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Dorothy Day, Radicalism, and Present-Day Politics

Walter Moss: Dorothy Day's work and legacy serve as a gentle reminder to politicians and those of us among the “chattering classes,” that what matters most is not what we say or how we or others label us, but how we contribute to the common good.
Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

In March 2000, New York’s Catholic Cardinal John O’Conner announced that the Vatican had approved his request to consider Dorothy Day for sainthood. A year later in a commencement speech at Notre Dame President George W. Bush said, “Any effective war on poverty must deploy what Dorothy Day called ‘the weapons of spirit.’” In his Audacity of Hope (2006), future President Barack Obama wrote of her as one of five “great reformers in American history” who “were motivated by faith.” In an important speech before religious leaders in June 2006, he again mentioned her, the only woman, as one of same five “great reformers.”

In this era of political name-calling and seemingly unbridgeable political gaps, it is appropriate to consider the views of this woman who could merit such favorable mention from such divergent sources. And indeed depending on which of her writings you read, you might be puzzled and ask, “Is she on the Right or Left?”

“The Right,” you say? True, she stated in 1972 that “birth control and abortion are genocide.” Years earlier, she quoted approvingly the man who co-founded the Catholic Worker organization with her in 1933: “People go to Washington, asking the Federal Government to solve their economic problems. But the Federal Government was never meant to solve men’s economic problems. Thomas Jefferson says, ‘The less government there is the better it is.’” In February 1945 she wrote,

“We believe that social security legislation, now balled [sic] as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity. . . . We in our generation have more and more come to consider the state as bountiful Uncle Sam. ‘Uncle Sam will take care of it all. The race question, the labor question, the unemployment question.’ We will all be registered and tabulated and employed or put on a dole, and shunted from clinic to birth control clinic. . . . It is the city and the state and the federal government that is robbing them [the people] and pilfering them, too. They are taxed for every bite they eat, every shoddy rag they put on. They are taxed on their jobs, there are deductions for this and that. . . . The first unit of society is the family. The family should look after its own.”

“The Left,” you say? True, she was a pacifist and about as anti-war as one could be, and this was true long before the Vietnam War, which she vigorously opposed. In June 1940, the month that Hitler’s armies had completed taking over parts of Western Europe, including France, Day told the readers of her newspaper (The Catholic Worker): “‘And if we are invaded’ is another question asked. We say again that we are opposed to all but the use of non-violent means to resist such an invader.” Given such a position it is hardly surprising that she opposed the U.S. entry into World War II, even after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

She was also a self-proclaimed anarchist, but following Tolstoy’s example in favoring a non-violent anarchism that retained the essential elements of how the term is defined—opposition to a centralized government and the desire to set up “a new order based on free and spontaneous co-operation among individuals, groups, regions and nations.” In May 1974, after attending an anarchist conference at New York’s Hunter College, she wrote, “Because I have been behind bars in police stations, houses of detention, jails and prison farms, whatsoever they are called, eleven times, and have refused to pay Federal income taxes and have never voted, they accept me as an anarchist. And I in turn, can see Christ in them even though they deny Him, because they are giving themselves to working for a better social order for the wretched of the earth.”

The following year Eunice Shriver (nee Kennedy), an admirer of Day, called her to tell her that her husband, Sargent (first head of the Peace Corps), was going to seek the Democratic nomination for president and asked if Dorothy could support him. Day’s comment in her diary was, “I, an anarchist. But ‘Pray for him.’”

Like many anarchists, she was critical of capitalism. In 1954 she agreed with the statement of the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano when it wrote:

Capitalism seizes, confiscates, and dries up wealth, i.e. reduces the numbers of those who may enjoy riches, holds up distribution and defies Divine Providence who has given good things for the use of all men. St. Thomas Aquinas says that man must not consider riches as his own property but as common good. This means that communism itself, as an economic system, apart from its philosophy—is not in contradiction with the nature of Christianity as is capitalism.

Capitalism is intrinsically atheistic. Capitalism is godless, not by nature of a philosophy which it does not profess, but in practice (which is its only philosophy), by its insatiable greed and avarice, its mighty power, its dominion.

The previous year, she summed up her feelings on the U.S. capitalist consumer culture and what she would like in its place.

