The Catholic Church and Dorothy Day

February 22, 2013Timothy Walsh

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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 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.


  1. SHARON OTTERMANIn Hero of the Catholic Left, a Conservative Cardinal Sees a Saint’ New York Times November 26, 2012
  3. All The Way To Heaven – the selected letters of Dorothy Day. Edited by Robert Ellsburg Chapter “A Love Story”
  4. The Teachings of Modern Christianity: On Law, Politics, and Human Nature, Volume 1 John Witte, Frank S. Alexander pages 209-211
  • zebbart

    It’s important to point out too that the Roman Catholic hierarchy is not so black and white. The USCCB and even more so the bishops of Europe, including the pope, have been pretty progressive on economics. Pope Benedict XVI said, “…democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine…” [First Things] and Cardinal Dolan said “Even with the generosity of the American people, and the work of groups like the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and so many others, much more needs to be done, and not just by private charity. The government must continue to play its part as well.” [Dolan's Blog]. The USCCB vigorously challenged Paul Ryan’s welfare cutting budget and has continued to support radical reform of the racist anti-immigrant policies of Bush and Obama, and the Vatican has been about one step away from pacifism in its opposition to modern war and the death penalty. The Church only seems right wing because American media, especially the sadly partisan left and right wings of Catholic media (NCR 1 and 2 I’m looking at you!) delight in ignoring the economics and comprehensive pro-life stances of the magisterium and instead wallow in the culture war identity politics issues on which the Church has remained consistent. I am very happy to say that it seems to me the Church has nearly caught up with Dorothy Day in her radical sense of justice for the poor, her radical rejection of violence, and her radical embrace of ancient tradition and spiritual discipline. Of course it remains for that shift to be put in full practice and to be fully and widely proclaimed and taught, but there has been progress and I think the Dorothy’s canonization is a major signal of the Church the direction is headed, not a co-option of her legacy.

    • Timothy Walsh

      I very much agree, but to many non-Christians, and non-Catholic Christians, this point is completely missed, and as you have said – the media contributes to that extensively. Thank you for your comments and the additional resources you have posted.

      • John T.


        I do not think it is correct that…. “to many non-Christians, and non-Catholic Christians, this point is completely missed”.

        It seems to me that we non-Catholics just do not have the same emotional loyalty to an institution that is self evidently hypocritical, authoritarian and just plain cruel and therefore we have no need or motivation for justifications, excuses and apologia for the institution.

        Or are you saying that the hypocrisy, authoritarianism and cruelty is just a media beat-up?

        Jesus taught us to love God and our neighbors, not the church. Jesus taught that the poor were blessed, not the church. Love of the church is idolatry – this was Dorothy’s greatest flaw.


        If you weigh up Ratzinger’s endorsement of democratic socialism with his banning of Liberation theology then you might come to a different conclusion about his attitude to socialism.

        When the Bishops call for the wealthy to part with their wealth rather than for more charity and government assistance for the poor, then your church might begin to resemble the good news of Jesus.

        • Adam Clark

          I agree John. I suspect if Jesus stood outside the proud and palatial Vatican today his response would be one of condemnation, not endorsement. “Tear down this temple, and I’ll rebuild it in three days.”

        • Timothy Walsh

          I am not sure what the point of your comment is. The focus of the article was Dorothy Day’s relationship to the Catholic Church as a general response to ‘The Left’ and it’s cry that her memory was being co-opted.

          By your remark “… this was Dorothy’s greatest flaw.” I take it you were in fact agreeing with my assessment, although backhandedly (and in your infinite judgement as a theological authority), to which I suppose I should thank you.

          As to your other general comments; these arguments are as old as the Protestant Reformation that found popularity in them, and yet the most prevalent communities of Christians (or idolators as you refer to them) – Eastern, Oriental, Catholic & Anglican would disagree. I thought the basic idea of this site was the coming together of radicalized Christians, and not to debate the theological issues of the ages, decide who is morally and religiously WRONG and certainly not to tear them down and sort them out. It is a shame to see such spiteful comments from a fellow Christian; sectarianism is alive in well.

