When Dorothy Day turned 75 in 1972, America devoted an entire issue (11/11/72) to her and to the Catholic Worker movement that she had inspired for 40 years. Acknowledging Day’s singular contribution to church and society, the editors commented: “By now, if one had to choose a single individual to symbolize the best in the aspiration and action of the American Catholic community during the last forty years, that one person would certainly be Dorothy Day.” Indeed, since May Day 1933, when Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin co-founded the Catholic Worker movement and newspaper in New York City, Day’s life of voluntary poverty, direct action on behalf of the worker and the poor and absolute nonviolence and pacifism has been a constant inspiration for Christians of all denominations, and even for non-Christians. Without dismissing the importance of other leaders in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, it is fair to say that Dorothy Day remains, at the dawn of the new millennium, the radical conscience of American Catholicism.
Popular interest in Dorothy Day has grown since her death in 1980. Regard for her only increased when the Vatican announced on March 16, 2000, that it had given approval to start the process by which she might be canonized a saint. Scholars, too, have taken an interest in Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. In addition to her own writings (eight books and several hundred articles), there are numerous critical studies of her life and of the movement and newspaper she founded. In Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (1987), the Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles, M.D., offers a written transcription of Day’s thinking from over 50 hours of taped conversations when she was in her 70’s. The volume is valuable not only for Coles’s own perspectives on Day, but also for the elder Day’s view many years later of events and persons she described in her 1952 autobiography, The Long Loneliness. In Searching for Christ: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day (1994), Brigid O’Shea Merriman presents selected religious influences in the development of her spiritual life. Merriman points out that monasticism, great literature, the 20th-century retreat movement and favorite saints and friends all had a crucial impact on Day’s life and work. June O’Connor provides a feminist’s view of Day in The Moral Vision of Dorothy Day: A Feminist Perspective (1991), and Mel Piehl examines the history and radical Catholicism of Day and of the Catholic Worker movement in Breaking Bread: The Origins of Catholic Radicalism in America (1982).
These studies and Day’s own writings point to a conspicuous entwined thread in the tapestry of Day’s life: a unique combination of social activism and deep religious feeling. The dual passion of social justice and intimacy with God was present in her life from early childhood.
Early Years and Young Womanhood
Dorothy Day was born in 1897 in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., the third child of Christian parents who did not practice their faith. In 1904 the family moved to California. At the age of eight, while playing with her sister Della in the attic of a rented house in Berkeley, Day had an experience that marked the start of her religious consciousness. “I remember we were in the attic,” Day writes. “I was sitting behind a table, pretending I was the teacher, reading aloud from a Bible that I had found. Slowly, as I read, a new personality impressed itself on me. I was being introduced to someone and I knew almost immediately that I was discovering God.” The most religious of the seven-member family (one sister and three brothers), Day typically went to church by herself. She was baptized into her mother’s Episcopalian faith at the age of 12.
After a religiously involved childhood, however, she kept God at arm’s length. The teen-age Day, an inveterate reader, turned her attention away from religion to the social writings of anarchists and revolutionaries like Peter Kropotkin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and the socially conscious novels of Charles Dickens, Jack London and Upton Sinclair. Living in Chicago at this time, the young Day began to experience firsthand the lives of the working poor by pushing her baby brother John in his carriage through the very West Side streets and tenements described in Sinclair’s The Jungle. “The sight of poverty was in conflict with religion,” Day observed. “Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?” Early in her life she grasped the need for structural change in the social order.
In college, Day ended her childhood involvement with religion and joined the Socialist Party. “I felt that religion was something that I must ruthlessly cut out of my life.... For me Christ no longer walked the streets of this world. He was two thousand years dead and new prophets had risen to take his place.” The new prophets she had in mind were the men and women who were actively working to change a social order plagued by unemployment and poverty in Depression America: revolutionaries like Eugene Debs, the Haymarket martyrs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Industrial Workers of the World (or “Wobblies”) and “those unknown women in New England who led the first strike to liberate women and children from the cotton mills.”
By the time the 18-year-old leftist had returned from the University of Illinois at Urbana to the city of her birth, Day had consciously “cut out” religion from her life. Although her father was opposed to women working outside the home, Day joined the profession of her father and three brothers and became a journalist. In New York City she wrote for the socialist publications The Call and The Masses and enjoyed the bohemian night life of Greenwich Village.
In 1917 Day journeyed to Washington, D.C., with a group of women to picket the White House with the suffragists. Enduring her first arrest for civil disobedience, she survived the indignities of Occoquan prison in Virginia and a 10-day hunger strike. Though as a radical and lifelong anarchist she never voted, and so was not a suffragist herself, Day joined the demonstration “to uphold the rights of political prisoners.”
With the suppression of The Masses by the government in 1917, Day began work as a nurses’ aid during World War I. After an obsessive first love affair with a womanizing newspaperman, Lionel Moise, and the abortion of their child, Day married a literary promoter, Barkeley Tobey, “on the rebound.” The abusive Moise was likely a stand-in for Day’s emotionally distant father, and the abortion was Day’s attempt to hold on to him at any cost. When she and Tobey returned to New York from a yearlong honeymoon trip to Europe, Day—aware that she did not love him—left him and went to Chicago to pursue her ill-fated romance with Moise for a few more months.
