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Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

Today seems an appropriate time to recall pacifist Dorothy Day’s response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for on August 6, 1945 the USA dropped an atomic bomb on the first city and three days later on the second. The two bombs together killed roughly 200,000 people, even more if one considers their long-range radiation consequences.

In a September 1945 column in her newspaper,The Catholic Worker (CW), Day expressed her outrage at the jubilation of President Truman and others over the Hiroshima bombing. As she indignantly stated, the celebrators “hoped they are vaporized, our Japanese brothers—scattered, men, women and babies, to the four winds, over the seven seas. Perhaps we will breathe their dust into our nostrils, feel them in the fog of New York on our faces, feel them in the rain.”

In a century in which wars killed more people than ever before, Day followed the example of Leo Tolstoy (d. 1910), who influenced so many later pacifists. In 1935, the year CW published its first pacifist piece, a conversation between Christ and a patriot, Jane Addams died. In the 1890s she had made a trip to Russia to visit Tolstoy. Like Day later, she was known primarily for her tireless efforts in aiding poor people. But she also long worked for peace and in 1931 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Like some other prominent female pacifists, Addams believed that as nurturers and protectors of human life, women had a special pacifist role to play. Mohandas Gandhi considered himself a “humble follower” of Tolstoy; and Martin Luther King, Jr., also a Nobel Peace Prize recipient (1964), was influenced by both men.

Upon the deaths of Gandhi and King, Day praised them both. In a February 1948 column mourning Gandhi’s death, she wrote, “There is no public figure who has more conformed his life to the life of Jesus Christ than Gandhi, there is no man who has carried about him more consistently the aura of divinized humanity.” In an April 1968 column, she referred to King as “a man of the deepest and most profound spiritual insights.” (In another column that same month she recalled her own decades-long struggles against racial injustice.) In April 1967, she had participated in a New York anti-Vietnam-War protest co-led by King, which she called “the greatest mass meeting and march in American history.”

After her conversion to Catholicism in the late 1920s Day opposed wars, like Tolstoy before her, because she thought they were contrary to the spirit of the gospels. She often quoted (see, e.g., here) the Biblical passage, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who calumniate you. And to him who strikes thee on one cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away thy cloak, do not withhold thy tunic also.”

She maintained that whatever the consequences, impure means (like killing others) could not be used to obtain a goal, no matter how noble it was purported to be. Her basic position was that Christ taught nonviolence asa way of life. This opposition to all wars put her at odds with most U.S. Catholic bishops, who adhered to a “just-war” doctrine, long before developed by Catholic theologians. But, as Day wrote in June 1940, “many modern writers, clerical and lay, hold that [even] these conditions [necessary for a just war] are impossible of fulfillment in these present times of bombardment of civilians, open cities, the use of poison gas, etc.”

During the Spanish Civil War, beginning in 1936, the fascist side, led by General Francisco Franco, claimed it was defending Catholicism against communism and other Leftist forces. The CW pacifist position angered many Catholics who supported Franco’s forces. In June 1940, the month that Hitler’s armies had completed taking over parts of Western Europe, including France, Day told her CW readers, “‘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.”

A month after Pearl Harbor, in a CW January 1942 letter sent to all CW Hospitality Houses (which cared for the poor) and farms, she wrote: “We are still pacifists. . . . 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 she added, “We love our country and we love our President,” and “we will try daily, hourly, to pray for an end to the war.” She also recognized that many Catholics, including many CW volunteers, would disagree with her absolute pacifism, but hoped “that there will be mutual charity and forbearance among us all.”

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Her opposition to warring against Japan and Nazi Germany does not mean she was unsympathetic to those who suffered from their aggression. In 1939, for example, she had strongly condemned anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and elsewhere. Like Gandhi, she believed in resistance to all injustice, but only by non-violent means.

During the Cold War, Day continued to speak out against wars, hot and cold, and war preparations until her death in 1980. More than any other Catholic of her day, she encouraged all sorts of passive resistors for more than four decades. Beginning in June 1955 she was arrested every year for the rest of the 1950s for her annual refusal to take part in air raid drills mandated by the city of New York. In 1957, for example, she was sentenced to 30 days imprisonment.

In pursuit of peace she visited various parts of the world (see here for much more on Day’s trips and life). A partial list includes Cuba (1962), Rome (1963 and 1965), the USSR and Eastern Europe (1971), and England and Northern Ireland (1973). Her first trip to Rome was to thank Pope John XXIII for his encyclical Pacem in Terris, in which he wrote, “In this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.”

One does not have to be a pacifist, or even one who just thinks dropping two atomic bombs on Japan was excessive, to admire Day’s commitment to peace. In 1997, New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor began efforts to have Day considered a Catholic saint, a proposal still being studied by the Vatican. O’Conner had once been the chief chaplain of the U.S. Navy, holding the rank of rear admiral.

walter moss

Walter Moss

One of Day’s chief biographers (Jim Forest) has quoted him as saying, “No priest can watch the blood pouring from the wounds of the dying, be they American or Vietnamese of the North or South, without anguish and a sense of desperate frustration and futility,” and “the clergy back home, the academicians in their universities, the protesters on their marches are not the only ones who cry out, ‘Why?’”

Today, Day’s legacy lives on. The Catholic Worker website, e.g., declares, “213 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence.”

Walter Moss

Posted: Tuesday, 7 August 2012