[ A new book charts the life and legacy of the writer and
activist, cofounder of the radical Catholic Worker movement that aimed
to aid the poor and whom some hope will be made a saint.]
[https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 DOROTHY DAY’S RADICAL FAITH  
[https://portside.org/2020-04-16/dorothy-days-radical-faith] 

 

 Casey Cep 
 April 6, 2020
The New Yorker
[https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/13/dorothy-days-radical-faith]


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 _ A new book charts the life and legacy of the writer and activist,
cofounder of the radical Catholic Worker movement that aimed to aid
the poor and whom some hope will be made a saint. _ 

 Dorothy Day, devout and left-wing, believed we needed "a revolution
of the heart.", Photograph from Bob Fitch Photography Archive /
Department of Special Collections / Stanford University Libraries 

 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation didn’t know what to do about
Dorothy Day. It was 1941, and Director J. Edgar Hoover was concerned
about Day’s onetime communism, sometime socialism, and all-the-time
anarchism. After months of investigating—interviewing her known
associates, obtaining her driving record and vital statistics,
collecting her clips from newspaper morgues, and reviewing the first
of her autobiographies, “From Union Square to Rome” (“an
interesting, running account of the life of the authoress”)—the
F.B.I. decided that the subject of Bureau File 100-2403-1 would not
need to be detained in the event of a national emergency. Day would
have disagreed with them: not because she felt she was dangerous but
because she knew that the nation was already in an emergency, and had
been for some time.

The emergency was poverty, and Day had been alarmed by it her whole
life. She first encountered it in the slums of Chicago, where she
lived as a teen-ager, and she saw it all around her in New York City,
where she moved after dropping out of college, and lived for more than
six decades. Even before the Great Depression, Day had been sensitive
to the plight of the poor, a sensitivity that ultimately shaped her
calling. At thirty, she converted to Catholicism. In the years that
followed, she started a radical newspaper and began opening what she
called “houses of hospitality” for those who needed something to
eat and somewhere to stay.

Eventually, Day’s Catholic Worker Movement would serve the poor in
more than two hundred communities. Under her guidance, it would also
develop a curiously dichotomous political agenda, taking prophetic
stands against racial segregation, nuclear warfare, the draft, and
armed conflict around the world, while opposing abortion, birth
control, and the welfare state. That dichotomy seems especially stark
today, when most people’s beliefs come more neatly packaged by
partisan affiliation. But by the time she died, in 1980, Day had
become one of the most prominent thinkers of the left and doers of the
right. In her lifetime, it was the secularists—including Dwight
Macdonald, in a two-part Profile published in this magazine, in
1952—who called Day a saint. Now, though, the cause of her sainthood
is officially advancing within the Catholic Church, a development that
has occasioned a new biography and a documentary, both of which
explore the contentious question of who owns her legacy.

She wasn’t sure if she was afraid of God or the ground, but the
nightmares Dorothy Day had as a child featured a noise that got louder
and nearer until she woke up sweaty and terrified. She had been born
in New York, in 1897, but her family relocated to California in 1904,
and they were living in Oakland two years later, when the San
Francisco earthquake struck. That tragedy changed Day’s life in two
ways. First, it affirmed her preëxisting fears about annihilation,
while simultaneously stirring in her a theory of mercy based on her
mother’s nightly reassurances and the broader response of
collectivity and charity. Why, she wondered, couldn’t the community
care for all its members so generously the rest of the time? The
second change was more pragmatic: her father, John, was a sportswriter
who could barely support his wife and five children on his salary, so
when the earthquake destroyed the press that printed his newspaper he
moved the family again, this time to Chicago.

John and Grace, his wife, had been married in a church, but they never
took their children to worship. Even so, Dorothy, their middle
daughter, was a pious child who read Scripture as ravenously as novels
and watched with interest as her friends and their families prayed. At
twelve, she demanded to be baptized at a nearby Episcopal church; in
high school, she learned Greek and practiced her translation skills on
the New Testament. She tested her way into a scholarship at the
University of Illinois, where she matriculated not long after the
socialist Eugene Debs got nearly a million votes in the 1912
Presidential election. Like many other students, she was drawn to the
college Socialist Club, which is where she heard a lecture by Rose
Pastor Stokes, a feminist who went on to help found the Communist
Party of America.

