Dorothy Day: What happens when you live a radically Catholic life

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Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day is pictured in a still from the “Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story,” a film by Martin Doblmeier. CNS photo/courtesy Journey Films

(OSV News) — In one of his more snarky stories about clerical life — it’s called “The Forks” — the American Catholic writer J.F. Powers capsulizes the fraught relationship between a stuffy, self-important pastor and his young curate in a single, prickly sentence: “He found Father Eudex reading The Catholic Worker one day and had not trusted him since.”

There was a time when many Catholics, not just stuffy pastors, held the same view of Dorothy Day and her group: dangerous. Some still may. But the Church is thinking of declaring her a saint.

‘Don’t call me a saint’

Day was co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement and longtime editor of the penny-a-copy newspaper of the same name. From the mid-1930s to the early 1980s, she preached radical Christianity and no less radical social activism to a sometimes appreciative, sometimes puzzled, sometimes angry audience of American Catholics. The gospel according to Day was a heady mix of the inspiring and the infuriating.

Historian Charles Morris says she “transformed the social conscience of a whole generation of young clergy.” To which one might add: lay intellectuals, writers and journalists, too. The effort to have her canonized is moving, slowly but apparently steadily, ahead.

This ex-communist who had an abortion and several love affairs might not have entirely welcomed that. “Don’t call me a saint,” she once said. “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

Leaning toward Catholicism

Dorothy Day was born Nov. 8, 1897, in Brooklyn. Her parents had been married in an Episcopal ceremony but seldom went to church. Her father, a sportswriter, moved the family to San Francisco to take a job with a newspaper, but the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 wiped out the paper and the elder Day’s job, and the family shifted to Chicago.

There the young girl showed her first interest in religion and was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church. Around this time, too, she got what she later called her “first impulse toward Catholicism” — the sight of a Catholic friend’s mother kneeling in her bedroom at prayer.

“For many a night after that,” Day writes in her 1952 autobiography “The Long Loneliness,” “I used to plague my sister with my long prayers … So we began to practice being saints; it was a game with us.”

At age 15, she started having doubts about religion. On the one hand, she saw churchgoers who were well off. On the other, she saw the poor. “I did not see anyone taking off his coat and giving it to the poor. I didn’t see anyone having a banquet and calling in the lame, the halt and the blind.”

At the University of Illinois, Day joined the Socialist party. Leaving the university after two years, she headed back to New York, where she wrote for Socialist publications, was active in radical causes that included feminism and free love, and pursued a Bohemian lifestyle among artists and activists. In 1917 she was arrested for picketing for women’s suffrage at the White House and spent 15 days in jail.

Her friends at this time included playwright Eugene O’Neill and prominent communists, with one of whom she had an affair. After still another affair, around 1920 or 1921, she had an abortion. Thereafter, she married briefly, published a semi-autobiographical novel whose screen rights she sold to Hollywood for $2,500, and bought herself a Staten Island beach cottage where she lived from 1925 to 1929 with a man named Forster Batterham.

In 1926, Day gave birth to a daughter whom she named Tamar. Now her old interest in Catholicism not only revived but intensified. She met a nun named Sister Aloysia, had her baby baptized and studied the faith. Forster didn’t like it, and the two split. On Dec. 28, 1927, Day was received into the Catholic Church with Sister Aloysia as her sponsor.

“God always gives us a chance to show our preference for him,” she later wrote. “With me it was to give up my … life with Forster. You do these things blindly, not because it is your natural inclination — you are going against nature when you do them — but because you wish to live in conformity with the will of God.”

Beginning the Catholic Worker movement

Conforming to God’s will was now central to Day’s life, but that didn’t necessarily mean giving up old convictions and commitments. On the contrary — finding and living a practical synthesis between faith and radical social causes now was a growing concern for Day.

The turning point came early in the Great Depression. Working as a journalist, Day covered a jobs demonstration in Washington organized by communists, then later prayed in the crypt church of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. There she offered “a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and anguish, that some way would open for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.”

Returning to New York, she found waiting for her a slightly disheveled French peasant who was also a radical Catholic and a self-taught social thinker. His name was Peter Maurin, and he wanted to share his vision with Day. It wasn’t long before the Catholic Worker movement was born.

With Day as editor, the first issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper appeared May 1, 1933. It sought to be an alternative to the communist Daily Worker. That first issue asked: “Is it not possible to be radical and not atheist?” For the next half-century, Day worked hard at showing how that could be done.

She supported the labor movement, racial justice and the California farm workers led by Caesar Chavez. She opposed the Nationalist side supported by most Catholics in the Spanish Civil War. She was an uncompromising pacifist.

“We love our country, and we love our president,” Day wrote after the United States entered World War II. But even so: “We are still pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount.” When the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Day’s voice was one of the few Catholic ones raised in public protest.

During the Cold War, Day often joined other pacifists in peace demonstrations. On one occasion, she served a month in jail. She praised Fidel Castro’s social revolution in Cuba while deploring its anti-religious policies. A few years later, she opposed the Vietnam War. While terming the Christmas season visits by New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman to American troops overseas “brave,” she also wrote: “What are all those Americans doing all over the world so far from our own shores?”

Criticizing Church leaders

Day was intensely loyal to Church doctrine but didn’t hesitate to skewer Church leaders when she thought they were wrong. During a gravediggers’ strike at New York Catholic cemeteries in 1949, she criticized Cardinal Spellman for bringing in seminarians to fill in for striking workers. In 1951, the archdiocese told The Catholic Worker either to stop publishing or remove the word “Catholic” from its name. Day did neither, and the archdiocese dropped the matter.

Though never large in numbers, over the years the Catholic Worker movement expanded to include houses of hospitality in several cities along with a Catholic Worker farm. Day lived in a Catholic Worker house in New York. It was there that she died, of a heart attack, on Nov. 29, 1980.

The first steps toward her possible beatification and canonization were taken in 2000 by the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. Efforts have continued under Cardinal Timothy Dolan. At his urging, the U.S. bishops in November 2012 voted to endorse her cause. The cardinal called her “a saint for our time.”

While remaining a lifelong admirer of the idealistic communists who’d once been her friends, she criticized the evil means communism used to achieve its ends. Whether she was unacceptably naïve about communism is, and probably will remain, in dispute. Many also think she should have shown more concern about the harm inflicted by the self-indulgent hippie culture of the 1960s and 1970s.

Day’s principal lasting influence on American Catholicism may have been to show a faith-based alternative to secularist progressivism. In 2023, Pope Francis wrote the foreword to a new edition of Day’s 1938 memoir about her conversion to Catholicism, “From Union Square to Rome.” Of Day, he wrote, “The Lord comforts restless hearts, not bourgeois souls who are content with things as they are.” At present, she has the title Servant of God.

Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw writes from Maryland.