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What the New York Times Did Not Say About the Sainthood of Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

Marquette University Archives

The recent article on the front page of the New York Times about Dorothy Day’s canonization precipitated a lot of interest and a flurry of articles in other publications.

Unfortunately, the editors of the New York Times, to the best of our knowledge, are not Catholic Workers, and the article confirmed that. But a half a loaf is better than none.

They had a few good lines, which brought comfort to the ears of Catholic Workers, but they missed some important ideas and realities from Dorothy Day’s and Peter Maurin’s vision and practice of the CW.

Someone commented recently that many Christians live in a way that would lead one to the conclusion that they had not read the Gospels or the Prophets of Israel. No one could suggest such a thing about Dorothy or Peter. Their lives reflected their beliefs. Here are the Gospels: live them out. Here are the papal encyclicals: implement them. Listen to the Prophets of Israel. Of course, many followers of the Nazarene live these things in a hidden way and observers may not be aware of their sincerity and works of mercy.

After she became a Catholic, Dorothy’s whole life was permeated by her Catholic faith. All that she said and did was an expression of that faith. The New York Times said a lot about Dorothy Day, but a reader could easily have missed the profundity of her faith. For example, the article quoted “some Catholics” as saying that “promoting Day’s sainthood cause is politically useful for Dolan and other bishops, at a time when the hierarchy is often described by liberal Catholics as caring more about reproductive issues than poverty.” They neglected to mention the possibility that Cardinal Dolan might be working on the cause for her canonization for his eternal salvation.

When the NYT author mentioned that Dorothy was committed to social justice and loyal to church teachings, she did not spell out what Dorothy meant by social justice, which has become a vague term thrown about by those from various points of view.

She did not mention Dorothy’s criticism of the savage aspects of ruthless economics (from whatever theory), her support of small business, and small agriculture. Not mentioned was the way in which she was able to break through the barriers that keep the church’s social teaching from the market place. Dorothy’s approach was very different from that of neoconservative Catholics who strive mightily to influence the Bishops to try to reinterpret Catholic social teaching in order to remove its challenge to economics, both socialist and capitalist.

The mention of “social justice” could be blown off in the same way that some supporters of an economics that hurts the poor and the workers reject or attempt to rewrite the social encyclicals. Perhaps the author was not aware that at the same time her article was published, Fr. Robert Sirico, famous for his Calvinist organization the Acton Institute and his support of the worst manifestations of capitalism, was touting his support of Dorothy’s canonization.  His institute exemplifies what Dorothy most strongly rejected.

Where Would We Be Without Dorothy?

The Bishops have emphasized that Dorothy was somewhat like St. Augustine, a great sinner (she even had an abortion) who became a great saint. It is quite true that Dorothy lived a Bohemian life before coming to the Church and sorrowed all her life about having had an abortion.

She thought she would never be able to have a child afterward. It was her joy in having a child, her daughter, Tamar, that led her to faith, to the Church.

Dorothy would be the first to come to the aid of a pregnant woman and provide  for her the means to survive. There are written records about her advising a young woman not to have an abortion.

Dorothy was pro life. For her, this meant also being concerned about hungry children, about the evil of dropping bombs on civilians in the midst of war because all are members or potential members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Dorothy opposed the death penalty and war. She opposed violence in all its forms.

Dorothy inspired those who followed her to protest against violence. Daniel Berrigan credits her in his introduction to her autobiography, The Long Loneliness:

“Without Dorothy, without that exemplary patience, courage, moral modesty, without this woman pounding at the locked door behind which the powerful mock the powerless with games of triage, without her, the resistance we offered would have been simply unthinkable. She urged our consciences off the beaten track; she made the impossible (in our case) probable and then actual. She did this first of all by living as though the Truth were true.”

Ade Bethune

Prophetic Voice

At the meeting in November where the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted unanimously to support Dorothy’s canonization, Cardinal George of Chicago commented, “…the greatest threat to world peace and international justice is the nation state gone bad, claiming an absolute power, deciding questions and making ‘laws’ beyond its competence. Few there are, however, who would venture to ask if there might be a better way for humanity to organize itself for the sake of the common good. Few, that is, beyond a prophetic voice like that of Dorothy Day, speaking acerbically about ‘Holy Mother the State,’ or the ecclesiastical voice that calls the world, from generation to generation, to live at peace in the kingdom of God.

“Her solution to the injustices of capitalism was the works of mercy,” the cardinal added, noting Day’s criticism of what she saw as the inherent totalitarianism of states.”

All the great saints spoke of the necessity of the Works of Mercy outlined in the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel for the lives of followers of the Nazarene. For Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin the practice of the works of mercy, on which we will be judged at the end of life, was the underpinning of everything they did. For them, seeing Christ in the poor, the suffering, the oppressed, not only involved giving bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, visiting the prisoner, giving a place to stay to those without a home, but as Dorothy said,

“The love of brother, that care for his freedom is what causes us to go into such controversial subjects as man and the state, war and peace. The implications of the Gospel teaching of the Works of Mercy, lead us into conflict with the powers of this world.

“Our love of God is a consuming fire. It is a living God and a living faith that we are trying to express. When we begin to take the lowest place, to washing the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we can truly say, ‘Now I have begun.’ (November 1955 Fall Appeal).”

The surprise expressed in the New York Times article that the Catholic Bishops would support the canonization of a person with her radical reputation reflects the general lack of awareness of the profound spirituality that was the basis for her actions.

The mild comment that Dorothy was loyal to church teachings did not scratch the surface of her profound understanding of living out the Gospels and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, her understanding and acceptance of Catholic teaching as a source of meaning and the basis of freedom in the world, the freedom to accomplish so much good with God’s grace.

People often seem to choose one of two sides of Dorothy.  There is mysticism and activism in her life, and one cannot understand one without the other – the unity of mysticism and active love in Dorothy’s life, along with her incisive understanding of problems in the social order, her newspaper publishing and her concrete actions to protest injustice.

Her radical following of the Gospel, her prophetic voice, flowed from her profound liturgical spirituality and her stated understanding of the primacy of the spiritual. Authors of recent articles seemed to be unaware of her involvement in the liturgical renewal from its earliest beginnings in the 1930’s, her attendance at daily Mass, participation in the Divine Office, prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, weekly confession. Her love of the liturgy led her to become a Benedictine Oblate in the Eastern rite.

She emphasized not only the corporal Works of Mercy, but also the spiritual Works of Mercy: admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, and praying for the living and the dead.

People were often shocked when they met Peter Maurin because he dressed and appeared like a poor man. They are often equally shocked and some are disappointed to find that Dorothy Day was truly a Catholic.

She said in the “Aims and Purposes of the Catholic Worker Movement”:

“We are working for ‘a new heaven and a new earth, wherein justice dwells.’ We are trying to say with action, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’…

“We must practice the presence of God. He said that when two or three are gathered together, there He is in the midst of them. He is with us in our kitchens, at our tables, at our breadlines, with our visitors, at our farms…

“What we do is very little. But it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes.  Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest. What we do is so little we may seem to be constantly failing. But so did he fail. He met with apparent failure on the Cross. But unless the seed fall into the ground and die, there is no harvest…

“‘Where are the others?’ God will say. Let us not deny Him in those about us. Even here, right now, we can have that new earth, wherein justice dwells.”