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Stephen G. AdubatoJuly 13, 2023
Dorothy Day in her bedroom at the Catholic Worker in New York CityDorothy Day in her bedroom at the Catholic Worker house in New York City (Bob Fitch Photography Archive/ Department of Special Collections, Stanford University.)

If G. K. Chesterton is the “Prince of Paradox,” Dorothy Day (who was influenced heavily by Chesterton) ought to be dubbed the princess. Devoutly orthodox when it came to doctrine, liturgy and spirituality, and radical in her politics and love for the poor, Day is not someone who fits neatly into our ideological boxes. She was a woman committed to a “both/and” mentality, synthesizing seemingly contradictory values with insight and nuance. Perhaps the most perplexing of her beliefs were those on sexuality and romantic love.

Day’s admirers are likely familiar with the story of her relationship with Forster Batterham, with whom she fell madly in love and who fathered her child. As a committed atheist and anarchist, Batterham refused to marry Day, as he did not believe in the institution—neither in its civil nor in its religious forms. As Day’s love for God and desire to become Catholic deepened, she realized that she needed to make a choice between “the love of God and the love of man.” She willingly accepted the Catholic Church’s teachings on sex outside of marriage, and as much as it deeply pained her, decided to forgo her relationship with Batterham in order to allow God’s love to enter more fully into her heart.

Dorothy Day synthesized seemingly contradictory values with insight and nuance. Perhaps the most perplexing of her beliefs were those on sexuality and romantic love.

Thus began her tumultuous yet grace-filled journey into living out the tension between God and her sexual desires. She was staunchly committed to the stance that the Catholic hierarchy took on matters of sexual morality: she spoke out against abortion (and expressed remorse for the abortion she had had earlier in her life); applauded Pope Paul VI’s prohibition of artificial contraception; and expressed reservations toward the “free love” lifestyle of the young people in the 1960s who engaged in nonprocreative, uncommitted sexual relations.

In a comprehensive and thought-provoking essay in First Things on Day’s synthesis between her views on sexual morality and social justice, Dan Hitchens highlights her frustration with what she considered the cognitive dissonance of free love pacifists who started visiting the Catholic Worker houses in the late 1960s. In a letter to a young Catholic Worker looking to remarry after a divorce, Day didn’t mince words: “Your letters emphasize all the good the CPF [Catholic Peace Fellowship] is doing, but I assure you that all that means nothing.... If you gave all you had to the poor and delivered your body to be burned, it is all nothing but sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal, if you have not charity, the love of God which you have turned from to have the love of women.”

Even more than 30 years after her breakup with Forster Batterham, Dorothy continued to dream about him.

While maintaining her commitment to celibacy and doctrinal orthodoxy, she continued to celebrate the gift of sexual desire. Far from being a prude, she wrote often about her appreciation for the beauty of the human body and the other parts of God’s creation, commenting that sexual desire when properly ordered was “not a sin” but rather “a sacrament,” an assertion to which one friend commented, “I’ve heard it called many things, but not that.”

Her impassioned and startingly frank letters to Batterham after their separation, when she still hoped he would agree to marry her, attest to the extent to which Day allowed herself to fully feel the depth of her sexual longing:

My desire for you is a painful rather than pleasurable emotion. It is a ravishing hunger which makes me want you more than anything in the world and makes me feel as though I could barely exist until I saw you again.... I have never wanted you as much as I have ever since I left, from the first week on, although I’ve thought before that my desires were almost too strong to be borne.

Even more than 30 years after their breakup, Dorothy continued to dream about him. She once waltzed out of the kitchen carrying freshly made cinnamon buns and gleefully announced to her friends that she had had a dream of being in bed with Batterham, reminding them that “you can’t be held responsible for what you dream!”

Such anecdotes reveal that for Day, sexual desire was not something to be ashamed of, but a wondrous gift, a gift so good that it was best to “give [it] up to the Lord.” The beauty of the human body for her was inextricably united to the beauty of art, music, literature, nature and the liturgy and sacramental life of the church. Accordingly, her decision to renounce sexual relations was driven by gratitude, making an offering of her desires to the ultimate gift-giver.

