, although pacifism would not even be formally recognized as a legitimate conscientious option for Roman Catholics until 1965, this was—strictly speaking—not quite true.4 Hugo might be forgiven for his ignorance on the matter, given the scant and poorly-networked clerical support for COs throughout the war, but his depiction of the reciprocal, symbiotic relationship with Day was telling. While Hugo would develop a strong portfolio as an agitator, his singular passion and talent lay in his capacity as a conduit for and translator of the maximalist Christian doctrine known at first pejoratively as Lacouturisme—which created a kind of feedback loop by forging a spiritual generator for Day’s radical praxis, which in turn pushed Hugo further toward a pacifist application of Christian principles.

John Hugo was born and raised in the suburbs, a dozen miles southeast of Pittsburgh, in the long shadow of St. Vincent’s Archabbey in nearby

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