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Christians, it has been said, “worry about what people are doing in bed much more than making sure everybody has a bed to begin with.” That pithy statement of conventional wisdom can be usefully tested against the life and writings of Dorothy Day. Through the Catholic Worker houses she founded, Day provided beds for innumerable desperate and destitute people. But she also recognized that, once you had given them beds, you had to worry about what they did in them. In a 1971 letter to Frs. Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Day lamented the moral waywardness she was witnessing in Catholic Worker communities:

I have seen such disastrous consequences, over my long lifetime, such despair, resulting in suicide, such human misery that I cannot help but deplore the breakdown of sexual morality. After all it involves life itself.

Day’s service of the poor, as well as her activism against war, exploitation, and inequality, were in defense of human life. And sexual immorality, she thought, was a direct attack on life’s source. Behind Day’s remarks on sex—“When it comes to divorce, birth control, abortion . . . The teaching of Christ, the Word, must be upheld”—was her sense that, although one might reasonably devote more time and energy to making sure people had beds, what they did in bed could be even more fundamental to human happiness and human misery.

Roger Scruton has written, “Sex is either consecration or desecration, with no neutral territory in between.” Day’s philosophy was similar:

Man and woman are co-creators. In this lies their great dignity. Sex is in its pleasure, its joy, its “well being”—the image throughout the Old Testament of the beatific vision—the nearest we come to God. Sex is a gigantic force in our lives and unless controlled becomes unbridled lust under which woman is victim and suffers most of all. When man takes to himself the right to use sex as pleasure alone, cutting it away from its creative aspect, by artificial birth control, by perverse practices, he is denying “the absolute supremacy of the Creative Deity.”

When mishandled, sex is a rejection of God, and therefore of one’s own dignity.

It was hard to get thrown out of the Catholic Worker house over which Day presided—a house which welcomed the helpless, the lost, the mentally ill, the addicted, and the simply obnoxious—but Day did once expel some young bohemians after they used the printing equipment for an obscene magazine entitled “F*** You.” The use of the word shocked her: It showed contempt, she wrote in her diary, “for the very sources of life itself.” It was a “breath of evil,” a blasphemous nihilism which maimed “the creativity within them.” To profane the creativity of sexual desire, in word or in deed, was a kind of self-harm.

In one letter she surmised: “The kids are almost hysterically afraid underneath and want to eat, drink, and be merry because they feel death is so close.” But their attempted revolution set them “against the body and its needs, its natural functions of childbearing. It can only be a hatred of sex that leads them to talk as they do and be so explicit about the sex function and the sex organs as instruments of pleasure. . . . This is not reverence for life, this certainly is not natural love for family, for husband and wife, for child.”

The “reverence for life” which inspired Day’s activism also meant reverence for life’s natural origin—a permanent marriage of man and woman, open to new life. In a startling letter to her co-campaigner Jim Forest, who had left his wife for another woman, Day told him that if he stayed in the new relationship he would be “a hollow man,” that he was “denying life” by abandoning his spouse. She told Forest (with whom she remained on good terms; he later wrote an admiring biography of her) that there was no point in being a pacifist if his sex life was disordered:

Your letters emphasise all the good the CPF [Catholic Peace Fellowship] is doing, but I assure you that all that means nothing. The dishonesty, the deceit involved negates the good. . . . If you gave all you had to the poor and delivered your body to be burned, it is all nothing but sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal, if you have not charity, the love of God which you have turned from to have the love of women.

The forcefulness of Day’s words is both characteristic and uncharacteristic of her. True, her hatred of war was similarly unflinching. But Day’s position on war was more contingent than it often looks. In one typical statement from a 1936 editorial, she writes: “The Catholic Worker does not condemn any and all war, but believes the conditions necessary for a ‘just war’ will not be fulfilled today.” Her sexual conservatism, by contrast, has no hint of being historically changeable.

Moreover, Day’s opposition to war was based on its observable effects: the death and destruction it caused. Her views on sexual morality, by contrast, could not be reversed by any amount of experience: However an immoral act felt, it was a blasphemy against the Creator. She told Jim Forest to leave his new relationship even though it was, Day said, “a beautiful relationship . . . a once-in-a-lifetime relationship.” A sad memory lies in those words, as Day implies: “Don’t think I don’t feel for you, and know the agony you are going through.” Many years before, she had had to choose the love of God over her love for Forster Batterham, who refused to accept either Day’s Catholic conversion or the institution of marriage. Her break with him was the beginning of her long and joyful life of serving the poor; yet it was many years, she wrote in her memoir, The Long Loneliness, “before I awakened without that longing for a face pressed against my breast, an arm about my shoulder.”

In the same book, Day recalls that for much of her early life, she felt a conflict between the sensual and the spiritual. At fifteen, she decided that the love of God was purely spiritual, and that she must shut out any “craving” for “sensual love or the thrill that comes with the meeting of lips.” When she gave up belief in God, she abandoned that resolution, with an enthusiasm she would later bitterly regret.

