Thursday, March 24, 2016

Was Dorothy Day a saint?

As the Roman Catholic Church's process for designating Dorothy Day a saint grinds on, Patrick Jordan has offered a contribution to what will likely be a burgeoning literature about this challenging woman. Dorothy Day: Love in Action from People of God Series from Liturgical Press is a short, thematic survey of her life, the Catholic Worker movement, and her animating beliefs. I think it would serve as an accessible introduction for anyone who might want to know who was this woman who Pope Francis name-checked when addressing the U.S. Congress last year.

In 12 pages of what Jordan calls "A Chronology," he recounts Dorothy's life story in economic detail; I expected to know most of this, having both known her and read most of her writings, but I was wrong. This is far more complete than what I knew and quite fascinating; she lived hard, often bravely, and always vigorously.

From that factual platform, Jordan moves on to elucidate the intellectual and moral themes of Dorothy's life and vocation, nodding along the way to her warm but complex humanity. She sought to live a Christian response to poverty and to demonstrate a way to enflesh justice. She believed that living in and with poverty was simply the only truthful response to our neighbors whom we must love as we love ourselves. But she wasn't sentimental about it:

"In what does our poverty consist?" Dorothy asked herself in 1961. "In toilets out of commission ..., dish washers who wipe their noses on the dishtowels, people who are mental cases."

... When asked one Lent how she could see Christ in other people, Dorothy responded, "It is an act of faith, constantly repeated. It is an act of love, resulting from an act of faith. It is an act of hope, that we can awaken these same acts in their hearts, too."

... she quoted Gregory the Great: "When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice."

This uncompromising credo, joined with absolute pacifism and faithfulness to the Church as the vehicle through which Christ erupts in the world, made her a quirky, formidable force. Jordan recounts the episode in 1972 when she faced down the I.R.S., refusing to apply for charitable status for the Catholic Worker house. Why should we need a license from the government to feed the hungry and share with the needy? When the New York Times and the Washington Post editorialized in support of her integrity, the Nixon administration knew it had to back off and nothing more was heard of that.

Dorothy's own writings in the Catholic Worker newspaper and many books are still good reading; Jordan reports that

I.F. Stone, the muckraking Washington journalist, remarked after Dorothy's death that "of all the journalists of our generation, she wrote the best."

He also captures a facet of her presence that may not enthrall the sainthood assessors but which was terribly important to the young people who came to her movement in her later life: she was wonderfully well read in classic literature as that was understood in her day. Thanks to her, we read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Undset and Austin, Dickens and Greene, Buber and Arendt, and many more.

The U.S. bishops have forwarded Dorothy's cause to Rome for possible sainthood. Some Catholic Workers find the idea of such institutional blessing grating. For others, the idea that Dorothy embodied sainthood seems self-evident. Jordan offers his own conclusion about the question:

"... she is a prophet, an American prophet, who called not only individuals, but the church, the state, and American society itself to account. There must be a closing of the gap between private and public morality, Dorothy taught, and [she] questioned both our materialism and our militarism. ... Further, in this land where happiness is viewed as a constitutional right, there must be a new willingness to encounter Christ in others and on the cross."

Full disclosure: I worked with Patrick Jordan at the Catholic Worker for several years, though we haven't crossed paths in over 3 decades.


Hattie said...

One of the single women who have changed America. We are beholden to you;those of us who have fallen short of our ideals in the service of home and family and our pleasant lives.

Hattie said...

Oh,I realize I should write "single" in quotes. But I hope you know what I mean.

janinsanfran said...

Hattie: I know exactly what you mean. Although Dorothy sometimes expressed the culturally required deference of her generation to men, she never gave any sign that she thought women inferior. And she seemed to think we women had access to human experiences that gave us something of a head start in seeking to be inhumanly good to each other. :-)

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