          • John T.

            My point was, in response to your comment about non-Catholics missing the point, that I don’t think you have to be a Catholic to see the Catholic church for what it is, and negative perceptions of the church is not just a matter of bad media coverage. My other point was that Jesus was relevant to the issues. Forgive me if these points were not clear in the previous post.

          • maxpercy

            I think this is also evidence of a fundamental divide between Orthodox, Oriental and Catholic Churches and other various Protestant Christian communities: sacraments. Are the world, church and sacraments “sacramental” i.e. actual communicators and carriers of God’s divine energies and grace, or are they only ideas we can have thoughts, feelings and opinions about. How you commit yourself on this, I think, more or less predetermines whether you evaluate for example, the Catholic Church hierarchs and others’ sin and evil actions and dismiss the church on sociological/political grounds or you value the Church as a divine/human organism that through history is the prime proclaimer of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, however flawed. ( I am not setting up an absolute binary, here, I am sure there are variations).
            While this does not necessarily prevent cooperation and communion among radical Christians of all varieties, I think it is pretty clear from the comments, that it cannot be evaded, either.

          • Xeres Villanueva

            This is very important to point out. Have you heard the concept “Catholic Imagination”? Here are some links to explain it:



        • Frank


          There is nothing idolatrous about loving the church – though of course I think the church since Vatican II is going down hill (I side with that stout defender of Traditional Catholicism, Rama Coomaraswamy, on this point).

          But, back to the point, loving an institution, or a Saint, is not idolatry if you love God first. If you love the Church as an authentic instrument of God on this earth (which I don’t think it is since Vatican II), that is not idolatry as you love the Church because you love God. If I venerate St. Francis as representing a life that is in accord with some of the highest human possibilities ordained by God, that is not idolatry.

          Is it idolatry if I love my wife? For an atheist that would be a form of idolatry…but a Christian loves his wife as his complement, given by God. Man and wife together symbolize the androgynous state from which we come and to which we will eventually return (this Principle is of course violated by homosexual unions, for which no support can exist other than base sentiment). Is it idolatry to love ones neighbor? For an atheist, yes…for a Christian of course you love the neighbor as another example of a possibility ordained by God, as a fellow traveler who can help you on your journey home as you help them.

          You could learn a lot from opening your mind and heart to the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, John.

          • John T.


            Timothy has said that non-catholics miss the point. You say that I have not opened my mind and heart to the Catholic and orthodox traditions.

            What makes you Catholics assume that we non-Catholics are so ignorant and misguided about the nature and history of the church of Rome?

          • Frank

            I am not a Catholic – to speak about myself for a minute, I guess you could call me a very open-minded (not in the sense of being liberal) Protestant at this time – I attend a Protestant church and have for all of my young adult and adult life to date. In my searchings I once thought of moving to Islam, or Zen Buddhism, or Greek or Russian Orthodoxy, but I increasingly think there is a workable sacred space for me in Protestantism, plus my affections are with my country church, and I am an organist, and I am interested in farming…which is something that in America at least, is completely associated with Protestantism in my mind. Perhaps, though it may sound arrogant to compare myself to such a great, I could be like a Wendell Berry, essentially Protestant but at the same time with a mind open to learning of other traditions and able to see the faults in my own….but, one must eventually “pick a team” so to speak. As you cannot meditate to Bach, Ravi Shanker, classical Persian music, and Tibetan polyphonic chanting all at once…the same goes for mixing religions, it can produce a dissonance that precludes any real transcendence.

            Still, one can be a member of a single tradition and yet learn from others…it has been done by, among others, men like Martin Lings, Rama Coomaraswamy, James Cutsinger, and Philip Sherrard.

            I would say you are misguided because you seem to understand many Catholic beliefs as idolatry….right?

          • John T.

            No, I “understand many Catholic beliefs” as Helenist superstition with no basis in the bible.

            The idolatry is obedience to the church hierarchy as if it represented God, such as Dorothy’s obedience.