The mature love of Day’s life was Forster Batterham, a biologist and anarchist with whom Day entered into a common-law marriage in 1924 after her divorce from Tobey. On Staten Island, where they shared life in an ocean cottage, Batterham opened up the beauties of nature to Day. He also fathered their child, Tamar Teresa, who was born in March 1926. Unlike many people, including many saints who experience a conversion to God out of a sense of guilt or sorrow, Day turned to God in joy. In her autobiography, she writes that the joy she experienced during this time in her life through the beauty of nature, the love of a man and the birth of her child led her to God. “No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.... It was because through a whole love, both physical and spiritual, I came to know God.” During these happy years Day began to pray daily and to attend Mass on Sundays. Her decision to have Tamar baptized, and her own entrance into the Catholic Church in December 1927, led to the demise of her relationship with Batterham, a confirmed atheist.
A Catholic Radical
The next five years of Day’s life represent a transition and preparation for the work she would begin with Peter Maurin at the end of 1932. During this time she resumed her involvement with the social movements that so engaged her early years. On her own as a single mother, Day took jobs in New York, Hollywood and Mexico, all the while living with the poor. Returning to New York from Mexico in 1930, Day worked at various jobs, including free-lance writing. On assignment in Washington, D.C., in December 1932 for the Catholic publications Commonweal and America, Day ached to join the Communist-organized Hunger March and Farmer’s Convention, not just to report on them. The dual passion of her life, social concern and deep love for God, could not, it seemed, be reconciled through Catholicism. Only the Communists and Socialists, atheists though they were, were doing anything about the plight of the poor.
After completing her writing assignments, Day went to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at The Catholic University of America and implored God that some way might open up for her to use what talents she possessed for her fellow workers and for the poor. Returning to her New York apartment, she was greeted by Peter Maurin, a wandering and educated French peasant, who had learned about her from the editor of Commonweal. Day always believed that Maurin had come to her in the last month of 1932 as an answer to her anguished prayer.
Maurin immediately proceeded to indoctrinate Day in Roman Catholic social teaching, the writings of the popes and theologians and the teachings of the church councils. He also shared with her his ideas for a radical form of Catholic life based on a“three-point program”: (1) houses of hospitality where the works of mercy could be practiced daily, (2) roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought, and (3) farming communes, where workers and scholars would live and work together on the land away from the dehumanizing conditions in industrialized urban America. This three-point program, along with the publication of a newspaper that would instruct readers in Roman Catholic social thought, provided Day with a model for radical Christian living and direct action. A synthesis of social justice and intimacy with God from within Catholicism now seemed possible.
In the early months of 1933, Day began to put Maurin’s program into action. First she produced a newspaper, a unique example of radical advocacy journalism that she guided as editor in chief for the next 47 years of her life. The first edition of The Catholic Worker was distributed in Union Square, right alongside the Communist Daily Worker, on May 1, 1933. This date also marks the beginning of the Catholic Worker movement. Almost immediately Day and the writers of the newspaper began to take in the hungry and homeless who gathered around her New York Bowery district apartment, where the newspaper was produced. By 1934 Day and the Catholic Workers were living lives of voluntary poverty while serving hot soup and coffee daily to several hundred hungry and unemployed men and women. Houses of hospitality soon opened in cities across the United States, welcoming guests and serving the needy. Articles in The Catholic Worker reported on the eviction of the unemployed from their dwellings, worker strikes and pickets, the Catholic Church’s support for unions, the lynching of blacks in the South, child labor, the deplorable conditions for women working in factories and the wars in Ethiopia, China and Spain.
Day’s Absolute Nonviolence and Pacifism
When Day declared in 1936 that she and The Catholic Worker were “pacifist” in response to the Spanish Civil War, she drew opposition both from church leaders and from Catholics who previously had been attracted to her unique brand of socially conscious Catholicism. Catholics worldwide overwhelmingly supported General Franco, a Catholic, against the Loyalists in Spain. Day saw evil on both sides. She maintained her and The Catholic Worker’s pacifism throughout the wars of the twentieth century. Her pacifist stand during World War II resulted in a steep drop in subscriptions to The Catholic Worker. But Day would not be moved from the unshakable conviction that the followers of Christ could not kill their brothers and sisters. Her uncompromising stand on pacifism (“anti-warism”) and absolute nonviolence (opposition toanyuse of force) in all cases resonates with the dominant position of Christians in the first three centuries of Christianity and with the beliefs of Christian groups like the Quakers and the Mennonites. It also represents a modern Catholic corollary to the absolute nonviolence and pacifism of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Day’s stand on nonviolence and pacifism is striking in its Roman Catholic context. When Day came into the Catholic Church in 1927, she entered a church in thrall to the just war theory, the view that wars are justified when certain moral conditions are met. From the time of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century Catholic Christians, with rare exception, supported the war policies of their nation. Catholics in the United States were no exception. They obediently followed the patriotic encouragement by the United States bishops to fight in all of America’s wars.
