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The radical and faithful witness of Dorothy Day

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.

Jared Staudt
R. Jared Staudt, PhD, is a husband and father of six, the Associate Superintendent for Mission and Formation for the Archdiocese of Denver, a Benedictine oblate, prolific writer, and insatiable reader.
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