 

Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Centur
[https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Dorothy-Day/John-Loughery/9781982103491]y

By John Loughery and Blyth Randolph
Simon & Schuster; 448 pages
March 3, 2020
Hardcover: $30.00; E-book:  $14.99
ISBN-10: 1982103493
ISBN-13: 978-1982103491
 

Simon & Schuster
 

 

Politics change like the weather, and this era of falling atmospheric
pressure is nicely captured in “Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the
American Century,” a new biography co-written by John Loughery and
Blythe Randolph. It was the great age of “isms,” especially on
American campuses, and at first Day enthusiastically embraced them.
Her family had always been financially marginal, and that left her
receptive to all politics that prioritized the poor; at the same time,
a rising atheism and anti-authoritarianism left her eager to cast off
her religious faith, which her comrades regarded as risible. She
joined a literary club called the Scribblers and submitted work to a
magazine and a newspaper on campus, along with the local paper in
Urbana–Champaign. Her writing was more impressive than her grades,
which included an F in biology, so, when her family moved back to New
York, Day dropped out and went with them.

Day’s father had helped her brothers find journalism jobs, but he
refused to help her, so she was left to knock on the doors of papers
around the city. When that failed, she remembered the alternative
media and leftist publications she had learned about on campus, and
found a job with the _Call_, a socialist daily in which her first
byline appeared under the headline “Girl Reporter, with Three Cents
in Her Purse, Braves Night Court.” A few weeks later, she
interviewed Leon Trotsky, who was then living in the Bronx. After
that, she managed to craft a feature from a three-minute conversation
with Margaret Sanger’s sister, newly released from prison and
desperate to drum up support for the American Birth Control League.

In between writing for every radical outlet in town, Day palled around
with Marxists, got arrested for picketing the White House with the
suffragists, and took a billy club in the ribs at an antiwar riot.
“Bohemian” doesn’t begin to describe Day’s life in this
period. Her drinking was legendary, even by Greenwich Village
standards; the literary critic Malcolm Cowley claimed, in his memoir,
that Day could hold her liquor better than most gangsters. Some of
that drinking took place during Prohibition, and was thus illegal, and
much of it took place at a bar alternately known as the Hell Hole and
the Bucket o’ Blood. Day’s friends were all writing books or
appearing in them, and she was said to be the model for characters in
“The Malefactors,” by her onetime roommate the novelist Caroline
Gordon, and in “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” by her onetime lover
the playwright Eugene O’Neill.

Day herself wrote a book during this time: an autobiographical novel
called “The Eleventh Virgin,” published in 1924. It told the story
of a disastrous affair she’d had with an older writer, which ended
after she attempted suicide and had an illegal abortion, a procedure
performed by an ex-boyfriend of the anarchist Emma Goldman. Day wrote
the novel while honeymooning in Europe with a different man. The
rebound ended no better than the previous relationship: one morning,
Day took off her wedding ring, left it on the bureau, and walked out
of the marriage.

From left, Cesar Chavez, Coretta Scott King and Dorothy Day at a
service for farm workers at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in
New York, 1973.
Credit: Librado Romero/The New York Times.
 

 

She moved back to Chicago, where she took jobs in a department store,
at a library, in a restaurant, and as an artist’s model. Her
employment was erratic, but her politics were consistent. When the
Chicago police raided the Industrial Workers of the World boarding
house, Day was there, and got arrested for prostitution—only because
the police couldn’t arrest people for socialism. She was released
from jail a week later, and eventually made her way back to New York.

There Day fell in love with a man named Forster Batterham. After the
abortion, she assumed that she could not have children, and so was
astonished when she became pregnant, then awed by the birth of a
daughter, Tamar Teresa, in 1926. Without consulting Batterham, an
atheist, she stopped a nun on the street and asked to have the baby
baptized. Plenty of new parents are inspired to return to religion,
and Day would later write of how God had long haunted her life, but
she could never fully explain why she was so suddenly and urgently
drawn to Catholicism. The nun she stopped, Sister Aloysia Mary
Mulhern, didn’t agree to the baptism right away, because Day was not
yet Catholic; over the next few months, the pair studied the catechism
together, and talked about the faith into which the activist had
become convinced that she and her daughter needed to be received.

