As an outspoken Christian radical, personalist and ardent pacifist, Dorothy Day’s life and writings certainly give us pause to reflect on the origins of our own spiritual and intellectual foundation and our personal response to social injustice. In 1980, shortly after she died at age 83, TIME Magazine wrote:Unfortunately, both the Church and world are highly polarized. Tragically Dorothy Day has often fallen victim to the resulting polemics and thereby viewed through the lens of dissent and secularism rather than through the lens of Christ ans His Church.
What this post is
- a primer to stir your interest in Dorothy Day and point you to several authoritative sources on her life for further exploration.
- an impressive collection of testimonies which give considerable evidence of Dorothy Day’s sanctity and place in the Church. These testimonies are taken from a wide array of prominent individuals (some on the way to canonization themselves) including Church hierarchy, clergy, lay authors, journalists and fellow activists in addition to members of the Catholic Worker movement who knew Dorothy Day well and are respected biographers of her life.
- glimpses into three significant periods of her life: a) childhood and adolescence b) pre-conversion c) post-conversion
- some light shed on her abortion and its aftermath. While Dorothy was clearly pro-life after her conversion, its rarely explained why she wasn’t as public about it as some people thought she should have been.
- a short note of personal gratitude.
What this post is not
This post is not intended to be a comprehensive biography. All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day by Jim Forest would be an excellent choice for extensive biographical info. (It even includes a fascinating section regarding Cardinal O’Connor’s petition to Rome to open a cause for the canonization of Dorothy Day and thereby have her declared her a Servant of God.)
Perhaps more importantly, this post is not an apologetic piece, explaining the theological and philosophical foundation of Dorothy Day’s thought. (This is marvelously covered in The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins by Mark and Louise Zwick.)
Both books are referenced in this article.
An opportune time
Dorothy Day’s disdain for the state is well-documented. She was an anarchist and she never voted … not even once. As we seek to understand how the historically dismal selection of front-runners for the 2016 presidential race occurred, perhaps Dorothy Day’s witness can shed some light here. Leslie Fain, of Catholic World Report, observed:
So maybe this election year can be an opportune time for all of us to "take inventory of where we stand when it comes to Christ" by discovering the real Dorothy Day. Let’s get started.
At the heart of the Church
On September 24, 2015, during his historic address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis praised four great Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
On March 16, 2000, Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, announces the approval of the Holy See, under Pope John Paul II, for the Archdiocese of New York to open the Cause for the Beatification and Canonization of Dorothy Day. With this approval comes the title Servant of God. Here is a brief excerpt from his formal petition to the Holy See in 1998:
In one of the last general audiences of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI praised Dorothy Day:
Diagnosed with heart failure late in her life, Dorothy, none the less, made an around the world tour. One stop was Calcutta. Guess who greeted her? Here Jim Forest (Day’s biographer and former managing editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper) recounts a story which gives us a brief yet profound glimpse of the depth of Dorothy Day’s faith. Apparently Mother Teresa agreed!
Mother Teresa sent Dorothy a beautiful birthday letter from Calcutta.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty, like Dorothy, was a convert, advocate for social justice in North America and declared a Servant of God by Pope John Paul II. Unlike Dorothy, Catherine was of noble Russian birth and through marriage became the Baroness Catherine de Hueck. Even though she and her husband fled Russia due to the Russian Revolution, and nearly starved as refugees in Finland, Catherine like Dorothy, was suspected by some, of being a Communist.
On November 26, 1945, Catherine Doherty, penned the following to Dorothy Day:
In a letter dated November 16th, 1967, to Mrs. Paul Moore, Catherine recalls a powerful moment while in Dorothy’s presence:
Thomas Merton authored the The Seven Story Mountain, which Archbishop Fulton Sheen (now Venerable) likened to a modern day form of The Confessions of St. Augustine. In a letter that Merton wrote to Dorothy Day in December 1963, Thomas Merton credits Dorothy and the Catholic Worker for his conversion to Catholicism:
Fr. Malcolm Kennedy, a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, grew up with Dorothy Day visiting his house to see his mother Jean, Dorothy’s godchild. Jean converted to Catholicism under Dorothy’s influence.
Dorothy Day greatly admired Cesar Chavez, an American farm worker, labor leader, civil rights activist and a devout Catholic. The last time Dorothy Day went to jail was at age 75 for supporting Chavez and the United Farm Worker’s picket lines. The admiration was mutual:
While many viewed Dorothy sympathies as anti-establishment, the youth-based, American peace movement of the 1960’s found in Dorothy, a woman worthy of their admiration. Singer/Songwriter Joan Baez invited Dorothy to spend a week with leaders of the farm workers at the Institute for Nonviolence [in California]. Yippie Abbie Hoffman attended her funeral.
