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Dorothy Day, Prophet of Pacifism for the Catholic Church

Saint Telemachus, Peacemaker
by Ade Bethune

One of Dorothy Day’s great gifts to the Catholic Church and to the United States was her drawing together of Catholic biblical and theological resources to establish pacifism and conscientious objection as a legitimate stance for Catholics and for Americans.

Today this is not just a teaching of Dorothy Day. The U. S. Catholic Bishops affirmed pacifism and conscientious objection as a legitmate expression of Catholic faith in their 1983 peace pastoral, The Challenge of Peace, giving Dorothy Day credit. The Second Vatican Council insisted that conscientious objection was an option for Catholics in the document, The Church in the Modern World (79:3) and the same document condemned bombing of cities and civilians (80:3). These quotes were also included in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in Nos. 2311 and 2314. Recent papal statements have strengthened this teaching.

A new book edited by Anne Klejment and Nancy L. Roberts, American Catholic Pacifism: the Influence of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement (Praeger, 1996), explores the development of Dorothy’s pacifism and its theological underpinnings and establishes her significant influence in the history of American Catholicism. The book documents how the “moral theology of pacifism” developed within the Catholic Worker movement gave succour to Catholics who were looking for a basis in their faith for their pacifism, and actually led to a radical renewal of Catholicism itself.

The resourccement (going back to the sources) accomplished by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, along with priest-theologians who assisted them, made available teachings from the Fathers of the Church, theology from other periods of Catholic history, stories of saints who practiced nonviolence, and biblical reflection and exegesis supporting the position that following the Sermon on the Mount is not a romantic impossibility, but a real option for Catholics in today’s world.

One would wish, however, that American Catholic Pacifism had used the term resourccement instead of suggesting that this was revisionist history.

World War I Experience

Prior to her conversion to Catholicism, Dorothy Day was very much a part of the socialist anti-war movement before World War I. She participated in demonstrations against U. S. involvement organized by socialists, and she was clubbed, albeit accidentally, by police. The socialist paper, The Masses, for which Dorothy was a reporter, took a pacifist stand. Anne Klejment reports that for all practical purposes The Masses was closed down by the local postmaster, who refused to “send anything through the mail that he considered treasonous.” Dorothy, from this early date, trusted in neither education nor legislation as methods for engaging the world and working for peace and justice, observing that placing one’s energy in politics, “rife with deal-making” stifled genuine change. She preferred to trust in the direct action of the common people.

During and after World War I many progressives and activists became political activists; Dorothy did not throw in her lot with them, but was still seeking a more profound way of life.

Catholic Worker Begins

Five years after Dorothy Day became a Catholic she was still searching for a way to bring together her Catholicism and the social concerns, including pacifism, which had been so much a part of her life. In Washington, D.C., on December 8, 1932, covering a hunger march for Commonweal, she went to the crypt of the unfinished Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and prayed that she could find a way to use her talents within the Church to serve the poor and help workers.

When she returned to her apartment in New York, Dorothy found Peter Maurin waiting for her. Peter had read her articles in Commonweal and America and was convinced that she was the person who could implement his program of a newspaper, houses of hospitality, clarification of thought and agronomic universities, all based on Catholic social teaching and Christian personalism. Peter had a radical view of creating a just social order using the “dynamite” of traditional Catholicism.

Catholic Worker Pacifism Begins

Peter Maurin supported Dorothy’s basic pacifist commitment as a Catholic and was the engineer of the resourccement. Arthur Sheehan tells us in his book on Peter Maurin: Gay Believer published in 1959 by Hanover House, long before the meaning of the word “gay” had changed) that Peter had left France to go to Canada because of the constant interruption of his life by required participation in the reserves after military service. By going to Canada he was part of the tradition later continued during the Vietnam War.

The Catholic Worker movement and The Catholic Worker newspaper began in 1933. Shortly afterward, Dorothy announced in the paper that delegates of the Catholic Worker would attend the United States Congress against the War and that they would represent “Catholic Pacifism.” With this announcement, for the first time we had Catholic pacifism in the United States.

