I have long been and admirer of Dorothy Day and her program, The Catholic Worker. When I wa sin New York this past summer I stumbled upon one of Day's original kitchens that are used to fee the poor. One of the program directors, Jim Reagan, was kind enough to show us around.
Dorothy Day, (November 8, 1897 – November 29, 1980) was a journalist, social activist, and devout Catholic convert. She advocated the Catholic economic theory of distributism. In the 1930s, Day worked closely with fellow activist Peter Maurin to establish the Catholic Worker Movement, a pacifist movement that continues to combine direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action on their behalf. She served as editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper from 1933 until her death in 1980. The Catholic Church has opened the cause for Day's canonization and therefore refers to her with the title Servant of God.
Day was born on November 8, 1897, in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were married in an Episcopal church in Greenwich Village. However, Day's parents were nominal Christians who rarely attended church. As a young child, she showed a marked religious streak, reading the Bible frequently. When she was ten she started to attend an Episcopal church, after its rector convinced her mother to let Day's brothers join the church choir. She was taken with the liturgy and its music. She studied the catechism and was baptized and confirmed in that church.
Day was an avid reader in her teens, particularly fond of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. She worked from one book to another, noting Jack London's mention of Herbert Spencer in Martin Eden, and then from Spencer to Darwin and Huxley. She learned about anarchy and extreme poverty from Peter Kropotkin, who promoted a belief in cooperation in contrast to Darwin's competition for survival.
In 1914, Day attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on a scholarship. She was a reluctant scholar. Her reading was chiefly in a Christian radical social direction. She avoided campus social life and supported herself rather than rely on money from her father, buying all her clothing and shoes from discount stores. She left the university after two years and moved to New York City.
She settled on the Lower East Side and worked on the staff of several Socialist publications, including The Liberator, The Masses, and The Call. She "smilingly explained to impatient socialists that she was 'a pacifist even in the class war.'"
Years later, Day described how she was pulled in different directions: "I was only eighteen, so I wavered between my allegiance to Socialism, Syndicalism (the I.W.W.'s) and Anarchism. When I read Tolstoy I was an Anarchist. My allegiance to The Call kept me a Socialist, although a left-wing one, and my Americanism inclined me to the I.W.W. movement."
She celebrated the bloodless February Revolution in Russia in 1917, the overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of a reformist government.
In November 1917, she was arrested for picketing at the White House on behalf of women's suffrage as part of a campaign called the Silent Sentinels organized by Alice Paul and the National Women's Party. Sentenced to 30 days in jail, she served 15 days before being released from prison, ten of them on a hunger strike.
She spent several months in Greenwich Village, where she became close to Eugene O'Neill, whom she later credited with having produced "an intensification of the religious sense that was in me".
She had a love affair of several years with Mike Gold, a radical writer who later became a prominent Communist. She maintained friendships with such prominent American Communists as Anna Louise Strong, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who became the head of the Communist Party USA.
Initially Day lived a bohemian life. In 1920 or 1921, just after ending an unhappy love affair with Lionel Moise and having an abortion, she married Berkeley Tobey in a civil ceremony. She spent a year with him in Europe removed from politics, focusing on art and literature, and writing an semi-autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin (1924), based on her affair with Moise.
In its Epilogue, she tried to draw lessons about the status of women from her experience: "I thought I was a free and emancipated young woman and found out I wasn't at all ... [F]reedom is just a modernity gown, a new trapping that we women affect to capture the man we want."
She later called it a "very bad book".
The sale of the movie rights to the novel gave her $2,500, and she bought a beach cottage as a writing retreat in Staten Island, New York. Soon she found a new lover, Forster Batterham, an activist and biologist, who joined her there on weekends. She lived there from 1925 to 1929, entertaining friends and enjoying a romantic relationship that foundered when she took passionately to motherhood and religion.
Day, who had thought herself sterile following her abortion, was elated to find she was pregnant in mid-1925, while Batterham dreaded fatherhood. While she visited her mother in Florida and separated from Batterham for several months, she intensified her exploration of Catholicism.
When she returned to Staten Island, Batterham found her increasing devotion, attendance at Mass, and religious reading incomprehensible. Soon after the birth of their daughter Tamar Teresa, on March 4, 1926, Day encountered a local Catholic nun, Sister Aloysia, and with her help educated herself in the Catholic faith and had her baby baptized in July 1927. Batterham refused to attend the ceremony, and his relationship with Day became increasingly unbearable, as her desire for marriage in the Church confronted his antipathy for organized religion, Catholicism most of all. After one last fight in late December, Day refused to allow him to return. On December 28 she had herself baptized with Sister Aloysia as her godparent.