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The poor want what they are persuaded to want by advertisements, radio, television. They want radio and television, cars, clothes, cosmetics, cigarettes, good food and drink. They don’t want to take over the factories, land, in any decentralist or distributist movement. They don’t think it possible. They are more intent on preserving the status quo of our industrial capitalist system. So what they get is capitalism or communism, and we don’t want either. We would like to see a country made up of farming communes, agronomic universities, hospices, unions, cooperatives, small units of all those necessary institutions to be preserved, and a doing away with luxury in order to have the essential which is ownership of house and field and job, and the responsibility which goes with that ownership. We wish to abolish the proletariat state, rather than establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, abolish the wage system which provides men with luxuries but not the essentials.

Like many radical Leftists, she had long protested racism and discrimination, whether against blacks, Jews, or others, including Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. Her paper had spoken out against racial injustice since its inception in the early 1930s. For decades its masthead contained a picture of Jesus embracing a black worker and a white worker clasping hands. And she often backed up her words with actions. In 1957, while in Georgia working to help an interracial farming community, she was called a “nigger-lover” and a “northern Communist whore,” and shot at from a passing car. In 1973, she suffered the last of her numerous protest arrests, this time for “unlawful assembly,” in the midst of picketing in behalf of the itinerant Mexican workers of the United Farm Workers led by her friend Cesar Chavez.

So where does all of this leave us in regard to Day and the Left-Right spectrum? It should leave us distrustful of labels, as she herself was. She loved Russian literature, especially that of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. In 1973 she noted in her diary that Dostoevsky influenced her youth—as also did Tolstoy—“but Chekhov’s stories and letters are a never-failing inspiration now.”

Although her own politics was closest to that of the non-violent anarchism of Tolstoy, and furthest away from that of Dostoevsky, who in his mature years supported the tsarist political system, she also had much in common with Chekhov. He regarded “trade-marks and labels as a superstition,” and disliked being labeled, as he said, by those “determined to regard me either as a liberal or as a conservative.” She liked best his emphasis on work, on serving his fellow man, and noted his efforts as a doctor and one who interviewed convicts on Russia’s Sakhalin Island prison colony. After visiting Russia in 1971, she quoted the sentiment he expressed after his trip to Sakhalin: “One must work, and to hell with everything else. The important thing is that we must be just and all the rest will come as matter of course.”

That is the way she attempted to lead her own life. She embraced voluntary poverty for herself and established “hospitality houses” for the down-and-outs of society. In a column in 1942, responding to a journalist who asserted that her Catholic Workers were pacifist sentimentalists and afraid of suffering, she gave us some idea of what her work entailed:

But let those who talk of softness, of sentimentality, come to live with us in cold, unheated houses in the slums. Let them come to live with the criminal, the unbalanced, the drunken, the degraded, the pervert. (It is not decent poor, it is not the decent sinner who was the recipient of Christ’s love.) Let them live with rats, with vermin, bedbugs, roaches, lice (I could describe the several kinds of body lice).

Let their flesh be mortified by cold, by dirt, by vermin; let their eyes be mortified by the sight of bodily excretions, diseased limbs, eyes, noses, mouths.

Let their noses be mortified by the smells of sewage, decay and rotten flesh. Yes, and the smell of the sweat, blood and tears spoken of so blithely by Mr. Churchill, and so widely and bravely quoted by comfortable people.

Let their ears be mortified by harsh and screaming voices, by the constant coming and going of people living herded together with no privacy. (There is no privacy in tenements just as there is none in concentration camps.)

Let their taste be mortified by the constant eating of insufficient food cooked in huge quantities for hundreds of people, the coarser foods, the cheaper foods, so that there will be enough to go around; and the smell of such cooking is often foul

Like Chekhov, she was critical of intellectuals who pontificated, but whose actions did not match their words. And she was willing to work with anyone, communists included, to seek the common good and help the unfortunates of society. In a June 1954 letter she wrote, “We must always be seeking concordances, rather than differences—that is the basis of the ecumenical movement, which is part of the peace movement.” She believed strongly that dialogue contributed to “clarification of thought.” Although her Catholic religion was vitally important to her and gave meaning to her life, she did not condemn those who thought differently.

She died in November 1980—just weeks after Ronald Reagan had been elected U.S. president. But her work and influence live on. By 2011, according to the Catholic Worker website, “213 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and foresaken. Catholic Workers continue to protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.” Thus, in this fall of 2011, her work and legacy serve as a gentle reminder to politicians and those of us among the “chattering classes,” that what matters most is not what we say or how we or others label us, but how we contribute to the common good.

walter moss

Walter Moss

Walter Moss
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