The authors of American Catholic Pacifism describe how Dorothy incorporated ideas from Catholic teaching into her pacifist stand. She remembered lines from the Baltimore Catechism (so recently studied for her conversion), such as “all human beings who share in God’s grace are temples of the Holy Ghost.” The Catholic Worker carried articles throughout the thirties by Pope Pius XI, who vigorously attacked nationalism as a source of war. One could understand that the Catholic Workers were saddened at his death and ran banner headlines about the death of their beloved Pope. Klejment and Roberts point out how Dorothy later on found inspiration in Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis(1943) with its beautiful teaching about the bonds of unity between the members, actual and potential, of the Mystical Body of Christ, who should not have bombs dropped on them.

The authors tell us that she “distinguished in The Catholic Worker between true and false pacifism, the former using traditional, spiritual weapons like prayer and reception of the sacraments to actively resist evil.” Dorothy went so far as to say, “If we are not going to use our spiritual weapons, let us by all means arm and prepare.” Editorials in the 1939 Catholic Worker exhorted all the Worker houses to recite the Rosary daily for peace–not for victory. Catholic Workers were going to daily Mass and making the Stations of the Cross in parish churches for peace.

Several authors describe the penitential quality of the pacifism of the Catholic Worker, which emphasized “the spiritual principle that penance and suffering freely and willingly undertaken by the individual, and prayerfully offered up for the good of others could effect change beyond the life of the individual doing the penance.” They emphasize that this quality clearly distinguished Dorothy Day’s pacifism from the religious pacifism of the Fellowship of Reconciliaton (of which she was a member) and the American Friends Service Committee, ” which were more rooted in the Social Gospel notion of corporate responsibility.”

The authors always emphasize that Dorothy located her pacifism within the vision of Maurin’s Christian personalism, “where the decision rested with the individual and was not dependent on historical circumstances” and the profound belief that there was a power beyond history–Jesus Christ. This faith vision gave Dorothy strength and hope for a long-term commitment. The editors of this book remind readers that “As a young secular radical, Day was overwhelmed by the failure of the Left to make a difference. But as a Catholic radical, the many spiritual gifts she received from her rekindled faith encouraged perseverance and boldness in her opposition to war.”

Dorothy Day vs. the Americanists

Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker stepped into uncharted waters in U. S. Catholicism with a public commitment to Gospel pacifism and the specific stands taken against war. Given the history of anti-Catholicism in the United States and the accusation that loyalty to the pope was treasonous, it had been difficult for Catholics, many of whom were immigrants, to go against the American mainstream, even it it meant going to war. This desire for acceptance had created an almost superpatriotism in American Catholics to prove their allegiance to the U.S.

This superpatriotism created something dubbed “Americanism” in theology and church life. Dorothy Day did not adopt this superpatriotic stance, but brought her faith to critique her country’s actions in the light of the Gospel.

The first Catholic peace organization in the U.S. was “Americanist.” Started in 1927 by Msgr. John A. Ryan, the Catholic Association for International Peace, it was given space at the National Catholic Welfare Conference headquarters in Washington, D.C., and claimed to be the “official” organization on peace for the Catholic Church in the U.S. American Catholic Pacifism contrasts the positions of the two groups: The CAIP looked to the nation-state as the “arbiter and authority on issues like war and peace,” used the just-war doctrine to justify support for the Roosevelt administration in entering World War II and criticized the pacifist position. The CAIP “supported the war effort and did not help any individual who objected to World War II, whether they registered their dissent within the law or were resisters.” The CAIP did not address the moral questions of obliteration bombing and even supported Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb.

Dorothy took unpopular stands in a prophetic witness which took a severe toll on the Catholic Worker movement, where opposition within the movement caused the closing of the majority of the houses. She based her pacifism and her stand against conscription in articles on the Sermon on the Mount, calling it The Christian Manifesto. She encouraged individuals to embrace the gospel of peace, in opposition to the state when conscience required, and even asked workers not to work in the armaments industry (See photo of Bishop Matthiesen in this issue) or in any work that did not build up the common good. With her strong spiritual and theological roots, Dorothy, through The Catholic Worker, facilitated the formation of the consciences of many people in regard to war and peace.

The Spanish Civil War

Along with well-known writers such as Jacques Maritain, Georges Bernanos and Emmanuel Mounier, Dorothy took a neutral stance in regard to the Spanish Civil War. Because the anti-Franco forces indiscriminately slaughtered so many priests and Sisters, there was a tremendous backlash among U. S. Catholics against the republican forces.