Batterham did not believe in marriage, and, after converting to
Catholicism, Day left him. Then she met someone else: a
fellow-Catholic named Peter Maurin, who, although never romantically
involved with Day, was, in the deepest sense, her soul mate. Maurin
liked to call himself a French peasant but in reality he was equal
parts philosopher, troubadour, and troublemaker. He had heard about
Day from some other Catholic radicals and was waiting in her apartment
when she came home one day in December, 1932. Most people would have
called the police, but she listened patiently as he expounded on his
many ideas and theories and dreams and programs and plans.

Day had just returned from covering the Communist Party’s hunger
march in Washington, D.C. What Maurin couldn’t have known is that,
before leaving the city, she had gone to the basilica at Catholic
University and prayed to find a way to alleviate the suffering of the
hungry. The country was three years into the Great Depression, and Day
worried that her writing was not doing enough to help; it seemed
obvious that Maurin was the answer to her prayer. She quickly agreed
to the first of many of his ideas: a newspaper to serve the poor.

The first issue of the _Catholic Worker_ came out on May Day, 1933,
and asked, “Is it not possible to be radical and not atheist?” A
religious press printed twenty-five hundred copies, and, at a time
when the economy was so constricted that there were literally no new
nickels and dimes in circulation, Day sold the paper for a penny each
in Union Square. She had written most of its eight pages
herself—arts coverage, exposés on child labor and racial
discrimination, an article about the Scottsboro Boys going to trial,
and a list of upcoming strikes for those who wanted to support the
labor movement. The editors confessed that it wasn’t “yet known
whether it will be a monthly, a fortnightly, or a weekly,” since
they had no idea if any subscriptions or donations would follow.

Trusting in what Christ preached about the lilies of the field, Day
and Maurin focussed on the present, letting God provide for their
future. That didn’t mean money wasn’t an issue; it always was.
They wouldn’t hoard it, so an endowment was a nonstarter, and
relying on government funds was anathema to them both, so they often
went begging, which they felt helped them live in solidarity with
those they served. Grocery bills, printer’s bills, electric bills:
they asked for money to pay them all, and for extensions or
forgiveness when they could not. (Years later, when they faced a
substantial fine from the city for the allegedly slumlike and
hazardous conditions of their headquarters, the entire amount was paid
by W. H. Auden.)

Day and Maurin sent the _Catholic Worker_ to parishes and priests
around the country, and it soon had a circulation of a hundred
thousand. They published the paper monthly, and it became a mixture of
articles that Day thought would promote and influence the political
left and what Maurin called his “easy essays,” prose poems that
amounted to aphorisms: “The world would be better off / if people
tried to become better. / And people would become better / if they
stopped trying to become better off.”

It was Maurin who began writing about how the early followers of Jesus
had kept “Christ rooms” in their homes, offering rest and
hospitality to strangers. He lamented the end of that culture of
welcome, and implored priests and bishops to use their rectories and
diocesan properties for such a purpose. With more than ten million
Americans unemployed, more than half the country living below the
poverty line, and two million people without homes, Maurin asked why
the Catholic Church wasn’t doing more to address the crisis. The
newspaper had secured an office and enough of a budget that he and Day
could occasionally rent apartments for people who had been laid off.
But there were more than twenty thousand people living on the street
in New York City alone, and the Catholic Workers, as the paper’s
writers and readers came to call themselves, knew that far more
sweeping action was needed.

In the winter of 1934, Day and Maurin rented a four-story,
eleven-bedroom building on Charles Street, the first of their
hospitality houses. From the start, the Catholic Workers served the
sorts of individuals even other social reformers might not have
allowed through the door: the mentally ill, the drunk, the offensive,
the disobedient, the ungrateful. When challenged by another Catholic
activist about an encounter with a racist and anti-Semitic guest on
Charles Street, Day said she would not remove him: “He, after all,
is Christ.” The man, an alcoholic with dementia, lived with the
Catholic Workers until he died.