However, it was her relationship with Forster Batterham that gave her a daughter. And through this she realized that the spiritual and sensual might be reconciled, that it was possible

to love God in His works, in the beauty of His creation which was crowned for me by the birth of my child. Forster had made the physical world come alive for me and had awakened in my heart a flood of gratitude. . . . The very sexual act itself was used again and again in Scripture as a figure of the beatific vision. It was not because I was tired of sex, satiated, disillusioned, that I turned to God. Radical friends used to insinuate this. It was because through a whole love, both physical and spiritual, I came to know God.

If one wanted a proof of the superiority of divine love to human, Dorothy Day’s letters would be a useful text. The letters of passionate and physical devotion to Forster disappear suddenly; they are followed not by mystical ecstasy but by the everyday details of her vocation of love—food deliveries, heating bills, eviction notices. It was only when the sexual revolution arrived that Day’s writings began to return frequently to the question of desire.

Day guessed that sexual desire had gotten out of proportion because industrialism deprived workers of physical activity, while modern civilization deprived them of tenderness from family and friends. In modern man, sexuality stirred up “some force in him, mysterious, deep, profound. He wishes to be taken possession of. . . . Second best is to be possessed, even for the moment of orgasm, by some force greater than himself. Creative force, life force.”

But the life force revealed in sex was also found in the natural world, or in “the beauty of a face, a character, or even at the pure masculinity of a friend or acquaintance, the exchange of a glance, a touch.” Day admired two women, involved with the Catholic Worker, who “loved life, made you feel their terrible vitality, their sexuality.” Sexuality was something encompassing the whole personality, something more enduring than physical desire. She remembered, as a small girl, passing a note to a boy saying “I love you,” and a teacher thinking something “wicked” was going on. “I had merely thought he was beautiful.”

Adults, too, might love another’s femininity or masculinity without wanting to possess it. In an essay on chastity, Day retold Maxim Gorky’s story “Twenty-Six Men and a Girl,” about a group of bakers whose lives are illuminated by a beautiful girl living in the shop above.

To them she was the image of purity, and the thought of “making” her never crossed their minds. They loved her as the only spot of beauty in their laborious lives, and they enjoyed seeing her radiant and unclouded face looking in on them every now and then as they toiled. But there came a day when an outsider, persisting in his advances to her, made the grade, so to speak, and the image faded, and the men sank back into the dullness and ugliness of their daily lives, unvisited any longer by the vision of chastity.

Sexual desire, which responds to beauty, might also ruin it. And because so much was at stake, Day thought the recommendation of sexual immorality to the poor—the promotion of birth control and abortion—was an act of contempt toward those who should be treated as Christ himself.

Was this the harsh and unforgiving idealism of someone who knows nothing about life’s complexities? Hardly. A former nurse, Day had herself carried one pregnancy to term, and had another aborted. She had been friends with Margaret Sanger, and in her twenties nearly took a job with the newly founded Birth Control League. Her heart was torn by the agonies of big families, especially of “mothers weighed down with children at their skirts, in their arms, in their wombs, and the children ailing, rickety, toothless.” After she became Catholic, Day was well aware of the powerful lobby for a reversal of church teaching on birth control: She thanked God for “Pope Paul who upholds respect for life, an ideal so lofty, so high, so important even when it seems he has the whole Catholic world against him.”

In 1959, Day sensed the beginnings of the sexual revolution. During one of her brief jail terms—this one for civil disobedience in protest against nuclear war—she was dismayed by the sexual freedom of her fellow prisoners. “Evil is very close,” she wrote. “The devil likes to simulate the good. He likes to offer what God truly offers”—sexual perversion instead of love in harmony with God’s creative power. During those days, she felt herself “assaulted by memories of my own sex life, my life with Forster, of the sins of my past life.” And she realized “that this was in the air.” If she, at sixty-one, had to fend off sexual temptation, “how much more so in these young ones, whose flesh must cry out fiercely for consummation and fruition.” Day recognized that longing from her own youth—something all the more seductive because “satisfied flesh, in youth, satisfies conscience”—and also knew how easily it could end in misery and mental illness.

Day once planned to title a section of her autobiography “The Unwilling Celibate.” She thought of herself as part of a fraternity whose other members were divorced, or teenagers, or homosexual, or who just ended up single. Life without sex was, she said, using the terms of Catholic devotion, part of the Sorrowful Mysteries, which stand between the Joyful and the Glorious. “Most people are always trying, by divorce, separation, etc, to run back to the joyful, and they never get through to the glorious.” And in God’s glory, celibacy turned out to be the deepest fulfillment of sexuality. “To offer the suffering of celibacy, temporary or permanent, to the Lord is to make use, in the best possible way, of man’s greatest joy.”

Sexuality glorifies God in marriage and in celibacy; but its true fulfillment is in eternal life. “The state of ‘in-love-ness,’” Day wrote, “is a preliminary state to the beatific vision, which is indeed a consummation of all we desire.” And then she quoted St. Augustine, another convert with a messy past: “What have I on earth but Thee, and what do I desire in Heaven beside Thee?”

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.