Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 83 (May 1998): 13-15.
Since John Cardinal O’Connor’s announcement at his Sunday Mass on November 9, 1997 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral that he was going to discuss Dorothy Day (1897-1980) as a candidate for canonization, there has been a great deal of comment on the subject in both the religious and secular media.
Not all of that comment has been well informed. The week following the Cardinal’s announcement, I happened to catch a call-in talk show on National Public Radio about the issue. One caller blasted Dorothy for having been anti-union; another, an avowed atheist, insisted in near-apoplectic exasperation that if the Church was going to canonize Dorothy, then "it should canonize Eleanor Roosevelt."
That neither caller mentioned anything to do with the Church’s understanding of sanctity was not surprising; that some Catholics voicing opinions about Dorothy’s possible canonization have not done so, however, is. Many liberal Catholics count her as their hero and inspiration while discounting or ignoring her profound spirituality and her gutsy orthodox faith. Indeed, over the years many writers, historians, and activists—even some members of the Catholic Worker movement she founded—have viewed Dorothy only in terms of politics (leftist politics) and that is simply wrong.
True, in her youth she was a leftist and in a knee-jerk manner went along with the liberal causes of the day. She was a protester against World War I, a suffragist, and a writer for left-wing journals. She also became pregnant out of wedlock; told by her lover to get an abortion or else he would leave her, she did. He left her anyway.
Sixty years later at her wake at Maryhouse, one of the shelters she had founded for the homeless, Abbie Hoffman, an icon of the left, declared, as he waited in line to view her coffin, that Dorothy was the "first hippie." Such silliness only underscores the superficiality of those who see her in terms of politics. The reality is that her passion was not politics but love, divine love, and that what she advocated was a revolution of the heart.
By the mid-1920s Dorothy had already distanced herself from the Greenwich Village scene, which had included among others Eugene O’Neill, who had been in love with her. She had published a novel, sold the movie rights to it, and was living with her common-law husband, Forster Batterham, an atheist and an anarchist, on Staten Island. In late 1926 she was pregnant with their child. Years later, in her book Union Square to Rome, she wrote, "I knew that I was going to have my baby baptized a Catholic, cost what it may. I knew that I was not going to have her floundering through as many years as I had done, doubting and hesitating, undisciplined and amoral." She described her daughter’s birth in March 1927 as "a stupendous fact of creation. . . . God pity the woman who does not feel the fear, the awe, and the joy of bringing a child into the world."
One day shortly afterward, while out walking in Tottenville, Staten Island, Dorothy saw two nuns and approached them, asking them how one could become a Catholic. Prior to this incident Dorothy had had furtive contact with Catholicism. In her Village days after a night of partying, she often found herself in the early morning in St. Joseph’s Church; she was drawn to the ritual of the Mass and to the artwork in the church. Afterwards, she lived briefly in New Orleans and would visit the cathedral, where a woman once gave her a rosary. Praying the rosary later became a regular part of Dorothy’s prayer life. Ed Forand, a thirty-eight-year veteran of the Catholic Worker newspaper, remembers that each afternoon in the midst of preparing the evening meal for the community, he and others would join Dorothy upstairs in the office to say the rosary.
Dorothy was attracted to the Church for several reasons, one of which was the physical richness of its life—its signs, symbols, customs, and rituals. A passionate woman, she was attracted to beauty. She liked to quote Dostoevsky: "Beauty will save the world." At the same time, she felt herself in a state of spiritual anxiety. Like two other great converts in this century, G. K. Chesterton and Bernard Nathanson, Dorothy recognized her sinfulness and yearned for forgiveness; only the Church, she believed, could give her the forgiveness she needed. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she wrote that she had "reached the point where I wanted to obey. . . . I was tired of following the devices of my own heart, of doing what I wanted to do, what my desires told me to do, which always seemed to lead me astray."
