Dorothy Day and Taxes in a Nuclear Age

Note: To tell you the truth I don’t think much of the “Catholic Worker Movement” these days. Even Dorothy Day herself was becoming somewhat discouraged by the naivete and / or moral schizophrenia of not a few of her admirers near the end of her life.

Her own pain and understanding of the Gospel had made her wiser. Not that she wasn’t naive in her own way at times. Though she utterly rejected Communism, her admiration of the Dictator for Life, Fidel Castro, because he supposedly cared so much about the poor in Cuba, remains bafflingly inconsistent. I also differ a bit on immigration I think, as do very many Latino Workers here. Caesar Chavez himself opposed unprincipled immigration used for political gains and ends. He believed in the necessity of reasonable border control precisely to help workers.

And as for today’s Catholic Worker “movement,” what I wrote years ago is even more concerning to me today as it so often transvalues theology into rainbow partisan colors and embarrassing ideological aberrations.

Nevertheless, the original principles taught by Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day, and their original friends remain a challenge. Perhaps more so than ever. There are no words to express how appalled I am by the Military Techo-Industrial War State (no matter where) which has become inconceivably worse since Cardinal Ottaviani expressed the Church’s horror of it after World War II. I am just short of being a pacifist even relative to conventional wars. I have always hoped the term “peacemaker” would suffice.

But today’s global military sharks, East and West, owning and circling the planet, even far above and below sea level, is apocalyptic in scope. The spectre of global death shadows us every moment.

Are we complicit? I mean, didn’t we let it happen with our desires for modern comforts, uncritical reliance on the Almighty State, and our willingness to fund it all in exchange for ever burgeoning taxes?

Taxes. What to do about it.

Dorothy Day (like Henry David Thoreau) was prescient in the matter of taxes and war, especially—God help us— in a nuclear age. And while maybe it was less problematic for celibates living together in small Catholic Worker Houses to think about going to jail, some did have children and paid the price in order to say NO to the nuclear and abortion-profiting Moloch. Most families cannot, and so must find other ways to agitate for change when awakened to the roots of the crisis– SH

The following is from a tax-resister thought publication.

The Bowery
Washington Post

Poverty worker being pressured for back taxes

by Colman McCarthy

New York — Grubby and dingy as ever, the Bowery is said to be kindlier in the summertime on its used-up and trapped people who endure some of the country’s severest poverty.

Cold weather can kill [those sleeping on] the sidewalks in an alcoholic daze [sic.]. But summer nights let them live to another morning. Not that that’s much, but at least the guillotine of misery does not fall so harshly; hard days are pain enough without hard weather.

Dorothy Day has worked among the Bowery’s forgotten and lonely most of her 74 years, kicking poverty in the teeth not with safe programs and committees but by living among the poor and personally dispensing food, clothing, and shelter; these are the basic gifts in the corporal work of mercy and rescue.

Refuses to pay

This summer, however, promises more strain for Miss Day, not less. The Internal Revenue Service has sent her a letter claiming $296,359 in back taxes and penalties. A second IRS action involves taxes on a bequest left to her by a deceased spinster; Miss Day’s Catholic worker group is “political,” said the IRS, not charitable, and therefore not exempt from taxes.

The dispute has significance because Dorothy Day has no personal wealth or money of her own. All that she earns or is given by others goes directly to the Bowery destitute; her operation, St. Joseph’s House, 36 East 1st St. New York is one charity where there is no handsome rake-off at the top for administrators, per diems, office rent, speaker bureaus, or other dams that often block the flow of money to the poor.

There is no question that Miss Day has not been paying her taxes in the last few years. She has never paid them. The IRS allows tax exemptions for charitable organizations, but Miss Day said that “our refusal to apply for exemption status in our practice of the works of mercy is part of our protest against war and the present social ‘order’ which brings on wars today.” To pay taxes, the Catholic worker believes, is to become a part, directly or indirectly, of the government’s philosophy that wars and military force can solve human problems.

A pacifist and personalist (be what you want the other person to be), Miss Day is unlike many in the peace movement, first, because she has opposed all our wars, and second, because she has never wasted a syllable in denouncing or moralizing about the politicians or generals who believe in military force.

“The Catholic worker movement,” she says, “believes that tyranny and injustice must be fought by spiritual weapons, by nonviolence, and by noncooperation. It is not only that we must follow our conscience in opposing the government in war. We believe also that the government has no right to legislate as to who can or who are to perform the works of mercy. Only accredited agencies have the status of tax-exempt institutions… as personalists, as an unincorporated group, we will not apply for this ‘privilege.’ ”

The IRS and Miss Day were to have met in court in early July — on the bequest case — but the trial has been postponed. A number of citizens have been protesting and arguing her case to the IRS.

John Cogley, a fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Santa Barbara, Calif., and who once worked on the soup line at St. Joseph’s House, said: “For 50 years, Dorothy Day has served the poor, living in the slums, eating tasteless food, wearing cast-off clothes, shivering in the winter, sweltering in the summer.