Within a few years, there were thirty-two hospitality houses, from
Buffalo and Baltimore to St. Louis and Seattle. Day and Maurin
continued to publish their newspaper and to organize for labor rights,
racial integration, and radical equality. Hardly a protest took place
in New York without at least a few Catholic Workers showing up. Not
even the Bishop of Rome was spared: when the gravediggers of Calvary
Cemetery went on strike against the trustees of St. Patrick’s
Cathedral and the Archbishop of New York, the workers supported them,
including by picketing the office of the chancery. The Church
hierarchy was even more vexed by Day’s pacificism, which was so
unpopular during the Second World War that the newspaper’s
circulation collapsed and Church officials tried to have
“Catholic” removed from its title.

But Dorothy Day was always equal parts “Catholic” and
“worker.” Many followers of the Pope found her politics
inconvenient and offensive; many leftists thought her faith oppressive
and absurd. Day’s family initially mistook her conversion for an
emotional crisis, and her friends suspected that she had simply traded
her political fanaticism for the religious variety; both camps were
surprised when it lasted. Had Day been an anodyne Protestant or an
agnostic Unitarian, her spirituality would have raised fewer eyebrows,
but she opted in to what many of her friends regarded as the most
regressive and patriarchal institution outside of the federal
government.

That government, by contrast, was somewhat assuaged by Day’s
religiosity. Part of what kept her F.B.I. file from getting any larger
was the assurances offered by the very hierarchy her leftist friends
so despised: as one agent noted, “Church officials believe her to be
an honest and sincere Catholic.” That was putting it mildly: Day
took to the Rosary and the saints, the confession and the liturgy, the
miracles and the sacraments as, to quote the psalmist, a deer longs
for flowing streams. She felt that the Church had cured her alienation
and isolation, drawing her into fellowship with a community of living
souls. “We cannot love God,” Day wrote in her memoir “The Long
Loneliness,” published in 1952, “unless we love each other, and to
love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread,
and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone
any more.”

It wasn’t all balm, though. Day had reservations about Catholic
dogma, was dismayed by the faith’s history of impieties and
intolerance, and, above all, had no patience for its failures to live
up to Christ’s core teachings. Still, to her mind, her politics were
not contradicted but confirmed by the Catholic Church, both in the
Gospels and in two of the most consequential encyclicals of the
post-industrial age. The first, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 “Rerum
Novarum,” praised labor unions and called for reforming capitalism,
asserting that “some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the
misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the
working class.” The second, Pope Pius XI’s “Quadragesimo
Anno,” delivered forty years later, affirmed the earlier teaching
and called for a new economy based on solidarity and subsidiarity.
Both encyclicals showed a respectful apprehension about the role of
the state, believing that it should not interfere in the private lives
of its citizens or usurp the moral authority of the Church. This
explained Day’s ongoing anarchism and her hostility to government
welfare programs, which she pilloried as a “sop thrown to the
proletariat.”

To the socialists and communists who stood with Day on the picket
lines and protested with her in front of statehouses and corporate
headquarters, such teachings seemed as nonsensical as the Immaculate
Conception. And her distance from would-be allies only increased
during the sixties and seventies. Although she had been plenty
countercultural in her own youth, she disapproved of the drug use,
sexual promiscuity, and general disdain for authority that came with
hippie culture. Many of the young people who showed up at the houses
of hospitality—and at the kibbutz-like communal farms the Catholic
Worker Movement tried to establish—did not even know who Day was,
and they were as confounded as the old left had been by her joy in the
ritual of worship and her solace in the habit of prayer. But what most
alienated Day from her fellow-radicals was her conviction that what
was needed was not a violent revolution but “a revolution of the
heart,” as she called it: an ability to see Christ in others, and to
love others as God loves us.

As the years passed, faith and radicalism, which coexisted so
seamlessly in Day herself, grew further and further apart in the outer
world. The left wanted less heart and more revolution; the faithful,
less revolution and more heart. Day wanted what she always had:
justice for the poor and peace for all. There was an admirable
consistency, perhaps even obstinacy, in much of her political life: in
the nineteen-tens, she had picketed for suffrage; in the twenties and
thirties, she had marched for the hungry; in the forties, she
criticized the government for the internment of Japanese-Americans; in
the fifties, she refused to participate in civil-defense drills and
protested nuclear proliferation; in the sixties, she denounced the
Vietnam War, inspiring the men of the Catholic Worker Movement to
become the first in America to burn their draft cards; in the
seventies (and in her seventies), she was standing with Cesar
Chavez’s farm laborers in California when she was arrested for the
last time.

