The Real Dorothy Day

A major area of distress for [Dorothy Day] in the 1970’s was what seemed to her the erosion occurring in the spiritual life of her fellow Catholics, including those in the Catholic Worker movement. More than ever Catholics seemed attentive to social issues she had been raising for forty years, but they were increasingly neglectful of the disciplines of the Church that were fundamental to her.

“Penance seems ruled out today,” she noted repeatedly. It pained her to notice co-workers skipping Mass and not taking the time for prayer. “With prayer, one can go on cheerfully and even happily, while without prayer how grim is the journey,” she commented. “Prayer is as necessary to life as breathing. It is drink and food.”

She mourned the abandonment by many of the rosary as a tool of prayer and meditation. She insisted on calling priests, “Father” and nuns “Sister” and was annoyed with those who preferred informality. She wished that priests and nuns would retain the traditional clothing which made their vocations visible to strangers.

The practice of artificial birth control by Catholics dismayed her, and she was appalled with the growing acceptance of abortion in the larger society: “I say make room for the children. Don’t do away with them!”

She was irked by those who wanted to say “person” rather than “man”: “When I write ‘men,’ she commented testily in her column, ‘I mean people’”.

She was saddened by the frequent expressions of contempt toward the Popes and bishops —though she granted that there had been Popes who reminded her more of vultures than doves. She confessed that she found great pleasure in her tattered, out-of-date English-Latin missals, with “their short, precious accounts of the saints”.

Her gratitude for Pope John XXIII was undiminished; she regarded him as a saint and published a prayer begging his intercession for the farm workers in one of her columns. But she felt that many were using the renewal he had inspired to vandalize the Church. This grieved her, and at times she felt very bitter. Her good humor was less in evidence, though by no means gone”.

—-From Love is the Measure, a biography of Dorothy Day by Jim Forest,Paulist Press, 1986, pp 181, 182; now published by Orbis Books.

A friend of mine sent me the October 23, 2000 New York Times op-ed piece in which William Donohue, President of the Catholic League, set the record straight about just who speaks for Catholics when it comes to legitimate Catholic teaching. Donohue cited the fact that “every four years a small fringe group called Catholics Speak Out runs a full page ad in the New York Times” suggesting that “it is legitimate Catholic teaching to be either pro-life or pro-abortion”. The group enumerates it positions and includes the following, after advocating “full civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons…by adopting hate crimes legislation”…:

“Reproductive Health: Support programs that make contraceptives, including emergency contraception, easily available to women and men here and in poor countries. Signers of this ad hold a range of views on the morality and legality of abortion, but we all seek to reduce its frequency. Catholic opinion is not monolithic on this subject.”

Very sad stuff there. One could hardly conceive a more disingenuous effort than to pretend such a statement is even remotely Catholic, or within the scope of legitimate Catholic opinion. But as I looked over the signatures which appeared in the Times ad, one jumped out immediately. Under the “co-sponsors” section, along with the infamous “Catholics for a Free Choice” group, the San Diego Catholic Worker was listed (not to be confused with the Casa Juan Diego Catholic Worker).

I was startled and immediately thought: poor Dorothy Day, Servant of God, whose case for beatification is being considered by the Church, her poor holy bones must be turning over in their grave. Look how some are abandoning her and the faith which meant so much to her. For it is hardly a secret that Dorothy Day loved the Church and its teachings, and she would brook no dissidence, and certainly not of this Luciferian stripe. Dorothy Day’s love and service for the poor was the fruit of her orthodoxy, not any substitute for it.

The Temptation

The whole thing reminded me of a harrowing experience I had while making a pilgrimage to the Catholic Worker in New York in the early 1980’s shortly after the servant of God died. I wanted to be there, to see this work which I had come to admire so much. And I was impressed. But I was also taken aback to find some there who were radical feminist in orientation— to say the least. One told me I “could not possibly understand abortion” because I was not a woman. I must emphasize that these were not the Catholic Workers who were actually running the New York CW houses, but they claimed to be followers or admirers of Dorothy Day.

