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.
By John Loughery and Blyth Randolph
Simon & Schuster; 448 pages
March 3, 2020
Hardcover: $30.00; E-book: $14.99
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.
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.