Liberal or Conservative
Polemics, or more simply put, contentious rhetoric to support a position seems to be an inescapable reality in the human drama. Pin a label on someone and then then try to destroy them. How lovely we are! Dorothy was no stranger to this behavior. She was abandoned by her Communist “friends” upon becoming a Catholic and later abandoned by significant portions of the Catholic community as her and Maurin called for a new social order: one deeply rooted in the Gospel, the Social teaching of the Church, the witness of the Saints and an impressive and solidly Catholic philosophical foundation.
Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, popular author, psychologist and EWTN host, wrote:
Stephen Beale offers some insight into why Dorothy Day’s legacy resists the contemporary liberal paradigm that so many try to apply.
Robert Ellsberg is the editor-in chief and publisher of Orbis Books, the publishing arm of Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers as well as editor of Dorothy Day’s diaries and letters. He was the managing editor of the Catholic Worker from 1976-1978 which afforded him the opportunity to work with Dorothy Day the last five years of her life. From this experience he converted to Catholicism.
To those who see Dorothy Day as the matriarch of dissent in the American Church during the 60’s, consider this editors comment found in The Duty of Delight
Scott Hahn, renowned Catholic scripture scholar, author, professor, apologist and founder of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, places Dorothy Day squarely in the tradition of saints such as St. Ignatius of Antioch in the first century and St. John Chrsysostum in the fourth century, by review of their writings. The earliest Christians saw an unbreakable connection between the words ‘This is my body’ and the ‘Whatsoever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me’. If we truly wish to honor the body of Christ, we cannot ignore him when he is naked. So they, as Dorothy did centuries later, took the Gospel literally. At the core of their almsgiving lived their Eucharistic Lord.
Paul Likoudis, Catholic journalist and former news editor of The Wanderer, an independent, national Catholic weekly, attests to the sanctity of Dorothy Day after researching Day, Maurin (her mentor) and the Catholic Worker Movement for a review of the Zwick’s: The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins. )
Note: In 1966, Dorothy commented in her diary [The Duty of Delight, 391-392], “he [man in audience] rose to present from a paper he held in his hand a list of objections to my talk [apparently on pacifism and perhaps other topics] all of which reflected the Wanderer, St.Paul, Minnesota, point of view.” I include this note to give historical background to the following Likoudis quote which makes it all the more interesting.
Father C. John McCloskey, former director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., and a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, is probably best known for instructing a number high-profile individuals convert to Catholicism, the most notable probably being Dr. Bernard Nathanson. He developed the Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan which lists 100 essential Catholic books for your library, among them is Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist. Additionally, Father McCloskey is a co-author of The Essential Belloc: A Prophet for Our Times. Interestingly Hillare Belloc, and other English Distibutists, had a profound influence on the thought of Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement.
Other Catholic Workers
Robert Coles is an American author, child psychiatrist, and professor emeritus at Harvard University. He worked in one of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker soup kitchens and remained close to her until her death in 1980.
In an interview, Tom Cornell, an associate editor of the Catholic Worker and a deacon in the Catholic Church, reflects on the unanimous decision of the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) to move forward on Dorothy Day’s canonization process:
Tom Loome and his wife, Karen, are founding members of the Stillwater Catholic Worker in Minnesota. For many years, Tom had the largest and best scholarly Catholic bookstore in the United States. Tom examines what the Real Presence meant to Dorothy through the lens of Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC).
Mark and Louise Zwick, founders of the Houston Catholic Worker, called Casa Juan Diego. They are also founders and editors of the Houston Catholic Worker and
Childhood and adolescense
Reflecting on her childhood, Dorothy wrote:
In 1904, John Day, Dorothy’s father, accepted a job in California as a sportswriter for a San Francisco paper so the family moved from New York City to California. However in 1906, the family moved to Chicago from California due to the devastation of the San Francisco earthquake. Initially John Day was unable to find work so Dorothy experienced, first-hand, the shame of poverty.
Through the recruiting efforts of a local pastor the Day children but not the parents, who were nominal Christians at best, started attending an Episcopalian church. Several years later, Dorothy was baptized and confirmed. During this time she developed a love for the Psalms, prayers and music she heard at the services. Even at a young age she showed a marked capacity for awe and a profound sensitivity to beauty. In canticles such as the Benedictus, “O all ye Works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise Him, and magnify Him for ever.” she experience the common unity of all humanity, a theme that would last with her throughout her entire life.