I believe (hope) these two incidents represent aberrations. They also represent a temptation, I believe, and, in a sense, a crossroad. The insensitivity and arrogance on the abortion issue among those people I met, and their apparent contempt for the Holy Father and Church when these were brought up, was disconcerting to say the least. How unlike Dorothy Day whose spiritual works were born in contemplation of the Eucharist, and from the social, spiritual and dogmatic teachings of the Popes, of Sts. Therese of Lisieux and John of the Cross, and so many other saints and lovers of the Church!

I sensed then, as I do now, that, unlike Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, some who call themselves Catholic “progressives” emphasize Christian praxis often as cover for theological and moral dissidence—-and dissonance. Also the temptation to appear chic, avant garde, and other stupidities. Their good works go beyond Phariseeism since it is in the end a ruse, a trick to shield pride and subversive intentions against the Bride which Dorothy and Peter Maurin [co-founder] loved.

Such self-styled secularist “progressives” come to think they are better than others as they point to their fighting political evils, even as they trivialize Catholic doctrine and moral teaching in other areas, especially in the realm of sexuality, the natural law, obedience, etc. They prefer to appear “radical,” in a purely naturalist sense and presume to call themselves “prophetic,” though it is tragically in complete conformist servitude to the zeitgeist. Worse, they would change the Faith of Christ into their own image.

But alas, it would appear these serve a “new Jesus” and a “new gospel” and “new spirit” (2 Cor. 11:4-5) instead of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. They prefer a “gospel” carefully trimmed and suited by the canons of a radical higher criticism to the weaknesses of their passions. They accept the gospel’s “neither do I condemn thee,” but not the “go and sin no more” (John 8:11), the neglect of which ends in so much tragedy.

1 Cor. 6:8f

“But you do wrong and defraud, and that to your brethren. [9] Know you not that the unjust shall not possess the kingdom of God? Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, [10] Nor the effeminate, nor men who lay with men, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God.

[11] And such were some of you were; but you are washed, but you are sanctified, but you are justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of our God.” [12]

Rejection of Natural Law

Another place I visited boasted that it operates “in the tradition of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker,” but handed out magazines with articles like “Queer as Punk,” (transgressive sex is a perverse mysticism to these) which put homosexual lifestyles in the same “minority tradition” as Gandhi and Dorothy Day. One theologically crazed nun told me she was convinced that homosexuality was God’s answer to the problem of over-population!

This is unspeakably tragic, especially in a time when over 40 million have died from AIDS—and how many more are infected with the virus! We must love the sinner, radically, but reject the moral disorders which threaten to engulf the world in morbidity and horror. We must tend the wounds of the victims of such mistakes, feed and love them as the suffering Christs in our midst, but we can never condone moral anarchy which flouts the moral law.

We are all sinners, all human, but we are called to a higher consciousness in Christ which helps us put away our disorderd passions to make room for the telos, the sanctifying goals, of creation as God intended. It is this linking of Social Justice movements with sexual transgressions which is alienating so many who share Dorothy Day’s Faith and whom she was trying to reach with Hope.

One could hardly ask old Screwtape to do a better job deceiving people, precisely because so many of their other concerns, a living wage, affordable housing for the poor, an end to wars, fair immigration laws, and other good works etc., are critically important issues, reflecting the social implications of the Gospel.

Far too many traditionalists, on the other hand confuse liturgical and devotional correctness and polemics with salvation and righteousness, hardly giving a thought to the Gospel’s requirements for justice. They forget the truth that good works (works, not just good thoughts!) and faith are the fruits of grace and that,

Pure, religion, undefiled in the eyes of God our Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27).

They forget that when Jesus the Lord inaugurated the Gospel of the Kingdom of God in Nazareth he began by proclaiming good news for the poor:

The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me for he has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,

To proclaim liberty to captives
And to the blind new light,
To set the downtrodden free,
To proclaim the Lord’s year of favor.” (Luke 4:18).