          • maxpercy

            I think you are right in discerning that for Catholics, Orthodox and Orientals, the Bible is not the source of belief, but the Church- broadly understood is, as it was the Church that authored the Bible in the first place, it is reflective of belief and practices that pre-exist the Bible. The Church continues to express that belief through time.

          • John T.


            The bible was not authored by the church, it was written by tribal Hebrews. The church is a construction of the Roman empire hundreds of years after the bible was written. Doctrines such as the trinity, transubstantiation, Christmas, Easter, Lent, the primacy of Peter, celibate priests, the authority of the church to anathematize and infant baptism are found nowhere in the bible, they are rooted in Greko-Roman religions and adapted into the state religion of Rome. Biblical Hebrew doctrines such as the celebration of the Passover that Jesus commanded his disciples to continue, the proclamation of the Jubilee which was Jesus first act of public ministry and the land covenant of Abraham in the Middle East were outlawed by the Roman imperial religion and government. The church was the religion of empire and in the Holy Roman empire it was the imperial state itself with the Pope as emperor.

            The church is something altogether different from the Hebrew bible and its authors.

          • maxpercy


            Thanks for your reply. You are right that I was too unnuanced. The New Testament was authored by the Church. Doctrines like the Most Holy Trinity, Nativity of the Lord, Pascha all have biblical witness. The other things you mention are practices of the Church. The faith of the Church, rooted in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, all predate Constantine. It is this faith and this community that produces all these things you raise, including the New Testament. It is the faith and community that is prior. I think the picture is far more complex than you are making it. For instance just one example, the relationship of the Septuagint (greek) to the Hebrew text( usually Masoretic) and well over 500 years older than the Septuagint and arguably standardized in part, in reaction the Christian claims. I am not disagreeing with you about land and empire, but to conflate the Church (usually what is intended is the Latin Church with empire disregards a lot of history and witness of early Christians.

          • John T.


            I suggest that to not conflate the church with empire is a disregard of history.

            In the bible the word “church” just means a gathering of people. The Jerusalem church of the new testament was a tribal indigenous Hebrew church. The new testament churches in imperial cities such as Corinth, Ephesus,etc were synagogues of the exiled Hebrew diaspora. The new testament was written by tribal Hebrews, just like the old testament. The Roman imperial church is something very different.

            I certainly acknowledge the evolution of “The Way” exiled from Israel between the first and fourth centuries and its popularity amongst non-Hebrew people in the empire but by the time of the council of Nicea the Hebrew christian revolutionaries were all killed and it was a gentile religion with no basis in the land and covenant of Abraham, only the Hebrews (or Jews as they had become known) maintained any connection with the covenant of Abraham and that was severely restricted and often persecuted by the Roman church/state. The North African Christians who interpreted Jesus from the perspective south of the Mediteranian were effectively excluded from Constantine’s new church of the north in the Nicea anathematization’s.

            The historical church from which today’s churches are rooted begins at Nicea – this is the defining ideology. It has been a state and empire church ever since.


            There is no biblical witness to the trinity, the idea did not arise until hundreds of years after the bible was written.

            The nativity of our Lord is clearly described as a descendant of Abraham and David born to be king and liberates the land and people of Abraham’s covenant from imperial domination. However the specifically Catholic doctrine of the nativity of Mary is not based on the bible but on the infancy gospel of James that suggests Mary was a temple virgin. The Hebrews did not have temple virgins, this was a Hellenic thing.

            The pascha has a very specific meaning in the bible – the passover lamb. The Roman church has co-opted the word as part of its Easter rituals but this is not how the word is used in the bible.

            The biblical Pentecost is a Hebrew festival – Shavu’ot, the first fruit harvest festival and celebration of the giving of Moses’ law. The basic fact that it was an indigenous ceremony has been ignored by the church in its concept of the holy spirit and its Easter calendar.

            Mark 10:42 “Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

            It is clear to all who have eyes to see that the Roman Catholic Church and its protestant sects are structures of gentile rule and contrary to the biblical Jesus’ teaching on such matters. So too with –

            Matthew 4:8 “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

            Again, it is clear for all with eyes to see, that the Roman church and its protestant sects have acquired Splendid imperial kingdoms and even claimed to have sovereignty over the whole world. The Christian Kingdoms of Europe that did colonise the whole world were put in place by the church. This has not come from Jesus.

