By Moina Arcee, Oct 15, 2015, edited August 26 2018
The greatest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.” Dorothy Day, co-founder of Catholic Worker movement, born November 8, 1897.
Pope Francis addressed the US Congress during a visit to America and singled out an American Catholic as an example of saintliness.
“In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God, Dorothy Day,” the pope declared, “who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”
The term “Servant of God” is used when the Roman Catholic Church has accepted a canonization cause. In this case the cause is for Dorothy Day, born November 8, 1897, in Brooklyn New York, and died November 1980. Just who was Dorothy Day, and why does Pope Francis heart her so much?
Being a saint was probably the last thing on Dorothy Day’s bucket list. “Don’t call me a saint,” she would snap, adding:“I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” No halos or ruby red slippers for this Dorothy.
Dorothy was as consumed with providing practical social justice for people as her brother Donald was in writing anti-Semitic books against the purported Jewish conspiracy behind the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. What interesting dinner conversations the Day family must have had.
There were three Day brothers in all. Dorothy had a sister, Della. Her family was unremarkably Brooklyn middle class, with an ethnic heritage of English, Scotch, and Irish. Though her parents were only nominal Episcopalians, at a young age Dorothy became fascinated by religion and the rituals of the Church.
Other ideas intrigued her as well. As a young woman she was an ardent socialist, although she refused to be pigeonholed as a Marxist/communist/socialist. Her dad was a sports writer, and perhaps this is where Dorothy received her gift for writing. She was a prolific writer (and reader) her entire life.
But social activism would always be Day’s first love, topping even the captivating Russian novelists Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Her first imprisonment for a cause occurred in 1917, the same year of the Russian revolution that so alarmed her brother Donald. Dorothy was arrested for protesting women’s right to vote. She was imprisoned and spent most of her time in jail on a hunger strike. Many more arrests were to come, in a future she eventually chronicled in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.
Perhaps her loneliness began with her first true love, Lionel Moise, a man she loved enough to have an abortion for after he impregnated her. But he left Dorothy anyway. In 1924 she chronicled the unhappy affair, in decidedly non-Taylor Swift fashion, in a book she called “The Eleventh Virgin.”
At book’s end Day made an incisive remark about the status of women in society that perhaps is still relevant today:
“I thought I was a free and emancipated young woman and found out I wasn’t at all … Freedom is just a modernity gown, a new trapping that we women affect to capture the man we want.”
The next man in Day’s life was social activist Forster Batterham. The two spent weekends together at a beach cottage Day purchased with the payment she received for the movie rights to her book. In 1925 she was overjoyed to find herself pregnant. Batterham was not as thrilled. The pregnancy drove a wedge into their relationship. Equally as bad, for Batterham anyway, was Dorothy’s growing fascination with Roman Catholicism.
On March 4 1926 their daughter, Tamar Teresa, was born. The ‘Teresa’ came from St. Therese of Liseiux, Dorothy’s favorite saint. Dorothy wanted to convert to Catholicism and marry Batterham in the Catholic Church. But the combination of fatherhood and Catholicism gave Batterham a near terminal case of hives.
In July 1927 Tamar Teresa was baptized. By the end of that year Batterhams’s fear and loathing of church and family dissolved his relationship with Day. On December 28 Dorothy was baptized by a Catholic nun. Soon it was official: Dorothy Day was a Roman Catholic.
Her socialist friends were horrified. That Terrible Edifice, source of everything reactionary and retrograde – the Roman Catholic Church – had swallowed up their brilliant comrade. Dorothy’s friends thought she had lost her mind. It is perhaps more accurate to say that Dorothy offered her mind – and her heart – to a new love.
For the next several years Day submerged herself and her daughter in the sacramental life of grace offered by the Church. She supported herself by writing for various publications. The next big turning point came in 1932.
The country was writhing under the Great Depression. Poverty and hardship visited everyone. As unemployment rose to over 50%, discontent also rose over government’s ineffective handling of the crisis. The disenfranchised used their feet to approach the seat of power and state their claims. Day was there on assignment from Commonweal magazine to cover what became known as “The Hunger Marches” on Washington D.C.
The spectacle inspired Day and pained her. She was thrilled at the poor speaking up. She was crushed there was no Catholic contingent in the Hunger Marches, and no visible show of support from her church. She wondered aloud:
“Where was the Catholic leadership in the gathering of bands of men and women together, for the actual works of mercy that the comrades had always made part of their technique in reaching the workers?”
Later Day carried the question to a higher authority. D.C. was home to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and it was there that she prayed on her knees to be able to do more to help the poor. Her heart burned, but her prayers only seemed to waft up and disappear into the vast indifference of heaven.
The very next day she met a man – either waiting outside her apartment door or sitting in her kitchen, depending on who tells the tale – named Peter Maurin. He answered Dorothy’s prayer and changed her entire life forever.
Maurin was first of two dozen children born to very generous French parents. He arrived in America penniless, disheveled, and preaching a mantra of Catholic social justice. Maurin was in fact a deep thinker, a Catholic intellectual, and a true philosopher who also had a pragmatic bent. Day was a convert who didn’t know about Catholic social justice theory. Maurin showed her how Catholicism could provide the intellectual, religious, and motivational framework for a movement to help the poor – something Dorothy had been praying for years to be a part of.
Maurin’s intellect provided the body, muscles, and sinew, a place for Dorothy’s heart to reside and thrive, to reach out to the poor in a truly Catholic and human way. The relationship between Day and Maurin was not romantic: Neither bore or sired any more biological children. Yet they gave birth to something larger and longer living: the Catholic Worker’s movement in America.
