Dorothy Day’s Dynamic Orthodoxy
by William Doino Jr. (Thanks to Jim Bishop)
When Dorothy Day was born, in 1897, no one could have imagined her eventual religious standing—least of all her parents, who rarely attended church. But a full century later, in cities throughout the world, Day was proposed for sainthood, and celebrated for her heroic work.
The Washington Post summed up that anniversary well:
She was a radical American Catholic born 100 years ago on Pineapple street in Brooklyn. . . . She wasn’t born into her faith—she converted, at 30, after questing for God in all the wrong places. . . . A lot of people wouldn’t know her name, but there are great numbers of other people who can’t seem to get her out of their minds. On the centennial of her birth, it’s as if Dorothy Day pricks at consciences all the harder to do battle, be better, feel more deeply, struggle more intensely for the few things that count.
Why this is so has many explanations, but surely among the best is her extraordinary capacity to love.
All throughout her life, Dorothy Day pursued love—and it wasn’t a restrained type, but a burning and limitless love. It was as combustible as it was unguided, and constantly led to trouble—including a string of broken relationships, and most tragically, an abortion. But it was that same love that remade her, when she ultimately converted and came to accept Christ.
Dorothy Day died in 1980, at the age of 83, and since then her legacy has only grown. She is best known as a youthful radical, Catholic convert, and pacifist, as well as the author of a classic autobiography, The Long Loneliness. She founded, with Peter Maurin, the Catholic Worker movement, including a paper of the same name, dedicated to serving the poor and oppressed, through nonviolence, and sponsoring “houses of hospitality” for that purpose. Today there are over 150 of them, in the United States, and abroad.
I spoke recently with Father Malcolm Kennedy, a New York priest whose mother, Jean, converted under Day’s influence, and eventually became Day’s godchild. Dorothy was in touch with the Kennedy family throughout her adult life, and Father Kennedy remembers her visits well. “She had a very powerful presence,” he recalls, and those who experienced it “could not help being affected by it.”
Fr. Kennedy spoke of Day’s purity of heart, and her unwavering commitments to her activism and goals: “She was utterly faithful to her vocation. There was nothing at all inauthentic about her.”
Often overlooked, he said, was her self-discipline. “If you study her diaries and letters, and meditations, what you find is an incredibly structured Catholic spiritual life, which to me, as a priest, is very impressive.”
It is something all Christians can learn from, and seek to emulate.
Because of her unusual love, Day always looked for the “better” in people, even when she knew they had flaws. Her daring political views—about war and economics—brought her into conflict with Cardinal Spellman, yet she always defended his honor. “If anyone spoke against him, she’d always stand up for him,” said friend and biographer, Jim Forest, to author Rosalie Troester:
And it wouldn’t be in generalities. She told me once that Spellman had priests who didn’t like to receive calls to go down to the Bowery to administer last rites. He told the person answering the phone, ‘If any of those calls come through give them to me personally.’ Dorothy knew things like that about people, and she would tell them to show their good side. She was quite different than most of us. If we decide we don’t like somebody, we make it a kind of hobby to collect reasons to not to like that person. We develop quite a number of reasons to justify our irritation. Dorothy had a lot of reasons to dislike Cardinal Spellman, but it was more her hobby to find out things to admire about him.
Dorothy’s goodness of heart and her “radical idealism,” as Father Kennedy calls it, achieved immense things, but also caused her to occasionally lose her footing. Though most of her social views were soundly rooted in the Gospel, the saints and papal encyclicals, she sometimes made imprudent political statements (particularly about Fidel Castro), which today make one wince. Some people accused her of being a tool of the Communists, or at least a naive fellow traveler. But it is important to remember, even as we acknowledge her mistakes, that her purpose in founding the Catholic Worker was to draw people away from Communism and into the arms of Christ. In this, she succeeded, as we know from converts she influenced. And Dorothy was the first to admit her errors and those of the circles in which she walked.
In an interview with Sojourners in 1976, Dorothy explained how she became enamored with revolutionary thinking, but also came to see where it led-to destructive and dystopian nightmares:
For me, I could never see the violence, the obliterating of a whole class. Unfortunately, in the 1940’s the whole liberal crowd were all so pro-Soviet that they wouldn’t believe any of the stories that came out about the transferral of the whole Ukrainian population to Siberia. Now we read the account in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. I mean, a liberal crowd will sort of go with the fashion.
But correcting herself, and not going with “the fashion,” whether Left or Right, was what Dorothy Day’s whole life was about.
When the guns were blazing during World War II, she pointed out, not just how it violated pacifist principles, but how the Allies were violating just war standards, which they claimed to espouse. When Christians began accepting birth control and even abortion she upheld the Church’s teachings on sex and human life, every bit as vigorously as she preached against war or on behalf of worker’s rights. On labor and politics, she once said, “I am inclined to be sympathetic to the Left, but when it comes to the Catholic Church, then I am far to the Right.”
That’s dynamic orthodoxy for you.
Perhaps the most perceptive comment ever made about Day came not from one of her supporters, but from a somewhat critical friend. In the early 1950’s, during the height of the McCarthy era, Theodore Maynard, a conservative Catholic journalist, saw the attacks against Dorothy and rose to her defense:
Not even the thousands of little McCarthy’s who, like the fabled old maid, look under the bed every night lest a man should be lurking there, have ever been able to bring any accusation against Dorothy Day that makes any sense, for wrongheaded as she may be on certain points, her goodness is too crystalline to be challenged. I myself disagree with her pacifism and have told her and [Catholic Worker] Robert Ludlow so very plainly, but it does not affect my admiration for the work they are doing. But though they know they will never alienate me, they must be well aware that they have alienated many people who would otherwise be their supporters. Their paper often strikes me as the most interesting and ‘alive’ thing in Catholic journalism. If this is the case, it is because the paper is produced by people who convey the impression of being dedicated souls. Whether or not one agrees with them, one suspects them of being saints.
A half a century later, Dorothy Day’s cause was officially introduced—and approved—by the Catholic Church. It has been enthusiastically endorsed by the last three Cardinals of New York, and her supporters hope to live to witness her canonization. Dorothy Day never considered herself worthy of the honor, and even joked about it. “Don’t call me a saint,” she famously said, “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
Of course, one would expect nothing less from a true saint.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.