            It is an imperial myth, a lie, that the religious institution of empire has carried the light of the tribal, indigenous, Hebrew Jesus throughout history. This myth/lie has served to ensure the loyalty of citizens of empire to their Caesar/King/State as divinely appointed. The lie has also served to demonise the tribal indigenous land based spiritualities (just like Jesus) of people across the globe exterminated and colonised by the empire, as a justification to the citizens and soldiers of empire of the catholic/universal moral correctness of the imperial genocides.

            And this is why I find it important to challenge Timothy’s concluding remark “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.”

            You cannot be wholesomely radical while giving any kind of loyalty or defense of any sort to an institution that has misrepresented Jesus and played the (“the” not “a”) central role in the formation of European imperial power and consciousness. It seems to me that radicals would repent from such a tradition rather than embracing it or trying to live with it in a conflicted but loyal relationship. Sugar coating the history and present reality as mistakes of a flawed human institution is just head in the sand stuff, the same can be said of Obama’s drone strikes or oil companies polluting Amazon river systems.

            (p.s. not sure what you meant about the Septuagint. It was complied and translated by Hebrew scholars so that Greek speaking Hebrews of the Diaspora could re-learn their culture and law. This was long before Jesus, there is no reaction to christian claims).

          • Adam Clark

            “You cannot be wholesomely radical while giving any kind of loyalty or defense of any sort to an institution that has misrepresented Jesus and played the (“the” not “a”) central role in the formation of European imperial power and consciousness. It seems to me that radicals would repent from such a tradition rather than embracing it or trying to live with it in a conflicted but loyal relationship.”

            I agree. These discussions surrounding Day’s canonization have been useful. Can one be truly radical and remain part of a hierarchical Church (Catholic or Protestant)? Ammon Hennacy, unlike Day, came to the conclusion that he couldn’t.

            P.S. I appreciate Timothy’s article. I had not realized Day was so “far to the right” in terms of Catholic Church doctrine. It has made me doubt how close to Truth she was.

          • HH Brownsmith


            She was just as close and just as far away from the truth as lots of other folks who have belonged to the radical christian movement. Ammon, Peter, the Berrigans…they all did beautiful stuff and terribly confusing, seemingly paradoxical stuff. They are mentors, elders, and for some, heroes. They aren’t saints. They just weren’t. I’m literally not trying to make them seem more “with the people”, more down to earth. They were faithful and brilliant. Isn’t that sufficient?

          • Adam Clark

            For me, yes.

            I agree, they were all inspiring figures but none of them were saints. It is not ours or the Church’s place to judge such things.

          • maxpercy

            Hi John

            Thanks for your long post and taking the time to do it.

            I guess I am not seeing or understanding this opposition you are making between “tribal hebrews” and gentiles. I am not sure what tribal Hebrews means at the time of Jesus. Given the distinction you are making is Paul a tribal hebrew? How do you assess his letters and his concern for gentiles? Or am I missing the point? I am not seeing the neat and clear distinction between Hebrew and Gentile that it seems you are drawing. Plus, in the end, I am not sure what the point is. Is it that there was a kind of “pure”/Hebrew Christianity that has been lost for 1800? years and is now only being rediscovered by North Americans? That may be something of an unfair cartoon but I hope you see my point

            I think Mark 1:10-11 is a witness to the Trinity, as is the Transfiguration. I don’t see the Nicene creeds as fully formed there, but I don’t see them as negatively as you seem to either. It is only in the context of the Trinitarian creedal efforts that the notion and implications of “person” are worked out and which, it seems to me stand against imperial efforts to relegate people to less than “persons”.

            I agree that repentance is central, It is after all the first words of Jesus in Mark.
            I am not trying to stick my head in the sand, I recognize what you are saying. There is very real ambiguity. I guess I am suspicious of the impulse of wholesale dismissal of the Church as the primary carrier of the memory of Jesus through history and then assert that access to Jesus is somehow possible apart from or despite the Church, and that Jesus is really in the image of…(fill in whatever contemporary ideology)..

            regarding the septuagint, I was saying that the standard hebrew text, the masoretic text is 500+ years older than the greek septuagint text and it was arguably standardized in such a way as to attempt to minimize Christian readings of the scriptures.

