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 42 had to be impeached twenty years ago

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Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.

The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York. At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.

It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.

Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.

For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”

Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.

That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could fill the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)

So once the game was redefined — Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos? — there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”

It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore | Flickr