An Introduction to Her Life and Thought
By Terrence Wright
162 pages, $15.95
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To begin to understand the late Servant of God Dorothy Day, it helps to know a bit of dialogue from her favorite work of literature, The Brothers Karamazov.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great Christian novel, a woman asks how she can know God is real. The answer is that one can only know for sure through “active love.”
Then the woman is told what that looks like in the reality of a broken world: “Love in practice is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
It is likely few took this more seriously than Dorothy Day, whose cause for sainthood was begun by John Cardinal O’Connor in 1997, 100 years after Day’s birth.
In Dorothy Day: An Introduction to Her Life and Thought, author Terrence Wright, who is an associate professor of philosophy and director of the pre-theology program at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, lays out how Day took her vision of love to the dispossessed in a way that was nothing short of radical.
His chapter on her intellectual foundations is a brilliant and concise outline of the major elements of Catholic social teaching, which in turn teaches the most devout ways of interacting with the world.
Day was born in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, John, moved the family around the country several times in search of newspaper work. In Oakland, California, when she was 8 years old, she witnessed the devastation of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and the streams of homeless fleeing to relatively unscathed Oakland in the aftermath.
Wright believes this experience marked the beginning of Day’s commitment to those most in need.
But it would be another 21 years before Day began to put those lessons into action. During that period before her conversion in 1927, she led a life most would consider bohemian.
“Gangsters admired Dorothy Day, because she could drink them under the table,” Malcolm Cowley wrote in Exile’s Return, a portrait of Greenwich Village in the 1920s.
The drinking was the least of it. She lived with men out of wedlock. She aborted her first child, something that haunted Day for her entire life.
She flirted with communism and socialism as a means to alleviate the suffering of those around her.
She hung out with the great artists of the 1920s.
She was a journalist and a Hollywood screenwriter for a short time.
Yet for all her rebellious ways, she acknowledged that God shadowed her through it all.
“All my life I have been haunted by God,” she wrote.
Wright, quoting from her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, shows that, in 1916, Day was flirting with the divine.
“I clung to the words of comfort in the Bible and as along as the light held out,” she wrote, recounting her time in a dank prison cell after a suffragist march on Washington.
“I read and pondered. Yet all the while I read, my pride was fighting on. I did not want to go to God in defeat and sorrow. I did not want to depend on Him. I was like a child who wants to walk by itself.”
Like St. Augustine, who wrote about his own wrestling with the Almighty more than 1,700 years ago in Confessions, she finally could wrestle no more.
It was Day’s second pregnancy, while living with a man in a seaside cabin on Staten Island, that pushed her “over the edge.” The boyfriend wanted nothing to do with marriage or religion. By this time, Day was moving closer to conversion, and she vowed she would never have an abortion and that her daughter would be baptized a Catholic. Her hope for her daughter led to her own leap of faith.
Wright drives home the point that her conversion was a seminal moment in the life of Catholicism in the United States.
She loved the Church deeply. She felt, as a convert, she had more of a responsibility to be faithful to all Catholic teachings. And like her life before becoming a Catholic, Day’s faith was radical.
Day, one of the greatest proponents of Catholic social teaching in the 20th century. She also took seriously the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in the Gospel of St. Matthew, in which those who did not see Christ among the poor and despised would lose out on heaven.
But that did not mean she would shrink from criticizing the institutional Church when she saw its flaws.
“I felt that the Church was the Church of the poor ... but at the same time, I felt that it did not set its face against a social order which made so much charity in the present sense of the word necessary,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I felt that charity was a word to choke over. Who wanted charity? And it was not just human pride, but a strong sense of man’s dignity and worth, and what was due to him in justice, that made me resent, rather than feel proud of, so mighty a sum total of Catholic institutions.”
Her objection was not opposed to charity, but charity devoid of bestowing dignity through justice.
In this vein, Wright quotes from a talk St. John Paul II gave in 1999, long after Day’s death, but still a reflection of her view of how to really help the least of our brothers and sisters.
“Justice can reduce differences, eliminate discrimination, and assure the conditions necessary for the respect of personal dignity,” St. John Paul II wrote.
In the same way St. Francis kissed the leper, it was necessary for Day, as a Catholic, to come close to those who were repellant to others in order to see their common humanity and the face of Christ.
She began to collect derelict properties in New York so she could house those who were wandering the streets during the Depression. These Catholic Worker homes spread around the city and other parts of the U.S., including some farms she hoped would be self-sustaining.
Along with French Catholic philosopher Peter Maurin, she created a newspaper called The Catholic Worker that sold for one cent per copy.
A pacifist, Day objected to conscription, to the Second World War and all subsequent wars in her lifetime, which cost her many followers and caused the circulation of her newspaper to plummet.
But Day took seriously Christ’s direction to turn the other cheek. And Wright notes that Day’s objection to violence extended to the womb.
In 1973, the year of the infamous Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, Day was part of a group that wrote a public warning condemning the court’s finding.
She and others wrote that the court’s decision — that abortion was a private matter — was false and dangerous, ultimately leading to state-sponsored facilities that would reflect a pro-death culture.
To many, her position was shocking and went against the predominant feminist position of the day. Many of Day’s positions were considered politically liberal, especially her stance against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. So many pro-abortion activists incorrectly thought Day would be a “fellow traveler” and support all of their issues.
Wright relates a story from 1971, when Day was invited to speak at South Dakota State College. The master of ceremonies “noted” that Day “supported abortion” as part of her work of empowering women.
“Dorothy, who was sitting in the front row, rose out of her chair to her full angular, forbidding height, shook her finger at the speaker, and angrily scolded her on the falseness of such a belief.”
Another thing Wright makes clear: Day had no interest in being popular or being a saint. If she had, no one would remember her.
She disdained being called a saint. But like many of the saints and those whose canonization causes are open, she chose the hard path — the path of Christ.
Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.