In the summer of 1929, to put the situation with Batterham behind her, Day accepted a job writing film dialogue for Pathé Motion Pictures and moved to Los Angeles with Tamar. A few months later, following the 1929 stock market crash, her contract was not renewed. She returned to New York via a sojourn in Mexico and a family visit in Florida. Day supported herself as a journalist, writing a gardening column for the local paper, the Staten Island Advance and features articles and book reviews for several Catholic publications, like Commonweal.
It was during one of her assignments for The Commonweal in Washington, D.C. when she decided to take a greater role in social activism and Catholicism. During the hunger strikes in D.C. in December 1932, she noted that she was filled with pride watching the marchers, but she couldn't do much with her conversion. She writes in her autobiography: "I could write, I could protest, to arouse the conscience, but where was the Catholic leadership in the gathering of bands of men and women together, for the actual works of mercy that the comrades had always made part of their technique in reaching the workers?"
In 1932, Day met Peter Maurin, the man she always credited as the founder of the movement with which she is identified. Maurin, a French immigrant and something of a vagabond, had entered the Brothers of the Christian Schools in his native France, before emigrating, first to Canada, then to the United States. Despite his lack of formal education, Maurin was a man of deep intellect and decidedly strong views. He had a vision of social justice and its connection with the poor which was partly inspired by St. Francis of Assisi. He had a vision of action based on a sharing of ideas and subsequent action by the poor themselves. Maurin was deeply versed in the writings of the Church Fathers and the papal documents on social matters that had been issued by Pope Leo XIII and his successors. Maurin provided Day with the grounding in Catholic theology of the need for social action they both felt. Years later Day described how Maurin also broadened her knowledge by bringing "a digest of the writings of Kropotkin one day, calling my attention especially to Fields, Factories, and Workshops. Day observed: "I was familiar with Kropotkin only through his Memoirs of a Revolutionist, which had originally run serially in the Atlantic Monthly. She wrote: "Oh, far day of American freedom, when Karl Marx could write for the morning Tribune in New York, and Kropotkin could not only be published in the Atlantic, but be received as a guest into the homes of New England Unitarians, and in Jane Addams' Hull House in Chicago!"
The Catholic Worker movement started when the first issue of the Catholic Worker appeared on May 1, 1933, priced at one cent, and published continuously since then. It was aimed at those suffering the most in the depths of the Great Depression, "those who think there is no hope for the future", and announced to them that "the Catholic Church has a social program...there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare." It accepted no advertising and did not pay its staff. Like many newspapers of the day, including those for which Day had been writing, it was an unapologetic example of advocacy journalism. It provided coverage of strikes, explored working conditions, especially of women and blacks, and explicated papal teaching on social issues.
Its viewpoint was partisan and stories were designed to move its readers to take action locally, for example, by patronizing laundries recommended by the Laundry Workers' Union. Its advocacy of federal child labor laws put it at odds with the American Church hierarchy from its first issue, but Day censored some of Maurin's attacks on the Church hierarchy and tried to have a collection of the paper's issues presented to Pope Pius XI in 1935.
The paper's principal competitor both in distribution and ideology was the Communist Daily Worker. Day opposed its atheism, its advocacy of "class hatred" and violent revolution, and its opposition to private property. The first issue of the Catholic Worker asked: "Is it not possible to be radical and not atheist?" and celebrated its distribution in Union Square on May Day as a direct challenge to the Communists. Day defended government relief programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps that the Communists ridiculed. The Daily Worker responded by mocking the Catholic Worker for its charity work and for expressing sympathy for landlords when calling evictions morally wrong. In this fight, the Church hierarchy backed Day's movement and Commonweal, a Catholic journal that expressed a wide range of viewpoints, said that Day's background positioned her well for her mission: "There are few laymen in this country who are so completely conversant with Communist propaganda and its exponents."
Over several decades, the Catholic Worker attracted such writers and editors as Michael Harrington, Ammon Hennacy, Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan. From the publishing enterprise came a "house of hospitality", a shelter that provided food and clothing to the poor of the Lower East Side and then a series of farms for communal living.
The movement quickly spread to other cities in the United States and to Canada and the United Kingdom. More than 30 independent but affiliated Catholic Worker communities had been founded by 1941.
Beginning in 1935, the Catholic Worker began publishing articles that articulated a rigorous and uncompromising pacifist position, breaking with the traditional Catholic doctrine of just war theory. The next year, the two sides that fought the Spanish Civil War roughly approximated two of Day's allegiances, with the Church allied with Franco fighting radicals of many stripes, the Catholic and the worker at war with one another.
