During his speech to Congress on September 24, 2015, Pope Francis singled out four great Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. The woman in the group is the least known and celebrated. In 1996, Joan Chittister included an essay about Dorothy Day in her book, A Passion for Life: Fragments of the Face of God, which was also published in the Spring 2016 issue of Parabola magazine. Read what Sister Joan has to say about her.
The thing I have always liked about Dorothy Day is that she was one of the people she dedicated her life to serving. She was not an uptown philanthropist. She was not a nun looking for a good work to do. She was not a government bureaucrat distributing money before getting the commuter train to Long Island. She was the real thing. She was an unwed mother, a disillusioned citizen, a poor woman, a disaffected churchgoer, an unemployed observer of the human race. She had abandoned the church. She had lived in a tenement of which, as a child, she had been ashamed. She had aborted one child and born another out of wedlock. She had worked hard to earn nothing and lived in a cheap, vermin-ridden apartment because she couldn’t afford anything else. But for the grace of God, Dorothy Day herself could easily been the Bag Lady of the World par excellence.
She had dropped out of everything worth belonging to, if what you are about in life is credentials. She had dropped out of her family. She had dropped out of college. She had dropped out of capitalism. She had dropped out of churches. She had dropped out of marriage. She had dropped out of the system. She had dropped out of a world marked by all the niceties that finishing schools could provide. Dorothy Day lived in a world of her own. She understood life, she said, out of experience. “I see only too clearly how bad people are. It’s my own sins that give me such clarity.”
But if Dorothy Day is a model of anything at all, it is certainly the fact that life is not over till it’s over. What Dorothy Day raised out of the ashes of her life is a monument to living.
It was her conversion to Catholicism—the church of the poor Christ who came “that they may have life, and have it more abundantly,” the church of the immigrants—that gave her the greatest clarity of all. The fact is, as much as she believed in them, causes failed her. The rise of a new social order in communism inspired her to hope for a better world, but it did not feed her spirit and only too clearly betrayed its own best ideals. A commitment to the elimination of poverty was important but ran aground on the survival-of-the-fittest philosophy of capitalism and gave no insight into the way to deal with those poor for whom rugged individualism was not an answer. Social revolution was a worthy aim but ended in a violence she had always found suspect. Only when she found “the church of the poor” and “the folly of the cross” did the vision clear for her.
“People want peace,” she wrote, “but not the things that make for peace.” For Dorothy, the things that “made for peace” were the daily, unstinting, unlimited works of mercy. She listed them in a 1949 article for the Commonweal magazine and made them the centerpiece of her life. Her problem, if she had one, was that she believed in them. “The spiritual works of mercy,” she recited there with all the simplicity of a school child,
are to admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead. The corporal works are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to ransom the captive, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick, and to bury the dead.
It was a clear program, and she followed it until the day she died.
She began The Catholic Worker, a penny newspaper, to admonish and instruct and counsel and comfort people everywhere who like her could not make sense out of a world that called itself Christian but had gone officially mad, grinding people under heel in the name of private enterprise, destroying nations in the name of liberating them, enslaving people in the name of human rights. At its peak the circulation of the paper rose to over 150,000.
She opened soup kitchens to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty.
She began hospitality houses to clothe the naked and harbor the harborless, to care for the sick and bury the dead. Over seventy-five groups, fundamentally independent but united in philosophy of the Christian economics of sharing and alternative living, opened in her lifetime, and more were even begun even after death.
And she ransomed those held captive to oppression and violence and technological barbarism with her very body. She is best remembered perhaps for her post-conversion opposition to U.S. participation in World War II but the fact is that her first jail sentence was for a suffragette demonstration in 1917. She spent thirty days in prison and participated in a grueling hunger strike to break the resistance of society to the demands of women. The popular opinion was that the women had won the conflict when their demands were met and they were given early release, but the experience affected Dorothy deeply, first plunging her into depression and then firing her determination even more to do something for people everywhere who were being beaten, starved, and imprisoned to stop them from organizing against oppressive and dehumanizing conditions. The truth of the matter was that Dorothy was called to the poor long before she was called to Catholicism.
It was after her conversion to Catholicism, however, that Dorothy found the meaning she needed to go on. As a Catholic she put the scripture ahead of the system and the Gospel ahead of the government at all times in a church that itself, her communist friends were quick to point out, had long been the handmaiden of the government’s theology of defense and theology of capitalism and theology of the civic religion.
In the end, Dorothy Day was herald to the church, herald to the state, and herald to the poor. And she did not do it by converting others. She did it by changing her own small corner of the world.
