The radical and faithful witness of Dorothy Day

Jared Staudt

Saint Dorothy Day? A former communist who had an abortion does not fit the mold of the normal candidate for canonization; yet her conversion witnesses to the power of God’s grace. Day’s commitment to social justice, combined with her deep faith and devotion, led the Archdiocese of New York to open her cause for sainthood in the year 2000. Personally, I have been deeply inspired by Day and the Catholic Worker Movement she founded with Peter Maurin. Together, Day and Maurin powerfully witness that that it is possible to live the Gospel in a radical way even in the difficult circumstances of our society.

Dr. Terrence Wright, who teaches at the Archdiocese’s St. John Vianney Seminary, recently wrote a short and accessible book: Dorothy Day: An Introduction to Her Life and Thought (Ignatius, 2018). Wright recognizes that “because of her life, her writings, and her political stands, Day remains a controversial figure, but she also serves as a challenge to Catholics and non-Catholics alike to reflect on Christ’s call for us to serve the least of our brothers” (14). He also notes that many people have the mistaken view of Day as a dissenter from Catholic teaching, even though she was “a Catholic who thinks that the teachings of the Church are right,” even on controversial topics (13).

Like St. Augustine, Day suffered through the social and spiritual problems of her time, yet found God in their midst. She felt acutely the social crisis of the early twentieth century, which drew her to Communism, but her own broken relationships kept her yearning for deeper fulfillment. After becoming a mother, she made the difficult choice of breaking with her past and entering the Church with her daughter, Tamar. It was not until she met Peter Maurin in 1932 that she realized how her passion for social justice could shape her life as a Catholic. Maurin introduced her to the Church’s social teaching and inspired her with a threefold plan to communicate this teaching through the Catholic Worker newspaper and roundtable discussions, to open houses of hospitality, and to gather people for work and retreats on farms.

Wright explores both the intellectual and spiritual foundations of Day’s life and work. Inspired by the Church’s teaching and the Catholic tradition, especially monastic spirituality and hospitality, Day and Maurin sought a personalist response to the social crisis. They took both subsidiarity and solidarity seriously in affirming the dignity of each person they served, rather than seeking an institutional response. Maurin recognized the spiritual problem of “the state doing things for people instead of people doing things for each other” (57). Therefore, the Catholic Worker Movement embraced voluntary poverty, as well as common work and prayer, to live with the poor, fighting “for justice or human rights [not] in the abstract but . . . in the concrete local scene” (79). Ultimately, Day founded a spiritual movement, drawing from the liturgy and the works of mercy to serve “our neighbor’s whole being, body and soul” (101).

Part of Day’s radical witness, explored at length by Wright, her pacifism, places her outside the Catholic mainstream, as she pointed to the injustice of modern warfare and encouraged Christians to embrace the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. Wright relates how “Day’s position was based primarily on two Catholic principles. First is the teaching that all human beings are members or potential members of the mystical body of Christ. . . This teaching also led her to see violence against any member of the human community as violence against Christ and against oneself. . . . The second teaching that shaped Day’s pacifism concerns ‘the counsels of perfection'” (122-23). This controversial stance reveals the heart of Day’s spiritual vision: to follow Christ’s teaching radically in the modern world.

As Wright acknowledges, many in the Catholic Worker Movement today have not remained faithful to Day’s spiritual vision and to the Church. Nonetheless, her personal witness and founding of the Movement remain important for inspiring new Christian responses to today’s challenges. I strongly recommend Wright’s book as an entrance into the radical and faithful witness of Servant of God Dorothy Day.

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash