De-Politicizing Dorothy – Thoughts on the canonization of Dorothy Day

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 18, Advent 2000

By Jo Roberts

Earlier this year, the Holy See approved the late Cardinal O’Connor’s request to ‘open the cause for the Beatification and Canonization of Dorothy Day’ in his New York Archdiocese.

Talk of Dorothy’s canonization has bee floating around since her death in 1980: it seemed inevitable that one day she would officially be declared a saint. Dorothy, co-founder with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker Movement, is perhaps the most influential lay Catholic of the last century. As a woman of faith, in her writings and in her life she spoke out and acted against social injustice and worked to alleviate its effects. She has been and continues to be a tremendous influence on very many people.

Personally, although I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it, the talk about making Dorothy a saint seemed to me to miss the point. I didn’t want to see her up on a pedestal. The Catholic Worker is a lay movement, of ordinary people doing something very simple—performing the works of mercy. If Dorothy was a saint, then her work, our work, becomes rarified. It’s hard enough in this culture to try and embrace simplicity and service without feeling that you have to be saint to do it. Dorothy herself was acutely aware of this dynamic: ‘All this talk about saints is a very subtle way of attacking the temporal aims of the Catholic Worker… dismissing us as quite beyond anyone’s acceptance or imitation,’ she warned.

But Cardinal O’Connor shocked me into paying more attention. In his article in Catholic New York (March 16, 2000), he wrote:

…Her complete commitment to pacifism in imitation of Christ often separated her from these political ideologies [communism, socialism, and anarchism]. She rejected all military force; she rejected aid to force in any way in a most idealistic manner. So much were her ‘politics’ based on an ideology of nonviolence that they may be said to be apolitical.

This last statement is simply not true. Would Ghandi have described his ideology of nonviolence as ‘apolitical’? More particularly, the charism of the Catholic Worker is precisely Dorothy and Peter’s unique and specific fusion of faith with politics. That’s why I came to the movement, back in 1988, and that’s why I stayed. When I look back on Dorothy’s life, I see her devotion to Gospel nonviolence leading her again and again into critical engagement with the principalities and powers of our age—protesting with striking workers in the ‘30s and ‘40s, she was compelled to act. She was a fighter, a radical, a pain in the ass to this ‘filthy rotten system.’ She was indeed a ‘modern-day devoted daughter of the Church,’ as the Cardinal has called her—she had a great devotion to the saints as exemplars of the Christian life, and her political activism was grounded in the daily rituals of Mass and praying the Rosary—but she never hesitated to challenge the Church when she felt it was necessary. Indeed, she believed that ‘We must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church.’

In the several rented houses of hospitality that she and her friends lived and worked in through the years, she spent her life among people who suffer the violence of structural injustice. She was a Catholic and an anarchist and saw no contradiction in that. ‘The whole point of view of the anarchist is that everything must start from the bottom up,’ she told Jeff Dietrich in a 1971 interview in the Los Angeles Catholic Worker paper, The Catholic Agitator. ‘It seems to me so human a philosophy… the new social order is to be built up of groupings of [people] together in communities.’

A subtle yet potent side effect of de-politicizing Dorothy is that it renders invisible both her mentor Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker movement they founded together. Itinerant manual labourer, eccentric and brilliant scholar, it was Peter’s radical political philosophy and religious understanding which informed both The Catholic Worker newspaper and the movement to which it gave birth.

Within Peter’s Easy Essays lay the blueprint for the fledgling movement, for ‘a new society in the shell of the old’: houses of hospitality; round-table discussions on the rich intellectual heritage which fed the movement; and agronomic universities, working farm communities and places of study where traditional class divisions could erode as the workers became scholars and the scholars became workers.

It was Peter who drew together radical political philosophy and the demands for social justice within the Church’s social teachings, who wanted to ‘blow the dynamite’ of the Church. But the Cardinal doesn’t talk about Peter. Nor, save for one bracketed reference, does he mention Dorothy’s vibrant legacy, some 150 Catholic Worker communities in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.

The absence is glaring.

I honestly believe that if you really wish to study, let alone propagate, the life and works of Dorothy Day, the way to do it is to spend time in a Catholic Worker community—or to start one yourself. What did the Cardinal think that Catholic Worker houses are? Following his line of thinking, I fear that Dorothy’s political activism, the ‘down and dirty’ Dorothy, will come to be associated with her pre-conversion days; and that the unruly Catholic Workers, who continue to cause trouble, get arrested, and talk radical, can be sidelined as somehow not ‘getting it.’

The official, starched and sanctified Dorothy will be the Dorothy of Entertaining Angels, Father Bud Keiser’s 1996 biopic of her life. It is a shamelessly revisionist film—her political activism is transformed into pre-conversion juvenile excess, and the committed anarchists and socialists with whom she worked in the 1920s are dismissed as shallow, drunken buffoons. In this jumble of fact and fantasy, Dorothy gets the idea for a soup kitchen from a (remarkably post-Vatican II) nun. This stands in stark contrast to her own telling of it.

‘I was very upset by what I saw,’ she recalls to Robert Coles in his book A Radical Devotion, ‘the Church’s apparent indifference to so much suffering.’ In The Long Loneliness she is even more explicit, asking, ‘Where was the Catholic leadership in the gathering of bands of men and women together, for the actual works of mercy that the comrades had always made part of their technique in reaching the workers?’

By describing her, derivatively, as ‘an American Mother Teresa,’ Father Keiser neatly excises Dorothy’s rich political formation and half her passionate engagement with the world: she ministered to those in need, but she also spoke out forcefully against the causes of their poverty.

In the Spring 2000 issue of the Rock Island Catholic Worker paper, The Catholic Radical, Gayle Catinella reflects on what this canonisation means:

‘It is clear to me…that the point of canonising Dorothy is not her holiness, but that she is a North American, New Yorker, convert, icon. If the Church were serious about her message, they would be living it in more tangible and real ways. I don’t see the poor as a priority, I don’t see a simple lifestyle being preached, and we won’t even mention usury.’

‘The Catholic Worker is a movement, not a person. Many people contributed to Dorothy’s holiness and to her fame. It would be messy to canonise the whole movement. But probably more appropriate.’

Canonise Dorothy as she was, as a Catholic Worker, radical politics and all—otherwise, let her be. We don’t need plaster saints.

But, canonised or not, we badly need teachers such as Dorothy to stand as witnesses to the faithful on the hard road to holiness; for, as she reminded us, ‘We are all called to be saints, and we might as well get over our bourgeois fear of it.’

Jo Roberts is a member of the Toronto Catholic Worker community. This article is reprinted from their paper The Mustard Seed, vol 9 issue 3.

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