The paper's circulation fell as many Catholic churches, schools, and hospitals that had previously served as its distribution points withdrew support. Circulation fell from 150,000 to 30,000.
In 1939, she published an account of the transformation of her political activism into religiously motivated activism in From Union Square to Rome. She recounted her life story selectively, without providing the details of her early years of "grievous mortal sin" when her life was "pathetic little and mean".
She presented it as an answer to Communist relatives and friends who have asked: "How could you become a Catholic?": What I want to bring out in this book is a succession of events that led me to His feet, glimpses of Him that I received through many years which made me feel the vital need of Him and of religion. I will try to trace for you the steps by which I came to accept the faith that I believe was always in my heart.
In the early 1940s she became a Benedictine oblate, which gave her a spiritual practice and connection that sustained her throughout the rest of her life. She left the Benedictines for a time to consider joining the Fraternity of Jesus Caritas, which was inspired by the example of Charles de Foucauld. Day felt unwelcome there and disagreed with how meetings were run. When she decided to return to the Benedictines and withdraw as a candidate for the Fraternity, she wrote to a friend: "I just wanted to let you know that I feel even closer to it all, tho it is not possible for me to be a recognized 'Little Sister,' or formally a part of it".
Day reaffirmed her pacifism following the U.S. declaration of war in 1941 and urged noncooperation in a speech that day: "We must make a start. We must renounce war as an instrument of policy. . . . Even as I speak to you I may be guilty of what some men call treason. But we must reject war. . . . You young men should refuse to take up arms. Young women tear down the patriotic posters. And all of you--young and old--put away your flags." Her January 1942 column was headlined "We Continue Our Christian Pacifist Stand". She wrote: We are still pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urging others to these efforts. But neither will we be carping in our criticism. We love our country and we love our President. We have been the only country in the world where men of all nations have taken refuge from oppression. We recognize that while in the order of intention we have tried to stand for peace, for love of our brother, in the order of execution we have failed as Americans in living up to our principles.”
On January 13, 1949, unions representing workers at cemeteries managed by the Archdiocese of New York went on strike. After several weeks, Cardinal Francis Spellman used brothers from the local Maryknoll seminary and then diocesan seminarians under his own supervision to break the strike by digging graves.
He called the union action "Communist-inspired". Employees of the Catholic Worker joined the strikers' picket line, and Day wrote Spellman, telling him he was "misinformed" about the workers and their demands, defending their right to unionize and their "dignity as men", which she deemed far more important than any dispute about wages. She begged him to take the first steps to resolve the dispute: "Go to them, conciliate them. It is easier for the great to give in than the poor." Spellman stood fast until the strike ended on March 11 when the union members accepted the Archdiocese's original offer of a 48-hour 6-day work week.
Day wrote in the Catholic Worker in April: "A Cardinal, ill-advised, exercised so overwhelming a show of force against the union of poor working men. There is a temptation of the devil to that most awful of all wars, the war between the clergy and the laity." Years later she explained her stance vis-à-vis Spellman: "[H]e is our chief priest and confessor; he is our spiritual leader–of all of us who live here in New York. But he is not our ruler."
On March 3, 1951, the Archdiocese ordered Day to cease publication or remove the word Catholic from the name of her publication. She replied with a respectful letter that asserted as much right to publish the Catholic Worker as the Catholic War Veterans had to their name and their own opinions independent of those of the Archdiocese. The Archdiocese took no action, and later Day speculated that perhaps church officials did not want members of the Catholic Worker movement holding prayer vigils for him to relent: "We were ready to go to St. Patrick's, fill up the Church, stand outside it in prayerful meditation. We were ready to take advantage of America's freedoms so that we could say what we thought and do what we believed to be the right thing to do."
On June 15, 1955, Day joined a group of pacifists in refusing to participate in civil defense drills scheduled that day. Some of them challenged the constitutionality of the law under which they were charged, but Day and six others took the position that their refusal was not a legal dispute but one of philosophy. Day said she was doing "public penance" for the United States' first use of an atom bomb. They pled guilty on September 28, 1955, but the judge refused to send them to jail saying "I'm not making any martyrs." She did the same in each of the next five years. In 1958, instead of taking shelter she joined a group picketing the offices of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. After some years, sentences were suspended, but once she served 30 days in jail.
In 1956, along with David Dellinger and Rev. A.J. Muste, two veteran allies in the pacifist movement, she helped found Liberation magazine.
In 1960, she praised Fidel Castro's "promise of social justice". She said: "Far better to revolt violently than to do nothing about the poor destitute."