Dorothy printed Emmanuel Mounier’s commentary on the war in 1936 to help people understand her stance: “The revolution for order is one for true Christians to make, but it will be no mere single revolt, no explosion of unbridled violence. It will begin only from the moment when a number of Christians will set themselves to live socially their Christianity by a sort of re-conversion. How far removed is this ideal from the actual tragedy of Spain where many Catholics compromise the Church by binding it to a political cause which is not hers, while in revenge furious hordes pillage, burn and kill all that in their eyes represents religion.”

World War II

World War I was fought as the war to end all wars. So war was unpopular, e.e., until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Then many who had been against war changed; they found Dorothy’s opposition to World War II not only unfathomable, but unforgiveable.

During the Second World War, as later during the Vietnam War, she opened the pages of The Catholic Worker not only to pacifists, but to theologians who used the just-war doctrine to reach pacifist conclusions.

The conditions for a just war elaborated by theologians like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, were: War must be declared by a competent authority. There must be a just cause for engaging in war; that is, a grave wrong to be corrected or right to be defended. Pope Pius XII added that, owing to the increasing destructiveness of nuclear weapons, war could not be waged morally except as an act of self-defense. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. War must be waged only as a last resort after all peaceful means have been exhausted. A war can be fought legitimately only if its purpose is to achieve a just end.

Rather than abandon the just-war theory, Dorothy used it to condemn all modern war in the light of the technology of mass destruction.

Fr. Hugo told Dorothy Day to get herself a theology of nonviolence. He wrote to her, “No doubt pacifism is all clear to you; but then you have not tried to work it out doctrinally. If you knew no theology, it would probably be simpler to make a solution. Yet the decision must be based on doctrine. Pacifism must proceed from truth, or it cannot exist at all.” The Catholic Worker ran many articles by Fr. Hugo and other theologians, such as Msgr. Barry O’Toole of Catholic University.

Other articles quoted Pope Pius XII on the rights of conscience in the modern nation-state, as well as the words of various priests, bishops and cardinals who raised issues about conscription and war.

The Catholic Worker and the FBI

J. Edgar Hoover had no doubts about Dorothy Day. Even before World War II he insisted that she be placed in custodial detention (jail) in the event of a national emergency.

That order was never carried out. We can only conjecture that FBI officers who were frequently Irish Catholics and even ex-seminarians could not bring themselves to arrest someone opposed to war because she was a daily communicant.

One can imagine the confusion of the FBI agents as they listened to Dorothy and Peter speak of being pacifists because of their Catholicism–or not being able to resist giving contributions for the poor who came to the Catholic Worker. Arthur Sheehan’s book documents conversations such as these at the New York Worker.

Dorothy had the protection of Cardinal Spellman, who never opposed or condemned her. He knew better than to condemn a saint.

The impact of Dorothy Day on Catholic pacifism was made clear to the authors as teenagers after World War II when they met Jim Clark, a former captain of the New York fire department, who had become a pacifist due to the influence of Dorothy Day.

When the authors visited Martha Miller at the New York Worker decades later, they were pleasantly surprised to find Fr. Jim Clark there celebrating the weekly Mass.

The Rationale for World War II

The Workers did not consider World War II an aberration or simply a reaction to the evils of Nazism, but a part of an historical reality which included what happened to Germany after World War I, as well as capitalists “eager to turn a profit from the armaments business.” The authors cite Dorothy’s 1939 editorial “We are to Blame for New War in Europe,” where blame was placed on the shoulders of all, for “their materialism, their greed, their idolatrous nationalism…for their ruthless subjection of another country.” The authors point out that this is no mere “appeasement wrapped in Catholic theology,” but a call for a fundamental transformation of the world economic and social order.

The argument that World War II was fought to save the Jews and therefore was a good war did not hold water with Dorothy Day, who simply responded that it didn’t save the Jews, as is clear by the numbers incinerated. During the war the United States refused to accept even those Jews who were legal refugees (90% of quotas went unfulfilled) for fear of overloading the labor market.

One wonders why Rolf Hochhuth (The Deputy) never wrote a play about President Roosevelt and the American Congress, depicting them wringing their hands worrying about the Jews escaping death camps coming to the United States and overloading the labor market. It is a bit strange that Hochhuth, who wrote other books considered total nonsense (e.g., that Winston Churchill ordered the death of the Polish General Siborski) and from that time on has never been taken seriously as a historian, could write slanders against Pius XII that continue to be cited to this day. Dorothy defended Pius XII and quoted him often in the name of peace and pacifism.

