Dorothy Day: Radical Dissident or Faithful Catholic?
All transcripts are edited for clarity and readability.
Malcolm: This is your host, Malcolm Schluenderfritz. My guest today is Dr. Terrence Wright: he is an associate professor of philosophy at the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, and the author of “Dorothy Day, an Introduction to her Life and Thought,” which is available from Ignatius Press. We’re so glad to have you join us; how are you doing Terry?
Terry: 00:33 Good, Malcolm, I’m glad to be here!
Malcolm: 00:35 For our listeners who might not know who Dorothy Day is, can you outline the important points of her life and tell us how you came to write a book about her?
Terry: 00:45 Well, Dorothy Day was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. She was born in 1897 and died in 1980. The process of canonization is underway for her; she is now at the first step, Servant of God. She really embodies Catholic Social Teaching in the 20th century, really brought it to a lot of people’s attention. She operated houses of hospitality to serve the poor, and she was also a leader in the pacifist movement in the 20th century. She’s had a large impact on Catholic thinking and particularly Catholic social teaching. I got interested in her when I was in college, which was 40 years ago. I was kind of idealistic, as a lot of college students are, and was looking for a connection between those ideals and the teachings of the Church on questions of social justice. One of my professors recommended that I start reading the Catholic Worker paper; the campus ministry gave it out for free. So I started reading the Catholic Worker when I was in college. I was always interested in Day, and then when I started teaching, I started teaching her writings. That’s when I really became interested in her thinking, her life, and what shaped her writings.
Malcolm: 02:37 In the introduction to your book you mentioned that when Pope Francis was here in the USA he singled out four Americans in a speech he made; one of them was Dorothy Day. That’s interesting because she’s not that well known as Americans go. Why do you think Pope Francis singled her out like that?
Terry: 02:55 Yeah, that’s an interesting speech. He talks about four Americans; two of them quite well known, Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. The other two are fairly obscure; Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. He focused on Day because . . . he talks about her commitment to the Gospel and how she brought that commitment to her service to the poor. Pope Francis realizes that addressing questions of economic justice are really important in the United States. And so he sees her as a model of the combination of Gospel commitment and social action.
Malcolm: 03:44 Yes, he certainly is interested in that aspect. For those who do know Dorothy Day, especially among Catholics, she can be considered a controversial figure! In your book, you mentioned a funny story; you were teaching some of her writings at the seminary, and when they went home for their break, one of them told the pastor of the parish he was working at that he was reading Day. The pastor said “I’m shocked they would let you read such a dissenting Catholic!” Another seminarian told the pastor he was working with the same thing, and the pastor said “Wow, I’m surprised they would let you read such a dissenting Catholic! It’s great that they are so free-floating at the seminary!” So what do you think? Is Dorothy Day a dissenting Catholic, or is she a loyal, faithful Catholic?
Terry: 04:33 Part of the project of my book is to make the argument that she is not a dissenting Catholic; that’s a misunderstanding on both sides of the divide. She is a really faithful daughter of the Church. There may be one issue, and that would be her pacifism (maybe we could look at that later) but if you look at her writings from the time that she converted to Catholicism (she entered the Church when she was in her late twenties) she is a very faithful Catholic on all the issues. When she was critical of the Church, which was not uncommon, it was not because she disagreed with the teachings of the Church, it was that she didn’t think the Church was doing a good enough job living up to those teachings. So she was not dissenting from the teachings at all. So I argue that it is a misunderstanding to see her as a dissenting Catholic. Whenever I talk about her I always have people bringing up that issue.
Malcolm: 05:39 Yeah, whenever she comes up, immediately the divisions get going. That’s interesting right now, there is so much dissent from Church teaching on both sides of the spectrum, and people on each end of it don’t seem to recognize that. Dorothy Day can help us, I think, to realize that there are those two different kinds of dissent that are around and realize how to steer around them.
Terry: 06:10 Yeah, I think that is what partly attracts me to her as a model; that she really shows the coherence of the teachings on social justice with the teachings on the sanctity of human life and marriage and things like that. The teachings that often divide people. She really shows their coherence, because they are coherent! The teachings of the Church are not an incoherent jumble.