            Thanks again John

          • John T.


            The issues you raise are big and complex so to keep it (relatively) short I will use very broad brushstrokes.

            The Hebrews are the descendants of Abraham. They are the inheritors of the covenant of Abraham which is land rights in the territory between the Euphrates river, Nile river, Jordan river and the Mediterranean – Genesis 15:18

            The 12 tribes are the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob – Genesis 49

            Under Moses law, Joshua divided the land to be held by the twelve tribes – Joshua 11:23

            Under Moses Law, the tribal lands were returned to the original tribes and all debt extinguished every 49 (or maybe 50) years in the Jubilee year – Leviticus 25. Jesus proclaimed the Jubilee year – Luke 4:18,19.

            The gentiles are Hellenic people – the empires of Persia, Greece and Rome who each colonised the land of Abraham’s covenant.

            Jesus said he had come to fulfill the law and prophets which meant, amongst other things, the reclamation of the land of Abraham’s covenant and Joshua’s tribal land division from the gentile colonisers.

            The new testament was written by Hebrew tribesmen, not gentiles.

            Paul was a Hebrew Tribesman. He was a pharisee, a priest of the line of Aaron. His family was exiled by Persia yet he maintained his Hebrew law and culture in exile in the synagogue at Tarsis.

            When Paul was in Jerusalem, the disciples were concerned about rumours that Paul was teaching the Hebrews amongst the gentiles – those in Roman cities – to disregard Moses law and circumcision. Consequently Paul displayed his loyalty to the Hebrew law by presiding (as a priest) over law ceremony in Jerusalem. – Acts 21:20-25

            Paul also circumcised Timothy, the son of a Hebrew woman but Gentile father, so that he would be accepted by other Hebrews when he accompanied Paul on his journey – Acts 16: 1-5

            Paul’s – and Jesus’ and the Jerusalem church’s in Acts – concern for the gentiles in no way extinguishes or undermines the Hebrew law and prophets. Gentiles are invited under the umbrella of Abraham and Moses. The controversy of circumcision in the new testament is resolved by the disciples affirming that Hebrews should be circumcised but gentiles should follow the laws of Moses but not be circumcised, not claim the legacy of the descendants of Abraham – again Acts 21: 20 – 25.

            As far as I am aware there has been no “pure Hebrew Christianity” since the last of the Hebrew Christians were slaughtered in the second century. In 70 AD the Romans smashed Jerusalem, killed the resistance and banned Hebrews from the holy land. Those that fled into the empire were hunted down and exterminated.

            Jesus, the prophets and the whole bible is about land, the earth, the land covenant with God. This ended at 70 AD, it was the end times that Jesus spoke of and it did indeed come in the lifetime of the disciples as he said it would.

            What is clear is the Church of Rome and its offshoots has nothing to do with the land based spirituality of the covenant of Abraham, the law of Moses and the restorative forgiveness of Jesus’ covenant. The church of Rome does not take its lineage from the Hebrew bible but from the empires of Egypt, Babylon, Greece and Rome. Even the rituals and calendar are based in these imperial legacies.

            However still today their are tribal indigenous people faithful to their land covenants with god, a small remnant who have survived the genocides and colonisation. This is the closest thing left today to a “pure Hebrew Christianity”. Here is my personal reflection on such things – “Jesus is an Aborigine”

            p.s. Mark 10 and the transfiguration do not even hint at a trinity.

            p.p.s. As I mentioned, the Greek Septuagint was translated and compiled long before Jesus and any “standardization” had no concern for christians. The standardisation was putting the Hebrew law/lore into a Greek framework so that Hellenised Hebrews (such as Paul’s grandparents in Tarsis) could understand it.

          • maxpercy

            Hi John

            I really appreciate you taking the considerable time and effort to lay this out.