Remarkably, Day followed neither the just war teaching of her church nor the Marxist view of her preconversion years, according to which she expected and supported the inevitable violent overthrow of the capitalist owners of industry. If not the church or her leftist past, what was the source of Day’s uncompromising stand? Her position on absolute nonviolence and pacifism was grounded in her personal relationship with Jesus. “It is better to obey God than men,” Day asserted, quoting St. Peter (Acts 5:29). The origin and strength of Day’s deep conviction about nonviolence ultimately came from her spirituality—that is, from her own lived experience of Jesus Christ. As she often wrote, “We believe that Christ went beyond natural ethics and the Old Dispensation in this matter of force and war and taught nonviolence as a way of life.”
When thousands of Roman Catholics demonstrated against the war in Vietnam in the 1960’s and 70’s, they stood on the shoulders of Dorothy Day, who had begun using nonviolent tactics in the 1930’s. Out of her leftist past, Day brought into modern Catholicism such tactics of nonviolent resistance and direct action as the strike, the picket, the boycott, the nonpayment of federal taxes that support war, refusal to register for the draft, civil disobedience and giving witness to Christ’s commands from jail (the last of Day’s six or seven jail terms was her 1973 arrest and incarceration in Lamont, Calif., with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers). Her mature adult Roman Catholic spirituality was shaped in important ways, then, by the convictions and commitments of her early years as a leftist radical.
Day as Woman
Day’s strong sense of herself as a woman and mother poses the question of her relation to contemporary feminist concerns. She never became a public advocate of the women’s movements of the 20th century.
Day’s language about women often conformed to the conventional patriarchal outlook of early 20th-century America, which assumed that women are different from and inferior to men. “Men are spirit, women are matter,” she would say, echoing Peter Maurin. And, indeed, her relationship to Maurin in the leadership of the Catholic Worker movement typified this gender stereotype: he with the ideas, she doing the hard work to make them a reality.
Day’s actions and her life work, however, suggest a movement beyond this standard gender ideology. If she felt the need all her life to assume the cultural definitions of gender in society and in the church, she always found ways not to be restrained by them. She was, after all, a professional woman, a journalist and editor, author, single working mother and grandmother, social critic and dissenter, and the leader of a religious movement in a male-led church. The absolute stand on nonviolence and pacifism at the Catholic Worker was Day’s idea, not Maurin’s, and she was unrestrained in confronting members of the Catholic hierarchy, including her own archbishop, Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, with their uncritical patriotism and defense of the nation’s war aims. A layperson and a woman, she did not wait for the church hierarchy to approve of her stand on nonviolence. She studied (the Bible, early Christian sources and the writings of the popes and theologians), prayed and then took action.
Still, Day did not join the feminist movement nor did she see herself as a feminist. To the extent that the women’s movement was initially the project of educated, middle-class, mostly white women, its calls for social reform would have been insufficiently radical for her. By the time the feminist critique significantly expanded the women’s movement beyond its limited class and racial origins, Day was already in the last years of her life. Nevertheless, there are affinities with feminist perspectives in Day’s life and praxis. Six pro-feminist concerns reflected in her life and thought are:
- the active participation of women in the work force and in the professions;
- support for working mothers;
- the importance of community;
- the intimate connection between diverse social problems like work, gender, class, race, poverty, capitalism and war, as well as the deep connection between the physical and the spiritual;
- attention to human experience as an essential component in the search for truth;
- disregard, in practice, for assigned gender roles in work.
At the Catholic Worker, both men and women shared in the work of caring for the needy and publishing a newspaper.
Learning From Dorothy Day
As with any saint or great-souled figure, Dorothy Day has much to teach us. First, like the faithful women who both stood beneath the cross of Christ and carried his message into the world, she is a model of faithful, courageous and prophetic discipleship. Never one to retreat, she forcefully engaged in and responded to the tough issues in the 20th-century church and society. Second, Day’s life demonstrates that there is no opposition in the Roman Catholic Church between a passionate commitment to social justice and intimacy with God. For her, in fact, this blend is what Catholic Christianity is all about. Third, Day’s life represents some important concerns of women (see above). Fourth, she trusted in her own spirituality. Had she not been deeply convinced of her own experience of Christ, she would never have challenged the just war teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. It was because she remained faithful to her own experience of God that Dorothy Day raised the level of moral discourse on a vitally important issue in the church and in society to a whole new key.
Finally, Day never disparaged her pre-conversion life experiences. She completely trusted God’s love for her and did not wallow in guilt over the mistakes of the past. Her “non-Catholic,” indeed non-Christian, early life experiences were a vital part of her mature adult spirituality. After her conversion to Catholicism, she often commented on the ongoing influence of her leftist past by quoting St. Augustine: “The bottle always smells of the liquor it once held.” Thanks to Dorothy Day, many Roman Catholics now know the power and, indeed, the religious use of tactics of nonviolent resistance and direct action in opposing injustice.