Malcolm: 06:42 One thing I liked that you brought out is that though she wasn’t a dissenting Catholic, she did sometimes criticize Church leaders, quite forcefully. What struck me in the book was that when she did so, as you pointed out, she was criticizing their failure to live up to their teachings. We’re guaranteed that the Church won’t fall into error, but we are not guaranteed that the Church will live out its mission properly. In some circles right now it is popular to attack the Pope, and people who do that usually bring up St. Paul attacking St. Peter. I think what is often missed in that story is that Paul supported Peter’s teaching that the Jews and Gentiles were the same; what he was attacking Peter for was his failure to carry out his own teaching, his hypocrisy in not living out his teaching. So that if that example is being used to legitimatize dissent from Pope Francis’s teaching, that’s not a good use of that example.
Terry: 07:47 Right, I think that’s a good example of how . . . The Church is made of up sinners, we’re all going to fall short in different ways, and Day knew that was true of herself. But we can point out failures, of not living up to the teachings, which is not the same as criticizing the teachings. In Day’s case, it was often questions about whether the Church paying a just wage to workers, and things like that, or whether it was too closely aligned with the military-industrial complex; she was always very concerned with those sort of issues.
Malcolm: 08:36 One thing you brought up is the fact that Dorothy Day was staunchly pro-life. She has got some fans, on what you could call the left, and that tends to surprise them when they find out about her pro-life stance. Can you say a little more about how she saw her pro-life witness?
Terry: 08:52 When Day was a young woman she was living with a man and became pregnant; the man forced her to get an abortion, and then abandoned her. She was devastated by that, and she actually attempted suicide. Then later, a few years later, she was again living in a common-law marriage with another man, got pregnant again, and really saw her pregnancy as a sign of God’s mercy, that she was able to get pregnant again. She had been afraid that the abortion had left her unable to do that. So she was not going to abort this child, even though the father didn’t want it; she carried the child to term, and then she decided that she wanted the child to be baptized Catholic. It was in the process of getting her daughter baptized Catholic that she begin to see the necessity of her own conversion to Catholicism. So she very strongly saw the sin of abortion and the difficulty that it brought to women and was very pro-life in that way. But also her pacifist view was grounded in respect for human life. And so she was very concerned when certain people would be opposed to the war in Vietnam, say, but not opposed to abortion. For her, violence against the unborn is violence. It is not different because you are doing it against the unborn. So she saw it as a whole with her pacifism and her overall respect for the dignity of human persons.
Malcolm: 10:51 Yeah, the term that’s come to be used is the seamless garment or the consistent ethic of life, and I think Dorothy Day is a very good example of someone who holds that consistent position that human life is sacred no matter where it is, no matter under what circumstances.
Terry: 11:11 Right. Absolutely. And so that also goes with recognizing the inherent dignity of the poor, all of that is of a piece for her.
Malcolm: 11:24 In your book, you mentioned that after Day became Catholic, she was trying to chart her future, and she had a hard time seeing how her interest in helping the poor and in helping the worker could fit into the Church. She actually came into the Church unsure what the Church’s stance on this was, but realizing that she had to enter the Church non-the-less. And then in the book, you talked about how she met Peter Maurin. Could you tell us a little about Peter Maurin and about his influence on Dorothy Day’s thinking?