“There is something ridiculous about the richest government in the world, after all these years, demanding that Miss Day turn over money given to her to meet the simplest needs of the nation’s destitute. I am not a tax lawyer but I have millionaire friends who tell me that they pay no income tax. Like the wealthy governor of my state, Ronald Reagan, they have managed somehow to avoid the tax and to do so quite legally. Surely there must be a loop-hole to cover the case of that rarest of Americans, a person who lives in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount. If there isn’t, perhaps we should invent one.”

Dorothy Day is not unique in refusing to give money to the government, but her noncooperation may be singular when it works the other way: refusing money from the government. In July 1960 the city of New York sent her a check for $3,579.29. The sum represented interest on what the city paid the Catholic worker for property bought by right of eminent domain for a subway. In a letter beautiful in its clarity, Miss Day said no thanks and sent the check back.

“We are returning the interest on the money we have recently received because… we do not believe in the profit system, and so we cannot take profit or interest on our money. People who take a materialistic view of human service wish to make a profit but we are trying to do our duty by our service without wages to our brothers. Please be assured that we are not judging individuals, but are trying to make a judgment on the system under which we live and with which we admit that we ourselves compromise daily in many small ways, but which we try and wish to withdraw from as much as possible.”

Different view

Although the IRS may see Miss Day’s work as “political” and not charitable, other officials have a different view. Her group is registered with the department of social services of New York state. “Since we sent out an appeal once or twice a year,” said Miss Day, “we have to file with Albany, pay a small fee, and give an account of monies received… we always complied with the state regulation because it was local — regional. We knew such a requirement was to protect the public from fraudulent appeals, and we felt our lives were open books, our work was obvious. And of course our pacifism has always been obvious, a great ideal of nonviolence to be worked toward.”

The other evening, the dining room of the first street house was filled with the broke and broken of the Bowery. Bread, soup, and stew were being served to impoverished old men in tatters, to women silent in their pain, and to a few small children already well aware something is wrong in the world. The poor, stooped over their plates, had long ago lost interest in the IRS and governments. Yet, in a country of great wealth, the IRS still cares about them. If the tax officials insist that Miss Day is involved in politics and thus must pay taxes, then even harder summers and winters are coming for the forgotten people of the Bowery.

By the time this article hit the press, though, the conflict between the IRS and Catholic Worker was pretty much over. On July 11, an IRS district director wrote to the Catholic Worker telling the group that the agency no longer expected them to file returns or to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars the agency had said they owed. Dorothy Day stared down the IRS


“If Conscription Comes For Women Too” The Catholic Worker January 1943

Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.

Yes, and we have heard too much of that.

Let E.I. Watkin, founder of the Pax movement in England, author of The Catholic Center, Men and Tendencies, and The Bow in the Clouds, answer as he did in his pamphlet, “The Crime of Conscription.”

Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s. This is a favorite text with the hosts of Christian clerics, Protestant and Catholic, who both in the present and in the past, have abused and still abuse religion to enslave men’s consciences to the unjust bondages of a usurping state. They omit to notice the context. Our Lord has just asked for a coin, and having obtained the admission that it bear’s Caesar’s image and superscription, bids his questioners render to Caesar what is his. This is obviously the coin payable in taxation which bears Caesar’s stamp.

The body and soul of man, however, do not bear Caesar’s image. Whose image they do bear we are told in Holy Scripture. It is the image of God. Obviously, therefore, as we are to render to Caesar what bears his image, namely, money, we are to render to God, not to Caesar, what bears not Caesar’s stamp, but God’s; namely, human beings. Thus the same text which justifies, indeed, imposes the obligation of paying taxes, denies any right of the state to take a toll of man. All forced labor, for example, is implicitly declared unlawful. And still more does the principle here enunciated forbid military conscription.

Whether a war be just or unjust, no government may without grave injustice compel me — bearing as I do the divine image which marks me as God’s bondman, but a freeman in respect to my fellows — to slay and be slain in its quarrel unless I freely consent. If a government unlawfully outsteps its prerogative and imposes conscription, any one who, from whatever motive, refuses to serve, is whether he intend it or not, fighting for human dignity and freedom, as also is anyone who abets and supports his resistance.

But now in these days it would be desirable to go even further, as did Thoreau, to refuse even the taxes which were to be used to pay for the means to kill our fellow man. In many cases, however, it is all but impossible to separate the tax from the cost of the commodity needed to maintain life.

More About Holy Poverty, Which Is Voluntary PovertyThe Catholic Worker February 1945

We believe that social security legislation, now billed as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity. It is an acceptance of the Idea of force and compulsion.

[The people] pay taxes, and it is the city and the state and the federal government that is robbing them and pilfering them, too, They are taxed for every bite they eat, every shoddy rag they put on. They are taxed on their jobs, there are deductions for this and that, there are the war bonds, eighteen dollars for a twenty-five dollar war bond, paid on the Installment plan. And they are not only being taxed, but they are being seduced. Their virtue is being drained from them. They are made into war profiteers, they are forced into the position of usurers. The whole nation, every man woman and child, is forced to become a profiteer — hideous word — in this war.