The news that America’s bishops, led by Cardinal Dolan, have unanimously approved the cause of Dorothy Day—the famous convert and Catholic Worker leader—has brought joy to her many admirers. I am among them.
Several months ago, in writing about Day’s “dynamic orthodoxy,” I put forward the reasons I thought she merited sainthood, despite the controversial aspects of her life. Now, following the bishop’s initiative, Day’s extraordinary life is again being held up as a model of sanctity—especially for those who’ve fallen, but now in the process of repairing their lives.
As Cardinal Dolan noted, Day’s early life was anything but encouraging, in that it involved sexual immorality, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and an abortion. And yet, like so many sinners who’ve returned to God—and even become saints—she was radically transformed by the Gospel, and, once Catholic, never looked back.
Her devotion to her new-found faith was all-consuming, and one of the main reasons for her proposed sainthood. “Dorothy Day was a woman of the Church: She loved being a Catholic,” said Cardinal Dolan in a sermon several years ago. “She loved the Catholic Church. I’m not talking about some nebulous, generic Church. She loved the one, holy, Catholic, apostolic, Roman Church.”
In our day, the Cardinal continued, there are many who try to separate Jesus from the Church and formulate their own brand of independent Christian spirituality. But for Day, and for all faithful Catholics, this is a “no can do” proposition, for orthodoxy holds that Christ founded a Church precisely to guide the faithful. One is inconceivable without the other.
Cardinal Dolan’s comments are instructive, for they point to the source of Dorothy Day’s greatness: her profound commitment to the riches of Catholicism led by a hierarchical, authoritative Church, not by arbitrary “free spirits.” This is often missed by those who write about Day, as if she was merely a rebel whose political anarchism (which developed into a deep Christian personalism) translated into an anti-episcopal attitude. They don’t understand that Day’s life makes no sense unless you first understand she centered it around Christ and His Church. Belief in the reality of the supernatural, the reliability of the Scriptures, the power of the sacraments, the efficacy of prayer, the binding truth of the magisterium as communicated by the pope and bishops in union with him–these are the things that motivated Day to act on behalf of the poor and for peace, not worldly ideology.
Alas, Day’s life continues to be viewed—constantly but mistakenly—through the lens of secularism. Her cause has become a political football. The New York Times, the New Yorker, and more than a few “progressive” Catholics have all tried to appropriate day for the Left (never mind that she was a thoroughgoing opponent of birth control, abortion, homosexual activity, women priests and trendy liturgies).
But some on the Right have been no less susceptible to misreading her. Ever since she began her spiritual journey, Day has been accused of being a dreamer, a political naïf, a fifth columnist and quasi-Communist fellow traveler. It’s a mysterious charge, given that Day became a Catholic to escape from the relativism and violent materialism of the Marxist-oriented Left—and, in turn, help others avoid it themselves. The earliest days of her Catholic Worker period underscore this. The Palm Beach Post of February 14 1937, reporting on one of her speeches, described her, if anything, as an active anti-Communist: “Miss Day probably is more familiar with actual communistic activities than any other woman in America today and has proved by her practical activities the power of applied Christianity to overcome the forces of anarchy and destruction.”
Two years later, the Norwalk Hour of February 10, 1939, reported that Day would be part of a series of Catholic speakers kicked off by Fulton J. Sheen (no one’s idea of a fellow-traveller), and would be speaking about the Catholic Workers. Their movement, said the Hour,
has spread rapidly throughout the United States and abroad. Being new and different and Dorothy Day herself a convert, it is in many places suspect. It is perhaps open to some criticism, but there are few, if any, who question Dorothy Day’s sincerity and her Christ-like love of the poor.
The Catholic Worker organization believes that by opposing the abuses which make Communism flourish and by showing the positive program of Catholic writers on social justice, they can reach the man in the street. . . .
Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker organization believe that the streets should not be left to the Communist. . . . Many strikes are Communist-led and the workers are misled to believe that the Communist solution offers justice for labor.
Day believes in combating Communism by using their own tactics [provided they are consistent with Catholic teaching]. Whether we agree with her in everything or not, she should bring us a message of special interest at this time, when there is so much unrest in the world.
These appreciative and measured comments reveal that many understood Dorothy Day long before her transcendent Christian witness became lost amidst the ideological shouting match of the secularized and hyper-politicized Left and Right.
If we want to rediscover the true Dorothy Day—the spiritually disciplined and devout one—we should go back and read her marvelous autobiography, The Long Loneliness, and All is Grace, the best biography of her, written by longtime colleague Jim Forest. We should acquire her diaries and letters and study them, and pour over her countless articles for the Catholic Worker. If we do, we may not always agree with her prudential judgments—and sometimes strongly disagree with them—but if we believe in the truths of Christianity, and are committed Catholics, we will be inspired by the voice of a woman, who, on all things essential, stood up for Sacred Scripture and Tradition, and served our Lord and Savior exceptionally well.