And how his words echoed the Magnificat of His Mother when she was filled with grace at the announcement of the Incarnation,

He has shown the power of His arm,
He has routed the proud of heart.
He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly,
The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich he has sent away empty
According to the promise he made to our ancestors
Of his mercy to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (1:51-55)

The Incarnation of our Lord was the fulfillmentof the Kairos, the fullness of the time of liberation and Jubilee, proclaimed by the patriarchs and prophets, especially for the poor. Isaiah spoke the Word of the Lord:

“6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?

8 Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.

9 Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;

10 And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day:

11 And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.

Thus we can only accept what Saints Francis, Vincent de Paul, and so many other saints and witnesses also proclaimed: God’s “preferential option for the poor;” yes, but this must represent the fruit of our salvation in Christ through His Mystical Body, the Church. It is simply wrong to either ignore this mandate in favor of the mere externals of the faith —or to use it as a substitute for orthodox faith.

Faith and good works are inseparable, as the Church proclaimed vis a vis the Reformation. It is a sin to be concerned only with our own affluence and security in a consumer society; it is a sin to make broadbrush value judgments on the disadvantaged who inherit no wealth and who never had the lucky breaks others have had; it is also a sin to make a commitment to simplicity and to the poor, in fact or in spirit, as a cover for moral dissidence and theological deviance. We are called to higher consciousness, to the “fullness of the knowledge of Christ”.

Pere Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker and inspirer of Dorothy Day, echoing the minor Prophets, has emphasized this over and over: Love and community are the fruit of a truly Eucharistic faith:

“The celebration of the Mass, which gathers Christians around the altar, has no meaning if it is not lived with love,” John Paul II said [Nov 8, 2000] during the general audience.

Quoting the Apostle Paul’s words to the Christians at Corinth, the Bishop of Rome told the 35,000 faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square that whoever participates in the Eucharist unworthily, without making it bloom in fraternal charity, ‘eats and drinks judgment upon himself.'”

He said that for the apostles and early Christians, this communion with the Eucharist had two dimensions: one vertical, “because it unites us to the divine mystery,” and the other horizontal, namely, “ecclesial, fraternal, capable of uniting all the participants at the same table in a bond of love.” (Zenit Nov 8, 2000)

It is not in the name of some abstract platonic notion of “community” that our love and service for the poor is to be done, but in the name of the Church, whose divinely anointed head, the servant of the servants of God, is Peter, the Rock; this is the only salvific community which alone gives eternal meaning to our praxis and love and suffering.

It is through the Church that Christ’s healing and teaching and passion continues— to the end of time (Col. 1:24). Outside of the Church—and certainly if in determined opposition to her—we become mere social workers.

The Great Divorce

One of the great tragedies, it seems to me, is that Dorothy Day’s spirituality and love for the Church and its teachings (as opposed to the dissident spirit) has been divorced by not a few Catholics and even some Catholic Workers (not too many I trust / hope?) from the memory of this blessed woman.

We see the fullness of the faith of Dorothy Day precisely in the teachings of the Bride, and most particularly in the writings and teachings of John Paul II. For him, the great crisis of our day includes BOTH the corporate and global consumerist culture of death (from consumerist reductionism to global and industrial/corporate militarism) swarming everywhere in a kind of neo-colonialism, AND the worldwide moral crisis which has led to abortion, divorce, AIDS and general cultural nihilism.

We believe the real Dorothy Day must be recovered and re-understood today, the one who loved her Church and its teachings, devotions, and spirituality. In her writings we see all aspects of the gospel united in a distinctly Catholic harmony.

The true nature of love is so misunderstood today. True love, which is oriented to Truth, must be proclaimed and, most importantly, lived.

This is what Dorothy, in union with the popes, teaches both liberals and traditionalists. This is why we hope our visitors will work with us and others to practice, proclaim, and maintain this radical balance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—- in His Church, and for all persons of good will, just as it has always been practiced in those communities faithful to the teachings of the Servant of God, Dorothy Day, and Peter Maurin, and so many others.

