Was Dorothy Day too left-wing to be a Catholic saint?
Hundreds of people gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to celebrate an important moment for Catholics in New York. Cardinal Timothy Dolan gave a homily on the life of one of their own, Dorothy Day, a New Yorker by birth, writer and anarchist activist who died in 1980.
Last month’s sermon represented the end of a 20-year investigation by the Archdiocese of New York into whether Ms Day should receive sainthood, a matter the Vatican will ultimately decide.
Many of his admirers, including his granddaughter, had hoped Cardinal Dolan would speak about his commitment to social justice for the poor and oppressed and his opposition to war and capitalism. In 1933, Mrs. Day – often described as both politically radical and theologically orthodox – founded the Catholic Workers’ Movement, which remains active around the world in the form of Catholic workers’ houses, where members live free and provide service to the poor.
But in his sermon, Cardinal Dolan described Ms Day’s “far from sinless life”.
“I’m not going to go into his story,” he told the audience. The important thing they needed to know was that at the age of 25 she had become “a bit frustrated with her life”.
“She had done quite a bit of experimentation and drifting, and she would be the first to admit her promiscuity,” continued the cardinal. “But she continued to sense a void, a search in her life. And after much prayer and study, this led in 1925 to his baptism as a Catholic.
His remarks hovered over his efforts to change policies that affected the poor and his political beliefs – adding fuel to long-standing anxiety among Catholic workers that the Catholic hierarchy could dilute or obscure its message even if it plans to do so. raise.
After mass, Martha Hennessy, Mrs. Day’s granddaughter, was upset. “He reduced her to ‘she lived a life of sexual promiscuity and she dabbled in communism,'” she said. “What worse enemy could we have, saying these things about her?” Ms. Hennessy is active in the movement and has read at Mass. “We have to focus on his policies, we have to focus on his practices.”
Ms. Day loved the church and its rituals and dedicated her life to the gospel, which she says prompted her to renounce material possessions and engage in a life of activism on behalf of the poor, a devotion to pacifism and an opposition to both capitalism and communism. She often describes herself as an anarchist.
“One thing I love about Dorothy Day is that she makes everyone feel uncomfortable,” Reverend Anthony Andreasi said., the principal of Regis High School in Manhattan, who led a prayer service outside Ms. Day’s childhood home in Brooklyn one day last month.
“The Catholic Church, like everything else, is so divided between liberals and conservatives,” he said. “She is one of those people in whom the left and the right find so much wealth.”
Ms. Day was born in Brooklyn Heights in 1897 and grew up in a working-class family. Her parents were Protestants who rarely attended church, although even as a child she was interested in spirituality and the scriptures. The family moved to northern California and later to Chicago for her father’s job as a sportswriter, and Ms. Day returned to New York as an adult.
She spent much of her 20s writing for leftist newspapers in New York City and living a bohemian, bar life in Lower Manhattan. She dated writers and artists, including communist author Mike Gold, grew close to playwright Eugene O’Neill, and later suffered an illegal abortion and attempted suicide.
Ms. Day converted to Catholicism after the birth of her daughter, Tamar, whose baptism estranged Ms. Day from some of her activist friends.
In 1932, a Catholic magazine sent him to cover the Hunger March in Washington, D.C., an effort to bring the Roman Catholic Church in the United States through the economic and social upheavals of the 1930s. It was also a sort of response to communism, which offered a similar, but militant atheistic critique of economic exploitation.
This mission inspired Ms. Day to start a left-wing newspaper, The Catholic Worker, which began selling in 1933 for a penny and hasn’t risen in price since.
With the help of the French theologian Peter Maurin, she transformed the newspaper into a movement in its own right: Catholic workers, as the movement’s members are called, engage in a life of voluntary poverty, service to the poor and oppressed and peaceful activism. on their behalf.
The movement occupies a complicated position in the Catholic Church, whose American leadership has increasingly aligned itself with political conservatism since Ms Day’s death. Cardinal Dolan himself is known as a conservative who delivered the opening prayer for the Republican National Convention in 2020.
