Is Dorothy Day Suitable for Canonization?

It always seemed as if Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, was in trouble for something. A 1956 article in the New York Times describes an instance in which Day was fined $250 for being the landlord of a building that failed to comply with the fire code. In addition to the fine she was also in danger of being forced to evict the sixty tenants from her house of charity. The paper explains that as she headed to court, “there was a group of needy men about the door, awaiting the distribution of clothing. From their midst a man, who looked much like the rest, stepped out and pressed a piece of paper into her hand. ‘I just read about your trouble,’ the man said. ‘I want to help out a little bit toward the fine. Here’s two-fifty.’”

Day was grateful to receive what she thought was $2.50 from this unkempt man. Every little bit helped she reasoned. However, it wasn’t until she was on the subway that she realized otherwise: “It was for the full amount of the fine, $250. And it was signed by one of the leading poets of the United States, British-born W.H. Auden. Miss Day was apologetic for not having recognized him. ‘Poets do look a bit unpressed don’t they?’ she said.” Apparently Auden had read about Day’s plight that morning in the paper and immediately sought her out to help in whatever way he could. Years later, he reflected on this donation, not in a sense of self-congratulation, but in awe of Day’s ability to give herself over to work that he himself feared he never could: “I once made a contribution [to Day] myself. My conscious motive in doing so was my admiration for what the movement was doing to help the down-and-out, but unconsciously, I fear, I was trying to allay my conscience for not doing likewise.”

Much like Auden, Dorothy Day was a complex person who hardly fit into anyone’s preconceived categories or notions. She was staunchly pro-life and much of her work with the Catholic Worker Movement centered on social justice. She was also a pacifist, marching against the Vietnam War. Even more than thirty-five years after her death she is still a divisive figure. The opening of her cause for canonization has further highlighted this divisiveness. Perhaps more than anyone else, Auden, in a 1972 article, presents the most even-handed and fair analysis of Day and her work. As a Christian humanist he is able to appreciate her ministry to the poor while his life as an artist and public intellectual in the twentieth century also allows him the ability to recognize Day’s missteps and inconsistencies.

John L. Allen Jr. has written in Crux that “Dorothy Day is the ideal American sainthood candidate in the Francis era, and it would be both symbolically and substantively apt if he can be the pontiff to raise her to the honors of the altar.” I wouldn’t dare argue against the fact that Day and Pope Francis are kindred spirits. However, what I would argue is that Day is neither the “ideal American sainthood candidate in the Francis era” nor the ideal American candidate for sainthood in any other era.

This is because decades before her protest of the Vietnam War, Day was arguing that all sides in the Second World War were equally culpable for its outbreak: “We believe that Hitler is no more personally responsible than is Chamberlain or Daladier or any other leader. The blame rests upon the people of the entire world…. Capitalism’s betrayal came more quickly in Germany because of the Versailles Treaty, and Nazism flowered as a logical result.” Auden calls this argument “nonsense” and cites it as the “one point on which I take issue with Dorothy Day.” Auden explains that “[w]e all know that war is a horrible thing and that, whoever is to blame for starting it, atrocities will be committed on both sides; but the blame for World War II, surely, lies with Germany and Japan (Russia, because of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, cannot be altogether exonerated), not with England, France, or America.”

It is interesting to note that while Day might have marched against the war in Vietnam and assigned blame to all sides during the Second World War, she wasn’t afraid to support the leftists in various other twentieth-century conflicts. Auden notes that Day’s paper The Catholic Worker was the only Catholic publication to support the anti-Catholic Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. Auden himself briefly participated in the Civil War on the side of the Republicans before the horrors of the Second World War turned him off from extremism on the left and the right. Auden is able to rationalize the paper’s position against General Franco and the Catholic Nationalists saying that though “[The Catholic Worker] probably foresaw that, if the [Republicans] won, the Church would be persecuted, it thought that a Christian must always choose to be persecuted rather than to persecute.” If this was the reasoning of The Catholic Worker while priests were being murdered and nuns were being raped by Spanish Republicans, its reasoning was obviously a false dichotomy. One wonders if it would approach the persecution and murder of Christians at the hands of ISIS with the same passivity and quietism today.

Day seems to have applied the same policy to Fidel Castro’s seizure of power in Cuba. Even Auden notes that “[r]ather oddly, and to the dismay of some of her coworkers, when Castro seized power in Cuba, Dorothy Day abandoned her hitherto uncompromising pacifist position.” Thus, while Day would have preferred persecuted Catholics to remain docile in Spain, she had no problem with the poor rising up in revolt in Cuba: “We do believe that it is better to revolt, to fight, as Castro did with his handful of men … than do nothing.” Again, we see another horrifying example of Day’s acceptance of violence, if, and only if, it fits into the narrative of leftist rebellion: “[Day] did not deny that Castro had made much use of firing squads, but she excused him on the grounds that his revolution had been for the poor, and if one had to choose between the violence done the poor by the acquisitive bourgeois spirit of many Americans and the violence of Castro, which was aimed at helping the poor, then she would take the latter.”

John Allen argues that if Pope Francis “were looking around for a current American cause under which he might want to light a fire, it’s hard to imagine Dorothy Day wouldn’t seem an awfully attractive possibility.” Unfortunately, this is a patently dangerous and dishonest remark to make. Even the USCCB, advancing her cause for canonization in 2012, lauded her “work for peace and justice.” However, it is now obvious that such work for peace was seriously selective. There is no doubt various causes for canonization in the past few years have been controversial. Plenty of critics have questioned the canonization of popes John XXIII and John Paul II over perceived failures or mistakes during their respective papacies. But these specific “mistakes” were never factors in the canonical process since they did not shed light on the sanctity of the man himself.

Dorothy Day’s cause is different. In light of Day’s positions concerning some of the most horrific and deadly events of the twentieth century, she is anything but an “attractive possibility” for sainthood. In her lifetime, Day publically advocated various Communist regimes linked to the Soviet Union. Western intellectuals who supported these regimes knew that they consisted of anti-Catholic, atheist governments whose public policy was the firing squad. Often, as was the case with Spain, these regimes were even condemned by the Church’s magisterium. If Lumen Gentium is a blueprint for the modern Christian’s path to holiness and sanctity, it would appear that Day’s support for a Spanish government condemned by Pius XI is not in keeping with the exhortation that Christians “follow in [Christ’s] footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things.” Her tacit approval of the violence of Castro’s atheist regime in Cuba is also a stumbling block to the call for Christians to “manifest to all men the love with which God loved the world.”

At best, these positions must be addressed and explained by anyone who is willing to advance her cause for canonization. At worst, her two-faced pacifism (Catholics must be docile while socialists and the poor can be violent) and her relativist position concerning culpability for the Second World War completely disqualify her candidacy. Even Auden, one of her most staunch and ardent advocates, saw this as the one blemish on an otherwise exemplary life of public service. Unfortunately it is a severe blemish and one that can’t be glossed over by Mr. Allen or anyone else.

Fr. Brandon O'Brien

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Fr. Brandon O'Brien is a priest for the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York. He served as the 2012-2013 Editor-in-Chief of The Dunwoodie Review, the academic journal published by students of St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York, before his ordination to the priesthood in 2013. He earned an M. Div and an M.A. in Theology from the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York.

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