Conservative Cardinal Sees Saint in Catholic Anarchist Dorothy Day
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The word "anarchist" is conspicuous by its absence in this piece.
In Hero of the Catholic Left, a Conservative Cardinal Sees a Saint
Meyer Liebowitz/The New York Times
Dorothy Day, shown in Manhattan in 1972, was a prominent Roman Catholic
social activist and antiwar campaigner.
By SHARON OTTERMAN
Published: November 26, 2012
Dorothy Day is a hero of the Catholic left, a fiery 20th-century social
activist who protested war, supported labor strikes and lived
voluntarily in poverty as she cared for the needy.
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Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Cardinal
Timothy M. Dolan of New York is president, voted this month to support
Dorothy Day's canonization.
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Michael Appleton for The New York Times
Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, washes dishes at
Maryhouse in the East Village.
But Day has found a seemingly unlikely champion in New York’s
conservative archbishop, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who has breathed new
life into an effort to declare the Brooklyn native a saint.
Cardinal Dolan has embraced her cause with striking zeal: speaking on
the anniversaries of her birth and death, distributing Dorothy Day
prayer cards to parishes and even buying roughly 100 copies of her
biography to give out last year as Christmas gifts to civic officials
including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
This month, at Cardinal Dolan’s recommendation, the United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops voted unanimously to move forward with
her canonization cause, even though, as some of the bishops noted, she
had an abortion as a young woman and at one point flirted with joining
the Communist Party.
“I am convinced she is a saint for our time,” Cardinal Dolan said at the
bishops’ meeting. She exemplifies, he said, “what’s best in Catholic
life, that ability we have to be ‘both-and’ not ‘either-or.’ ”
Cardinal Dolan is often depicted as one of the most visible symbols of
the rightward shift of America’s Catholic bishops. He has been critical
of President Obama’s policies — he accused the Obama administration of
“an unwarranted, unprecedented radical intrusion” into church life after
the administration said it would require some Catholic institutions to
provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraception — and
he has been an outspoken opponent of the administration’s support for
In recent years, he and other conservative Catholics have come to
embrace Day, finding inspiration in her decision to support the church’s
opposition to abortion, as well as her distrust of government and her
overall religious orthodoxy. As someone who was both committed to social
justice and loyal to church teachings, Day bridges wings of the
contemporary church in a way that few American Catholic figures can.
“For quite a while, the church at the grass roots in the United States
has been fairly badly splintered to a kind of peace-and-justice crowd on
the left and pro-life crowd on the right,” said John L. Allen Jr.,
senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter. “And Day is one
of those few figures who has traction in both those groups.”
Day, born in 1897 to a nonobservant Protestant family, dropped out of
the University of Illinois and moved to New York to work as a journalist
for leftist publications in the bohemian literary world of downtown
Manhattan. She converted to Catholicism in 1927, citing a spiritual
awakening that was accelerated by the joy that she felt upon the birth
of a daughter, Tamar. She said she chose Catholicism for many reasons —
partly because it was the religion of so many of the workers and poor
people whose cause she fought for as a socialist writer, and partly
because she had lived in Chicago with Catholic roommates whose faith had
deeply impressed her.
She spent decades as a passionate lay Catholic, devoting her life to the
principles of social justice, including pacifism and service to the
poor, that she felt were at the root of her religion’s teachings.
Though she was traditional in her religious practices and strong in her
love for the church, her relationship with the church hierarchy in her
lifetime was not always smooth. No Catholic bishops attended her
funeral, though Cardinal Terence Cooke blessed her body as it arrived
for the funeral Mass, according to Robert Ellsberg, the editor of her
letters and diaries.
But bishops now say Day’s life resonates with the struggles that they
are most engaged in today: the fight against abortion and their concern
about government intrusion in their affairs. In her radical rejection of
government — Day believed all states were inherently totalitarian — the
bishops see echoes of their fight with the Obama administration over
“As we struggle at this opportune moment to try to show how we are
losing our freedoms in the name of individual rights, Dorothy Day is a
very good woman to have on our side,” Cardinal Francis E. George,
archbishop of Chicago, said during a discussion of Day’s sainthood cause
at a meeting of bishops.
Cardinal Dolan is, in one sense, the natural advocate for Day, because
she lived most of her life in his archdiocese and her canonization was
proposed by one of his predecessors. But promoting Day’s sainthood cause
is also politically useful for him, and other bishops, at a time when
the hierarchy is often described by liberal Catholics as caring more
about reproductive issues than poverty, some Catholics said.
