Why Dorothy Day matters to Catholic leaders
LANCE BYRON RICHEY contends that Dorothy Day models for all believers the importance of separating social action from political activity. She reminds us all that our duty to care for the least among us (poor, hungry, imprisoned, or unborn) cannot be fulfilled simply by voting or paying taxes, but rather requires personal conversion and action . . . .
When the USCCB voted unanimously in 2012 to advance Dorothy Day’s cause for sainthood to Rome, more than a few Catholics were shocked. In her youth, Day (1897-1980) had briefly married, divorced, had an abortion, and then given birth to a daughter in a common-law marriage with an atheist.
As a journalist for various radical newspapers on the lower west side of Manhattan, she reported on the dreadful conditions of the working poor, chronicled the burgeoning labor movement, and even interviewed the Russian communist leader Leon Trotsky. Day’s life prior to her conversion to Catholicism in 1927, as she relates it in her autobiography The Long Loneliness, makes for fascinating if not edifying reading.
But for many Catholics, the most scandalous part of her life occurred after her conversion. While the waters of Baptism wash away original sin, they do not rinse out our personalities, and Day remained deeply committed to changing the structure of American society. This involved accepting voluntary poverty to live among and serve the poor, promoting an absolute pacifism (even during World War II), and serving numerous jail terms for civil disobedience. While the self-described anarchist neither voted nor campaigned for socialist parties, she openly sympathized with their ideals and saw them as allies in her work of “building a new society within the shell of the old.”
For Catholic business leaders, there seems no more unlikely a role model than the woman who named her newspaper the Catholic Worker as an echo of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker. One is tempted to paraphrase Nathaniel (John 1:46) and ask, “What good can come from Greenwich Village?” But if we listen carefully to Day’s message, much good can come to our workplaces and our own spiritual lives.
Most importantly, Day reveals the transformative power of Catholic social teaching not only for society as a whole but also for our own spiritual lives. For five years after her conversion, Day struggled to find a way to live out her Catholic faith until the homeless French peasant Peter Maurin (1877-1949) introduced her to the Church’s social message.
This finally gave her a language to express her deep love for the poor — not in terms of Marxist class struggle or Social Darwinism’s “survival of the fittest” — but rather in the words of Jesus: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). Within months, she began publishing the Catholic Worker and feeding New York’s poor and homeless. For every Catholic, Day reminds us, personal faith and public action are two sides of the same coin.
Day’s example also teaches us that the works of mercy are not merely an individual matter. The food she distributed to the poor and the paper she sold for “a penny a copy” did not fall from heaven. Rather, individuals and businesses sharing her convictions and wishing to share in some small way in the good works made anonymous cash contributions, donated surplus goods, or simply provided services on credit until the bill could be paid. In the same way, as business leaders we are each called not merely to maximize shareholder return or increase market share (though we are certainly called to do that), but also to serve those most in need through the resources entrusted to us. Christ’s command to care for the poor is not limited to deductible expenses or to those causes which list their donors prominently and provide networking opportunities. Sometimes in business, our right hand should not know what our left hand is doing.
Finally, Dorothy Day models for all believers the importance of separating social action from political activity. While she fought vigorously for the poor, Day opted out of the political system and refused to delegate to one or another political party the task of solving society’s problems. In doing so, she reminds us all that our duty to care for the least among us (poor, hungry, imprisoned, or unborn) cannot be fulfilled simply by voting or paying taxes, but rather requires personal conversion and action.
Dorothy Day recognized that not everyone was called to her particular way of living out the gospel. At the same time, she stands as a reminder that a profound love for the poor and weak are demanded of every Christian, both individually and as a Church. While political activity and corporate giving may have an important place in how we live out our faith, they must be an expression of — rather than a substitute for — the profound personal conversion to Christ which is the strongest argument for Dorothy Day’s sainthood.
May we all follow her on this path.
LANCE BYRON RICHEY, PH.D., is an associate professor of theology and director of the John Duns Scotus Honors Program at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind.