History

Dorothy Day: Personalist Hero 

The enigmatic founder of the Catholic Worker Movement was an extraordinary avatar of nonviolent dissent.

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Dorothy Day's first jail stint, in 1917, was a brutal experience arising from a protest for women's suffrage. Behind bars she embarked on a hunger strike and came to know the misery of forced feeding. Women eventually got the vote. But Day, an anarchist, never cast a ballot in her life.

She would go on to become a radical icon, famous for her work with the poor and her protests against racism, nuclear weapons, and war. A socially conservative Catholic, Day frowned on the casual sex rampant among her acolytes in the '60s. Yet she had ended her first pregnancy with an abortion and her only marriage by divorce. A hard-drinking libertine in her youth, she is today under consideration for sainthood.

Day bowed meekly to the authority of the Catholic Church but regularly ruffled its finery. A lifelong friend of the downtrodden, she took a dim view of government programs on their behalf, feeling that they harmfully relieve us of our sacred responsibilities for ourselves and one another. A leading scholar of the Church, David J. O'Brien, has called her "the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism."

The enigmatic founder of the Catholic Worker Movement (and The Catholic Worker, the radical newspaper that sustained it) is having a moment. This November marks the 40th anniversary of her death at 83. And this spring she was the subject of two important new works: a powerful documentary and a deeply researched biography of surpassing insight and sensitivity.

Together these works reveal an extraordinary avatar of nonviolent dissent. Her popular resurrection is particularly welcome at a time when left and right seem bent on contorting themselves into mirror images of one another and a pall of orthodoxy increasingly stifles free expression. But her experience—at her chaotic Catholic Worker hospitality house, for instance—also demonstrates the limitations of anarchism, just as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone has done in our own time.

Day's politics are hard to pigeonhole. A lifelong pacifist, union supporter, and civil libertarian, she would seem to fit easily among such icons of the left as David Dellinger and César Chávez, who were indeed her friends. But Day was more complicated than that. While she supported a minimum wage and a 40-hour workweek, she criticized much of the New Deal and opposed Social Security. She thought government handouts bred corruption, complacency, even a love of luxury. And she condemned the "tremendous failure of man's sense of responsibility for what he is doing. You relinquish it to the state. He's not obedient to his own promptings of conscience."

Therein lies the key to Day's worldview. Although she was an avowed anarchist, the religion scholar June E. O'Connor reminded us, "she preferred the words libertarian, decentralist, and personalist."

It was Day's personalist outlook in particular that made her "as skeptical of many of the tenets of modern liberalism as she was of political conservatism," write John Loughery and Blythe Randolph in their new biography, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).

Not much invoked lately, personalism has been seriously underrated as an influence on American cultural and political life. Leaving undisturbed its tangled philosophical roots, the version of interest here insists on the inviolable value and dignity of the person, whose fulfillment is necessarily communal.

The historian James J. Farrell identifies personalism with the spirit of the '60s but situates it firmly in the mainstream of the American intellectual tradition. Personalism, he says, is wary of systems, including both the market economy and the state. It also gives a special role to the poor and marginalized, who form the yardstick against which a society's worth can be measured.

Personalists believe you can change the world by changing yourself, but also that we are morally responsible for one another. People ought to be self-governing, sincere, determined to harmonize means and ends, and bent not just on personal conversion but on shaping law, policy, and institutions, all of which in turn shape people.

"The personalism of the 1960s," Farrell writes in his 1997 book The Spirit of the Sixties, "was a combination of Catholic social thought, communitarian anarchism, radical pacifism, and humanistic psychology."

And it explains a lot. Day's activism looks a lot more cohesive when you see it as an energetic and imaginative personalist enterprise that calls for  a "revolution of the heart." She promulgated a broad critique of American materialism, militarism, racism, and other ills. But again and again she emphasized personal responsibility, insisting that the Catholic faith required individual adherents to take action against injustice. Becoming too dependent on "Holy Mother State," as she called it, would curtail our freedom, undermine our religious obligation to one another, widen the gulf between helper and helped—and often fail to solve the problem.

"She wasn't, as people might think, a religious leftist," the theologian and activist Jim Wallis tells filmmaker Martin Doblmeier in the new documentary Revolution of the Heart. "Dorothy on theological matters, ecclesial matters, biblical matters, was quite conservative. And she was radical in her social, economic, political views because of her conservative faith."

Day's intense personalism was evident in her suspicion of hierarchy, bureaucracy, and far-off authorities. "She was an anarchist in the sense that she believed that too much of our obligation toward other people, toward one another, was being taken over by the state," the Jesuit priest Mark Massa says in the film. "And she was deeply distrustful and suspicious of what kind of world that was going to create."