          • maxpercy

            Thanks again John for describing this. I am assuming, perhaps unfairly, that there are some theorist(s) that lay this out. Can you perhaps point me in the direction of an author(s) whom perhaps lay this out in more detail.

            I think this is important. However, I also do not think it is exhaustive of the meaning and experience of Jesus Christ and his disciples.

            Further, while the Church is certainly guilty , I think that total disavowal of prior followers of Jesus is problematic for at least a few reasons.
            1. I don’t think it is true to characterize the entirety of prior followers of Jesus in anyway. I think reduction to just hierarchy is a distortion of the Church,
            2. I think that a total disavowal of the history of the Church runs a risk of me seeing myself as different from those who were susceptible of these crimes. There is a potentially sectarian consequence of such a view that I do no think is so helpful.

            Thanks again John, and I would really appreciate any bibliographic guidance you are willing to provide

          • John T.

            Hello again Max,

            Thank you for taking the time to read what I have written.

            I din’t think I can give you a satisfying bibliography, unfortunately heretics and indigenous spiritualities have generally not been published since Constantine. The losing team at Nicea had all their teachers banned and all their books burnt so the non-Roman tradition was effectively ended then. Since the weakening of the church’s social power most writers of land based indigenous perspective and radical critiques of the religion of European empire have come from outside christianity.

            But I hope the following references might help

            Regarding the Roman church

            * Leo Tosltoy wrote in “The Kingdom of God is within you”……..

            Christ… “could certainly not have established the Church, that is, the institution we now call by that name, for nothing resembling our present conception of the Church – with its sacraments, its hierarchy, and especially the claim to infallibility – is to be found either in Christ’s words or in the conceptions of the men of his time… The Trinity, the Mother of God, the Sacraments, Grace, and so forth… have no meaning for men of our day… The Sermon on the Mount, or the Creeds. It is impossible to believe them both.”

            (Tolstoy embraced orthodoxy more than I do but he had an idealised utopian notion of orthodoxy that did not correlate to the real history of orthodoxy – a bit like Dorothy)

            Adam mentioned earlier Ammon Hennacy’s rejection of the authoritarian church.

            Regarding the tribal-ness of the bible

            “Biblical Anthropology” – Alice Linsley


            Also, although it is not directly about what I have said and I am sure Ched Myers would disagree with some of what I have said, his article “Anarcho-primitivism and the bible” is a much better key to understanding bible stories than the creeds and Nicean theology. If he is correct about the trajectory of the manifestation of God in bible history as being decentralising and distributive then the centralising acquisitive nature of the imperial church is obviously out of step with the biblical trajectory.


            There is a growing Christian theology amongst indigenous people that is rediscovering a liberation theology based on relationship to land and traditional indigenous world views rather than traditional imperial ones. An Australian example – “Towards an Aboriginal theology” by Rev Graham Paulson. (I am sure their are indigenous theologians closer to where you live too)

            (end of references)

            Regarding your comments about “total disavowal of prior followers of Jesus”

            I do not disavow the laity who, during the Roman and Holy Roman empires, was everyone in society not just a religious cult within the empire as Christianity is today. I have no doubt that Jesus manifested amongst the people. However I acknowledge that the laity, the people, were oppressed and controlled by the religious institution as an agent of the state or as the state itself. For most of the history of christendom most Christians did not have access to the bible, their only knowledge of the word “Jesus” came from the religious institution and its creeds. The manifestation of the real Jesus was something altogether different from the ideology of the church/state. Jesus was with the so-called Barbarian tribes who fought against the Holy Roman empire for their land, lives and spiritualities, he was with the European peasant underclasses, he was with the God/people/land covenants of Europe and perpetually calling for its jubilee restoration. He was not with the imperial armies who marched under the banner of the cross and crushed indigenous sociologies and spiritualities and replaced them by the universal imperial religious template.