By her mid-teens, Dorothy had become an avid reader. Her natural sensitivities and the memories of her own humiliating experiences of urban poverty made her receptive to misfortunes of others. Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s vision of a decentralized social order made a lifelong impact. Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle set in the Chicago stockyards and slaughterhouses depicts an immigrant family utterly destroyed by squalor and social injustice. Dorothy was so moved that she began taking long walks through the stockyards to see it first-hand. Here she received what she called her “vocation”: to link the lives and interests of the poor and the worker with her own.
Dorothy’s new-found vocation, however, distanced her from churches. Where was the Christian outrage against those who amassed fortune at the expense of the poor and the worker?
Dorothy received a scholarship to the University of Illinois-Urbana but found reading more interesting than classes. She devoured histories of the labor movement. The earlier influence of Kropotkin proved to be a catalyst to many other Russian writers such as Chekov, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky remained her only connection to Christianity.
After two years of study at Urbana, Dorothy at 18 years of age, returned to the place of her birth, New York City and adopted a bohemian lifestyle. Here she worked on the staff of several Socialist publications, joined her first protest and did jail time, hung out in Greenwich Village bars with the literati like Eugene O’Neil and maintained relationships with prominent Communists. She had several affairs, one resulting in an abortion. Eventually Dorothy met the man who became her common-law husband. Their daughter would be the catalyst for Dorothy’s entry into the Catholic church.
During this period of her life, Dorothy, like many young people, was searching. Obviously she made more than a few wrong turns, ones she later regretted. And yet God is His Mercy was always willing to meet her where she was at, even in the saloons of Greenwich Village.
It was in Eugene O’Neill’s recitation of a poem that re-awakened in her the dormant longing for God that would grow as the months and years passed.
Well the effects of the poem had more the character of a seed rather than a catalyst for conversion. After an abortion and a failed marriage, Dorothy returned to a “disorderly life” with the father of her aborted child. But soon the charismatic appeal of her lover wore thin and the “Hound” was at work again. In an On Pilgrimage column published in the Catholic Worker newspaper in May 1975, Dorothy recalls a significant event in her life, the inspiration to recite the Memorare:
During these years Dorothy had become disillusioned with Communism.
In 1924, Dorothy sold the films rights of a novel she had written. With the funds she purchased a beach cottage on Staten Island. Here she met Forster Batterham, who would become her common-law husband and the father of their daughter, Tamar. While Forster was a fellow anarchist, he had absolutely no use for religion. During her pregnancy, Dorothy began saying Rosary every day while talking long walks.
Despite Forster’s protests, Dorothy began to attend Mass on Sunday morning and sought out books on prayer, such as The Imitation of Christ and the writings of Teresa of Avila. While the reality of the Church’s alignment with wealthy industrialists, property, the state and capitalism was a stumbling block, an immense desire to worship and adore in a community grew within her. She didn’t want her daughter to “flounder as I had floundered”
Tamar was baptized in July 1927. Dorothy’s own reception had to be delayed since she and Forster continued to live together without the sanction of marriage. Initially she hoped that Forester’s opposition would soften and that a church wedding would eventually come to pass. However, being two strong personalities, frequent explosions of temper became all too common. Dorothy ended it and was received into the Catholic Church on December 29, 1927.
In From Union Square to Rome, Dorothy’s purpose was to give an account to her comrades in the radical movement of how she came to embrace Christ and the Catholic Church. Regarding Communism she wrote:
As a Catholic, Dorothy Day accepted the Church Magisterium, hook, line and sinker.
While Dorothy was convinced of the divine origin of the Church she also saw that its members were filled with human frailties. While she was moved by the nobility of so many Catholics who gave their lives for the serving the littlest ones of Christ: the sick, the maimed and the leper, she famously asked:
The five years following Dorothy’s entrance into the Catholic Church were extremely difficult. Her conversion came at a heavy price: the end of her common-law marriage, rejected as a traitor by the radicals she had been close to and the financial and emotional struggles of being a single parent, just to name a few. Even though she possessed a strong faith, she struggled with depression.
But God had not abandoned Dorothy. In 1932 the Great Depression was in its third year. Two Catholic publication, Commonweal and America commissioned her to report on a Communist-organized Hunger March, from Union Square to Washington, D.C. departing on November 30, 1932. By the end of the Hunger March, on December 8th, she felt bitter and useless for she could only watch and admire those who campaigned for social justice.>
Before she returned to her hotel room to begin the work on the articles she was commissioned for, she fulfilled her holy-day obligation at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a church built to commemorate the feast day.
When Dorothy returned to New York City the very next day, Peter Maurin was there to introduce himself and describe a vision he had, hoping that Dorothy would join him to implement it. Aware of Dorothy’s background in journalism, Peter wanted Dorothy to start a newspaper to bring Catholic social teaching to all workers, not just Catholics. In addition he had developed a three-plank program consisting of 1) Houses of Hospitality for practicing the Works of Mercy 2) Agronomic universities, where scholars would become workers and 3) round-table discussions, where workers would become scholars. Dorothy’s prayer was answered. The Catholic Worker was born.
