Although she is famous for saying “Don’t call me a saint,” many consider Dorothy Day the kind of saint that sinners like us can relate to.
Dorothy Day was born in New York City in 1897 and died there in 1980, having lived the kind of full and amazing life that most of us could only dream of. She accomplished more in her life than almost anyone else in the 20th Century, comparable only to Mother Teresa herself (who, by the way, was an admirer of Dorothy Day, too!). But very much unlike Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day was a woman with a past. I think that’s why so many of us can relate to her in a way that we can’t with Mother Teresa. Everyone admires Mother Teresa, including non-Catholics and even atheists, but we all know that we could never reach her heights. But with Dorothy, it’s different. She makes us feel like we could do what she did, even with our own pasts.
Before she became a Catholic in 1927, she had been a Suffragette, a writer, a common-law wife, a single mother, an anarchist, friend of Eugene O’Neill, anti-war protester (for which she spent time in jail), and yes, truth be told, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. No boring layabout, she.
Mind you, that was before she became a Catholic. Dorothy Day was, of course, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement (along with Peter Maurin), which sounds eerily similar to the movement in which she first started out, but was, in fact, a rejection of that anti-Christ movement. But like many young, well-intentioned intellectuals in Depression-era New York, she was attracted to the social justice platforms of the Communist Party. But later she came to realize that Marx’s philosophy amounted to a different kind of exploitation of the worker. She rejected Marx’s rejection of Christianity and his calls for violent revolution, becoming completely committed to peaceful, non-violent activism, although she always remained an anarchist. (She later became an ardent supporter of Distributism.) She started a newspaper called, of course, The Catholic Worker, which sold for one penny and – believe it or not – still sells for one penny today.
Today there are more than 185 Catholic Worker communities around the world whose motto remains:
We are committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and foresaken. Catholic Workers continue to protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.
I’ve been thinking so much about her lately because of the horrible violence in Gaza, and I’ve been wondering what she would say. I needn’t have wondered long. I found the website of the Washington, DC Catholic Worker Movement, and I should have guessed that they’d be right on top of it. Their website screams in capital letters: GAZA EMERGENCY, STOP THE KILLING NOW! Ol’ Dorothy would be proud.
But it would be a mistake to consider her a liberal with the connotation that word carries today. We have all, even Catholics, become brainwashed into thinking that there are only two political points of view, liberal and conservative, and that we must fit ourselves neatly into one category or the other. But that is not correct – and that is definitely not Catholic. Before the 1970s, most Catholics were loyal Democrats, since the Catholic Church teaches us to care for the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized and the victim. In other words, we have not been infected with Calvinism, which teaches that Jesus came so that we could have financial blessings (in contradiction to the Sermon on the Mount). By that vision, the poor are obviously not beloved of God and have obviously done something to deserve their fate. But that is not what Jesus taught. Dorothy herself wrote that she became attracted to the Catholic Church precisely because it was “the Church of the poor and the immigrant.” But when the Democrat party embraced the Culture of Death, Catholics headed to the Right. But only for the “life issues,” not for the vulture capitalism. Dorothy herself never belonged to a political party (other than the Communist Party, but we already talked about that!).
And there is no doubt that Dorothy Day was opposed to abortion, and not only because that’s the Church’s position. She learned the hard way that abortion is evil because before she eventually had her daughter, she had an abortion herself. Until the day she died, she always described the abortion as “the great tragedy of my life.” Unfortunately, people who are opposed to war, violence, racism, exploitation of the poor, the greed of the rich, capitalistic medicine, and other social evils are considered liberals or leftists, and it is assumed that they must be pro-abortion. But Christians can never consider abortion a form of social justice because the unborn child is the most vulnerable and deserving of civil rights. After all, if you don’t have the right to life, all other civil rights are moot. Abortion isn’t liberal, it’s evil, and Dorothy never failed to speak out against it.
Dorothy also had mixed feelings about Vatican II. She liked the emphasis on “the preferential option for the poor,” but she lamented the changes in the liturgy. So the idea that Catholics who fight for social justice are also big fans of the “clown Mass” is completely erroneous, too. Dorothy Day was a traditionalist, especially when it came to the liturgy. And that’s why Dorothy Day is my role model; because she appreciated tradition but also the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. The two are actually supposed to go together! Too many Traditional Catholics today care only for the Latin Mass, no meat on Fridays, and women wearing veils, but have forgotten about those works of mercy. But those works of mercy are as Catholic as the Latin Mass.
Dorothy Day is a saint for us sinners because she herself had made the big mistakes. She also graduated from the school of hard knocks. She even attempted suicide. Anything we could have done, she’s already been there and done that. But she pulled herself together, found the Catholic faith, and the rest is, as they say, history. Dorothy Day still lives on in the Catholic Workers around the world, in her several autobiographies (she was a writer, after all!), and even in the movie made about her life. The movie is called Entertaining Angels from 1996, and the title is apropos for her. It comes from the book of Hebrews 13:1-2:
Let brotherly love continue. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.