One week after the presidential election, the Catholic bishops of the United States unanimously endorsed a female anarchist for sainthood. That news is not quite as shocking as it seems. Dorothy Day’s anarchism was of a decidedly pious kind. In 1927, at the age of thirty, she turned away from the secular leftism of her youth and was baptized in the Church, a moment she later confessed she had been waiting for all her life.
For the next half century, Day drew on the teachings of Jesus and papal encyclicals about social justice to build the Catholic Worker movement, which continues its mission in over two hundred locations today. Now as then, its members lead a thoroughly altruistic existence, living in community houses alongside the same poor people they feed, clothe, and pray with. Day also stuck by Church doctrine about when life begins, although she had endured an abortion of her own before she converted.
Not surprisingly, many bishops now exalt her for being faithful to the causes they care most about. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York praises Day for what he called her “Augustinian” transformation: “there was a religious search, there was a pregnancy out of wedlock, and an abortion. Like Saul on the way to Damascus, she was radically changed.” Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, DC, values her empathy with the distressed: “Of all the people we need to reach out to…the street people, the ones who are on drugs, the ones who have had abortions, she was one of them.”
Yet, Dorothy Day was far more than just a social worker equally dedicated to her Church and to the poor. She was a political radical, whose beliefs and activism often got her into trouble with the predecessors of the Catholic hierarchs who now seek to canonize her. In fact, it would indeed be a small miracle if today's Church leaders took stands resembling those which Day advocated with unwavering devotion.
An absolute pacifist, she incurred the resentment of Church authorities for opposing U.S. involvement in World War II and subsequent forays into Korea and Indochina. She mentored the Catholic activists who broke into a government office and poured homemade napalm on draft files in 1968 to protest the Vietnam war. And Day was such a resolute champion of labor that, in 1949, she even backed a gravediggers’ strike against a Catholic cemetery in New York City. When the powerful archbishop, Francis Cardinal Spellman, ordered seminary students to break the strike, she denounced him for bringing “so overwhelming a show of force against a handful of poor working men.” What Spellman did, she added bitterly, was “a temptation of the devil to that most awful of all wars, the war between the clergy and the laity.”
Like any good anarchist, Christian or not, Day had no faith whatsoever in the desire or ability of governing authorities to create a moral, egalitarian society. At the recent bishops’ meeting, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago recalled asking her, just after the 1960 election, how she felt about having a Catholic in the White House “who can fight for social justice.” “I believe Mr. Kennedy has chosen very badly,” she snapped. “No serious Catholic would want to be president of the United States.” I doubt we will hear that line repeated from the pulpit once Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, and Andrew Cuomo start running for the White House.
To be fair, the American bishops do, on occasion, nudge politicians to be mindful of the needs of the poor. The Catholic leaders recently sent open letters to all members of the House and Senate with their concern about a hasty retreat from the fiscal cliff. The lettersdeclared, “A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects ‘the least of these’…The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.”
But what came first for the bishops during the 2012 campaign was the supposedly urgent need to defend “religious liberty” against the Obamacare mandate that employers provide access to contraception for their female employees. Hoping to block it, Catholic clergy delivered countless speeches, held special masses, created rosary novenas and prayer cards on the issue, filed lawsuits, and advertised in both religious and secular publications and websites. It was a massive, unprecedented effort to carry out Pope Benedict’s edict,"Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted.” Who had time left to talk about poverty, much less to update the alarm an earlier pope, Pope Pius XI, had raised during the Great Depression about “the immense power and despotic economic domination…consolidated in the hands of a few”?
The Catholic Church has a long tradition of opposing libertarian laws and behavior, whether in the marketplace or in the bedroom. The former helped inspire the concept of a living wage as well as strong support for the labor organizers who built the CIO and the United Farm Workers. However, in recent years, the opposition to sexual freedom has dominated the Church’s political outreach and internal advocacy.
Perhaps the effort to make Dorothy Day a saint evinces a desire to redress the balance. But I suspect it will take more than this symbolic gesture to do the trick. As James Martin, SJ recently blogged in the Jesuit magazine, America:
The process of naming saints is not some kind of posthumously bestowed honor. It is more of a gift that the church bestows on itself…Dorothy believed we needed a new kind of saint. As she remarked as a child, “Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” I believe the possible canonization of Dorothy Day is an answer to that question. There are those who might try to fit her into a conventional mold. But I don’t think she will allow herself to be dismissed that easily.
Michael Kazin’s latest book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.