Terry: 11:55 Yeah, one of the most wonderful stories in Dorothy Day’s life. She was sort of struggling to figure out how she could apply her Catholic Faith to her social concerns. And before her conversion, she was very much in line with socialists and communists who really seemed to have an agenda and an idea of what to do, and when she entered the Church she saw that that was no longer a possibility, but she wasn’t sure what to do. She was a single mother trying to support herself and her child; she was doing it through freelance writing, she actually worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood very briefly, but she was given the task to cover a story in 1932 of a hunger march in Washington DC. And while she was there, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, she went to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. and prayed for some sort of direction. And when she got back to New York City, waiting for her was Peter Maurin. He was twenty years older than Day, a Frenchman who had come to Canada and then to the United States, and he had a project that he wanted to take up, which had four different points to it. One was the publishing of a newspaper to spread Catholic social teaching. Another was houses of hospitality to serve the poor; another was round table discussions where people could learn ideas and share them; and another was what he called ‘agronomic universities,’ farms where people could come to learn to farm and to raise food for the houses of hospitality. He was looking for someone to help him with this project, and people had mentioned Dorothy Day to him because she was a journalist, and had worked on newspapers, and so he saw her as a person who could help him with that aspect. So he tracked her down and really changed her life. He was well versed in the social teaching of the Church, documents like Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, and he really brought those to her attention, taught her about them. They started the project; on May 1st, 1933 they published the first edition of the Catholic Worker newspaper; that was followed by houses of hospitality, and so Day and Maurin worked together for over twenty years; he died in the late 40s. They are really the co-founders of the Catholic Worker, and Dorothy said that there wouldn’t have been a Catholic Worker without Peter Maurin. He was the one who really had the initial vision.
Malcolm: 15:08 You mentioned that Maurin introduced Dorothy Day to the social teaching of the Church; what principles in that social teaching were especially formative for their project and vision?
Terry: 15:21 Well, really all of it! There are four basic pillars of Catholic social teaching. The first is the inherent value of every human person. The second is the importance of the common good. The third is subsidiarity, which is the idea that decisions should be made by those who are being impacted by those decisions; and the fourth is solidarity, that all people are united in a common project. So all of those are at work in what Day is up to. Particularly the dignity of the human person; she really saw her commitment to the poor as grounded in that. Also the importance of the common good. Recognizing that the common good is not just the sum of individual goods, but is really trying to promote a good where all persons can flourish, providing that opportunity. She was very much into the notion of subsidiarity; this was done on a small scale. This was not the Government’s job, or big institutions’ job, this was the job of every person; we have a personal responsibility to the other. The poor don’t belong to the government; it is not the government’s job to take care of them; it is our job. It has to be on a human scale.
Malcolm: 16:46 Thanks for explaining that. Were there any saints or other Catholic figures who really inspired Day’s witness?
Terry: 16:57 Day often looked to the saints for inspiration and guidance, and read a lot by and about them. In my book, I talk about three of them. She was very influenced by St. Benedict and actually became a Benedictine Oblate; she took away from him the importance of hospitality and welcoming the stranger, and also the importance of the relationship between prayer and work, that you couldn’t separate the two. She did not think that she could do her own work without daily Mass and Communion just to give her the strength and wisdom to do the work for that day. Another is St. Francis of Assisi, who was an influence on her pacifism and also on her idea of voluntary poverty. The third is St. Therese of Lisieux. Day initially didn’t find her that inspiring, thought she was just overly pious, but came to see that the approach of the Little Way, doing the small everyday things with great love, really was the way to serve people in the most concrete way. I think St. Therese really influenced how Day embraced the works of mercy.
Malcolm: 18:45 I really liked the importance that she put on St. Francis being a radical and not just a birdbath or garden gnome figure; he was a lot more than that. His emphasis on poverty and on identifying with the poor can get left out sometimes, I think.
Terry: 19:03 Right. That line about the birdbath images . . . there was a letter that Pius the XI published on Francis and he said that he didn’t understand why this Saint who transformed Europe is now pictured as a friend of rabbits and foxes! I mean that sort of loses the radicalness and the importance of St. Francis.
Malcolm: 19:38 Yeah, it just makes him too non-threatening, I guess.
Terry: 19:43 Exactly! Exactly. And so we don’t feel challenged by him.
Malcolm: 19:49 We don’t feel challenged by that kind of radical poverty of life that he witnessed to.
Terry: 19:58 Right. And the sort of complete giving of self that he embodied.