She expresses her intuition about the interconnectedness of beautiful things on both the spiritual and physical levels when writing about her childhood crushes. When she was 9 years old, she attended an Episcopal church service where a boy in the choir who “sang beautifully and looked like an angel” caught her eye. While many may feel ashamed for thinking about the beauty of another person while in a church, Day thought back on the memory with gratitude. For her, human beauty and the beauty of worshipping God were not opposites.

Day’s witness offers practical insights into how one might begin to sublimate and transform sexual desires.

Prompted by the occasion of two longtime Catholic Workers coming out to her, she surprisingly opened up about her own experience of same-sex desire. Conflicted between her moral convictions about the procreative end of sex and the exhortation to “judge not,” she decided to examine certain “forgotten” memories in order to better understand love between people of the same sex. She remembers enjoying studying Latin in high school, doing her homework “with great zest,” though history bored her. The only thing exciting about her history class was a girl whose “face was transfigured with intelligence and to me at least seemed to glow.... I loved her. My own studies became more interesting. I worked harder at my studies.” Her crush on the girl “ennobled her in my mind and enlightened me. To me she was the embodiment of Sancta Sophia [Holy Wisdom].”

She remembers feeling a similar sensation after her conversion for a “tall Polish girl, who had a stately beauty, giving an impression of strength. Such strength, I suddenly thought, as the Blessed Mother had when pregnant she walked the hills of Galilee...how contemplation of that Polish girl deepened my faith, and love for Mary.” She remembers having submitted an essay about the experience to a Catholic magazine that rejected it: “[M]aybe they thought charitably that I was an unconscious lesbian and ‘least said, soonest mended.’”

She concluded the diary entry reiterating her moral reservations, but also recognizing that

falling in love...for the first time brings with it a new light on human and even Divine Love. One must be grateful for the state of ‘in-love-ness’ which is a preliminary state to the beatific vision, which is indeed a consummation of all we desire...it is this glimpse of Holy Wisdom, Santa Sophia, which makes celibacy possible, which transcends human love. Oh, if we could only grow in faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these virtues is love.

Whether married or celibate, we all must reach a point when we accept that to attempt to satisfy all of our sexual impulses would be immature and even dangerous. The real question then becomes: How can one live chastely without “amputating” or repressing these desires, which are so deeply rooted in our being?

Day’s witness offers practical insights into how one might begin to sublimate and transform sexual desires. Never stuffing away her longings, nor indulgently giving way to them, she received her sexuality as a gift from God to be offered and used for his greater plan for her life. When making painful sacrifices, she trusted that God would fulfill her desires—though perhaps not in the way she saw best fit, but rather in a way that far surpassed any of her dreams or calculations.

Her experience with Batterham over the years shows us how the spark of eros need not be doused, but can be subsumed and expanded by the flame of charity. Day stayed in touch with Forster until her death. And though their relationship was marked by moments of tension, she continued to love and look after him. She went as far as caring for him while he was sick, and even caring for his partner Nanette while on her deathbed (inspired by Dorothy’s charity toward her, Nanette asked to be baptized before dying).

God responded to her desire for Forster in a concrete and specific way, including and integrating it into her calling. In this way, her love for Forster was united to the greater Love she risked giving herself fully to all those years ago. One might say that she didn’t give Forster up, but rather offered up her love for him so that it could be deepend. Day’s experience echoes the Italian priest Father Luigi Giussani’s assertion that virginity is not a renunciation of one’s beloved, but a “door that opens to a deeper possession of, deeper intimacy” with them.

Dorothy Day’s life might serve as a light of hope for those who find themselves called to celibacy by circumstance rather than by vocation. As Hitchens notes, Day “thought of herself as part of a fraternity whose other members were divorced, or teenagers, or homosexual, or who just ended up single. Life without sex was...part of the Sorrowful Mysteries, which stand between the Joyful and the Glorious.” She reminds us not to let God off the hook when he asks us to make sacrifices—expecting, trusting, waiting for him to fulfill our desires in a way grander and more profound than we could have ever imagined.

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