            I embrace with pride my own cultural heritage of pre-Roman so-called Celtic Christianity that began in Europe immediately after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and exile of Hebrews throughout the empire. Some Hebrew Christians ended up in Britain and began a Jesus movement with the Druids. This is where the Joseph of Arimathea and holy grail legends come from. Tertullian wrote (in Adversus Judaeos) “… all the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons–inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ.” Obviously Jesus was relevant to pre-Roman European tribes – but this was something very different to the Roman colonisation of tribal lands and imposition of the state religion. I embrace the non-imperial heritage of Jesus, not the religious state and empire.

          • Adam Clark

            No loving your wife is not idolatry, unless of course you make an image of her, stick her in a church and kneel down/worship her. Something of course Catholics tend to do with their saints.

            Islam is not without its faults, but one thing they have got right is classing any form of idolatry as a major sin. The inside of a mosque is basically empty with nothing to get in the way of an individual’s communion with God. Various Christian groups also hold to this ancient Abrahamic tradition such as the Anabaptists and Quakers.

          • Frank

            You seem to take things very literally, which is common among Protestants, Anabaptists, etc.

            The fact that one loves their wife without loving God is a form of idolatry, idolatry of the heart…one does not have to literally kneel down and worship her for this to be idolatry. If you are so literal than I could say I love Satan but it is not idolatry unless I actually make an icon of a demon and worship it.

            Mosques are not empty, they have art, it is just not art that represents the human form…traditional mosques are certainly not bare like some Quaker meeting hall.

            By the way, many Muslims are associated with Sufism, which has Saints, and many Muslims who are not Sufi’s venerate the shrines of Sufi Saints. Though Islam is of course definitely more iconoclastic than mainstream Christianity there has been a space in traditional Islam for religious music and saints, said space centering around Sufism, not to mention of course the art of Arabic calligraphy and geometric forms that decorates traditional mosques. Of course, modern day fundamentalists are increasingly attacking Sufism as foreign to Islam, which is of course completely false.

            This is not even to mention other religions – the idea of saints, the idea of religious art in places of worship is hardly unique to the Catholic Church.

            Listen, if a person loves something as representing God on earth, loving the thing because of what it says about God, that is not idolatry….and no matter how much you try to get away from outer symbols, you never will. Much of the result of the Protestant running away from symbolism has been its replacement by things of a lower order.

            I should note, I attend a small, non-denominational, Protestant church in the countryside, just in case anyone is getting the impression I very anti-Protestant.

  • Geraldo

    Do you spell Timmothy with 2 “m”s? Also, you may wish to correct the spelling of Ellsberg, in f.n. 3.
    Nice piece.
    Thanks for posting it.

    • Timothy Walsh

      No, I spell it with only 1 ‘m’, this was a mistake on JR part. Good catch on Ellsberg! Thanks, I appreciate it.

  • Chelsea

    hi friends, a Catholic Worker here. have been reading Dorothy’s letters and diaries, edited by Ellsberg. one thing I love about Dorothy is that she was contradictory, paradoxical, not just when you contrast her politics with her theology, but even within her relationship to the church. yes, she did say that she would take the name Catholic off the paper if the hierarchy demanded it. But, in the early years when the local bishop did demand that, she wrote back a long letter stating that while she would like to obey, no one in the community wanted to because of the scandal it would cause to the church and its relationship with the poor and the worker. In other words, she resisted, and she got her way. I think her obedience to the church in many ways was part of her spirituality of being obedient to God – her letters say she would close down the Catholic Worker if ordered to because she thought the Christian should embrace persecution, take everything as God’s will, accept being small/invisible in a hidden life of prayer, etc. her letters also quote her as saying that for her the authority in the Catholic Church was the saints, she didn’t expect much from priests or bishops because she recognized them as being part of an earthly struggle for power.

    also, Dorothy changed over the years. none of us can say where her politics and theology would be now – she had an avid, creative, responsive mind and heart. a small example: she lost her life-love Forster because the Church would not allow her to be a Catholic and live with a man while unmarried. a few decades later, she harshly scolded a fellow leader of the Catholic peace movement and advised him to resign because he got remarried. well, years after that she apologized to him and said she had been too quick to judge. she also accepted and supported her daughter’s decision to get divorced. another example is that her early writings contain a lot of homophobia, particularly against lesbians. i’m guessing that to her death she would state that she supported official church teaching against homosexuality (although she didn’t give much airtime to that or any other culture-war issue). however, when the Catholic Worker who I currently live with was a young man living with Dorothy in the late 60s, and he made a remark in front of Dorothy and others about some Catholic Workers in San Francisco being bad for the movement because they were gay, she pulled him aside and severely rebuked him. years later, my friend realized that every other Catholic Worker standing in the room at that time was gay, and Dorothy knew it.

