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The Roots of Dorothy Day’s Pacifism:Solidarity, Compassion and a Stubborn Hold on Truth

There has been one systematic study of Dorothy Day’s pacifism and that of the Catholic Worker movement, Robert Gilliam’s “Put Up Your Sword: the Pacifism of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker,” an excellent unpublished 180 page manuscript. It would be folly for me to trace the development of Dorothy Day’s thinking on war and peace without reliance on Robert’s sound research. I hope I will not distort it in my re-working with the additions of my own memories of conversations over the twenty-seven years I knew her.

In her 1952 classic autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy describes pushing her baby brother John in his pram through the poorest section of Chicago, the “Back of the Yards,” adjacent to the slaughter houses made famous in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. There Dorothy first experienced what we now call ethnic diversity. She was born of “old American stock,” could have qualified for the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the Confederacy, if it ever entered her mind. Her forebears were skilled workers and small town gentry. Ethnic prejudice was taken for granted in people of her class, kind and generation, but Dorothy was attracted rather than repelled by the smells of cabbage and kielbasa cooking in Polish and German kitchens, and she admired attempts at beauty in a potted geranium on a stoop. Dorothy’s only published poem is a short verse about a little brother and sister sharing an ice cream cone on a curb-stone in New York’s Little Italy. She described with affection the immigrant Jewish family that rented her a room when she took her first job, how they saw to it that she ate. Dorothy had a natural intuition of the universal qualities in the human family, and she was easily moved to sympathy for the hardships of the lives of the poor.

Dorothy had gone to college at the University of Illinois at Urbana just before World War I. She quickly joined a group of aspiring writers and young socialists. Their talk on the eve of the Great War was of the “solidarity of the international working class.” Socialist parties around the world pledged to refuse support for an imperialist war, but in the event, one by one the socialist parties played the part of expediency and fell into line with their nations’ war policies. Dorothy Day admired those individuals who did not, Eugene Victor Debs and anonymous socialists who kept a secular faith, refused military service going to military stockades and to prison.

Dorothy told the story of one of them, the younger brother of her friend Hugo Geller. The Gellers’ parents were Jews from Hungary. The boys were socialists. Hugo would become famous as a Communist Party artist. He asked Dorothy to go with him to see his kid brother in a military stockade in New York Bay. The young man had been inducted into the army against his will and had then refused orders, and so he was to face court-martial. He seemed cheerful enough in the jail, strengthened by the knowledge that he was not alone in his refusal and that radicals everywhere cheered his stand. He was, like his brother, an artist, a violinist, sensitive, intelligent and full of life and hope. Dorothy simply did not believe the report that the boy had hanged himself in his cell after their visit. Dorothy told me this story half a century later, to introduce me to her friend, Hugo, and I have read it somewhere too. I recall it to show how Dorothy suffered with the Geller family, and how she taught, with stories. Always stories. The military lied. The government lied. War is a lie. Dorothy didn’t theorize. She hated lies.

By nature Dorothy had a visceral revulsion against war. Part of it was her sense of human solidarity, part was natural sympathy for the abused, and part was an intuition that the lofty ideals always appealed to by every side in every war are a cover for base motives. But there are just struggles.

The pages of the CW show how Dorothy’s understanding developed. In the fourth issue of the CW paper, September 1933, the Communist Party was accused of encouraging labor violence, and in October of that year the CW sent a “representative of Catholic pacifism” to a Communist-led Congress Against War, “to protest not only against imperialist war but against class war as well.” In April, 1934 there appeared the first explicit reference to the just war theory, as it was understood by the pacifist Father Franziskus Stratmann, a German Dominican, to disqualify and therefore condemn modern war. In October, 1934 an unsigned article, “The Mystical Body of Christ,” written in Dorothy’s style and vocabulary, began with a quote from St. Clement of Rome. “Why do the members of Christ tear one another, why do we rise up against our own body in such madness; have we forgotten that we are all members of one another?” Dorothy goes on to describe war as an illness that weakens the whole body. “All men are our neighbors and Christ told us that we should love our neighbors, whether they be friend or enemy…. If a man hates his neighbor, he is hating Christ… This dogma of the Mystical Body precludes all ideas of class war. And it is to promulgate this dogma — to bring it to the man in the street, that the Catholic Worker is dedicated.” The solidarity of the international working class had been transformed into universal human solidarity in the Mystical Body of Christ. Compassion was being transformed into the “love of Christ that drives us.”