Maurin insisted Day use her journalistic skills to start a newspaper. So on Mary 1, 1933, Dorothy Day stood in Union Square with a stack of newspapers she hawked for a penny apiece. The name of the paper was The Catholic Worker.
Day and Maurin started a network of communities of Catholic workers dedicated to helping the poor and destitute. Today there are over two hundred Catholic Worker communities in America. The Catholic Worker is still their newspaper, and it still sells for a penny.
All the communities follow Maurin and Day’s philosophy: a commitment to pacifism and non-violence; a commitment to helping the poor and oppressed; and all workers engage in voluntary poverty.
Each community had a “house of hospitality” where homeless people could live communally according to Catholic social teaching. The Catholic Worker movement was an unofficial religious order with its own Rule: “Our rule is the works of mercy,” Day declared: “It is the way of sacrifice, worship, a sense of reverence.”
Critics called that pious window dressings, and accused Maurin and Day of being anarchists. It is true that both had disdain for government and the status quo because it didn’t measure up to God’s requirements:
“All authority came from God; and the state, having by choice distanced itself from Christian perfectionism, forfeited its ultimate authority over the citizen… Catholic Worker anarchism followed Christ as a model of nonviolent revolutionary behavior… He respected individual conscience. But he also preached a prophetic message, difficult for many of his contemporaries to embrace.” (Anne Klejment, A Revolution of the Heart: essays on the Catholic Worker, Temple University Press, 1988)
Maurin and Day embraced a radicalism they believed came directly from Christ’s loving concern for even the smallest sparrow. When Maurin died in 1949 there were perhaps twenty Catholic Worker communities in the US. Then Day took over leadership of the Catholic Worker movement. She is commonly viewed as the founder, but Day always credited Peter Maurin as founder. She even wrote a biography of Maurin (Peter Maurin: Apostle to the World by Dorothy Day with Francis J. Sicius, Orbis Books, 2004), wherein she gave Maurin full credit for founding the movement.
In fact Maurin and Day were a very effective combination. Each brought out the best in the other. Maurin adopted his radical voluntary poverty from St. Francis of Assisi. Francis himself had a female partner, St. Clare of Assisi. Clare was inspired by Francis to live a life of poverty and to help the poor and needy:
“They worked together to help anyone they met who was struggling and in despair. Francis and Clare knew the peace and security the poor and needy desired could be found in the unconditional love of God. The answer was in their hearts and souls, and they took every opportunity to share it with the people they encountered in their life.” (www.relevantmagazine.com)
The parallel between these two saints, and Maurin and Day, is clear. Just as Clare continued the Franciscan religious order after Francis’ death, Dorothy Day shepherded the Catholic Worker movement through many growing pains in the thirty years following Maurin’s death.
The movement was not popular inside or outside the Church. Day’s outspoken opposition to war, her continual criticisms of capitalism, and her complaints about America’s failure to help the poor and dispossessed won her few friends, especially in the Cold War period in the 1950’s.
Day did not shy away from controversy. She seemed at times to seek it out, with statements like: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.” Or: “God intended for things to be much easier than we have made them.” But she also said: “Love is the only solution,” and instructed her workers: “Don’t worry about being effective. Just concentrate on being faithful to the truth.”
Joe McCarthy had Day in his sights, and so did J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI amassed a 500 page file on Day, and McCarthy’s supporters nicknamed her “Moscow Mary.” To them Day’s insistence on a new social order and an end to capitalism and the influence of large corporations sounded too much like communism. Day’s participation in protests and her penchant for being arrested caused many to complain to Church leaders that Day and others in her movement were too far to the “left.”
I put ‘left’ in quotation marks because Catholics operate outside the usual political dualism of left and right. For instance, for centuries popes have criticized capitalism and socialism as defective forms of government. So on this point Day was following Catholic social teaching, albeit in very uncompromising terms. Sometimes her bluntness became the focus and overshadowed her message.
Day was also following Church teaching in her uncompromising stance on abortion and contraception. She didn’t like either one. “To me, birth control and abortion are genocide,” she wrote. “I say, make room for children, don’t do away with them.” This stance alienated Day from many of her own workers.
Through it all Day insisted that she and her workers continue to perform what the Church calls spiritual and corporal works of mercy, that is, helping the poor and dispossessed even at the cost of personal sacrifice. This heals the helper as well as the helped. At the core of the Catholic Workers movement are Jesus’ words: “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of my brethren, you have done it to Me. (Matthew 25:31)”
Day died of congestive heart failure in 1980. The Catholic Worker’s movement has continued to grow, not only in America but also in Canada and the UK. In 2000 New York Cardinal John O’Connor introduced Dorothy Day’s canonization cause.
This was welcomed by many, including the Houston Catholic Worker newspaper, which editorialized:
“We believe that Dorothy’s canonization could have a tremendous positive impact. Her life is a unique model of the unity of action and contemplation, of unity of the work of justice and charity, of a day-to-day living out of the Gospel, on the model of the Incarnation enfleshing for the world a commitment to the poorest among us and to making the world a better place for all.”
Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement still have plenty of critics. Is her canonization cause just a really bad idea? Or has the Church, or at least the Church’s pope, finally caught up to Dorothy Day?
Dorothy Day, with Francis J. Sicius, Peter Maurin: Apostle to the World , Orbis Books, 2004)
Anne Klejment, A Revolution of the Heart: essays on the Catholic Worker, Temple University Press, 1988
The Houston Catholic Worker newspaper.