But she didn't like capitalism either. What she liked—what she exalted—was the dignity and moral autonomy of the individual as derived from God. Always swimming against the tide, she made the journey from collectivism to Catholicism at about the same time most American reform movements were becoming ever more secular.

Day and many of her fellow 20th century personalists shunned violence. It's noteworthy that Martin Luther King Jr. studied at Boston University, the center of American personalism. He acknowledged the doctrine's strong influence on his thinking.

Day took pacifism seriously. In 1940, she testified before Congress against a proposal for the nation's first peacetime draft. She opposed American involvement in World War II even after Pearl Harbor, a stance that crushed her newspaper's circulation and bitterly divided her movement—but from which she never deviated. She was an early advocate for European Jews in their peril and an outspoken opponent of Japanese-American internment. She condemned war bonds and other sources of profit from the conflict, proclaimed (when women's conscription was rumored) that she would never cooperate in any way, and allowed a Catholic anti-war group to urge draft resistance in The Catholic Worker, an episode that brought ecclesiastical reproach (leading to Day's submission). After Hiroshima, she bitterly condemned America's use of atomic weapons.

Later she became an opponent of the Vietnam War, inspiring among others the Berrigan brothers, two Catholic priests whose militant activism included the seizure and public burning of a selective service office's draft files. It's not too much to say that Dorothy Day made pacifism, once the province of Protestants, available to American Catholics as well. She also regularly declined to pay federal taxes, lest the money fund weapons.

Yet it would be wrong to conclude that she spent all her time in a fury of political recrimination or that she regarded America as irredeemable. She was exhausted at times by the magnitude of her undertaking at the Catholic Worker Movement, yet she exuded a characteristically American optimism. Her personalist outlook gave her faith that people can arrange their own lives and make the world better without intervention from coercive authorities.

Like so much else about Day, this faith was at least partly rooted in her Catholicism, which she came to as a young woman by means of conversion. But it may also owe something to her "lived experience," in the redundant parlance of our times. That experience included an abusive boyfriend, cruelty behind bars, and surveillance by the FBI, whose dossier on her spanned 30 years. But Day's life, spent mostly in service to others, was by any standard a glorious adventure.

In contrast with today's diligent résumé-builders, she found college so wanting that she never graduated. Instead, she labored at newspapers and magazines in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and elsewhere. She also worked at a printer's shop, at a public library, at a department store, at a restaurant, and as an artist's model. She never had much money, but people helped her and she, in turn, helped them.

In 1975, Robert Ellsberg, whose father Daniel was then famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers, left Harvard for a brief stint that would turn into five years at The Catholic Worker. "Being fresh out of school," he says in Revolution of the Heart, "the only question that occurred to me was, how do you reconcile Catholicism and anarchism? And she just kind of looked at me and said, 'It's never been a problem for me.'"

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  1. A very good article. Thanks for writing and sharing. The only person you might have added in a discussion of Day, since you rightfully mention the Berrigans, would be Thomas Merton. He too was an outspoken Catholic critic of the tragedy occurring in Vietnam, and he too garnered the ire and distrust from not only the government but also from the church itself.

    A good book, for any interested, is “The Life You Save May be Your Own, by Paul Elie. It covers Day, Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. All 4 were guided by their Christian beliefs into at times unpopular writing, and all 4 communicated with each other and were influenced by each other.

    Thanks again!

  2. Although she was an avowed anarchist, the religion scholar June E. O’Connor reminded us, “she preferred the words libertarian, decentralist, and personalist.”

    Dude, euphemisms aside, the Catholic Workers are recognized by pretty much everyone with a pair of working eyes as communists. I recognize this is a “left libertarian” rag, but there’s only so far left you can go before surrendering libertarian. I submit anyone trying to pass off the Catholic Workers as libertarians has already left the building.

    1. Cool. Surrender yourself to the state and god. That way, the authorities own you before and after you die.

      Besides that, Day sounds like a barrel of laughs.

  3. isn’t it fascinating how one person can get such a different perspective from a religion than many others do….

  4. An excellent article. A debt of gratitude is in order for composing and sharing. Thomas Merton was a candid Catholic pundit of the misfortune happening in Vietnam, and he also collected the fury and doubt from the administration as well as from the congregation itself.

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  5. When writing about someone whose life span and influence reached the edges of two centuries, don’t use the term “the sixties.” In the first part, it’s confusing.

    Did you mean the 1860s or the 1960s?

  6. I am so glad I read this article since I only had a vague memory of Dorothy Day. Now I am intrigued and want to read more about her and the Catholic Worker. Thanks!

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