Dorothy had her baby baptized first and then a few months later, in December 1927, was herself baptized. Forster, rabidly anti-Catholic, left her and their baby. But for Dorothy there was no turning back—she would listen to God, to the Church. She never regretted her decision to convert. She wrote: "I wanted to be poor, chaste, obedient. I wanted to die in order to live, to put off the old man and put on Christ. I loved, in other words, and like all women in love I wanted to be united to my love. . . . I loved the Church for Christ made visible." The Catholic Church, she said, was the church of the poor. In her study of St. Thèrése de Lisieux, she explained, "The heart filled with love searches for someone on whom to bestow it."
The next five years were not easy for her; she agonized over how to live out her faith, her concern for the poor, and her commitment to justice. Leftist ideology was too empty and abstract; it was without spirit and, most importantly for her, denied the transcendent. Then, on a December afternoon in 1932, Peter Maurin, a French peasant emigré, ex-Christian Brother and teacher, arrived at her apartment on East Fifteenth Street. She later wrote, "He showed me the way . . . his ideas and vision would dominate the rest of my life." He introduced her to the social teaching of the Church, to the doctrine of the common good of St. Thomas Aquinas, to the English Distributists like Chesterton, Eric Gill, and Hilaire Belloc, and to the lives of the saints. He called his philosophy personalism, which was shortly thereafter expounded by Emmanuel Mounier and Jacques Maritain, both of whom later published in the Catholic Worker.
Personalism rejected the welfare state, a creation of the modern era that had taken away the responsibilty of individuals for one another. Dorothy derisively referred to it as "Holy Mother the State," or the "Servile State," in the words of Belloc. She wrote that "Peter did not wish to turn to the government for funds. ‘He who is a pensioner of the State is a slave of the State.’" Her critique of the New Deal was that it did not offer ownership. "We believe in worker ownership of the means of production and distribution as distinguished from nationalization. . . . Property is proper to man." Bill Kauffman has rightly observed that Dorothy’s distributism was kindred to the manifesto of Allen Tate and the Southern Agrarians, and that "she was more at home with these people than she ever was with Manhattan socialists." Dorothy and Peter founded the Catholic Worker newspaper in 1933 precisely to present the Church’s social teaching and to counter the influence of communism, fascism, and other statist doctrines.
Dorothy’s daily life began with prayer and ended with prayer—including reading of the Psalms, Mass, and vespers. She regularly confessed and made retreats. For Dorothy no kingdom was worth striving for unless it was grounded in such a regimen. To be in her presence when she kneeled in prayer was to experience a woman who talked with God. Remembering her conversion, she wrote, "Most cradle Catholics have gone through, or need to go through, a second conversion which binds them with a more mature love and obedience to the Church"—which, by the way, she unabashedly called "the one true Church."
In a conversation with Robert Coles, the eminent child psychiatrist at Harvard, Dorothy said, "I have never wanted to challenge the Church. . . . I was trying to be a loyal servant of the Church Jesus had founded." She never questioned the Magisterium nor would she ever countenance any protest against the Church or any attempt to inject politics into the Mass. In a journal entry of January 1967 she wrote: "It makes me sick to see priests go all romantic over revolution . . . knowing nothing of genuine nonviolence. . . . Every revolution has . . . led to another revolt down through the centuries. People are losing sight of the primacy of the spiritual."
She became very disenchanted with the antiwar movement of the 1960s, which she and the Catholic Worker had helped start—the first draft-card burners were from the CW. Several years later Dorothy confided to her dear friend Maisie Ward her regret over her role in antiwar protest: the movement had become violent and many Catholic protesters had lost their faith and turned away from the Church.
Dorothy also regretted many of the changes in the Church after Vatican II—many not prescribed or intended by the Council but which have been intitiated by those who claim to know the "spirit of the Council." In a letter to a priest friend of hers in 1973, she wrote, "I miss . . . Tenebrae, for instance, and Ember Days, Benediction. . . . When I’m driving around with Stanley [Visnewski] on a shopping trip we sing hymns to Our Lady in Latin so as not to forget them. They take so much breath I wonder why my grandchildren have to go in for Zen breathing exercises."
