A Pacifist Anarchist Catholic Saint

Watch The Life of Dorothy Day on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

If you don’t already subscribe to PBS’s Religion and Ethics News Weekly, I highly recommend that you do. This story alone is worth it.

It focuses on the life of Dorothy Day, a devout Catholic, a socialist, an anarchist, and, perhaps very soon, a Saint.

Dorothy Day has always loomed large in the back of my mind. Growing up Catholic, to two very liberal parents (my mother marched with and had dinner with a member of the Chicago Seven), I was drawn to the idea that Catholics could also be radicals. My parents faded away from the Church, sometimes recalling that the most vicious people they had ever encountered were Catholic nuns in primary schools. And as they faded, so did I, drawn to science, atheism and existentialism, then humanism, and eventually Buddhism.

The very name of Day’s movement, the Catholic Worker Movement, clearly echoes her Communist sympathies (or at least shared interests) - noting that we humans are workers as much as anything and that work deserves respect and the recognition of the dignity of each and every one of us. Of course this is distinguished from the way we all are typically described, as consumers. Here our value is determined by how much we take, not by what we give.

I’m no orthodox Marxist, but I believe Day was on to something. We need balance, and these days things seem far from balanced.

At Day’s Catholic Worker soup kitchen I am heartened to see (in the video) that one of the volunteers interviewed openly admits to not being a Christian. Yet his ability to work, to give, is still valued. He is accepted based on that, on his practices rather than his beliefs.

Others, Christian and not, Socialist and not, were drawn to her  “pacifist anarchist movement” through their own conscience as much as to holding any particular beliefs, and it has been this common conscience, a shared sense of the rightness of helping those in need, which has kept the movement alive for 80 years this year.

When I mentioned this on facebook, a friend reminded me of Thomas Merton and Simone Weil, two fellow radicals and inspirations to all of us from the 20th century.


Another friend reminded me this morning that in order to be canonized, Day would need two miracles attributed to her. There are no miracles attributed to her intercession mentioned in recent articles, although the Washington Post reported in 2000 that a Sociologist named Robert Coles, a Day admirer, said his wife prayed to Day and experienced a healing (actually… see comment below). And in 2011 the Houston branch of Catholic Worker published a letter from a Professor Richard Fossey of the University of North Texas, who wrote:

In December 2009, I invoked the assistance of Dorothy Day, asking her to cure my friend Sarah Maple of a brain tumor that doctors told Sarah would kill her in two years…

He continues:

I am writing to tell you that Sarah Maple has had a miraculous healing of her brain tumor. She had received good MRIs through the autumn of 2010, but in December she went for her regular visit to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and the doctors told her that her brain tumor had disappeared. One member of Sarah’s medical team, who is Catholic, told Sarah that she had never seen anything like this and that she believed Sarah’s remarkable recovery is a miracle.

I too believe that the disappearance of Sarah’s brain tumor is a miracle that occurred through the intercession of Dorothy Day, whose assistance I sought just before I wrote the Zwicks in December 2009.

And finally:

If there is anything I can do to help move the canonization of Dorothy Day forward, please let me know. I recall vividly that when I sought Dorothy Day’s intercession, I felt a deep sense that my call for assistance was heard.

Verification of these potential miracles is a lengthy process at the Vatican (here is a report discussing the beatification and canonization process for Pope John Paul II).

If you would like to pray for Day’s intercession, a website has been set up to guide you. But keep in mind this is the woman who reportedly said, “Don’t trivialize me by trying to make me a saint,” and in her own words about miracles in 1934 wrote:

Our lives are made up of little miracles day by day. That splendid globe of sun, one street wide, framed at the foot of East Fourteenth street in early morning mists that greeted me this morning in my way out to mass was a miracle that lifted up my heart. I was reminded of a little song of Teresa’s, composed and sung at the age of two.

“I’ll sing a song,” (she warbled)
Of sunshine on a little house.
And the sunshine is a present for the little house.”

Sunshine in the middle of January is indeed a present.

Indeed. February too.

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  • Rosalie Riegle

    Thanks for an excellent summary of Dorothy Day’s life. At first viewing, it’s true to the Dorothy I know from working with people who knew her; however, I must note one important mistake: Robert Coles has been trying for years to correct the rumor that his wife’s tumor disappeared because he prayed TO Dorothy. in my oral biography, *Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her * (Orbis Books, 1993) Coles says, “Dorothy was praying FOR my wife’s recovery.” (p. 141). (Emphasis added.) A very different matter.