The question of violence in the American labor movement framed the larger question in the earliest years, but by 1936 the question of war and pacifism took focus. The Spanish Civil War broke out that June and forced the issue. Two voices emerged in the pages of the paper. One is based in just war tradition and speaks of conscientious objection, arguing for a “just war pacifism.” The other ignores just war categories and emphasizes the Mystical Body, the example of Jesus and the demands of love met in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Dorothy’s is that latter voice, and although there is never any open contradiction between the two (the other is that of William Callahan, managing editor of the paper), there is a significant difference of tone and emphasis.

Pacifism in regard to the class war raised no serious objections from either the volunteers who came to join the work, the readership of the paper or the powers within Church or society. Pacifism in the face of the Spanish Civil War was another matter. Subscriptions took a tumble as colleges and seminaries cancelled. Dorothy tried to dispel the confusion with an editorial in the September 1938 issue, later offered as a pamphlet entitled “The Folly of Force.” It read in part:

…I am writing with prayer because it is so hard to write of things of the spirit…. We all know there is a frightful persecution of religion in Spain… In the light of this it is inconceivably hard to write as we do. It is folly–it seems madness–to say as we do, ‘We are opposed to the use of force as a means of settling personal, national or international disputes.’ As a newspaper trying to affect public opinion, we take this stand…. We pray these martyrs of Spain to help us, to pray for us, to guide us in this stand we take. We speak in their name. Their blood cries out against a spirit of hatred and savagery…. And did they not rather pray, when the light of Christ burst upon them, that love would overcome hatred, that men dying for faith, rather than killing for their faith, would save the world? Truly this is the folly of the Cross! As long as men trust to the use of force, only a superior, more savage and brutal force will overcome the enemy. We use his own weapons…. We are neglecting the one means–prayer and sacraments–by which our enemies can be overcome…. We are not condemning those who have seized arms and engaged in war…. Frankly, we are calling for saints…. We must prepare now for martyrdom… for a disarmament of the heart…

“We are afraid of the word love, and yet love is stronger than death, stronger than hatred. If we do not emphasize the law of love we betray our trust, our vocation. We must stand opposed to the use of force. We are not talking of passive resistance. Love and prayer are not passive, but a most active, glowing force. We are praying for the Spanish people — all of them our brothers in Christ — all of them Temples of the Holy Ghost, all of them members or potential members of the Mystical Body of Christ.”

The result of Dorothy’s stand on the Spanish war was not just a substantial loss of circulation, but isolation from progressive journals and groups of the period and from almost all the Catholic press, and confusion in the ranks. The pacifist stance was taken by only a small minority of the people who actually made the Catholic Worker work, the community members and volunteers in the New York house who served the soup line, ran the house of hospitality and put out the paper and the people who ran autonomous houses and published their own Catholic Worker papers around the country. Matters came to a head in August, 1940. Dorothy sent a circular letter to all Catholic Worker groups:

“We know that there are those… who do not stand with us in this issue (of pacifism)…. They wish still to be associated with us, to perform the corporal works of mercy. In such cases they will still distribute the paper, (and since they are called Catholic Worker groups, it is their duty to do so.) In other cases, they take it upon themselves to suppress the paper and hinder its circulation. In these cases, we feel it to be necessary that they disassociate themselves from the Catholic Worker movement and not use the name of a movement with which they are now in such fundamental disagreement.

“…Many can only go part of the way… If they wish to work with us, we are glad and thankful to have them, but they cannot be said to be representing the Catholic Worker position. Sometimes there are only one or two at a house of hospitality who follow the position of the paper. Perhaps in some cases there are none… Perhaps it would be better in these cases for the houses to disassociate themselves.

“…If you disagree with us, you had better make your position clear now.

This means, of course, that you will not accept papers which you do not intend to use….

“We have been consistent in our position, so there is no reason to suppose that we are going to change our stand… There is no reason why we should not be associated together as friends and fellow workers, but there is every reason for not continuing to use the Catholic Worker name.”

Words like, “Dorothy’s encyclical,” “ukase,” and “purge” flew through the mails. To deal with the crisis Dorothy’s letter precipitated, the pacifist Father Paul Hanley Furfey led a 1940 Labor Day weekend retreat at the Easton farm for seventy-five Catholic Workers from around the country. John Cogley, of the Chicago Catholic Worker, remember feeling “hopelessly outnumbered” and wished he had been bolder. He couldn’t believe that so many could “agree so perfectly and unanimously on such a highly controversial question unless some of them were not thinking.” Bill Gauchat of Cleveland remembered that Cogley, Tom Sullivan and James O’Gara, Chicagoans and non-pacifists, were “really vociferous.” No one changed position. Bill Gauchat recalled that “It looked like the end of the Worker.”

John Cogley, Jim O’Gara and Tom Sullivan all entered the military in 1941. The Chicago CW paper folded in August of that year, and the Chicago house nine months later.

