The Thinking 

The Revolutionary Dorothy Day

December 19, 2012



Who can be legitimately called a saint amongst us? What is a saint? How does the non-saint know when he is in the presence of one given the full measure of God’s grace?  Does the saint openly radiate that grace, because in the last analysis, Catholics know – or should – that only God can make a saint?

Michael Gerson, a columnist at The Washington Post, wrote of the recent vote by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to advance the cause of Dorothy Day’s claim to sainthood. It is an interesting column about an interesting woman, but I am reminded of the Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times.

The story of Dorothy Day is to many of us of a certain age – mine – well-known. A journalist, she scaled the heights of  social and literary left-wing circles in the 1930s, having an abortion and attempting suicide along the way. When she became pregnant again, she decided to keep her child, but with God’s intervention began a new life that has now brought Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York, current head of the USCCB, to take up her cause for such a future honor.

It matters little that Day remained an “economic distributionist” all of her life, denounced US intervention in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, or founded the Catholic Workers Movement, for as Gerson sees it:

Sainthood for Day – still a long procedural road – would also be a reminder that the Christian Church is not defined or bounded by political ideology.

Which, of course, is very misleading, for by the time Day died in 1980, the Catholic Church in America had been transformed into an institution that now favored a political ideology – that of the Left – something Gerson, who is, I believe, a Fundamentalist Christian, seems not to notice. What further proof is necessary than to repeat that the same Cardinal Dolan would invite to a Catholic gathering the most pro-abortionist and the most virulently anti-Catholic president in our history?

Still the question remains: is Dorothy Day on the basis of all of her good work, a genuine saint of the Church? Am I, by asking that question, raising the bar too high? The late Pope John Paul II “streamlined” the method and speed of canonizing saints in 1988, four centuries after the slow and deliberative Vatican body, called “the Sacred Congregation of Rites,” was established. During my time at the U.S. Embassy to The Holy See, it appeared that not a week went by without someone or some group now afforded the title of “Saint.”

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Augustine, to whom Gerson refers as, “the party boy of Hippo,” defined the canonization process by selecting as saints those who are, “the loving distributor of supernatural graces,” and possessing “supernatural gifts which they have earned and given them eternal life.” It is here that Gerson, and Dorothy Day come up short.

In my view, what is missing in this picture is that Dorothy Day’s major purpose was to serve her fellow man by using her God-given talent, no mean feat for any man or woman. The Catholic Workers Movement invoked God as a guide, but its purpose was worldly, and lacking the supernatural influence whose basis starts by asking not how to help people, but how could she bring God to people in need. In short, Dorothy Day’s work is the paradigm for the post-Vatican II Church, whose “social ministry” has become its focus, and its transcendent work relegated to second place. I cannot agree with Michael Gerson’s conclusion that, given Day’s life’s work she is already a saint. Not only do I disagree, but I suspect that St. Augustine would also.

Laura writes:

At Tradition in Action, Carol Byrne, the author of a book on the Catholic Worker Movement, of which Day was a part, has written:

As far as I know, my book is the first and only study, based on archival sources not previously available to the public, which shows that Dorothy Day, after her conversion to Catholicism, did in fact become a member of several Socialist organizations and was actively involved in political groups whose founders and leaders were predominantly members of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA).

The book provides details of how Day shared public platforms with high profile Communists including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a paid official of the CPUSA (and later its first woman Chairman), took an active part in an array of Communist-led strikes during the 1930s and ‘40s and used her newspaper, the Catholic Worker (CW), of which she was editor for almost 50 years, as an organ of propaganda in favor of Communism. All this must be considered against the background of the decree issued by the Holy Office in 1949 pronouncing an anathema on any Catholic who cooperated with Communists in any way. The fact that she was able to flout the papal ban against Communist-aiding Catholics merely conferred on her an added mystique among her supporters.

While declaring herself committed to a non-violent revolution, Day nonetheless supported every Socialist regime around the world regardless of its violent beginnings and inhumane consequences. There is documentary evidence that Day supported the policies of hostile foreign powers operating from Moscow, Havana, Peking and Hanoi against her own country, the USA.

Here is another piece by Byrne. She writes:

Card. [Timothy] Dolan described Day as “quintessentially American” in spite of the fact that she supported the policies of hostile foreign powers operating from Moscow, Havana, Peking and Hanoi against her own country, the USA. She also wrote favorably about such socialist dictators as Lenin, Castro, Mao and Ho Chi Minh, even though they had all violently persecuted the Church in their respective countries.

As for her adhesion to Pacifism, Dorothy Day was not concerned with such terrorist or violent acts when they were done to further Communism. Even after it was known publicly and generally that Castro was a communist dictator, she visited Cuba, extolled its “social advances,” and insisted that the religious and clergy who fled did so voluntarily, not under force. She continued to praise communist Cuba after Castro was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII in 1962.

The Cardinal was similarly misinformed about Dorothy Day’s attitude to private property. It is a matter of historical evidence that she called for common ownership of property and the means of production, and even favored communal child rearing to replace the traditional family.

—- Comments —–

Fred Owens writes:

Sainthood is diminished by being too easily granted. I doubt that Dorothy Day qualifies, but she was a good woman and I confess to having a soft spot in my heart for her. I have found some of her writings to be inspirational. You are right in that she consorted uncritically with dubious people — which Jesus did also, but Jesus did not support the causes of dubious people, an important distinction.

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