“The Catholic Worker movement is about asking, if Jesus were alive today, who would his disciples be?” said Bob Roberts, 61, a worker who gathered with others at the movement’s house in the East Village on a recent winter morning. He assembled bologna sandwiches as members prepared to distribute food to the poor.
Ms. Day would be the first New Yorker made a saint since 19th-century educator Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1975.
The process of making Mrs. Day a saint began in the late 1990s, when Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York began gathering information from those who had known her.
In 2002, the archdiocese had begun its official investigation into his life. Ten years later, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted unanimously to support the investigation.
Its completion took nearly another decade, with the finds being sent to the Vatican.
The next step in the process would be for the church to document two miracles that happened through Ms. Day’s intervention, after which she would be named a saint.
The church prefers miracles to have a medical component — a terminally ill patient who makes a full recovery, for example — because it’s relatively simple to document before-and-after effects, said George Horton, an organizer of the effort. canonization.
The process of identifying and verifying a miracle can take years or happen quickly. Mr Horton said the Archdiocese has already received a number of letters from people who say their prayers to Ms Day have resulted in miraculous events in their lives.
“We have leads,” he said. In the interest of privacy, he declined to provide details on one of the leads church officials considered the most promising.
But what, Mrs. Day’s supporters asked, is the cost of holiness? They wonder if Ms. Day would have even wanted the designation.
“I think if she found out she was going to be a saint, her knees would give out,” said Carmen Trotta, who has lived in the East Village Catholic Worker’s House since 1987 and occupies Ms. Day’s former bedroom.
Indeed, Mrs. Day often reacted negatively when people praised her as a saint.
“Don’t call me a saint,” she said in an oft-quoted quip. “I don’t want to be fired so easily.”
Nor do her admirers want her to be so digestible. “If people hear about Dorothy Day from the Catholic hierarchy, they might get the wrong impression of her,” Trotta said. “She was a rare breed: a Catholic pacifist who did not believe in war, a suffragist, a member of the Anti-Imperialist League.”
Ms Hennessy, her granddaughter, cited others whose lives had been reduced to a single, often whitewashed message. She said she shared the concerns of many other members of the Catholic labor movement.
“Their distrust has some legitimacy in terms of, you know, how do we treat Martin Luther King Jr.?” said Mrs. Hennessy. “Do we really understand the message he was trying to send to us? And Mother Teresa, she marginalized herself by becoming a patron saint against abortion when her whole life was about caring for the dying when no one else would care. How did this translate into anti-abortion?
Beyond her discomfort at being called a saint, Ms Day, who has shunned materialism, expressed concern about the use of church money for things like canonization, which takes years of work meticulous.
Indeed, the research process in her case was costly, costing around $1 million, primarily due to the voluminous paperwork documenting Ms. Day’s legendary life as a prolific agitator and writer. In addition to working at The Catholic Worker, she wrote books, diaries, correspondence, and even a short-lived lifestyle column for The Staten Island Advance newspaper.
She was also arrested several times for non-violent protest, including once at the age of 75. Her activism and writings caught the attention of federal law enforcement, who kept a file on her into the 1940s.
Most of those expenses were accrued over the past seven years, when the effort spent $100,000 to $120,000 on average per year, Horton said. Much of that money comes from the Archdiocese of New York, he said, but it also comes from donors he declined to name.
Mr Horton said the free work was provided by theologians and historians, church officials who interviewed Ms Day’s friends and relatives and a team of more than 100 volunteers who read and transcribed her works. More than 200 people worked on the effort, he said.
“We tried very hard to emphasize his whole message, but sometimes it gets left out,” he said. “It hasn’t been omitted from the information that goes to Rome, I can tell you that.”
But far from being a paradox, he described the difference between Ms Day’s political radicalism and church politics as a source of excitement and hope.
“We call her a saint for our time because she gives us a path to unity,” Mr Horton said. “It cuts through all the divisions of our society, our government and our church, and it calls us back to the essence of the gospel. I think that is what is recognized by the leaders of the church.