Peter Maurin understood the just war theory to condemn modern war at least. He preferred St. Francis’ way, but envisioned a world police force. When asked what he would do if he were drafted he replied, “I would resist!” Peter did not take a leading role in the internal battle, although he supported Dorothy. He suggested at one point that perhaps the paper should tone down its pacifism. “Perhaps silence would be better for a time. Men are not ready to listen.” That was not possible for Dorothy.

The war years was a period of spiritual growth for Dorothy. Prayer took on a more penitential aspect. Father John Hugo’s seven day silent retreat, was to Dorothy the “food of the strong.” Hers was not a pacifism of the weak, nor was it in any way sentimental.

Although Dorothy’s proposed non-cooperation with conscription, she supported Pax and later the Association of Catholic Conscientious Objectors, two off-shoots of the Worker. But she opposed on principle Civilian Public Service and its camps that offered alternative service to certified conscientious objectors. ACCO sponsored a camp for Catholic conscientious objectors, Camp Simon. Still, financial support, such as it was, came from the Worker. This was a flawed, fragile and short-lived project, but it was, as Gordon Zahn pointed out, the first corporate expression of Catholic pacifism in this country. The ACCO board came to agree with Dorothy, and the Association withdrew from CPS in October 1945. Dorothy was capable of compromise and of seeing that not everyone is meant to carry the same burden of resistance.

Only four Catholic Workers were imprisoned during WW II. Carl Paulson was paroled to CPS. Hazen Ordway was sentenced to five years but after several months he was paroled to non-combatant military service. Jack Thornton was sentenced to four years but was paroled to CPS and went from there into the military. Joe Czarniecki’s conscientious objector claim was denied and he alone served out a sentence at Danbury federal prison. Three prominent Catholic Workers, Joe Zarrella, Gerry Griffin and Lou Murphy volunteered for American Field Service ambulance units.

The suggestion of sentimentality rankled Dorothy. In February 1942 she wrote:

“‘We are at war.’ people say. ‘This is not the time to talk of peace. It is demoralizing to the armed forces…’

“Another Catholic newspaper says it sympathizes with our sentimentality. This is a charge always leveled against pacifists. We are supposed to be afraid of the suffering, the hardships of war.

But let those who talk of softness, of sentimentality, come to live with us in the cold, unheated houses in the slums. Let them come to live with the criminal, the unbalanced, the drunken, the degraded, the pervert. (It is not the decent poor, it is not the decent sinner who was the recipient of Christ’s love.) Let them live with rats, with vermin, with bedbugs, roaches, lice (I could describe the several kinds of body lice.) Let their flesh be mortified by cold, by dirt, by vermin; let their eyes be mortified by the sight of bodily excretions, diseased limbs, eyes, noses, mouths. Let their noses be mortified by the smell of sweat, blood and tears spoken of so blithely by Mr. Churchill, and so widely and bravely quoted by comfortable people. Let their ears be mortified by harsh and screaming voices, by the constant coming and going of people living herded together with no privacy…. Let their taste be mortified by the eating of insufficient food cooked in huge quantities for hundreds of people, the coarser foods, the cheaper foods, so that there will be enough to go around; and the smell of such cooking is often foul.

“Then, when they have lived with these comrades, with these sights and sounds, let our critics talk of sentimentality. ‘Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.’

“Our Catholic Worker groups are perhaps too hardened to the sufferings in the class war, living as we do…. We live in the midst of this war now these many years. It is a war not recognized by the comfortable people. They are pacifists themselves when it comes to the class war. They even pretend it is not there. ‘Keep silence with a bleeding heart,’ one reader, a man, pro-war and therefore not a sentimentalist writes us. But we can not keep silent. We have not kept silent. We have not kept silence in the face of the monstrous injustice of the class war, or the race war that goes on side by side with the world war (which the Communists used to call the imperialist war.) Read the letters in this issue of the paper, the letter from the machine shop workers as to the deadening degrading hours of labor…. Remember the unarmed steel workers, the coal miners shot down on picket lines…. Are these workers supposed to revolt? Are they supposed to turn to arms in the class conflict to defend their lives, their homes, their wives and children? Last month a Negro in Missouri was shot and dragged by a mob through the streets behind a car. His wounded body was then soaked in kerosene. The mob of white Americans then set fire to it, and when the poor anguished victim had died, the body was left lying in the street until a garbage cart carried it away. Are the Negroes supposed to “Remember Pearl Harbor” and take arms to avenge this cruel wrong? No, the Negroes, the workers in general, are expected to be “pacifist” in the face of this aggression.

