Dorothy Day: Saint or Crank?

First in a two-part series on the troubling legacy of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker.

By John Zmirak Published on October 2, 2015

One of the four Americans Pope Francis held up as an example during his speech before Congress was Catholic poverty activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980). While Day herself once scornfully said, “Don’t trivialize me by trying to make me a saint,” she has in fact been singled out by the Vatican as precisely that: a potential future saint — provided that her life and her public statements stand up to scrutiny,  and its found that two miracles have occurred as a result of prayers for her intercession. (That’s our Catholic version of empirical, laboratory testing!) Kathryn Jean Lopez recently effused about Day in National Review, and New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan is a big booster of her “cause” for canonization.

It is easy to see why Day’s personal story inspires many. Like Margaret Sanger, she was appalled by urban poverty, in an era where there was no effective safety net for the jobless and sick. But instead of Sanger’s top-down eugenics solution — reduce poverty by culling the poor — Day sought to better the conditions and wages of workers so that they could support their families in dignity. Like Sanger, Day began her adult life as a sexually “liberated” secular intellectual. But the experience of having an abortion changed Day profoundly, and turned her into a lifelong opponent of that cruel procedure. Having spent her formative years as a full-on supporter of the Communist Party, Day found her way to faith. It’s no surprise that Day seems like the most “relevant” American Catholic to many in our times, when we face angry cries about “inequality” and divisive culture wars that obscure rational discussion of sexual ethics.

Those aspects of Dorothy Day’s story are inspiring. But we don’t canonize every pro-life American ex-Communist, or else there would be moves to make a saint of the late Irving Kristol. There is much else that is distinctive about the thought of Dorothy Day — and much of it is troubling.

The movement that Day founded upon her conversion, The Catholic Worker, is held up by many today as an alternative both to socialism and capitalism. Those who think that the Catholic church prescribes its own “third way” (it doesn’t, and can’t) like to cite Dorothy Day’s moralizing statements about economics. That crucial topic was something which Day learned about only third-hand, through her reading of Peter Maurin, an eccentric autodidact whose home-made economic ideas in turn were mostly drawn from G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc’s “distributism.”

Distributism is a speculative (i.e., never-been-tried) economic system which proposes that the government break up large businesses and agribusinesses into tiny, mom-and-pop shops and subsistence farms, then heavily regulate every sector of the economy to make sure that no large (i.e., successful) businesses or farms emerge ever again. We must do this in service of “true freedom,” so that none of us need be “wage slaves” — that is, employees — ever again. Instead — with the help of federal agencies that make it illegal to operate or shop at wicked, exploitative chains like Hobby Lobby, In-N-Out Burger, or Chick-Fil-A — we will restore the kind of economic utopia enjoyed in the Middle Ages before the wicked, pro-capitalist Reformation spoiled everything.

Perhaps this quote from Day will make the Distributist program clearer:

We believe in widespread private property, the de-proletarianizing of our American people. We believe in the individual owning the means of production, the land and his tools. We are opposed to the “finance capitalism” so justly criticized and condemned by Karl Marx but we believe there can be a Christian capitalism as there can be a Christian Communism.

Of course, that “widespread private property” which Distributists crave can only be widely spread by the heavy hand of government coercion, with the threat of police and prison terms backing a confiscation and redistribution by the State — which of course, right after that, would simply wither away. Because that always happens.

What Draws Us to Day

Friends of mine find Day’s story convenient to cite, they say, when they’re trying to attract hard-core leftists to Christianity. In fact, Day’s usefulness as gospel-bait for lefties is probably the main reason that she is cited so often by Catholics eager to reach out across the lines in the culture war.

They should cut it out. Hard-core leftists aren’t ready to become Christians, any more than hard-core racists are, which is why we don’t do outreach to skinheads by citing the devout Christian Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson. (At least, we shouldn’t. If some of you out there are trying this, please quit it!) Jackson’s support for slavery was a blot on his otherwise praiseworthy Christian witness, not a bridge we can use to draw white separatists closer to Jesus. Likewise a stain on Dorothy Day’s putative sanctity was her lifelong love affair with the radical left. We can see evidence of this passion in the editorials she penned for the newspaper she founded, The Catholic Worker, and ran for many decades, and as clear as day in her autobiography — which really should only be read alongside Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

Day’s The Long Loneliness (1952) recounts the journey of a young, idealistic Christian into Communism, then back out again into some form of Christian witness. Day’s conversion back to Christianity, after an anguished life of largely futile activism and failed romantic attachments, seems quite sincere.

And indeed, the ideals preached by the Catholic Worker in its chain of soup kitchens are a vast improvement upon any socialist movement that advocates the use of coercive violence by the state. This is true even though few local chapters of the Catholic Worker by the time of their founder’s death could really be considered doctrinally Christian; instead most of them were overwhelmed, like the New York Catholic Worker which I visited in the 1990s, with all-purpose secular leftists who would otherwise have joined the Peace Corps.

Still, there are some very dark threads that run through Day’s life and opinions, which begin before her embrace of socialism and carry on long past her acceptance of Christianity, and ought to trouble the people who are already painting icons of “saint” Dorothy Day. These threads connect her to other figures who have embraced revolutionary movements, left and right, and they profoundly disfigure her witness — as I will show in Part Two.

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