    what disturbs me about her endorsement by the US bishops is the way they gloss over Dorothy’s nuanced positions on their cherished issues, and the way they persist in nuancing and hemming in those issues about which she was very direct, consistent, and unambiguous, namely pacifism. But I do agree that just as the official church can’t “own” her, we Catholic Workers don’t get to “own” her either. a great soul like her contains multitudes–as does the CW movement, which is internally ideologically diverse–as does the church. I’m a member of a church that has de facto sanctioned the sexual torture of children. Obedience to the church is no longer an issue for me as a faithful Catholic.

    • Adam Clark

      Hi Chelsea, Tomothy and any other radical Catholic out there,

      Thanks for taking the time to post. I am interested in why Catholics remain in the Church (with some level of obedience) knowing it’s many failings and hypocrisies. Is it to do with a sense of community? Tradition? Something one is because your parents are/were (like being Jewish or a US/UK citizen)? The role models (e.g. saints)? A non-Church (or even non-Catholic) Christian is not a true Christian? I am not judging. Just interested in finding out more.

      • Xeres Villanueva

        In my case, it was my passion for social justice, the importance of both communal and personal spiritual devotion and practice, the arts, mysticism and the sacramental imagination that made my decision to revert into a Sacramental Church (Catholicism in this case). I am also anti-iconoclastic and I am not for sola scriptura. I held image and word of equal importance. All those things together makes me a lousy Protestant of all strips, radical, conservative or liberal, not just a lousy Christian. I am also influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy’s theology of theosis and its therapeutic and ‘existential’ theological outlook as well. That probably makes me a lousy radical by all accounts. I learned to live with it for a long time but I have to be true to who I am and my calling, throwing away the idol of ideological purity.

      • maxpercy

        For me, an Eastern Christian, I have found the Gospel, and a method of repentance in the Church. There is an anthropology that is counter cultural, and seems to me to be true.

        The fact that there is a way of life proclaimed that includes prayer, liturgy, fasting, seasons, feasts, asceticism, sacrament and community.

        I think that the Church’s abuses are my own, that need to be repented of. I don’t think a rejection of the Church based on it/my hypocrisy, abuse and failings gets me very far, because abuse of power, etc… are disgusting, despicable, and a counter witness to the Gospel, that seem to exist in all communities, and so might as well be confronted and worked out in the Church, rather than outside. The Church, proclaims the Gospel, and so contains within itself the opportunity for the Kingdom of God to erupt.

      • Chelsea

        hi Adam,

        I don’t resonate with any of your possible answers (especially the bit about “no alternative”), although I appreciate the attempt to reach out and the thought-provocation. My experience, not to make invisible the experience of converts and/or those who have left the church, is that the catholic church is in me and I’m in the catholic church. They, me, and everyone else can just deal with that fact. I don’t super appreciate anyone, insiders, outsiders, conservatives or radicals, relating to catholic culture as a unified entity determined by its most powerful members. Catholicism is hugely internally and historically heterogenous, despite its ungodly power structure (thank you holy spirit).
        The reasons I would identify for my Catholicism are my culture and formation (as determined by the upbringing choices of my one catholic parent), and the sacraments which I’ve received which have incorporated me into the church. I engage a lot with other Christian traditions, but never forgetting my context and that I relate to others out of the context that formed me. I don’t give money to a catholic parish because I do see them as institutions that officially endorse hate. I don’t think I can change the church by staying inside, although I respect others who think that for themselves. I participate in Catholic activities and discourse because the church is the backpack I’ve been given for walking the Christian road. I tend to focus more on the road than on the backpack.

  • Mi_Fe

    Thank you.

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