    Dorothy was still alive when Coles’ wife was diagnosed and when he told her about the tumor, she replied that she and the community were praying that the tumor would disappear. It did and one of the doctors said it was a miracle. Coles goes on to say that as far as he knew, Dorothy and the Catholic Workers in New York were the only ones specifically praying for Dorothy. This story shows the power of prayer–maybe even the power of Catholic Worker praer– but it’s certainly not a Dorothy miracle. Let’s hope PBS, the Washington Post and other media will finally set the record straight. Thank you.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Many many thanks for stopping by and taking the time to clear that up – I added a note in the original to see your comment. I wish the WP had done the same (noted their factual error) at some point. Best wishes, jw

      • Rosalie Riegle

        Good, Justin! I’m going to try to reach the Post reporter with the same message. I’m also appreciating the other responses to your blog. Peace! Ro

  • http://jscatholicworker.org Pam

    This video is excellent. I lived and volunteered at Maryhouse Catholic Worker House in NYC years ago. and know that many Catholic Workers were hesitant at times to talk with the media, having been misquoted too many times previously. Many thanks to PBS, this is well done. I’m going to include it as a link on my website.

  • Beth

    I was active in the Catholic Worker in the middle 1980s in large part because of the influence of kind, intelligent, generous sisters who taught in the K-12 school that I attended. Not discounting your parents experience, but there are plenty of us out here who were nurtured, not traumatized, by women religious. Compassion challenges us not to stereotype, whether we are Buddhist, Catholic, or anything else. Dorothy was not an exceptional person in spite of her Catholic faith. She was exceptional because of the way in which she embraced that faith. She is hard to label as conservative, radical, progressive, etc. She defies such reduction. Her conversion to Catholicism was influenced in part by the example of a nun on Staten Island who didn’t just talk about feeding the masses. Instead, that nun fed the poor. It’s all there in Day’s book The Long Loneliness.

  • rumitoid

    Great article. You and I have very similar backgrounds and paths. I feel that existentialism is part of the process to becoming a Buddhist.

    The mention you made that we are now considered “Consumers” speaks volumes for the changed attitudes in America and the huge income disparity. All the advances made in labor are now being portrayed by the Right as undo entitlements from a grasping populace. Evil teachers, miners, and factory workers looking to drag down America into socialism. Labor Unions as the epitome of wickedess. And the Christian Right, for the most part, agree. It is a sad state of affairs.

  • Tom Armstrong

    What gets brushed under the rug is Day’s cartoonish romantic idealism. Day was opposed to fighting the Nazis, for example, and encouraged resistance to the draft in the 30s and 40s. While all wars are terrible, WWII was the one war that needed to be fought.

    A person is not a serious thinker if he or she doesn’t come to know that we need police in our cities. In the very same way — because there are bad actors in the world — we need a military, too. Sometimes, we need to use violent force for completely good purposes. Call me silly, if you want to, but I think it was the case when we declared war on Germany, the US did the right thing. Now, well after the war, there can be no doubt that stopping the Nazis was good and necessary. I mean: You think?

    Day was also opposed to Social Security. Why? It appears that she had so very much faith in her screwy absolutist thinking that she believed the old who were poor shouldn’t have control of their own lives.

    Day wrote this as late as 1945, when Social Security was operating and being hailed as a great success by most others: “We believe that social security legislation, now [hailed] 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?’ Since the employer can never be trusted to give a family wage, nor take care of the worker as he takes care of his machine when it is idle, the state must enter in and compel help on his part.”

    What horrible sentiment on two fronts! Day voices an expectation for the employer to be the caretaker of its employees, beyond their working years, on into old age. She basically saw average workers as life-long children who needed a Christian keeper in a never-ended parent role.

    The idea of the federal government stepping in to allow the old and disabled to have money to be the authors of their own lives was highly offensive to Day.

    Day determined that SHE should look after the poor, if they had no family to help. SHE was what was needed as the dominatrix of a fiefdom for the poor.

    Day was a scary control freak. And it is exactly that that nurtured her admiration of totalitarian communism. In a totalist regime, the government is pretty much in charge of every aspect of your life. In 1945, when Day wrote the piece where the blockquote, above, comes from, Joseph Stalin was the leader in the Soviet Union and led the prime example of a soviet utopia. Or, I should say dystopia. Stalin killed 61 million of the citizens in his country when he led the Soviet Union (according to the USSR’s own records, now in the hands of Russia) and is surely one of the worst villians of all time, or, truly, THE very worst villian, topping even Hitler and Pol Pot, and Mao.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Interesting. Thanks for the additional details on Day’s life and views, Tom. Perhaps she rose to the perfect position, then, as ‘control freak’ of a small but effective humanitarian cause. One of the great pacifists of the 20th century, Jeanette Rankin (who happened to be a Congresswoman from Montana), also opposed – and had the distinction of being the only congressperson to vote against US involvement in – both world wars.