She lamented the encroachment of the state and the perils of the welfare system. She once compared abortion to genocide and the U.S. government to Nazi Germany. She cheered on income tax resisters, dismissed the benefits of the minimum wage, and worried about the decline of freedom in an increasingly bureaucratic society.
But this was no Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann.
It was Dorothy Day, the heroine of the Catholic Left who walked a picket line with Cesar Chavez, was a civil rights advocate and anti-nuclear weapons activist, and made no secret of her contempt for capitalism, consumerism, and corporations.
But Day’s status as a Leftist icon—a “saint for the Occupy era” as The New Yorker recently put it—has always chafed against certain inconvenient facts. Day’s advocacy of distributism—a third way between socialism and capitalism advocated by such Catholic conservative stalwarts as G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc—has always made her an uncomfortable fit for the Left. And, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops endorsed her cause for canonization, her staunch pro-life views garnered some attention in the ensuring news coverage.
But just how far out of step she was with the Left remains largely unknown.
Day co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933 with Peter Maurin and, from the beginning, she expressed grave misgivings about the New Deal in her columns for the Catholic Worker newspaper she launched the same year. She derided President Roosevelt for “experimenting to find a ‘way out’ of our economic ruin” and chided fellow Catholics for accepting the new economic legislation as the “the lesser of two evils.”
Looking across the Atlantic at Great Britain, she described “social security, health laws, education laws, etc.” as a “sop thrown to the proletariat” and saw parallels with the New Deal:
Roosevelt will be elected on the platform of Cake and Circuses. During the depression years the relief checks flowed in, and now during the war years the government checks come regularly on the first of every month. The millions who are thus bought and paid for do not want any change. They are afraid of change. Mothers of six children cash their $180 stipend every month and go on a binge of department-store buying, movies, … candies, radio, and even sometimes a car. It’s amazing how much you can get in the way of luxury if you just do without the necessities. [Quoted in an article in the summer 1999 issue of the St. John’s Law Review.]
That column, written in 1944, aroused such ire among readers that Day was forced to write a response the next year, in which she defended the poor but did little to mask her antipathy towards the New Deal:
We believe that social security legislation, now balled 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. It is an acceptance of Cain’s statement, on the part of the employer. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Day believed that state welfare programs doubly corrupted the poor. Government funds induced those with limited means to “hug” luxuries like cigarettes, liquor, movies. Such “dissipations,” moreover, were a vain effort to ignore their responsibilities to attend to basic necessities—“the leaking plumbing,” the “lack of coal,” and the “crowded quarters where the poor mothers’ heads reverberate with the din of the not too healthy children.”
Day saw government methods of raising revenue also morally ruinous. During World War II, she offered this scathing assessment of war bonds:
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.
Day’s sheer disdain for the state lent a libertarian flavor to her writings. She dismissed minimum wage and anti-child labor laws as “palliatives.” She bristled over how the United States was becoming a country where it was necessary to have identification papers. She faulted President Truman’s proposed nationalization of the steel industry as short-sighted. And she feared that the “all-encroaching state” was leading to “socialized medicine”—when Truman proposed what would later become Medicaid and Medicare. She was no less compromising on the issue of taxation, once invoking St. Hilary on the issue: “The less we ask of Caesar, the less we will have to render to Caesar.”
To be sure, some of Day’s newspaper articles also could be construed as sympathetic with communism, but she was under no illusion about what communism meant in practice. Her columns often rued the loss of faith and the rejection of God that had occurred in the Soviet Union in her columns. And she defended anti-communist hero Alexander Solzhenitsyn against the “vituperations” of the pro-communist newspaper the Daily Worker.
In one particularly revealing exchange in in 1936, Day’s office received a telegram from the Daily Worker calling on her to issue a Christmas message “against fascist barbarism, assault on religious freedom, and threat to world peace.” Day responded:
Catholic Worker joins in appeal for democracy and peace, therefore asks you to join protest against all dictatorships, fascist and Bolshevist, against all suppression of civil liberties, fascist and Bolshevist, including freedom of religious propaganda, education, and organization, against all war, whether imperialist, civil, or class. Merry Christmas.
Day parted ways with the Left on other issues as well.
In one 1950 column, she wrote disapprovingly of how coal miners frequented taverns where there were “slot machines selling contraceptives, like chewing gum or chocolate.” She repeated her reprimand on contraceptives for Vietnam-era soldiers on leave before battle. “What a misuse of life forces!” Day wrote.
Day, who had an abortion early in life, became an ardent pro-lifer who didn’t shy away from discussing the issue in her columns. She urged her readers to follow the entirely of the Church’s teachings on abortion, birth control, and divorce in a column published in the early 1970s—when the modern feminist movement was in full swing. “We may stretch towards it, falling short, failing seventy times seven, but forgiveness is always there,” Day wrote.
Day was an advocate for civil rights and women’s suffrage—her protesting often landing her in jail—but in one 1963 column she sounded more like John Paul II than Gloria Steinem in condemning pre-marital sex:
Sex is a profound force, having to do with life, the forces of creation which make man god-like. He shares in the power of the Creator, and, when sex is treated lightly, as a means of pleasure, I can only consider that woman is used as a plaything, not as a person. … On the other hand, the act of sex in its right order in the love life of the individual has been used in Old and New Testament as the symbol of the love between God and Man. Sexual love in its intensity makes all things new and one sees the other as God sees him. And this is not illusion. … It is the foretaste we have of heaven and all other joys of the natural world are intensified by it, hearing, seeing, knowing.
Day was an activist throughout her life, but she nonetheless cautioned against the “heresy of good works,” insisting that “[a]ction must be preceded by thought.” Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless without reforming the social order so people could do those things for themselves was a treat-the-symptoms approach that betrayed a lack in faith in both God and one’s fellow man, Day said.
Day was no scholar but she read widely in literature, philosophy, and theology. She was well-versed in the writings of such diverse figures as Martin Buber, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Charles Péguy and often quoted from them in ways that suggested more than a passing familiarity with their works. She displayed a remarkable ability to seamlessly weave sacramental theology, the wisdom of the saints, and Church dogma into columns about the pressing political and social issues of her day.
Day famously enjoined others against calling her a saint, saying she did not want to “be dismissed so easily.” But it is precisely her potential canonization that compels us to take the sweep of her activism and writings seriously—to shun the easy caricatures of secular hagiography and seek to understand her life in the only way in which it makes sense, in the light of Christ’s own life.