NOMINEE FOR ONE OF THE IDP “NINE WORTHIES“.
Social Activist. Writer. Single Mother. Devout Catholic. Early Bohemian. Lifelong Radical. Servant of God. What can one say of Dorothy Day? She was the recipient of numerous rewards and honors late in life, but wanted none of it. She insisted to the end of her own lowliness and nothingness. She made both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis’ short list of Americans whose faith they found inspiring. Perhaps one could start by speaking of how ordinary she was, her “petit-bourgeois” upbringing, the Episcopalian faith she professed in her youth in spite of relatively irreligious parents, her University of Illinois education in a time where such a path was relatively rare for women. But maybe the earliest note that showed the heart of Dorothy Day was that, even as she became involved in the socialist causes popular among the socially conscious youth of her day, she chose voluntary poverty as her lot, not champagne and caviar over talk of revolution in which the poor would die by the thousands. Later in life she would appreciate the hippie movement for its rejection of materialism, for turning its back on the all consuming Machine which spit on the poor, and further burdened the weak. But she would always hold that to have a heart for the poor, it was not “free love” but self-denial that would be necessary. She was a woman who embraced pain, loneliness, poverty, misunderstanding, all for Christ in her neighbor.
Dorothy Day was all too aware of the cost of a condescension to the poor that was dominated by self-indulgence. After all, she had marched with the communists, the anarchists, the suffragists, the unionists. And to her last days, she never would renounce the idea that it was indeed our job to help bring the Kingdom of God closer to hand on earth, and saw the zeal of these others, even as her faith had drawn her away from them in many regards, as the proper response to a world of injustice. But her life with the activists who only looked to the hunger of the body had featured several unsuccessful love affairs, a failed civil marriage, a common law marriage, an abortion that would haunt her all her days and birth an uncompromising passion for upholding the dignity of human life, and at last, a child. For the love of the Faith she was drawn into, to obtain baptism of her daughter, and for her common law husband’s hatred of it, she turned her back on the comfort of her domestic life and the false freedom of libertinism and plunged into a new stage of Christian social activism, focused on the Image of God in each person.
What was Day’s Catholic activism that makes her especially fit to be a central inspiration for Imago Dei Politics? She was drawn into it by Peter Maurin, a personality all his own, and with him founded what is known to this day as the Catholic Workers. His program was often summed up “cult, culture, cultivation”. He was an agrarian, a communitarian, a Catholic who believed in the integration of the human person, opposing the fragmentation that came with industrial modernity. Dorothy Day was the defender of the city, even as she opposed the manifold injustices she saw there, and built a movement that aimed to create houses of hospitality, education, and ownership for workers. Together their program was not one of building a system that forced people into a mold, rural peasant or city worker, but a program of personalism, which emphasized the need to build community at the kitchen table, and in solidarity with the suffering, and simple acts of kindness. This was not an anti-political movement, for they foresaw “building a new society in the shell of the old”, but it was a grassroots movement, not a society by committee.
Day named herself a libertarian, and was part of a Christian anarchist tradition, but this was not some abstract opposition to authority. She declared her love for tradition generally, going as far as to quote G.K Chesterton. She was, after all, a faithful Catholic, a lay Benedictine oblate. But her opposition to “The State” was not some defense of laissez faire capitalism, it was instead an opposition to the Machine, abstract, impersonal government always working to make people more legible, institutions more penetrable, and society more malleable. Her fervor in this regard, which went as far as being a tax protestor and non-voter, did not make her an ideologue indifferent to the demands of many of those she was fighting for, demands for greater protection. She would always welcome and advocate alongside those who wanted the state as an advocate for the poor, for the worker, for the vulnerable. However, as a supporter of distributist political economy, a great admirer of Pope Pius XI and the fullness of Catholic social teaching, she always believed that widespread ownership of private property was a more certain guarantee of rights of the poor than any administrative social program, public or private. Indeed, perhaps the essence of her personalism was that she did not so dogmatize the details of her program that she couldn’t work with people as they were.
So it was with Day’s pacifism. As far back in her days as a radical she had always been a pacifist even as regarding the class war. Throughout her life she would condemn any one sided demands for the lower classes to lay down arms while those who embattled them were at perfect liberty to continue to mistreat them. But she, unlike so many American radicals, recognized the Soviet system for what it was, an abomination. She saw the violence of the mass warfare, the weapons of mass destruction, the utilitarian ethos, the total war that recognized no distinctions, and she saw the message of Christ, and her conscience would not permit her to champion revolutions of her beloved poor, or even war against Nazis. She was not trying to make a program for foreign policy, she was looking for a revolution of the heart, one that could only be compromised by efforts to devise some practical compromise. But her position was not popular among Catholic Workers, many would go to war, and she always respected those defenders of principles of just war who told her that even in her day it might still be possible to fight a just war, unlikely as it seemed. She condemned the unionists after World War II for becoming agents for the military industrial complex, even as she fought for their rights, and she waged a relentless protest against the Vietnam War. Dorothy Day suffered long for her pacifism, loving her country as a parent, but refusing to enable the path of warfaring imperial hegemony in the defense of a “liberal world order” or “democratic capitalism”.
Dorothy Day fought for the rights of workers. Stood alongside farmers losing their livelihoods. Demanded justice for migrants being brought in only to be exploited. She spoke of the need for a child to have a father and mother when the family was falling out of fashion. Was imprisoned (in a case of mistaken identity) with prostitutes whose crimes were thought to erase their humanity. She stood up for black Americans when they asked for nothing more or less than a fair shake. She named abortion a genocide fearlessly. She even took up the practice of her collaborator Peter Maurin of being willing to speak of the good points of a fascist military leader in one breath, a communist insurgent in another, a capitalist politician in another. She would always give each their due, for she saw in each the Imago Dei. Hers was a politics of that vision. She would not be cowed. Demanding respect for his person, she stood up to Cardinal Francis Spellman when he employed strike breakers against grave diggers, citing herself as matriarch of the Catholic Worker house she would not let fellow radical Fr. Daniel Berrigan celebrate Mass until he relented of his defiance of liturgical law, shut down opposition from within the movement who sought to make her program contiguous with the New Deal. She would always regret that she could not establish more order within the Catholic Worker movement, but she was but one woman. Her genius, her sanctity, these stand unmarred.
Now is not the time to re-invent the Catholic Workers. They already exist, and the politics of Imago Dei are not exclusive to the Catholic. But perhaps it is time more were inspired by the vision of Dorothy Day. She does not have to be one woman anymore. Nor one movement. The personalism, communalism, distributism, witness against war, defense of the worker, solidarity with the weak, belief in tradition and in the family, ideal of a liberty in subsidiarity and organic human connection, promotion of the dignity of poverty but the intolerability of destitution, and the sacredness of human life in all its stages, these are the indispensable lessons of Dorothy Day. With Imago Dei Politics, in Christ-centered action, we hope to spread them and to build a new society in the shell of the old.