I had missed in the Sunday Times the editorials by Maureen Dowd and Nicholas Kristof supporting the nuns of LCWR in their Vatican-initiated struggle. I never got to the editorial page Sunday; fortunately while having dinner with friends Sunday evening the subject came up and the newspaper was produced and the essays read. I would encourage you to go on line and read them too. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/opinion/sunday/kristof-we-are-all-nuns.html?_r=1 (Kristof) and http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/opinion/sunday/dowd-bishops-play-church-queens-as-pawns.html?ref=maureendowd (Maureen Dowd). But that is not what I want to write about today. The article I did catch in the Times celebrates the 79 years of the Catholic Worker Movement led by Servant of God, Dorothy Day. The “Servant of God” title comes from her cause for sainthood—something she never wanted and actively disdained—having been introduced into the Catholic Church.
Day is a most improbable saint—which is how she saw herself. It is not that she wasn’t a holy woman but more that her holiness doesn’t easily fit into the institutional packaging of John Paul II/Benedict XVI Catholicism. If today’s Vatican has issues with today’s good nuns, I can’t imagine how it would cope with Dorothy Day.
Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was born into a middle class WASP family with very little religious interest. Her father was a journalist—as she herself would later become. While still in her teens she would be reading socialist and communist authors. (There is a difference between socialism and communism, something of which many semi-literates of the modern right seem to be ignorant. That is not to cushion Dorothy’s views—Day would move far to the left of main-stream socialism even in her Catholic years.) Returning to New York before she was twenty, she wrote for a number of socialist newspapers and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (the ‘Wobblies.’) That wasn’t the worst of it; this was the time of World War I and Day was an ardent pacifist as well as working for women’s suffrage.
Day’s family was nominally Episcopalian but rarely attended Church. nevertheless, Dorothy herself showed a curious interest in religion from an early age. She was fascinated by the bible and while still a young girl began attending Episcopalian services and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. What she loved and what drew her was the liturgy. She was not one to buy the party line, however, however, and although she attended Church she considered herself an agnostic. In her New York years she became increasingly bohemian in her lifestyle entering into a common law marriage and having at least one abortion. Her partner, Forster Batterham, was, like her, a social activist, but he was also a scientist and had an intemperate contempt for anything religious. Though deeply in love with Batterham, Dorothy found herself drawn to religious practice. As so many of the immigrant poor whose cause she championed were Catholic, she found herself attending Mass when she wanted to attend church. She remembered the psalms and canticle from the Episcopal liturgy of her younger days and found herself praying them again. She was given a rosary and began to say it. Her spiritual growth put her at odds with Batterham and the relationship become somewhat on-again, off-again. When she became pregnant and refused to have another abortion, Batterham left her, He tried to come back after the birth of their daughter, but Dorothy refused him.
Dorothy met a Sister of Charity (one of the groups now affiliated with LCWR), Sister Aloysius, on the street and spontaneously asked about how to go about having the child baptized. Sister Aloysius arranged for the baptism (see, even in those days the Charities were radical) and Dorothy named her daughter Tamara Teresa. Dorothy had read the autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux—at that time the spiritual best-seller of the day—while in the maternity hospital and this increased her bond with the Catholic Church. Dorothy herself was received into the Catholic Church in December the following year (1927).
In 1932 Dorothy met Peter Maurin, a vagabond French immigrant who had briefly been a de la Salle Christian Brother. Maurin was without much formal education but had a brilliant mind and was widely read. He knew the Fathers of the Church, the papal encyclicals of the previous half-century, and had a natural bent for sociology. He was even more radical than Dorothy. Maurin also had a deep spirituality very much modeled on the radical vision of Saint Francis of Assisi who had renounced the comfortable life-style of his family to live among the poor as one of them in order to preach the Gospel with credibility. Day and Maurin began publishing a penny-newspaper, The Catholic Worker, 79 years ago today, May 1, 1933. Building on the foundation of papal social teaching and Christian pacificism they opened the first Catholic Worker House, a “house of hospitality,” a voluntary community of Catholics who lived in poverty welcoming the poor to share what little they themselves had. By 1941 and the outbreak of World War II, there were over thirty of these communities across the United States. Today there are several hundred in the U.S., Europe, and Australia.
Day became a Benedictine oblate—that is a lay affiliate of the Benedictine Order of monks and nuns and this anchored her spirituality in an ancient tradition. In many ways the Benedictine charism is stamped into the identity of the Catholic Worker Houses. Her radical ideas—the renunciation of private property and advocacy of what might be called a Catholic socialism, her pacifism, and her independence of Church authority made her highly suspect in many Catholic circles of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, but the Second Vatican Council vindicated her vision of what the Church is called to be. Cardinal Spellman had tried to force her to drop the word “Catholic” from her newspaper and movement since they were not under ecclesiastical supervision. (Today, I must admit, I would probably back Spellman on this issue and I guess I need to give this some thought when I say that Michael Voris should be forced to drop the word “Catholic” form his internet-television project. Blades have to cut both ways. At the end of the day, I think Voris’ claims of Catholicity forces me to side with Spellman.) However, Paul VI invited her to be among the lay observers for the final session of Vatican II in the autumn of 1965.
Day’s final years were a time of recognition for her prophetic words and action in the Church. Ironically, fifty years ago she was far to the left of these “radical nuns” of LCWR yet the Church came ‘round and the Gospel won out. It will win out again. The Holy Spirit always has to swim against the current when She is forced to deal with Church bureaucracy but in the end God Triumphs and men surrender.
Dorothy Day died in 1980 in New York City and Cardinal Cooke introduced her cause for beatification in 1983. She had always declared that she did not want to be “trivialized” by being made a saint. And she was much better in flesh and blood on the streets with the poor and she could ever be in plaster in a darkened nook of some suburban church.