Malcolm: 20:05 That part about the complete giving of self makes me think about Therese’s little way; that we don’t have very much to give either to God or those around us, but it is those little things done with love that are important. And that also connects to St. Benedict’s message of the importance of work, the mundane ordinary things of daily life. I know Dorothy Day talked about how idealist young people would come and join the Catholic Worker; they wanted to help the poor, and change the world, but they didn’t want to chop the vegetables for the soup line. And that was a problem because if the vegetables didn’t get chopped, even with all the high thoughts, nobody was going to get fed.
At this point, we had an accident with our recording software so that we lost about 15 minutes of audio, so I’m just going to quickly talk through what we missed so that we can go back to the conversation here with Terry.
Dorothy Day was suspicious of welfare. We discussed why that might be. Part of the reason is that Dorothy Day thought the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy couldn’t be disconnected from one another. On the one hand, you could give material goods to someone but not have any love for them, and that would actually be demeaning to the person. As Dorothy Day said, “The love we have for the poor will make them forgive us the bread we give them.” But on the other hand, we can think “Oh, we love the poor, we pray for them,” but not actually feed them, and as St. James said, that is useless. We can’t say to brother or sister in need, “Go in peace, be warmed and fed!” That is not the Christian way. So the spiritual and the corporeal works of mercy always need to be together in the Christian life.
And then we started talking about Dorothy Day’s pacifism. There is one area where she does seem to dissent from Church teaching, and that is that she was a strict pacifist. Even during WWII, she opposed joining the war. And in that, she seems in a way to be dissenting from Catholic teaching on the Just War Theory. Just War Theory holds that war is always an evil but that it is sometimes allowed to prevent greater evils. And Just War Theory gives a set of criteria that have to be met before participating in a war is just. Among other things, the evil to be remedied has to be greater than the evils inflicted by the war, there has to be the possibility of success, that the war will actually solve the problem it is aimed at, and the war has to be carried out justly, by the proper authorities. Acts of war can not be aimed at civilians, and everything else must have been tried before one has recourse to war under the Just War Theory. But Dorothy Day was a strict Pacifist.
So now we can go back to our recorded conversation where we start to discuss how we should understand this position of hers.
Malcolm 23:38 So, with her pacifism: you mentioned “Just War Pacifism.” I find that a very appealing position, that there can be a Just War, but that especially in the modern world, that’s not going to likely hold because one of the principles is that the good to be gained by the war has to outweigh the evils that will always accompany war, and that with modern warfare the evils are so great that this is very unlikely. Why do you think that she thought that position was insufficient?
Terry: 24:08 Well, those who call themselves “Just War Pacifists” accept the principle that sometimes I have to use force to protect the weak or to restore justice, but that modern warfare just means that we can’t avoid killing non-combatants, and if you’re going to kill the innocent you’re going to cross the line. So modern warfare makes just war impossible. I think Day held a stronger position than that, for two reasons; one that she really saw her pacifism in some sense as a council of perfection, that you’re trying to be perfect as your Lord is perfect, and took seriously the idea that one would turn the other cheek and that violence is not an appropriate response; and she also came to see it as tied to the teachings on the mystical body of Christ; that we are all members of the mystical body, members or potential members of the mystical body of Christ, and therefore to kill another person is to attack the mystical body. And so it really was never an appropriate response even if you could do it without harming the innocent or producing any of the collateral damage that goes with modern warfare. So I think she kind of moved beyond Just War Pacifism to a more absolute pacifism.
Malcolm: 25:52 So, could that be seen as . . . to take as an example the higher calling to vowed celibacy in the Church; could it be that her absolute pacifism is not in conflict with Just War Theory, but is sort of sign of the higher reality of the kingdom that can inform those of us who are not called to practice it fully?
Terry: 26:21 I think there’s definitely some relationship to that; as I said, one of the ways she saw her pacifism is in terms of a council of perfection, which that those who can go beyond the law are called to something greater. I think that was part of it, but I also think it comes back to . . . and she recognized that there may be people who really intended to produce peace and justice, and recognized that in good conscience they thought that the use of force was necessary. She recognizes that is a position someone could consistently hold, but in her own understanding of the moral law, force against another human person is never going to be justified because of the mystical body. I think that her pacifism is without a doubt the most difficult question around thinking through Day, and it is still one I kind of go back and forth on myself.