Dorothy Day on Tradition, the Mass, and the Poor

She wrote, “I am afraid I am a traditionalist, in that I do not like to see Mass offered with a large coffee cup as a chalice. I suppose I am romantic too, since I loved the Arthur legend as a child and reverenced the Holy Grail and the search for it. I feel with Newman that my faith is founded on a creed, as Rev. Louis Bouyer wrote of Newman in that magnificent biography of his.

“I believe in God, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. And of all things visible and invisible, and in His Only Son Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

“I believe too that when the priest offers Mass at the altar, and says the solemn words, “This is my body, this is my blood,” that the bread and the wine truly become the body and blood of Christ, Son of God, one of the Three Divine persons. I believe in a personal God.

“I believe in Jesus Christ, true God and true man. And intimate, oh how most closely intimate we may desire to be, I believe we must render most reverent homage to Him who created us and stilled the sea and told the winds to be calm, and multiplied the loaves and fishes. He is transcendent and He is immanent. He is closer than the air we breathe and just as vital to us. I speak impetuously, from my heart, and if I err theologically in my expression, I beg forgiveness.

“Peter Maurin’s synthesis of cult, culture and cultivation, painted by Rita Corbin on the dining room wall at the farm at Tivoli, constantly calls to mind the struggle. Cult was ever surrounded by beauty and glory and majesty of stone and stained glass, precious incense, tapestry, music, all the exterior and interior senses of man responding to the needs to worship, praise, and render thanks to God. Friends of the Catholic Worker family earn their living by contributing to this beauty–Carl Paulson of Upton with his stained glass and Michael Humphrey with his chalices (as his father before him) Ade Bethune with her crucifixes and pictured saints and stained glass, not to speak of entire churches to her credit; Graham Carey, silversmith, calligrapher, woodcarver, etc.

“We begin the Mass by the confession of sins, admitting our creatureliness, and all the beginnings of disorder that there are in us, and part of our thanksgiving is because of the forgiveness of sin and we do not dwell on falls and failures but go swiftly on to the prayers of praise and adoration and thanksgiving.

To me the Mass, high or low, is glorious and I feel that though we know we are but dust, at the same time we know too, and most surely through the Mass that we are little less than the angels, that indeed it is now not I but Christ in me worshiping, and in Him I can do all things, though without Him I am nothing. I would not dare write or speak or try to follow the vocation God has given me to work for the poor and for peace, if I did not have this constant reassurance of the Mass, the confidence the Mass gives. (The very word confidence means “with faith.”)

“It is one thing for a Father Ciszek to offer Mass, to consecrate the wine in a coffee cup in the prison camps of Siberia. It is quite another thing to have this happen in New York. And yet–and yet–perhaps it happened to remind us that the power of God did not rest on all these appurtenances with which we surround it. That all over the world, in the jungles of South America and Vietnam and Africa –all the troubled, indeed anguished spots of the world–there Christ is with the poor, the suffering, even in the cup we share together, in the bread we eat. “They knew Him in the breaking of bread.”

“When I spoke to the priest about the coffee-cup incident afterward, (I was not there when this happened though twenty of the family of the Catholic Workers were there), he said, “I was just doing as I was told.” There was another great controversy at the Catholic Worker some ten years ago when Fr. Faley referred to his Mass, and some of the all-out young people, with a terrible lack of charity, railed at him, proclaiming that it was our Mass. They had been well trained in the liturgical movement, but oh the cruelty in the way in which they made their assertions!” —(On Pilgrimage – March 1966″ By Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker, March 1966, 1, 2, 6, 8. ) This Post Last Updated 9. 26.10

“When we have spiritual readings at meals, when we have the rosary at night, when we have study groups, forums, when we go out to distribute literature at meetings, or sell it on the street corners, Christ is there with us. What we do is very little. But it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes. Christ took that little and increased it.” —Dorothy Day, By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, edited with an introduction by Robert Ellsberg (New York: Knopf, 1984). — SH

See also Dorothy Day’s Cross:

— Mark Zwick. The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins

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