So from the beginning the Catholic Worker and the ensuing movement would be radical. The phrase “reconstruction of the social order” also meant that it would be anarchist. But these terms, “radical” and “anarchist” were to be seen in a different light, through a different lens then they had been traditionally.
As Dorothy Day’s mentor and architect of the Catholic Worker movement, Peter Maurin’s greatest contribution may have been his introduction of the philosophical principles of Personalism. The writings of Nicholas Berdyaev, Emmanuel Mournier and Jacques Maritain provided the intellectual foundation of the movement. Dorothy pacifism found a new home within the vision of Maurin’s Christian personalism. Personalists philosophers challenged the principles of individualism, collectivism and materialism and argued why they were flawed. They, in turn, proposed a school of thought in which the dignity of the human being as person, made in the image and likeness of God, should be starting-point for all subsequent philosophical analysis.
Ira Chernus, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, summarizes Maurin’s personalism.
Personalism then was at the heart of Maurin and Day’s anarchism. Like all anarchists, Maurin and Day felt that institutions encourage people to rely on rules made by others, rather than taking personal responsibility so they advocated for a decentralized society. Governments should never be a replacement for what our Lord called the second commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Other well-known Catholic intellectuals such as Edith Stein and Dietrich von Hildebrand were making philosophical inquiry into personalism. In 1960, the Polish philosopher, Karol Wojtyla, who later became both Pope and Saint stated the first-principle of Christian personalism:
Clearly Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day were on to something.
Dorothy Day devoted nearly a half-century of her life putting flesh on the bones of Matthew 25: 31-40. She took God at His word. It was through the mystery of the Incarnation that all human beings could respond to Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor. For Dorothy this was not simply a pious platitude for as she put it:
The early Church grew exponentially by practicing the Works of Mercy (Spiritual and Corporal) at a personal sacrifice and with self-giving love. Through their witness of living the Gospel, they changed the social order. Peter and Dorothy saw in this a “dynamite” that had become largely dormant in the Church. It was their vision to reignite it so that the Church would become the “dominant social dynamic force”.
Many consider abortion the central moral issue of our time. Dorothy herself wrote that:
So why wasn’t Dorothy more public about her own? Didn’t she realize the good that could come out of it? In a 2011 article in America entitled Dorothy Day and Abortion: A New Conversation Surfaces James Martin, SJ breaks a story about a conversation Dorothy had with Daniel Marshall, a member of the Catholic Worker movement, a few years before her death. When Mr. Marshall asked Dorothy to write about her experiences in the paper, she paused and gently answered, “I don’t like to push young people into their sins.” Robert Ellsberg, editor of Dorothy Day’s diaries and letters, believed the story rang true. Dorothy once confided to him that a woman had just told her that she justified her own decision to have an abortion because she [Dorothy] had done the same.
In May 1971, Dorothy Day was invited to speak on the “Rights of Women” at the Dakota State College Visiting Scholar Program. The organizers were thrilled that Dorothy Day would support their cause. The moderator gave a short background on Dorothy Day in preparation for Dorothy’s presentation. She announced that Miss Day understood a woman’s right to choose, and that abortion was very much at the heart of empowering women. Whoops!
On June 28, 1974, Dorothy Day was one of seven signatories to the Catholic Peace Fellowship Statement on Abortion, which reads in part:
I have been reading about Dorothy Day for a few years now. One of our daughters attended college on Staten Island. This afforded my wife and I the occasion to visit Dorothy’s grave at nearby Resurrection Cemetery and say a prayer asking for her intercession. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we feel her influences almost daily. When the challenges of life, faith and Christian conscience rise up, or exercising the often difficult Christian obligation to see the divine presence disguised in others, Dorothy Day’s witness of prayer, love, justice and utter dependence on God helps keep us on track.
One of the greatest influences that Dorothy has had on me is that I now recite Lauds, Vespers and Compline daily. Some days, when life seems a bit overwhelming, I re-read one of Dorothy’s diary entries that awoke in me a desire to pray these psalms with the Church.
Some of you may recall Mother Angelica railing against pious, holy card saints because their biographers, however well-intentioned, sugar-coated their lives and thereby removed their humanity. With Dorothy Day this isn’t an issue. Hers sins and her sanctity are both well-documented. In this reality, lies great hope for us all. No matter what we have done, no matter how hopeless or useless our life may seem, Dorothy Day’s courageous witness shows us a way out of the darkness and into the light through giving and receiving God’s mercy.