On January 3, 1962, a Vatican press conference revealed that Castro had excommunicated himself by his persecution of the clergy and bishops. (This excommunication occurred latae sententiae,“by the very commission of the offense.”).
Several months later, Day traveled to Cuba and reported her experiences in a four-part series in the Catholic Worker. In the first of these, she wrote: "I am most of all interested in the religious life of the people and so must not be on the side of a regime that favors the extirpation of religion. On the other hand, when that regime is bending all its efforts to make a good life for the people, a naturally good life (on which grace can build) one cannot help but be in favor of the measures taken."
Day hoped that the Second Vatican Council would endorse nonviolence as a fundamental tenet of Catholic life and denounce nuclear arms, both their use in warfare and the "idea of arms being used as deterrents, to establish a balance of terror".
She lobbied bishops in Rome and joined with other women in a ten-day fast. She was pleased when the Council in Gaudium et spes (1965), its statement on "the Church in the Modern World", said that nuclear warfare was incompatible with traditional Catholic just war theory: "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation."Despite her anti-establishment sympathies, her judgment of the 60s counterculture was nuanced. She enjoyed it when Abbie Hoffman told her she was the original hippie, accepting it as a form of tribute to her detachment from materialism.
At the same time she disapproved of many who called themselves hippies. She described some she encountered in 1969 in Minnesota: "They are marrying young–17 and 18, and taking to the woods up by the Canadian border and building houses for themselves–becoming pioneers again."
But she recognized in them the self-indulgence of middle-class affluence, people who had "not known suffering" and lived without principles. She imagined how soldiers returning from Vietnam would want to kill them, but thought what the "flower-people" deserved was "prayer and penance". Day struggled as a leader with influence but without direct authority over the Catholic Worker houses, even the Tivoli Catholic Worker Farm that she visited regularly. She recorded her frustration in her diary: "I have no power to control smoking of pot, for instance, or sexual promiscuity, or solitary sins."
In 1966, Cardinal Spellman visited U.S. troops in Vietnam at Christmas, where he was reported as saying: "This war in Vietnam is ... a war for civilization." Day authored a response in the January 1967 issue of the Catholic Worker that avoided direct criticism but cataloged all the war zones Spellman had visited over the years: "It is not just Vietnam, it is South Africa, it is Nigeria, the Congo, Indonesia, all of Latin America." Visiting was "a brave thing to do", she wrote, and asked: "But oh, God, what are all these Americans doing all over the world so far from our own shores?"
In 1970, at the height of American participation in the Vietnam War, she described Ho Chi Minh as "a man of vision, as a patriot, a rebel against foreign invaders" while telling a story of a holiday gathering with relatives where one needs "to find points of agreement and concordance, if possible, rather than the painful differences, religious and political."
Despite suffering from poor health, Day visited India, where she met Mother Teresa and saw her work. In 1971, Day visited Poland, the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Romania as part of a group of peace activists,with the financial support of Corliss Lamont, whom she described as a "'pinko' millionaire who lived modestly and helped the Communist Party USA."
She met with three members of the Writers' Union and defended Alexander Solzhenitsyn against charges that he had betrayed his country. Day informed her readers that: Solzhenitsin lives in poverty and has been expelled from the Writers Union and cannot be published in his own country. He is harassed continually, and recently his small cottage in the country has been vandalized and papers destroyed, and a friend of his who went to bring some of his papers to him was seized and beaten. The letter Solzhenitsin wrote protesting this was widely printed in the west, and I was happy to see as a result a letter of apology by the authorities in Moscow, saying that it was the local police who had acted so violently.
Day visited the Kremlin, and she reported: "I was moved to see the names of the Americans, Ruthenberg and Bill Haywood, on the Kremlin Wall in Roman letters, and the name of Jack Reed (with whom I worked on the old Masses), in Cyrillac characters in a flower-covered grave". Ruthenberg was C. E. Ruthenberg, founder of the Communist Party USA. Bill Haywood was a key figure in the IWW. Jack Reed was the journalist better known as John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World.
In 1972, the Jesuit magazine America marked her 75th birthday by devoting an entire issue to Day and the Catholic Worker movement. The editors wrote: "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."
Day had supported the work of Cesar Chavez in organizing California farm laborers from the beginning of his campaign in the mid-1960s. She admired him for being motivated by religious inspiration and committed to nonviolence.
In the summer of 1972, she joined Cesar Chavez in his campaign for farm laborers in the fields of California. She was arrested with other protesters for defying an injunction against picketing and spent ten days in jail.
Day suffered a heart attack and died on November 29, 1980, at Maryhouse on 3rd St. in New York City.