“It is an opportunity for him to demonstrate that conservative Catholics
are not uncaring, without accepting liberal principles in how you
service the poor,” said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic
League, a conservative antidefamation organization. “She was not, like
many liberal Catholics today, a welfare state enthusiast.”
But some of Day’s closest supporters are critical of how conservatives
interpret her message on the role of government.
“I think she would be appalled to have her commitment to voluntary
poverty and works of mercy and charity in their deepest sense be used as
cover for an agenda that I think she would see as part of a war against
the poor,” said Mr. Ellsberg, a former editor of The Catholic Worker
newspaper that Ms. Day founded with Peter Maurin in 1933.
To be canonized as a saint, Day will face several major hurdles,
according to the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock
Theological Center. First, the Vatican must determine that two miracles
have occurred as a result of prayers to her since her death. Second, she
needs organizational support to keep up a lobbying effort for her, and
the Catholic Worker movement she helped found is often ambivalent about
the canonization process, fearful that her message will become
oversimplified. Day herself once said, according to the church, “Don’t
trivialize me by trying to make me a saint.”
Then there is simply the matter of time — the heavily bureaucratic
canonization process can take decades. “Dolan is behind this, but it
might take more than his lifetime to get this whole thing through,”
Father Reese said. “And there’s no way of knowing if the next guy will
place it as high on his agenda.”
When Cardinal Dolan talks about why he supports Day, he tends not to
mention her arrests at protests of nuclear weapons or at a farm labor
protest with Cesar Chavez. Instead, he describes her as a sinner whose
life was transformed when she converted.
Describing for reporters at the bishops’ meeting Day’s life as a young
woman, Cardinal Dolan offered a litany of concerns: “Sexual immorality,
religious searching, pregnancy out of wedlock and an abortion.” But, he
said, after her conversion, she not only flourished, but she also became
an icon “for everything right about the dignity of the human person and
the sanctity of human life.”
But her granddaughter, Martha Hennessy, 57, who volunteers in the East
Village at Maryhouse, a Catholic Worker refuge for the poor that Day
founded, said in an interview that she found the bishops’ increasing
focus on her grandmother’s abortion uncomfortable.
“I wish we would focus on the birth of her child more than on her
abortion because that’s what really played a role in her conversion,”
said Ms. Hennessy, whose mother, Tamar, was Day’s only child. “It’s hard
for me to hear these men talking about my mother and grandmother that way.”
Her daily work continues. The Catholic Worker, a newspaper she helped
start has grown into a broad movement, and more than 200 Catholic Worker
houses of hospitality continue to serve the poor around the country.
Followers of the movement — who do not have to be Catholic — run soup
kitchens, rooming houses and clothing distributions, and continue to
hold protests, which these days are focused on torture, drone attacks
and other aspects of the war on terror.
At St. Joseph House on First Street in the East Village on a recent
Thursday, a kitchen full of volunteers rinsed down giant stockpots and
bowl-size ladles after finishing the morning’s soup line for the
neighborhood poor. Around 25 residents and volunteers live in the
graffiti-tagged building, relying on donations for their work. More
Catholic workers live two blocks away in Maryhouse, the refuge where Day
lived the final years of her life.
As the volunteers gathered for lunch at St. Joseph House — in a simple
dining hall hung with hand-drawn pictures of Day, a portrait of the Rev.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a crucifix — Carmen Trotta, who has lived
in the house for a quarter-century, said that while he believed Day’s
message of pacifism and works of mercy should be the focus of
discussions about her possible canonization, he was confident that
anyone who read her writings would understand her priorities.
“None of us really have any doubt that she was a saint,” he said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 29, 2012
An article on Tuesday about efforts to canonize Dorothy Day as a saint
in the Roman Catholic Church included several errors. In some copies, it
misidentified the Catholic diocese in which Day was born. It is the
Diocese of Brooklyn, not the Archdiocese of New York. The article and a
picture caption in some editions rendered incorrectly the name of the
place Day lived toward the end of her life. It is Maryhouse, not the
Mary House. The article also referred imprecisely to clergy members at
Day’s funeral in 1980. One bishop blessed the body but did not attend
the Mass; it is not the case that “not a single Catholic bishop came to
A version of this article appeared in print on November 27, 2012, on
page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: In Hero of the
Catholic Left, a Conservative Cardinal Sees a Saint.
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Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
in charge on this island?
Professor: Why, no one.
Skipper: No one?
Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
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