It is not possible to talk about Dorothy Day without talking about Peter Maurin, the French peasant with a medieval dream for a modern world, who in 1932 appeared, it seemed, out of nowhere to give Dorothy Day’s restless commitment and recurring intuition a vision and a form. They were an unlikely combination, these two: Peter Maurin was raised steeped in Catholicism; Dorothy was steeped in revolutionary theory. Peter Maurin was a visionary, a theological thinker; Dorothy Day was a social activist, a writer who had been schooled in socialist ideology and the politics of protest. Together they created one of the first major truly lay movements in the history of the church, a Christian concept of economics, and the boldest peace movement of its day.
Intent simply on changing their own lives—much in the model of the great religious reformers like Benedict and Francis who had introduced whole new styles of life in the midst of their eroding worlds—Peter and Dorothy began a program of publications, conferences, and educational activities based on the social teachings of the church that ran side by side with rural communes, hospitality houses, and soup kitchens for the urban poor.
The new lifestyle attracted not only the needy themselves but hosts of young volunteers who had also heard the words of Christ burning in their hearts but seldom, if ever, had seen them realized in churches that cared for the poor but never admonished the system that made them poor or kept them poor. Dorothy herself had written in the second year of the Great Depression:
More and more people were losing their jobs, more families were being evicted, the Unemployed Councils were being formed by the communist groups and the Workers Alliance sprang into existence. It was time for pressure groups, for direct action, and radicalism was thriving among all groups except Catholics. I felt out of it. There was Catholic membership in all these groups, of course, but no Catholic leadership. It was that very year that Pope Pius XI said sadly, “ . . . The workers of the world are lost to the church.’’
Between them Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day showed the world that there was such a thing as Catholic Social Policy and that it could be lived.
To feed the hungry was one thing. To be against World War II and the nuclearization of the world was entirely another. To pursue violence as an act of justice, she taught, was un-Christian. She said without apology, “We confess to being fools [for Christ], and wish that we were more so. . . . Dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as well as our friend.’’ The state considered them subversive. The church considered them radically outside the just war tradition. People considered them seditious or traitorous or crazy. Even the circulation of the paper dropped to less than fifty thousand within a matter of months. Clearly, people who had found the works of mercy comforting did not find love of the enemy acceptable. Charity was one thing but justice was another.
Dorothy Day persisted in her radical pacifist posture, however, warning of worse things to come if violence was met with violence, standing straight and unflinching in the heart of the church itself. At first the Catholic Worker Movement was treated at best like a misguided but basically harmless embarrassment to the institutional church. Within five years of her death, though, the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States in concert with three popes since Pius XII—John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II—themselves published a pastoral on peace, condemning the arms race and allowing for conscientious objection. Popular writers had begun to talk about Roman Catholicism as “a peace church,’’ and war resistance had become a very Catholic thing. Dorothy Day had stood firm and eventually the church had come to her. It is hard to deny the Gospel in your midst.
But approval is not what Dorothy was about. After being jailed for protesting civil defense drills in the 1950s, she wrote:
I am not particularly interested in writing about my few days in jail last month. I am just glad that I served them, and am ready to serve again if there is another compulsory air-raid drill next summer. It is a gesture perhaps, but a necessary one. Silence means consent and we cannot consent to the militarization of our country without protest since we believe that the air-raid drills are part of a calculated plan to inspire fear of the enemy instead of the love which Jesus Christ told us we should feel toward them.
She was still going to jail at the age of seventy-five.
She was still living in a public tenement for the poor until the day she died.
She was still witnessing to a personal poverty that confronted the systemic sin of exploitation by “living simply so that others could simply live.’’
She was still answering the letters of people, professional Christians all, who preferred a less public display of belief, a more antiseptic religion. “If we are not being persecuted for our beliefs and life, there is something wrong with us,’’ she wrote. Indeed, everything that people didn’t like about her she ended up proving being right about. People—clergy and laity alike—didn’t like her attitudes on war. Then, thirty years later, the bishops of the U.S. church wrote the first unified statement on peace. They didn’t like her attitudes on capitalism. Then, thirty years later, the bishops wrote the economic pastoral. They didn’t like her marching for women’s voting rights. Then, seventy years later, the bishops of the church set out to begin the long, hard process of facing up to women’s concerns.
The temptation, of course, is to mourn the loss of a leader in a time that cries for leadership. The difference here, however, may be that what Dorothy Day led was a revolution of attitudes and a revolution of personal responsibility. She is the icon of the kind of leader that everyone else, anyone else, can be, not by changing other people but by changing themselves.