“Perhaps we are called sentimental because we speak of love. We say that we love our President, our country. We say that we love our enemies too… ”

Dorothy then goes on to quote scripture and the saints on love, then Dostoevsky:

“Hear Father Zossima… ‘Love God’s people… Know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men. When (a monk) realizes that he is responsible to all for all and everything, then the aim of our seclusion is complete.'”

Dorothy understood from this that “we must all admit our guilt, our participation in the social order which has resulted in this monstrous crime of war.

“That should be our cry, with every mouthful we eat, `We are starving Europe.’ When we look to our comfort in a warm bed, a warm house, we must cry, ‘My brother, my mother, my child is dying of the cold.’

“I am lower than all men,” she concluded, “because I do not love enough. O God, take away my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh.”

World War II did not kill the Catholic Worker, but it ended the movement’s first phase, an idyllic time of harmony and unity. Subscription for the paper fell from 150,000 in 1936 to 50,500 by 1945. Before the war there were some thirty houses, after, ten. During the war the tone of the paper was subdued. There was less labor news, more about life on the land, more letters and reports from other houses, and a greater emphasis on spirituality.

Father John Hugo had a direct and formative hand in shaping the emerging spirituality of the movement, and in bringing Dorothy to a greater clarity on the issue of counsels of perfection and the precept of love. The roots of Dorothy’s pacifism lay in her sense of solidarity and compassion. Now solidarity was universal and spiritual and related to God as revealed in Jesus Christ, God sharing human nature so that each human might share in the divine life. Compassion was the love of Christ that urges, drives us on, and allows us to see the face of Christ in the grimace of the suffering, that moves us to share and alleviate that suffering in work, prayer and penance. Another principle was truth. She couldn’t stand a lie.

Dorothy was to live another thirty-five years after World War II. She saw the Catholic Worker movement re-build slowly after the Korean War. The relationship of the Worker to the Old Left changed during the Red Scare of the Fifties. Robert Ludlow became the “chief theoretician” of the movement at this time, and although he himself was cooler, more impersonal and abstract, and somewhat harsher than previous leaders, he admired and identified with those activists who emerged from prisons and CPS camps to form the core of the committee for Nonviolent Action and the War Resisters League. Ammon Hennacy strongly influenced the movement in this direction by personal example. So the Sixties started early for the Worker, always ahead of its time. Dorothy and Ammon and other Catholic Workers formed the backbone of the direct action campaign against compulsory civil defense drills and so contributed greatly to the larger disarmament movement. The young people arriving at the New York house in those years were much more likely to have come to a pacifist position, and they were inclined to direct action.

The Sixties was a time of increased energy at the Worker, and a much higher degree of visibility. The movement found a new unity and harmony in nonviolent direct action for peace, nonviolent resistance, as Dorothy had always hoped it would, as well as in the works of mercy . But at the same time there were such tensions, such frustration at the war in Vietnam. It went on and on despite what any one or any group could do. Dorothy suffered more than she would admit at the time, because so many of the young became embittered. Dorothy had no hesitation in identifying with the draft card burnings, stood side by side with us, along with A.J. Muste, at the first act of group resistance to the draft and demanded the same criminal penalties for encouraging us.

Many of the young men went to prison for substantial periods of time, and Dorothy felt burdened at the cost they paid. Marriages failed. The community failed to support its jailed members. Dorothy failed. Yes, she did, and she knew it, and it weighed her down.

It was a humbling realization. Here she had what she struggled to achieve in those bitter days of World War II, substantial unity on pacifism. But there was a new set of problems, just as intractable, questions of faith in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, questions of discipline. And there was a new division, this time over the nature of authentic nonviolence. The raids on draft boards and the destruction of Selective Service files, and subsequently the Plowshares actions, posed serious problems as to truthfulness and comradely solidarity for Dorothy and others in the leadership. “These acts are not ours,” Dorothy wrote. The problem remains that so many of the people are ours.

“I am through with great things,” Dorothy quoted William James, and she wrote and spoke more and more of the Little Way. By this time, by the Seventies, Dorothy was preparing to die. Even in the late Sixties Dorothy talked to me more and more about her mother, of her mother’s dying days, of her gratitude that she was able to spend good amounts of time with her mother as she weakened, how she gave her bouquets of violets and how they talked of faith and life after death.

In her last years Dorothy’s life was quieter but not without incident. Her last public appearance was at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, in 1976 . She had gentle but reproving words to say about the inappropriateness of scheduling a Mass for the Military on Hiroshima Day. The Ordo, the little book published each year to help clergy keep track of the proper order for worship each day, has ever since contained a Pastoral Note urging that congregations pray especially for peace August 6 to 9.

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