The remarkable life of Dorothy Day

Last November, while promoting the canonization cause of Dorothy Day, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan said, “I am convinced she is a saint for our time.” 

His fellow U.S. bishops voted unanimously to move forward with the cause. Day has carried the title “Servant of God,” a designation of the Vatican, since March 2000, when Rome declared that it had no objection to her cause moving forward. 

The progress of her cause is not surprising.  

Even during her lifetime (1897-1980), the founder of the Catholic Worker movement was often introduced as “a living saint.” On one such occasion, she replied: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” On another she simply said: “Don’t trivialize me.” 

Both lines found their way into many media accounts of the bishops’ vote, and Catholic commentators were eager to note the apparent irony: the final trivialization of Day, by means she herself had practically prophesied. 

Yet Dorothy Day would surely raise a caution here and warn us not to trivialize sainthood or dismiss it so easily.  

She, after all, kept a lively devotion to the saints. She wrote a biography of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, who played a key role in Day’s conversion. She encouraged children to dress up as saints for Halloween, and she celebrated the night with gusto as “Hallowed Evening,” the eve of the feast of All Saints.  

She got over her fear of public speaking by saying a prayer to the Blessed Virgin whenever she approached a microphone.  

And she believed that everyone, without exception, is called by God to be a saint. 

So, it wasn’t sainthood itself that she rejected.  

What Dorothy Day feared, no doubt, was the tendency we have to sanitize saints’ lives — to edit out the parts that make us uncomfortable, and to render fearsome prophets as simpering figures in plaster or on holy cards.  

And with Day, the temptation can be great.

Ordinary woman

She is revered for her work among the poor. In May 1933, she and Peter Maurin founded The Catholic Worker, first a newspaper and then a loosely knit organization, which established “Houses of Hospitality” where the poor could find a meal and the homeless a coat to keep warm.  

These are conventional works of mercy, common among the canonized. 

But Day’s life did not begin with the founding of a pious organization. In fact, in the decades before her conversion, she was a dedicated communist, opposed in principle to the Catholic Church. She kept bad company and had love affairs and sexual liaisons. She wrote a racy novel, which embarrassed her for the rest of her life. She married and divorced.  

She conceived a child and procured an abortion. She lived with a man out of wedlock and conceived another child. 

The temptation, for some people, would be to minimize this part of the story and portray her as a superhuman, semi-angelic oracle ladling out soup along with inoffensive platitudes. 

The temptation would be to trivialize her in this way and dismiss her easily as someone “special” and “extraordinary” and different from you and me. If Day were to become just another of those sanitized saints, she would never challenge anyone or make anyone uncomfortable. 

And that is precisely the sort of “sanctity” she resists, even decades after her death. 

There are some who would hold her up as an icon of left-leaning politics. Yet she consistently rejected collectivist solutions to social problems.  

She opposed Social Security, arguing in 1945 that state intervention served only to limit personal responsibility and freedom.  

She abhorred racism in all its forms. Yet she saw that the most insidious forms it took were often disguised as liberal humanitarianism. She put it starkly in a 1972 open letter to Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J.: “birth control and abortion are genocide,” aimed at weakening America’s black and Hispanic people. 

Day was an absolute pacifist, firmly opposed even to U.S. entry into World War II. Yet her pacifism extended not only to distant antagonists, but even to those who disagreed with her personally and threatened to dissolve the movement she had labored many years to establish. A New York priest sent to investigate her asked, “What would you do if the cardinal told you to shut down the Catholic Worker?” 

She replied, without a trace of irony, “If our dear, sweet cardinal, who is the vicar of Christ in New York City, told me to shut down the Catholic Worker, I would close it down immediately.”

Endless love

Sainthood demands a high degree of love for others and detachment from the things of this world — even the noblest things. Day also believed that the call to such holiness was universal, though that didn’t make sanctity any easier. She once described St. Thérèse, usually portrayed as the sweet “Little Flower,” as a saint who should inspire “dread.” 

Day herself is perhaps the same sort of saint, leaving no one at ease, least of all those who agreed with her causes. For she kept a radical and uncompromising consistency, a total commitment, and it was all about Jesus Christ, not Dorothy Day. She loved the poor and she loved the Church because they were Christ to her. It was that simple. 

Her literary executor and editor, Robert Ellsberg, observed: “It was not what Dorothy Day wrote that was extraordinary, nor even what she believed, but the fact that there was absolutely no distinction between what she believed, what she wrote, and the manner in which she lived.” 

There can be no doubt about her fidelity to the Church. She told the Harvard psychologist Robert Coles: “I have not wanted to challenge the Church, not on any of its doctrinal positions. I try to be loyal to the Church — to its teachings, to its ideal. I love the Church with all my heart and soul. I have never wanted to challenge the Church, only be part of it, obey it and in return receive its mercy and love, the mercy and love of Jesus.” 

Her piety, too, was conventional and even traditional. She was devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the holy angels. She loved the Mass and, late in life, confessed that she still preferred the old rites in Latin. But she loved it however it came to her.  

Once she attended a Mass celebrated by a celebrity priest who flouted the Church’s norms and celebrated using a coffee mug as a chalice. Day sat quietly through the Mass and said nothing, but afterward took the cup outside and reverently buried it, so that it could never return to ordinary use after holding the Blood of Christ.

Under scrutiny

As part of the process of canonization, Day’s writings will undergo close scrutiny by theologians. But they have already been examined minutely, over many years, and the common objections are available to anyone with access to a search engine. 

These are unlikely, however, to slow her cause. She was, after all, conventionally orthodox and obedient. If she differed with the hierarchy it was often because she saw, more clearly than some clergy did, the radical implications of the social doctrine of the popes in the modern era. 

Because of her social concerns and because she was so prolific in her writing, her case is much like that of the 19th-century Italian philosopher Antonio Rosmini. His works were long listed on the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books. Forty of his propositions were condemned outright by Pope Leo XIII in 1887. Nevertheless, he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.

No easy dismissal

The saints are not divinely inspired as the authors of Sacred Scripture were; nor do they teach infallibly as the popes do. 

The saints who are canonized are those who lived heroic virtue to the end of their lives, and so may be proposed as models and intercessors to the Christian faithful. 

Dorothy Day will be tested as an intercessor now, as many Catholics go to her seeking the miracle required for her beatification. Model may be the more difficult role.  

Though she founded a movement, she followed a solitary way that involved a radical and voluntary withdrawal from the market economy and its institutions. She opposed all war, seeing it as incompatible with Catholic universality and the witness of Christ’s own passion. She was suspicious of governmental solutions to social problems and encouraged people not to vote in elections.  

Her way of life seems incompatible with many of the professions in the American mainstream: the military, of course, but also banking, advertising, marketing and insurance (to name just a few). 

To propose Dorothy Day as a model is not a trivial matter. She is unsettling — and not easily dismissed. 

The story goes that a prelate once complained aloud about Day and her newspaper. One of his aides asked him why he didn’t just shut her down. He supposedly replied: “Because I’m afraid she’s a saint.” 

Maybe everyone should be so afraid. 

Mike Aquilina is author of The Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church (forthcoming from Midwest Theological Forum) and co-editor of the published writings of Dorothy Day’s spiritual director, Father John Hugo. James K. Hanna is in the graduate program in theology at Duquesne University; he is a longtime volunteer at Pittsburgh’s St. Joseph House of Hospitality.