From our service on May 2, 2021, a story of the inspiring life of Dorothy Day, as recounted by Colin Mills.
Would Jesus have been a Democrat or a Republican? Your answer says more about you than about Him. Jesus’ teachings and views are far too complex and radical for the political spectrum of our time, as they were in His own.
Many true Christ followers are similarly hard to pigeonhole. Consider Dorothy Day, the labor and peace activist who fused far-left political views with orthodox Catholic faith. The combination confused and even offended those around her, but it fit perfectly with her mission, “working for a better social order for the wretched of the earth.”
As a 9-year-old in the Bay Area during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Dorothy watched the community come together to care for those left homeless and destitute, and wondered why that didn’t happen all the time. She walked through blighted neighborhoods and asked, “Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?”
In college, Day became fascinated by radical political movements like socialism and anarchism and abandoned her religious devotion. She left college after two years and moved to New York City, where she wrote for several socialist publications.
Though her activist friends tended toward atheism, Day became attracted to Catholicism, with its commitment to helping the poor. She had her newborn daughter baptized Catholic in 1926, and then joined the church herself.
In December 1932, Day covered the Hunger March in Washington. She desperately wished she could participate, rather than just writing about it. She went to a shrine in DC and prayed for a way to help her fellow workers and the poor.
Shortly thereafter, she met Peter Maurin, a French Catholic activist who patterned his crusade for social justice after St. Francis of Assisi. Together they started the Catholic Worker movement, a pacifist movement that sought to help the poor with both aid and political action.
Their first project was the Catholic Worker newspaper, which debuted on May Day 1933. The newspaper covered strikes and unjust working conditions and advocated for unions and child labor laws.
In her columns, Day frequently criticized capitalism. She said it “creates an ever-growing proletariat ground down to such a level of insecurity and misery that decent family life is almost impossible.” She later wrote that “the philosophy of industrial capitalism is based on a hedonistic theory of consumption — that it forbids you to deny yourself, as Christ commanded, but makes it our duty to consume more.”
She supported the Catholic economic theory of distributism as a middle path between capitalism and socialism. Distributism encourages ownership of productive assets through cooperatives and mutual organizations. It favors small businesses over large corporations and artisan craftsmanship over mass production.
The Catholic Worker movement also established Houses of Hospitality. These were inspired by the practice of early Church members keeping “Christ rooms” in their homes for travelers and strangers. In 1934, the first House opened in the Lower East Side. By 1941, there were over 30 Houses across the United States. They later established farming communes, away from what they saw as the dehumanizing life in industrialized urban areas.
Day was also renowned for her unyielding pacifism, rejecting the Catholic doctrine of just war. When the US entered World War II, she urged young men to refuse to serve, saying: “Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers.” This stance caused huge drops in the paper’s circulation.
In 1955, Day was arrested for refusing to participate in civil defense drills, calling it “public penance” for the atom bomb. Two years later, she was jailed for 30 days for picketing the headquarters of the Atomic Energy Commission.
During the Second Vatican Council in 1965, Day met with bishops and joined a hunger strike to urge the Council to endorse nonviolence and denounce nuclear arms. Her efforts paid off when the Council stated that nuclear warfare was incompatible with the just war theory.
Even into her 70s, Day continued her social activism. Abbie Hoffman called her the “original hippie,” which she considered a tribute to her rejection of materialism. In 1973, at age 75, Day joined Cesar Chavez and his farm workers in a picket; she was arrested and spent 10 days in jail.
Although Dorothy Day has been gone since 1980, her influence remains. The Catholic Worker newspaper is still published, and over 100 Catholic Worker communities still exist worldwide. The Catholic Church, which never knew quite what to make of her during her life, has come to appreciate her work; they are currently investigating her case for sainthood. For now, they call her a “Servant of God,” which is fitting. Few people have done more for the least of these than Dorothy Day, orthodox radical.
Watch this segment on video (starting at 3:01):