Dorothy Day: The Both/And Servant
“Don’t call me a saint….”, Dorothy Day once quipped, and some are happy to oblige. They wonder why Dorothy’s cause for canonization is moving forward. After all, how can a spitfire, twentieth-century social activist, who participated in labor strikes, protested war and abortion, went to prison, and complained that the church wasn’t paying enough attention to its own teachings be listed alongside holy mystics and contemplatives?
Even decades after her death Dorothy remains an enigma. We can’t easily pigeonhole her, either as an activist, a liberal, a conservative, a Democrat, a Republican, or a libertarian. Those on the political left balk at her condemnation of abortion and contraception, and her unwavering devotion to the Church. Those on the right chill at her socialist sympathies, her anti-war stance, and her pre-conversion abortion.
Yet as Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced at a 2012 gathering of bishops, “I am convinced [Dorothy] is a saint for our time. She exemplifies what’s best in Catholic life, that ability we have to be ‘both-and’ not ‘either-or.’"
In Dorothy’s view, the Church’s social teachings form a complete, indivisible package. We have only two choices: either we accept the whole gift or we reject it all. The only thing we can’t do is fragment it, taking it piecemeal and dismissing those parts that conflict with our political or social views. To paraphrase St. Augustine, "If you believe what you like in Catholic social teaching, and reject what you don't like, it is not Catholic social teaching you believe, but yourself."
Dorothy’s coherent devotion to Catholic social teaching makes her a bridge between different groups in the Church. Vatican reporter John Allen Jr. observes, “The church at the grass roots in the United States has been badly splintered into a kind of peace-and-justice crowd on the left and a pro-life crowd on the right. Day is one of those few figures who has traction in both those groups.”
So who was Dorothy Day? Dorothy was born on November 8, 1897. She was raised in a non-religious home and quickly developed a keen sense of poverty and suffering. Her family lost almost everything in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and, after moving to Chicago, she frequented the depressed streets of the West side. Those experiences crystalized her life's calling. Walking the streets, and pondering the poor, she sensed a desire to live alongside them: "From that time on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests would be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in life."
After converting to Catholicism in 1926, and participating in many protests, pickets, and activist campaigns, Dorothy co-founded The Catholic Worker newspaper with the itinerant French philosopher, Peter Maurin. The partners intended the paper to explain Catholic social teaching in accessible language, using stories, poems, and essays in order to inspire laymen, clergy, and even bishops to cultivate a society where it was "easier to be good." Day and Maurin marketed the paper to working men and women, selling it near factories and bustling town squares for just one penny, the same price it remains today. Within six months they were printing over 100,000 copies.
What started as the effort of a newly converted laywoman and a French radical soon became a movement. The newspaper blossomed into Catholic Worker communities and houses all over the world, which to this day center themselves on hospitality, non-violence, workers’ rights, and solidarity with the poor.
Alongside her activism in support of the poor, Dorothy also displayed an intense spiritual commitment. Each day she attended Mass, prayed her Rosary, and prayed the divine office. She staunchly opposed contraception and abortion, neither of which were popular positions in the mid-twentieth century. She regularly credited the intercession of saints and her reliance on the Mystical Body of Christ for any success she had.
For Dorothy, worshipping God and serving the poor were intertwined. Right worship leads to right service. She was unashamed of seeing the world’s problems through a Catholic lens: "If I have achieved anything in my life," she once remarked, "it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God."
In our hyper-polarized world, where many of us identify as conservative or liberal, "pro-life" or "peace and justice", spiritual or active, may we learn from Dorothy Day to embrace Catholic life as a whole, to become both/and Catholics who assimilate all that is good and praiseworthy.
Adapted from Brandon Vogt's book, The Saints and Social Justice: A Guide to Changing the World.