Yet, for almost every one of those stands, she took others that she or
history or both later judged less kindly. Day defended the Catholic
Church’s sexual ethics at the ongoing expense of those who sought
abortions like the one she’d had, needed the birth control she’d
once used, were abused by their priests, or were discriminated against
because of their sexual orientation. She opposed Social Security,
believing it to be overreach by the state, then lived long enough to
watch it save many senior citizens from financial ruin. She saw the
atrocities of the Holocaust ended by the Allies through the global
conflict she had opposed, and she witnessed the sufferings caused by
the Cuban Revolution, which she had praised.

In the early years of the Catholic Worker Movement, Day joked that she
wrote down how much money came in and how much money went out but
never reconciled the two columns—which is more or less how she lived
her life. Unfortunately, it also more or less describes Loughery and
Randolph’s biography: a comprehensive, chronological account that
never arrives at a meaningful summation of the life it chronicles. It
doesn’t go much beyond what has been written before: by Day herself
in her memoirs; in collections of her letters and diaries, carefully
edited by Robert Ellsberg, the managing editor of the _Catholic
Worker_ in the late seventies and the son of the Pentagon Papers
whistle-blower; and in the biographies “Dorothy Day: The World Will
Be Saved by Beauty” (Scribner), by her youngest granddaughter, Kate
Hennessy, and “Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion” (Da Capo Press), a
perceptive portrait by the Catholic Worker turned psychiatrist Robert
Coles.

A more compelling addition to the many studies of Day is Martin
Doblmeier’s new documentary, “Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy
Day Story,” the latest in his “Prophet Voices” series, which has
already featured films about the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and
Howard Thurman. (The movie aired on PBS last month and is now
available on PBS.org.) Admiring without being hagiographic—an
obvious temptation with the life of a putative saint—it’s a fine
example of what Day herself was always extolling: a kind of
personalist experience whereby our hearts are changed not by airtight
argument or moral perfection but by direct encounters with human needs
and those who rise to meet them.

Both the documentary and the biography attempt to sate the curiosity
of a public newly aware of Day because of the effort to have her
sainted. Not everyone is pleased by that possibility. Loughery and
Randolph write that some conservatives are “horrified at the
prospect of canonizing a woman who had an abortion and a child out of
wedlock and who condemned capitalism far more frequently and
vehemently than she condemned Marxism-Leninism,” while some
progressives “fear the loss of her radical edge,” believing that
sainthood “would be antithetical to her very uninstitutional,
anti-hierarchical approach to spiritual growth and social change.”

That controversy reflects the continuing animosity between the two
central aspects of Day’s identity. The Catholic Worker Movement
still exists, with nearly two hundred houses of hospitality around the
world and a newspaper that is still published and sold for a penny
(plus postage if you take it by mail), and it still evangelizes for
the “personalist” approach—those revolutions of the heart. But
Day’s influence is also felt in the Democratic Socialists of
America, the insurgent political organization that was founded in the
nineteen-seventies by Michael Harrington, who had been an editor at
the _Catholic Worker_ in the early fifties, but who left after
losing his faith. He went on to publish “The Other America: Poverty
in the United States,” which became the basis for John F. Kennedy
and Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Unlike Day, who fought for
suffrage but never voted, the D.S.A. has poured a great deal of its
energy into electoral politics to change not only hearts, but parties
and systems.

Needless to say, neither approach, personalist or structural, has
succeeded. Even before the coronavirus devastated our economy and
added millions to the unemployment rolls, half a million Americans
were homeless, twenty-seven million lacked health insurance,
thirty-eight million lived in poverty, and forty million relied on the
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which the current
Administration is trying to cut. In the face of that national
emergency, one suspects that Day would insist that no one is the
rightful owner of her legacy, because, as yet, no one has fulfilled
it. Stop talking about me, she’d almost certainly say, and start
talking about the poor.

_[Essayist  CASEY CEP is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her first
book, “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper
Lee
[https://www.amazon.com/Furious-Hours-Murder-Fraud-Harper/dp/1101947861?ots=1&slotNum=0&imprToken=d4b8bcc4-e041-7a7d-933&tag=thneyo0f-20&linkCode=w50],”
was published in May 2019.]_

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