The end of World War II, presented as a war to end all wars, brought not the peace that had been hoped for, but the cold war and a nearly constant threat of war with nuclear weapons.

Through her courageous stand throughout World War II and later wars, Dorothy gave to Catholic men and women an option for peace which they didn’t have previously. In the future Catholic young people in the future may not be pressured to give their lives in wars to “make peace.” They are supported by the Church in taking a stand against war.

The Catholic Worker, Gandhi and Active Nonviolence

Gandhi’s great ideas on active nonviolence and his appeal to great masses of oppressed people offered much in terms of engagement with the world for pacifists. However, it was not automatically clear exactly what this meant to different groups which adopted the idea and how compatible all of these interpretations might be with the Catholic Worker movement’s ethical and religious outlook.

American Catholic Pacifism shows how Catholic Workers evaluated actions by other groups they considered joining forces with in the light of Catholic teaching. The Catholic Worker declared that even some advocates of active nonviolence took their positions “from an individualism that may err in positing complete liberty as an end in itself.” This libertarianism was “contrary to a properly Catholic understanding of both objective morality and the purpose of human freedom.”

The Catholic Workers did adapt Gandhian nonviolence in their active resistance, and incorporated it into the development of the theology of Catholic pacifism, even suggesting that it could apply to the just war theory as one of the peaceful methods that must be tried before war was declared.

Vietnam War

The influence of the Catholic Worker during the Vietnam War is explored in detail in American Catholic Pacifism, as well as its impact on what came to be called ultra-resistance, with Daniel and Philip Berrigan and later Plowshares activists. Dorothy Day objected to the Vietnam War long before it was popular to do so (1954). She quoted saints like Theodore Venard, a missionary martyr in Indochina who objected as a Frenchman to French imperialism, whose successor Dorothy saw as the U. S.

After the Vietnam War some Catholic Workers were so concerned about issues of war and peace and the nuclear threat that they limited their focus to antiwar activities. Klejment and Roberts remind readers that in spite of her lifelong commitment to pacifism and nonviolence, this was not true of Dorothy Day: “Even the longevity of the Vietnam War and the escalating militancy of the antiwar movement did not transform the Catholic Worker into a one-issue group.”

Profound Evangelical Skepticism–John Paul II

Pope John Paul II has been able to take the theological discussion of war and peace beyond a disagreement between pacifism and just war doctrine. William Portier tells us, “While leaving the door open a crack for the serious possibility of “humanitarian intervention” the Pope seems possessed at the same time of a profound evangelical skeptisicm about using force as a means of securing justice. This skepticism is evident in both his opposition to the Gulf War and his extreme reluctance to urge international military intervention in Bosnia” (Communio, Spring 1996).

In the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae Pope John Paul II rasises the same doubts about war as he did about the death penalty and Portier notes that he places among the signs of hope at many levels of public opinion that there is a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war.

Pope John Paul, speaking on war and using the symbolism of Isaiah of the lion and the lamb, reasoned that the commandments and the beatitudes must lie down together. This results in a corresponding evangelical realism, “which challenges us to mean it truly when we pray to be delivered from war, or when we say that Jesus is suffering among the people in Bosnia or that, because he has come into the world, war is not inevitable.”

On the eve of the Gulf War in widely publicized letters to Presidents Bush and Hussein, the Holy Father pleaded with them to recognize the futility of recourse to war. Between August 2, 1990 and March 1991, the Pope condemned the war fifty-six times.

Portier notes that together with Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, if the Pope is not saying “Just War No More,” he has come very close.

The Challenge

Never has there been so much talk about peace and justice than in today’s Catholic world at all levels. But there is no peace and there is no justice.

In 1965 Dorothy Day was asked by a Catholic pacifist to write a clear, theoretical, logical pacifist manifesto, noting that none had so far appeared from her pen. She responded in words that are as relevant today as they were when she wrote them:

“I can write no other than this: unless we use the weapons of the spirit, denying ourselves and taking up our cross and following Jesus, dying with Him and rising with Him, men will go on fighting, and often from the highest motives, believing that they are fighting defensive wars for justice and in self-defense against present or future aggression.”

Hopefully, as more literature is available about Dorothy, more people will join her in her pilgrimage.

May their number be legion.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVII, No. 5, September-October 1997.