Dorothy Day, a heroine of the American left and perhaps the most famous radical in the history of the American Catholic Church, led one of those remarkable lives that encompassed all the major upheavals of the twentieth century. The twenty-first century, remarkably, finds her being touted for canonization, with a big push this week from Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York. It’s a terrific idea: a home-town saint for the Occupy Wall Street era.
Day’s initial passion was not for the sacred but for the mundane. Born in Brooklyn, in 1897, she became a member in good standing of the community of artists, writers, journalists, and agitators that centered on Greenwich Village. She was like a character in “Reds”—a radical, a pacifist, and a bohemian. She wrote for The Call and The Masses. She interviewed Leon Trotsky and hung out with John Reed. She drank and schmoozed far into the night with Eugene O’Neill—her church visits in those days were often rest stops at St. Joseph’s, on Sixth Avenue, which conveniently held a 5 A.M. mass.
But, in 1927, following the birth of her daughter—the father was an anarchist botanist whom Day loved but never
married—she converted to Catholicism. And, once she was baptized into what she called “the church of immigrants, the church of the poor,” her radicalism and pacifism only deepened. In 1933, with Peter Maurin, she started The Catholic Worker, a penny-a-copy paper that quickly reached a circulation of a hundred thousand. (It is still being published, and it still sells for one cent.) A few months later, she and Maurin opened the first “house of hospitality” to feed and shelter the poor and the homeless. Today, there are more than two hundred hospitality houses operated by what became the Catholic Worker movement. When Day died, thirty-two years ago yesterday, it was in one of them, Maryhouse, in the East Village.
From almost the beginning to almost the end, Day led a life of civil disobedience as well as of social service. She was first jailed in 1917,
after demonstrating for women’s suffrage outside the White House. She protested against both world wars, fascism, anti-Semitism, racism, the Vietnam War, and nuclear weapons. Her last arrest came while she walked a picket line with César Chávez. She was in jail for ten days—at the age of seventy-six.
Day certainly isn’t like the saints I learned about in Catholic school in New York, but she is a fine exemplar of the Church’s commitment to social justice. Yet Cardinal Dolan seems to be focussed on another aspect of Day’s life. When she was twenty-two, she became pregnant and had an abortion. According to the Times
, it was her subsequent
“decision to support the church’s opposition to abortion as well as her distrust of government and her overall religious orthodoxy” that won her Dolan’s support. In fact, Cardinal John J. O’Connor had launched the canonization effort back in 2000, and he, too, noted that Day was a model “especially for women who have had or are considering abortions.” Day, later in life, preferred not to discuss her abortion, which she deeply regretted, but she did not want young women to think that it was acceptable to do what she had done. And although she prayed for F.D.R., it’s true that she wasn’t a fan of big government. Of course, not too many anarcho-syndicalists are.
It will be interesting to see how the Vatican proceeds on Day’s case. But her chances look iffy when you consider the position of the Church hierarchy toward the Leadership Conference of Women
Religious, the organization that represents most of the Catholic nuns in the United States. Those women also oppose abortion and work for the poor, but earlier this year the Vatican announced that they had erred by advocating “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” and it dispatched Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, of Seattle, to bring the sisters back into line.
Sister Simone Campbell, of nuns-on-the-bus fame, told the Times
, “I would imagine that it was our health-care letter that made them mad.” Could be. The nuns had come out in support of Obamacare—a particular bugaboo of Cardinal Dolan’s. The Archdiocese of New York has joined a lawsuit against the Administration over
the requirement that most employers provide birth-control coverage as part of their employee health plans.
Perhaps Dolan is hoping that Day can be reintroduced to the faithful as an anti-abortion activist. With regard to Obamacare, though, it’s impossible to say whose side she would be on. Last summer, in a church in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sister Simone, according to the Washington Post
, said that her group’s intent was to reclaim the full spectrum of life issues to include hunger, homelessness, racism, immigration, capital punishment, war, and more. “I am pro life, all of life,” she said. That sounds like Day, too.
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.