Moreover, she felt the Church must make a bold witness against the casualness and hedonism of American society. She meditated on this in an open letter to Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., in the December 1972 issue of the Catholic Worker: "And so when it comes to divorce, birth control, abortion, I must write in this way: The teaching of Christ, the Word, must be upheld. Held up, though one would think that it is completely beyond us—out of our reach, impossible to follow. . . . We may stretch toward it, falling short, failing seventy times seven, but forgiveness is always there. . . . I believe in the sacraments. I believe the priest is empowered to forgive sins."
Liberal Catholics like to point out that Dorothy was not afraid to be critical of the Church. That is true, but one of the incidents they most like to cite in fact reveals her love for the Church and her respect for Church authority. In March 1951, during Francis Cardinal Spellman’s tenure as Archbishop of New York, Dorothy received a letter from Monsignor Edward Gaffney, asking her to "drop by" the chancery. During their meeting he informed her that she would have to cease publication of CW or change the name of the newspaper—"Catholic" could not be used. Dorothy went home to discuss with the CW staff what response to give to the monsignor. In her journal she wrote: "Mike Harrington [later author of The Other America] urges me to fortitude and the fighting of obscurantism in the Church." (Shortly thereafter, incidentally, Harrington ended his brief stint at the CW, complaining that Dorothy was not a socialist and was too Catholic.)
Several days later Dorothy sent her response to Gaffney. "First of all," she wrote, "I wish to assure you of our love and respectful obedience to the Church, and our gratitude to this Archdiocese, which has often and so generously defended us from many who attack us." As to the use of the word "Catholic," she suggested that "I am sure no one thinks the Catholic War Veterans (who also use the name Catholic) represent the point of view of the Archdiocese any more than they think the Catholic Worker does." She then dutifully requested a list of any scholarly mistakes or theological or spiritual errors the paper might have propounded. She slyly added that if CW were to cease publication, that "would be a grave scandal to our readers and would put into the hands of our enemies, the enemies of the Church, a formidable weapon." She concluded the letter by promising to try to become a better editor. She never heard again from Monsignor Gaffney.
Dorothy was often asked what she would have done if the Cardinal had insisted that she close down the CW. She told Robert Coles she would have obeyed—but would have also invited the CW readership, some ninety thousand, to join her in a day of fasting and prayer at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Dorothy was a Christian personalist. She never identified with such feminist issues as women’s ordination. She gratefully called herself a "daughter of the Church," writing, "I love the Church [that] has room for saints and sinners, for the mediocre, the lame, the halt, the blind. . . . I still like the expression Holy Mother the Church." The Church was the mother that enabled her to find love in community. Her orthodox faith and selfless love remain prophetically radical—radical in the truest sense of that abused word. She went to the roots of the Church’s teachings and cultivated community. She went beyond the cant and clichés of liberalism and transcended the vacuities of self-indulgent secularism.
Dorothy criticized extreme capitalism and militarism (as has every modern Pope). Does that make her a leftist? She decried the welfare state and massive government for depersonalizing culture. Does that make her a rightist? Dorothy confounds those who live in the small world of politics and ideology.
For the Church, saints are people who are holy and give us a glimpse of God. That is why Joan of Arc was canonized, not for her politics, which apparently were monarchist. Like Joan, Dorothy looked heavenward, lived heavenward, loved heavenward.
In her journal she quoted Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard of Paris: "To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery: it means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist." Dorothy Day’s life was a mystery to many, but it also made utter sense.
Geoffrey B. Gneuhs is a writer and artist living in New York City. In the late 1970s he was chaplain for the Catholic Worker movement and gave the eulogy at Dorothy Day’s funeral.