Malcolm interviews Dr. Terrence Wright, who is an associate professor of philosophy at Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. Dr. Wright is also the author of “Dorothy Day, An Introduction to her Life and Thought,” published by Ignatius Press.
Dorothy Day spent her life working for the promotion and implementation of Catholic Social Teaching. She is the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement and the author of numerous books and articles. Her cause for canonization has been opened by the Catholic Church.
Dorothy Day is a controversial figure; many on the right and left see her as a dissident Catholic. Conservatives reject her due to this perceived dissent, while liberals applaud her for it.
Professor Wright explains that both perspectives are mistaken. Rather than a dissident Catholic, she is better seen as a loyal, if challenging, daughter of the Church; a prophetic figure who calls us to fully live out the message of the Gospel. She was ardently pro-life, but she championed a consistent ethic of life, refusing to pit the defense of the unborn against the defense of the born.
We discussed how dissent from Church teaching and criticism of Church leaders who fail to live up to those teachings are very different. To illustrate this we discussed the familiar story of St. Peter and St. Paul. St. Paul enthusiastically supported St. Peter’s teaching on the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the Church but called Peter out for hypocrisy when he failed to live up to that teaching.
The Social Teachings
Dorothy Day’s work was bound up with the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church. Professor Wright talked briefly about the four major points of this teaching, which are: the dignity of the human person; the importance of the common good; subsidiarity, which entails the rejection of undue interference by higher levels of society with lower levels; and solidarity, the principle of universal human fraternity.
Saintly Role Models
Many Saints influenced Dorothy Day’s outlook and mission, and we mentioned three of them. Day was a Benedictine Oblate, and St. Benedict inspired her vision of hospitality. Her emphasis on the connection between work and prayer is also rooted in Benedictine Spirituality. Another influence was St. Francis of Assisi. Day’s pacifism and voluntary poverty are very Franciscan, and she stressed that St. Francis was a radical, not just a lover of animals. Yet another Saint Day admired was St. Therese of Lisieux. Initially, she thought Therese was overly pious and disliked her style. But over time, she came to realize the importance of the Little Way, of doing everyday actions with great love. For example, Dorothy Day was frustrated by those who talked a lot about high ideals but refused to chop vegetables for the soup line.
The Catholic Worker and the Works of Mercy
The Catholic Worker’s mission was centered on the works of mercy. In this mission, Dorothy Day realized that one can’t separate the spiritual and corporal aspects. On the one hand, the poor could be fed or clothed in a cold, mechanical way that would demean them. (Famously, Dorothy Day said that “our love will make the poor forgive us for the bread we give them.”) On the other hand, we might say we love the poor, but not actually aid them. As St. James tells us, this is not the Christian way. Consequently, the Catholic Worker strives to create a warm, personal environment when sheltering or feeding the poor.
The Challenge of Peace
In one area, Dorothy Day does seem to challenge Church teaching. Just War Theory is the Church’s response to the problem of conflict. It lays out principles that constrain the use and the violence of war, but still allows for the waging of war to protect the innocent. Dorothy Day was a committed pacifist, opposed to all wars and violence, even in self-defense.
Although the Church does not require this level of pacifism of us, we can still find inspiration in it. Just as monastic celibacy provides a profound witness of Christian totality even to those who are married, the pacifism of figures such as Dorothy Day can help us to remember that we are all called to be “peacemakers.”
All transcripts are edited for clarity and readability.
Header image: Book cover: https://www.ignatius.com/