Dorothy Day’s name has found its way into news and roundtable discussions with the recent announcement by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that the cause for her canonization is progressing forward 1. Some are forced to ask; “to what end?” In a submission on JesusRadical.com on December 21st, 2012 the title expresses “Dorothy Deserves Better.” 2
In today’s news the Catholic Church is seemingly best known for numerous cases of priests abusing adolescents, vehement anti-abortion campaigns, and it’s harsh stance on gay marriage. Over the last few decades Catholics and non-Catholics alike have watched as The Church shouldered itself with the most conservative political elements, for, as it claims, the defense of morality in the United States. With the timely elevation of Day’s case for sainthood, liberals and progressives can’t help but feel the co-opting of her memory; a woman who fought her entire life for the marginalized and oppressed people, and espoused radical left politics. It is no wonder when Cardinal Dolan speaks about his support for Day; he tends not to mention her arrests at protests of nuclear weapons or at a farm labor protest with Cesar Chavez. But when one looks at the life of Dorothy Day, and her relationship with the Catholic Church, the situation no longer seems so black and white.
The difficulty to define the sentiments of Dorothy is nothing new. Before her conversion to Catholicism, Dorothy Day was a well-known journalist and author in radical and communist circles in the United States and lauded the victory of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. She was an active member of the Women’s Suffrage movement and the Industrial Workers of the World. She had not only lived through the sexual revolution of the 1920’s but had also procured an abortion. Yet with the birth of her child she began to be drawn to spirituality and in 1927 at the age of 30, against the opinions of friends and loved ones, she was baptized into the Catholic Church. In 1932 she met Peter Maurin, a Catholic activist well versed in the writings of G. K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc and the ideas of Distributism and year later the “Catholic Worker” first rolled off the printing press.
To truly understand Dorothy Day, one must try to understand her 50-year relationship with the Catholic Church. Although Day’s politics remained firmly cemented in the left wing, her spiritual life was drawn in a different direction. Day was theologically and liturgically traditional, having once said: “When it comes to labor and politics, I am inclined to be sympathetic to the left, but when it comes to the Catholic Church, then I am far to the right.” Her position on Church authority left many of her political colleagues confounded; “…if the Chancery Office ordered me to stop publishing the Catholic Worker, I would do so.” Day is often quoted. Such obedience to an institution by a self proclaimed Anarchist was enough to confuse even the most educated of activists. Dorothy’s Catholicism never came easy however, costing her friendships, and even a relationship with Forster Batterham – the father of her daughter – who had a deep aversion to religion 3. Yet through these challenges she remained faithful and devoted to the Church and its teachings.
While she submitted to the authority of the Catholic Church, Dorothy was unafraid to go toe to toe with those in the hierarchy. Her careful and critical confrontations with the Church were another position that perplexed her contemporaries. This is best highlighted in the 1949 strike of cemetery workers against the Church in New York. The strike carried on for months and was eventually crushed by Cardinal Spellman, then head of the Archdiocese. Throughout the debacle, Day and the ‘Catholic Worker’ campaigned for the rights of the cemetery workers, and criticized the actions of the Cardinal. Years after the strike, when asked about her relationship with Church authority and the Cardinal, she went into great detail saying: “I didn’t ever see myself as posing a challenge to church authority. I was a Catholic then, and I am one now, and I hope and pray I die one. I have not wanted to challenge the Church, not on any of its doctrinal positions…Well, that brings us back to the Cardinal….I have my own way of disagreeing with him. Anyway the point is that he is our chief priest and confessor; he is our spiritual leader—of all of us who live here in New York. But he is not our ruler. He is someone whose every word all Catholics must heed, whose every deed we must copy…The Catholic Church is authoritarian in a way; it won’t budge on what it believes it has been put here to protect and defend and uphold. The Church has never told its flock that they have no rights of their own, that they ought to have no beliefs or loyalties other than those of the Pope or one of his cardinals. No one in the Church can tell me what to think about the social and political and economic questions without getting a tough speech back; leave me alone and tend your own acreage; I’ll take care of mine.” 4 William Doino Jr. best sums up such progressive obedience as ‘dynamic orthodoxy’ and he writes of Dorothy’s famous quote “Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” “Of course, one would expect nothing less from a true saint.” 5
The cause of Dorothy Day’s canonization does seem suspect given the political atmosphere in the United States today. Though many Day supporters feel that this is a great opportunity to educate the world, especially fellow Catholics about the good works, and inspirational life of the woman who started the Catholic Worker Movement. Regardless of which side of the canonization debate you fall on, let us all agree to remember Dorothy for who she really was; wholesomely Catholic, and wholesomely radical and thank her for teaching us that it is O.K. to be both.
- SHARON OTTERMAN ‘In Hero of the Catholic Left, a Conservative Cardinal Sees a Saint’ New York Times November 26, 2012 ↩
- http://www.jesusradicals.com/dorothy-deserves-better/ ↩
- All The Way To Heaven – the selected letters of Dorothy Day. Edited by Robert Ellsburg Chapter “A Love Story” ↩
- The Teachings of Modern Christianity: On Law, Politics, and Human Nature, Volume 1 John Witte, Frank S. Alexander pages 209-211 ↩
- http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2012/09/dorothy-dayrsquos-dynamic-orthodoxy ↩