An oxymoron

The Catholic Worker Movement and the World Bank, now there’s a combination; no, really, I mean it! In fact, I just finished two books about them and they prompt me to share some reflections about change. See what you think. The World’s Banker: A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations, by Sebastian Mallaby, explores the rise of the larger-than-life bank president Jim Wolfensohn and the bank’s evolving approaches to development. Oh boy, this book is a good read and his presidency (which began in 1995 and ended recently) was quite a ride!

Wolfensohn sought to turn the bank’s operations on its head – placing much greater emphasis on poverty reduction, routing out corruption, environmental concerns, and having more “country ownership” over development. But his efforts were often hamstrung, sometimes by resistance within the bank itself, other times by topsy-turvy external conditions, and still other times by plans that were too unfocused or grandiose.

By the book’s end it’s clear that the bank had to face up to its own limitations about how much change it alone could drive. Long-term success, if there was to be any, would come from a combination of factors which include the need for strong local institutions, stable societies, and clear program goals, not to mention outside aide. Then you need to add in luck.

All this brings me to The Long Loneliness, the autobiography of Dorothy Day, who was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933 (

Day and her faith-based brethren had goals just as big and audacious as Wolfensohn and his technocrats. They sought to spark nothing less than a fundamental shift in people’s consciousness in order to fight poverty and make real church teachings about works of mercy, grace, and love throughout society.

Perhaps best known for their scores of “hospitality houses” which sprouted up across the U.S. to serve the homeless and those in poverty (some which are still going today), they also launched the influential publication The Catholic Worker, a newspaper that rapidly gained a national readership in its heyday.

But while Day and Wolfensohn enjoyed much success, it’s clear that their resources paled in comparison to the challenges they fought. Which raises the question: Exactly what did they have in mind?

First, in many ways, Day and Wolfensohn pursued radically different approaches to fulfilling their dreams. Day helped give rise to a loose-knit, grassroots crowd of people and small groups scattered throughout communities; Wolfensohn directed the very embodiment of a big, professional global institution.

But what’s also clear in both situations is that Day and Wolfensohn were engaged in a fundamental give-and-take over people’s mind-sets and sensibilities. At issue was whether people were willing and able to adopt a new perspective for how they could see, think about, and engage in their fight for progress and the public good (and both clearly laid out what they thought this meant). Another major challenge they shared was whether their efforts could link passionate individuals to actual systems that would help support and diffuse their work.

Just how successful each was I’ll leave for you to decide; it’s worth getting the two books.

But I will say that it’s easy for us to lose sight of these two points in our own daily efforts: that so much of our collective work goes to the need to engage people on their mind-set and sensibilities and that we must create the conditions and capacity for changed mind-sets and sensibilities to take root and grow.

This work we must continue to do.