Re-reading Dorothy Day

Pope Francis has turned the spotlight on the poor and marginalized – particularly in his native Argentina, where he knows them intimately – but also in the whole world. Which somehow has spurred me to re-read Dorothy Day (1897-1980), advocate of the poor and exploited workers here in North America, who is an icon among social-justice Catholics. The cause for her canonization has begun, so she already bears the title “Servant of God.”

I’m glad I did, because I’ve come upon some surprises.

Day was a newspaperman’s daughter and gifted writer in her own right. The family moved often as her father jumped from one job to another. One early, formative experience came during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The Days were living in Oakland and didn’t bear the direct brunt. But Dorothy was impressed with how people opened their doors to refugees from the ruined city.

Her father’s paper had burned to the ground. So on to Chicago. There, she won a scholarship to the University of Illinois, where she joined the Socialist Party. Ironically, her scholarship had been established by William Randolph Hearst, the famed newspaper publisher – and capitalist – model for the title character in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.  

She left the university after two years, and got involved in radical causes, writing on women, the poor, war, and workers for far-left outlets. Along the way, she produced a novel that brought a large sum of money when Hollywood bought the film rights. Eugene O’Neill, and other prominent writers became friends (though she was no intellectual, a good thing since it kept her away from the wilds of Marxism).

All that was garden-variety literary leftism and soon passed, as have the causes in the form she confronted them. But there’s another side of her, one that interests the Congregation for the Causes of Saints – and us.

To begin with, she faced crucial personal choices. While she was living among radicals who led irregular lives, she had multiple affairs and even an abortion. (If canonized, she might become patroness of those deluded by modern sexual mores into conceiving, then destroying their own offspring.)

Her only daughter was born while she was a common-law wife to Forster Batterham. He was British, a keen naturalist, the kind who thinks the splendors of nature somehow exclude or oppose faith – and was less than delighted about children or Dorothy’s growing attraction to Catholicism.

She gave up this man she loved – which today might even be criticized by some as bowing to mere Roman rules. But Dorothy gravitated towards simple truths: “In the eyes of God, any turning towards creatures to the exclusion of Him is adultery, and so it is termed over and over again in Scripture.”

          Dorothy Day by Judd Mehlman for the New York Daily News (1965)

Conversion affected her social activism. Though earlier mostly Socialist (her friend Elizabeth Gurley Flynn later was elected head of the Communist Party USA, and she continued to cite figures like Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao well past their sell-by date), the Catholic Dorothy Day was more influenced by Peter Maurin. They became “Distributists,” in the tradition of Chesterton, Belloc, and Vincent McNabb – though, if anything, even more improvident.

Their publication, The Catholic Worker, caught fire more from the purity of the participants’ lives – which meant voluntary poverty, small face-to-face community, and direct help for the poor – than anything it proposed theoretically. It showed up everywhere: in churches and Catholic schools, one copy in a mine five miles underground.

Maurin had grown up in rural France and advocated people producing their own food and manufacturing as many things for their own use as possible. Programmatically, a return to the land and worker ownership, those attractive sides of Distributism rooted in the centrality of meaningful work to human dignity. They also developed projects to care for the poor and jobless. Their real effectiveness, however, lay in the modest Catholic Worker houses they founded, which offered concrete love and assistance.

And with a sense of humor about themselves often absent from earnest seekers of social justice. Day reports, for example, that longshoremen would sometimes complain about people “poking stuff at us. . .first it’s the Communists, and then it’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and now it’s the Catholics.” And she was quite frank about their sometimes pie-in-the-sky pipedreams and practical failures. Day reports she once groaned to Maurin, “Why did you have to start all this anyway?”

A striking departure from most social justice activists involved their attitude towards the state. There’s long been a debate among Catholics about supporting government programs as a matter of “justice” – versus promoting “charity” in the sense of direct mutual care.

For Maurin, “charity” that did not engage and empower offended against the dignity and worth of workers. Catholic relief agencies themselves seemed compromised:

More and more of them were taking help from the state, and in taking from the state they had to render to the state. They came under the head of Community Chest and discriminatory charity, centralizing and departmentalizing, involving themselves with bureaus, buildings, red tape, legislation, at the expense of human values.
I’ve long said myself that the virtual state monopoly on education, charity, and now healthcare – however well intended – wrecks Christian liberty and the whole economy of caritas. But I am also skeptical whether a global Church can be effective in the absence of some organization.

Many things, of course, have changed since their day. Labor and capital alike have become, even more conspicuously, government cronies. Population growth and dependency on modern agricultural methods make the Distributist vision of a return of large numbers of people to the land both economically unlikely and environmentally inadvisable. 

But what has not changed is true Christian charity. The pope, like the Catholic Worker movement, has raised a challenge more radical than the usual political efforts: how do we rescue people from the illusions of individualism and collectivism? How do we instead recover, in modern conditions, the true Catholic ethos of persons in community?

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.