Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century
by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph (Simon & Schuster, $30.00/£18.99)
In 2015, Pope Francis addressed a joint meeting of the United States’ Congress. He invoked the memory of famous Americans: “The complexities of history not withstanding, these men and women for all their many differences and limitations were able by hard work and self sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future.”
He named four: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.
Dorothy Day may well have been the least-known. Who was she and why is she attracting increasing attention? Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, initiated her cause for canonisation in 1997. His successors continue to support it.
This detailed, well-written biography tells her story with all its complexities and human weaknesses and of the marvellous strength and vision she was graced with in her dedication to the ‘Kingdom to come’.
Dorothy Day was born in Chicago in 1897. Her family were middle class if precariously so as her father, a sports journalist, moved from job to job. She too aspired to be a journalist.
It was a time when a thuggish and expanding capitalism waged a class war against the exploited, the poor and the vulnerable as they sought to unite in self-defence. She sided with workers, writing for a number of radical newspapers. Her political engagement went alongside a deep love of literature.
She immersed herself in the classics as well as the moderns. No surprise, then, that she was drawn to artistic circles. She was a close friend of Eugene O’Neill, who was on his way to becoming one of America’s most celebrated dramatists.
Her passionate search to love and be loved was frustrated as one abusive relationship led to further unsatisfactory ones. She did find happiness in a stable partnership and was delighted to discover that she was pregnant.
While religion played no part in her upbringing, she did feel the pull of grace, however obscurely. After a night’s drinking and partying, she regularly slipped into a church, sitting in the back row, hardly knowing why she was there.
The prospect of giving birth intensified these feelings. She resolved that her child would be baptised. She, herself, began instruction in the Catholic Faith. She was, she reported, drawn to the Church because it was, she observed, the Church of the poor.
The growing importance of religion in her life slowly but surely built a barrier between her and her partner, an atheist with a profound contempt for all things religious.
A painful separation was unavoidable. She worked for a time as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, returning to New York, with her daughter, working once more as a journalist in the radical press.
She worried about what her new-found Faith demanded of her. She prayed. And, then, in answer to her prayer she met, if not an eccentric then certainly, a highly unusual Frenchman. Peter Maurin came from a large peasant family rooted in the south of France. He had joined the De La Salle Brothers, left them, spent time in Paris before travelling to Canada and thence to the US, all the time studying and proclaiming Catholic social teaching in conversation and from the soapbox.
Day travelled extensively in the US explaining the Catholic Worker and its House of Hospitality…”
He supported himself working as a labourer. He introduced her to the Thomism of Jacques Maritain, the personalism of Emmanuel Mounier, the thought of Peguy and the social critique of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. The Catholic tradition strengthened and expanded her understanding of the disorders of capitalism.
He encouraged her to deploy her journalistic skills demonstrating its relevance. On May 1, 1933 the first edition of the Catholic Worker hit the streets. It was obvious that the witness of thinking should be matched by the witness of action.
The Gospel is clear: “Amen I tell you, inasmuch as you did to the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me.” So they opened a House of Hospitality that welcomed the destitute, the damaged, the broken and the homeless, providing food and shelter and above all, the love and acceptance that the Gospel demands. It was hard work.
It was clear that both required the ‘clarification of thought’ and regular weekly meetings were an integral part of the House’s routine. Luminaries such as theologian Frank Sheed and philosopher Jacque Maritain were willing speakers.
Day took the Sermon on the Mount seriously. She could not see how war, particularly modern war that targeted non-combatants, could be justified. Her pacifism reduced the considerable support that her work received as World War II approached.
Day travelled extensively in the US explaining the Catholic Worker and its House of Hospitality. She was an admired figure, her commitment to the poor inspired. But there were reservations. American Catholics were merging into the mainstream. They were growing in prosperity; some attained great wealth. The clerical establishment enjoyed the welcome they could get in the circuits of power.
It was tempting to suppose that if the Kingdom had not arrived, they inhabited something close enough. They did not relish the Catholic Worker’s reminders that this was not so.
The US had much blood on its conscience: how could one forget the slaughter of the innocent in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Its nuclear arsenal and military-industrial complex suggested that this conscience was dormant, if not dead. Then there was the poverty amidst the wealth exacerbated by racism, the legacy of the sin of slavery.
She distrusted institutions because they hampered autonomy and responsibility”
Day belongs to the tradition of US ‘anarchism’. We see this in her politics and in the Houses of Hospitality she inspired. She never sought to incorporate these into a movement coordinated by hierarchy with herself as leader.
Indeed, she declined a director’s position in the House of Hospitality. Her co-workers, nonetheless, referred to her behind her back as the ‘Abbess’. A witness, I suppose, to the clarity of her vision and an authority far from authoritarianism.
She distrusted institutions because they hampered autonomy and responsibility. Yet she respected the institutional Church. She may have criticised clerical leaders, but she recognised that the sacramental life and pieties that consoled and strengthened her, the teachings that inspired her, depended on a tradition of attempting to live the Gospels that only an institution could sustain.
Surely, a representative of the Kingdom for our time.
In the recent protest in the US, a Catholic Workers’ activist was struck down by the Buffalo police, sustaining brain injuries. Martin Gugino is an devout Catholic, educated at Canisius High School, a Jesuit school in Buffalo, and a passionate advocate for many causes, among them Black Lives Matter.
He would make regular trips from Buffalo to New Haven to help with tasks at Amistad, the Catholic Workers house of hospitality there that describes its mission as “follow(ing) Jesus in seeking justice for the poor”. A witness in our time, Gugino, still hospitalised, was later traduced by President Trump.
There are more than 150 Catholic Worker houses across the US and another 29 worldwide. There is a ‘Café Dorothy Day’ in Paris where young French intellectuals meet to discuss their faith and its implications.
There is no Catholic Worker house in Ireland.