Malcolm: 27:39 I know, I was reading the autobiography of the founders of the Houston Catholic Worker House, and he was talking about how one day, this guy with a machete suddenly appeared in the living room of the Catholic Worker. And so, OK, they’re all pacifists, so now what do you do when there is suddenly a guy there with a machete yelling at you? They actually managed to defuse the situation without hurting anybody, and got the guy to put his machete down; it turns out that he just needed mental help. And so nobody got killed, the police weren’t called, but that’s obviously . . . if you told people that’s what the Christian has to do, most people would disagree, and I don’t think I would want to support that kind of extreme pacifism myself. What can we learn from that very difficult stance even if we don’t feel called to embrace that hard, full pacifism? What can we learn in the area of war and peace?
Terry: 28:45 Well, I think . . . that’s a tough question! I’m not sure if I have a ready answer on that one. I think if we’re really going to live a life that recognizes the sanctity of every human life, then we really have to look for approaches and policies that recognize that. I think sometimes we can be way too quick to say “kill them all and let God sort it out.” Just drop the bomb and then figure out what will happen. And so a sort of . . . recognizing that violence as a first resort, force as a first resort is almost always a bad idea. And that we need to be thinking past that.
Malcolm: 29:42 It’s tough because some things in the Gospel and some things in the lives of the saints almost seem to support a full-out, pacifist, non-violent stance, and yet that seems so backward to ordinary human life . . .
Terry: 29:58 I’m not sure if it is backwards, or just so unpractical, that . . . I mean, it is hard to turn the other cheek, when the other guy has a machete, I see that!
Malcolm: 30:14 If you were going to recommend something that Dorothy Day wrote that would give people a good introduction to her body of writings, what would you recommend?
Terry: 30:24 Her classic work is The Long Loneliness, and if people want to take that up . . . but the book that I really like a lot is her first attempt at an autobiography, which was called From Union Square to Rome. Union Square was the place in New York City where there would always be protests by the communists and socialists, and she was part of that, but then she moved to “Rome”; it is written as a letter to her brother John, who was a communist, explaining her conversion, explaining why she entered the Catholic Church, and what the Catholic Church has to say on different social issues. It has a beautiful reflection on the Real Presence. I like that book a lot. It is shorter than The Long Loneliness, it is written closer to the time of her entering the Church and founding the Catholic Worker, so it has more of an immediacy in that sense. There is also a collection of her writings published by Orbis Books called something like the selected writings of Dorothy Day that draws on a lot of her writings and organizes them coherently if people are looking for what she says on different topics. That’s a nice place to start also.
Malcolm: 32:02 Since we’re getting close to wrapping up here, what would be a good practical take-away for listeners? If they are inspired by Dorothy Day’s witness and service and voluntary poverty, what could they do in their lives, what are some practical things they could do?
Terry: 32:21 Well, I think part of it is just recognizing the other as having value. It is very easy to pass people on the street and not think of that. I think the simplicity of life, but also in just sort of going back to St. Therese of Lisieux, the importance of the Little Way, being very intentional in how one is dealing with people, living life recognizing the importance of those small acts of love. Day recognized that not everyone is cut out to go live in a Catholic Worker House. Particularly if you are married and have a family, that may not be the option for you, but just bringing that awareness of the other into choices that you make, how you interact with people, the choices you make in the things you buy: are you really thinking about whether this is made by somebody who is being exploited, and should you be buying this. So there is a whole way of thinking very intentionally about how you are living your life; what is the impact of this choice on other people? She was very concerned about the injustice of the exploitation of the workers; if one can’t own this without exploiting somebody else, then one shouldn’t own this! So I think we could all be much more deliberate about how we think through those kinds of choices that we make.
Malcolm: 34:06 Thanks so much for joining us, Terry, it was great having you!
Terry: Thank you! Those were a lot of good questions. Thank you very much.