Dorothy Day is a godmother in my activist family tree. I learned of her through Sojourners magazine. Again and again, so many people I respected were referring to her. I wish I’d been able to know her and sit at her feet. But then she would have been too busy serving the poor, challenging the powers and stirring up the pot for me to even sit down! The challenge is to follow in her footsteps.
The Grand Old Lady of Pacifism
We will not be drilled into fear. We do not have faith in God if we depend upon the Atom Bomb.
Dorothy Day was once a Communist who became a leading voice for radical nonviolent Christianity in the United States. She lived a life of voluntary poverty, cared for the homeless, published The Catholic Worker newspaper and founded a movement by the same name that continues to this day.
Day’s early adulthood was spent as a muckraking leftist journalist, joining herself with various protest movements while living as part of the sexual revolution of the 1920s. Faced with her second pregnancy, she was spurred onto a religious quest that ended with converting to Catholicism, abandoning her lover and keeping her baby. She also kept the passion for the poor and the struggles for justice that had marked her earlier years, but now that passion was wedded to a deep spirituality.
Founding of The Catholic Worker
In 1933 she met Peter Maurin, and they co-founded The Catholic Worker to address concerns of war and poverty from a radical Catholic perspective. Only 2,500 copies of the first issue were printed, but by the end of the year they were publishing 100,000 papers per issue. They sold papers for a penny apiece so that anyone could buy one—and they still gave away thousands of copies. The paper didn’t just criticize what was going on; it challenged readers to make a personal response. Most of the initial writing came directly from Dorothy Day herself.
Pacifist Views During the Spanish Civil War
Beginning in 1935, through the pages of The Catholic Worker, Day propounded a philosophy of neutral pacifism based on the teaching of Jesus. Few paid attention to what she said at first, but when the Spanish Civil War broke out, critics from both sides were alienated by her position. The Catholic Church supported the Fascist Franco (as did Hitler and Mussolini). Meanwhile the American left, which identified with many of Day’s social positions, supported the Republican side, which included Communists, socialists, anarchists and many American leftist volunteers. Day wrote:
We are not, of course, pro-Franco, but pacifists, followers of Gandhi in our struggle to build a spirit of nonviolence. But in those days we got it from both sides; it was a holy war to most Catholics, just as world revolution is a holy war to Communists.
About two-thirds of the readers abandoned The Catholic Worker because of the pacifism espoused in its pages.
World War II
Day and The Catholic Worker continued to hold to the pacifist position during World War II.
Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, Day wrote.
We love our country … We have been the only country in the world where men and women of all nations have taken refuge from oppression. But for Day, action in the face of violence was expressed through doing acts of mercy, not by going to war. Many of the faithful readers of The Catholic Worker went to prison or spent the war years laboring in rural work camps.
Voice Against Anti-Semitism
Dorothy Day was a strong voice against anti-Semitism as Hitler was rising to power in Europe. The Catholic Worker was certainly the first Catholic journal, maybe one of the first non-Jewish papers in the U.S., to decry the growing persecution of the Jews under the Nazis. She was one of the founders of Catholics to Fight Anti-Semitism. She became a staunch critic of Father Charles Coughlin, the fiery priest who used his radio programs to promote anti-Semitic ideas and who published the spurious Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his journal Social Justice. Day could be pointedly acerbic in her critiques of such hate speech, especially when the hate came from a religious source.
Caring for the Homeless
Day and Maurin founded the House of Hospitality to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless in New York City, a ministry that began with Day’s willingness to open her own apartment to needy people during the winter. The House of Hospitality was the first in what grew to be many Catholic Worker Houses across the country. Before Mother Teresa picked up the dying in Calcutta, Dorothy Day was welcoming the poorest of the poor, the destitute, addicted and dying into the Catholic Worker Houses. She said,
Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Religion or background did not matter, only that a person was in need.
Resistance to Civil Defense Drills During the Cold War
During the Cold War missile attack scares of the 1950s and 1960s she was jailed three times for refusing to participate in civil defense drills in New York City. She viewed the drills as an attempt to promote nuclear war by getting people to think it was survivable. For her, participation in the drills was complicity in the entire nuclear war preparation enterprise with its waste of billions of dollars in military spending. When the alarms went off, she and a handful of others sat in protest on the steps of City Hall.
We will not be drilled into fear, she said.
We do not have faith in God if we depend on the Atom Bomb. She was arrested each year when the civil defense drill was held—until such drills were suspended after 2,000 people refused to participate in 1961.
Activism During the Vietnam War
Day was nearly hit by rifle fire from the Ku Klux Klan while visiting the racially integrated community of Koinonia Farms in Georgia in 1957. The Klan bullets smashed into the steering column of the car she was driving. By the time of the Vietnam War she was called
the grand old lady of pacifism and had a strong influence on a rising generation of peace activists. She protested the draft and the war in Vietnam. Day was last jailed in 1973 at the age of 75. She was jailed for taking part in a banned picket in support of striking farm workers and their leader César Chávez.
Day was given many honors. Mother Teresa was one of the people who came to visit her as her health was failing, but she brushed off such attention,
Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily. Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame University said Day was known for
comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. He presented her the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame for her social witness.
Dorothy Day challenged people to act in love. There was always some sort of action that could be taken in the face of the challenges of poverty and war. She wrote:
Young people say: What good can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time, we can be responsible only for the action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.
The impact of Day’s loving actions for justice and peace continue to multiply through those whose lives were changed by her witness.
Related Interfaith Peacemakers Profiles
Relevant External Resources
- The Catholic Worker – Wikipedia
- Peter Maurin – Wikipedia
- Spanish Civil War Breaks Out – History
- Francisco Franco – Wikipedia
- World War II – Wikipedia
- Sermon on the Mount – Wikipedia
- Father Charles Coughlin – Wikipedia
- Protocols of the Elders of Zion – Wikipedia
- Cold War – History
- Koinonia Partners – Wikipedia
- Vietnam War – History
- Mother Teresa – Wikipedia
- Laetare Medal from Notre Dame – Wikipedia
Ed McNulty says
Thanks, Dan, for this good piece on one of my favorite social activists. Love her books. There is a good film about her early life–Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story–that I have reviewed at https://readthespirit.com/visual-parables/entertaining-angels-dorothy-day-story-1996/.