Times tries to pin a label on Dorothy Day (updated)

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Back in the early 1990s, I had a chance to interview the late Father Ellwood “Bud” Kaiser about his unique career as a Catholic priest and as a producer in modern Hollywood, through Paulist Productions. Much of the interview focused on his film “Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story.

One of the keys to the movie, he said, was finding a way a visualize the transformation that drove Day into ministry, the moment when the guilt she felt about an abortion earlier in her life was, through repentance, turned into a powerful source of energy to help the poor, especially the needy children and families she encountered on the streets of New York City. She went into a confession booth a woman burdened and trapped by guilt, he said. She came out a woman driven to show grace to others.

Is there an easy, accurate label for her life?

For the editors at The New York Times, the prophetic social activism produced by this moment turned Day into a liberal icon.

However, for Catholic leaders, it is just as crucial that the power to do the work was ignited by repentance and then fueled by a strong and traditional love of the Sacraments.

So, who was Dorothy Day and is it really a surprise that many conservatives now hail her as a saint, as well as many Catholic progressives? Here is the top of a Times story contemplating that equation:

Dorothy Day is a hero of the Catholic left, a fiery 20th-century social activist who protested war, supported labor strikes and lived voluntarily in poverty as she cared for the needy.

But Day has found a seemingly unlikely champion in New York’s conservative archbishop, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who has breathed new life into an effort to declare the Brooklyn native a saint.

Cardinal Dolan has embraced her cause with striking zeal: speaking on the anniversaries of her birth and death, distributing Dorothy Day prayer cards to parishes and even buying roughly 100 copies of her biography to give out last year as Christmas gifts to civic officials including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. This month, at Cardinal Dolan’s recommendation, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted unanimously to move forward with her canonization cause, even though, as some of the bishops noted, she had an abortion as a young woman and at one point flirted with joining the Communist Party.

“I am convinced she is a saint for our time,” Cardinal Dolan said at the bishops’ meeting. She exemplifies, he said, “what’s best in Catholic life, that ability we have to be ‘both-and’ not ‘either-or.’ ”

I guess the key is the word “seemingly” in that description of the cardinal. It only seems strange that Dolan sees holiness in Day’s life for a simple reason — it isn’t strange at all.

In particular, her witness as an abortion survivor, as a mother and as a genuinely pro-life activist is at the heart of her story of faith. She was driven into that confession booth by the haunting faces of the young children she saw on New York sidewalks.

Note how the Times gets to this “seemingly unlikely champion” formula, in describing Dolan:

Cardinal Dolan is often depicted as one of the most visible symbols of the rightward shift of America’s Catholic bishops. He has been critical of President Obama’s policies — he accused the Obama administration of “an unwarranted, unprecedented radical intrusion” into church life after the administration said it would require some Catholic institutions to provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraception — and he has been an outspoken opponent of the administration’s support for same-sex marriage.

In recent years, he and other conservative Catholics have come to embrace Day, finding inspiration in her decision to support the church’s opposition to abortion, as well as her distrust of government and her overall religious orthodoxy. As someone who was both committed to social justice and loyal to church teachings, Day bridges wings of the contemporary church in a way that few American Catholic figures can.

That passage started out bad, but ended up capturing the key element of this story. It’s hard not to ask: Would Day, as leader of a social ministry that would not be exempt from the current version of the Health and Human Services mandates, back traditional religious groups in this battle over religious liberty? If she did so, would this make Day part of the “rightward shift”?

Talk about your strange labels. Once again, a major media source is caught in a bind trying to apply POLITICAL labels to people who are consistently acting on DOCTRINAL motivations.

But to its credit, the Times team includes the following passage as well:

Though she was traditional in her religious practices and strong in her love for the church, her relationship with the church hierarchy in her lifetime was not always smooth. Not a single Catholic bishop came to her funeral in 1980, according to Robert Ellsberg, the editor of her letters and diaries.

But bishops now say Day’s life resonates with the struggles that they are most engaged in today: the fight against abortion and their concern about government intrusion in their affairs. In her radical rejection of government — Day believed all states were inherently totalitarian — the bishops see echoes of their fight with the Obama administration over health care.

Of course, the actual battle between the bishops and the White House is NOT over health care, since the bishops have consistently backed health-care reform, but, oh, nevermind.

Perhaps readers should be thankful that this story included strong and logical voices on the Catholic left and right accurately noting the debates about Day’s work and legacy. And while it can’t seem to figure out that Dolan is driven by the same ancient doctrines as Day, the story — Hosanna — gets more right than it gets wrong in this update on the faith of a remarkable Christian heroine.

UPDATED: Veteran Catholic columnist Mary DeTurris Poust is not, repeat NOT, amused by this Times piece. Click here for her careful dissection of it at her Not Strictly Spiritual weblog. By the way, the icon added to the post as art is a reproduction of the Dorothy Day icon that hangs above Poust’s desk.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    “Once again, a major media source is caught in a bind trying to apply POLITICAL labels to people who are consistently acting on DOCTRINAL motivations.”

    Yes, I think this is the main flaw as well, but I’d say that there are labels with political and non-political meanings that are not being appreciated. A “conservative” Catholic is conservative with respect to the religion, which may indeed mean embracing some ideas that are politically liberal. Dolan is a (religiously) conservative bishop, but the flaw is thinking that “conservative” also applies to his politics. Hence, this writer’s confusion about his support for Day’s cause. I think this also underlies how Catholics, even accounting for the pew effect, are deeply divided over politics – because neither major party fully addresses Catholic concerns and some go one way and some the other. And that is missing from many stories on the “Catholic Vote.” The fact that the MSM tends to succumb to the pitfall of trying to understand people through well-defined political categories just shows they could stand to be more open minded and objective.

    • Bill

      In response to AuthenticBioethics:
      I am curious about what “politically liberal” ideas Catholics are supposed to embrace, and, in particular, Dorothy Day embraced. Does this include her view that “We believe that Social Security legislation, now billed 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.”
      The idea that being a good Catholic means being on the left — as in embracing big government — is perhaps one of the biggest scams put over on people in American history. Historically, most sophisticated Catholic thinkers have recognized the long-term destructiveness of government usurping functions provided by individuals, local/organic communities, families, and the Church.

  • tmatt

    “The fact that the MSM tends to succumb to the pitfall of trying to understand people through well-defined political categories just shows they could stand to be more open minded and objective.”

    And factual.

  • suburbanbanshee

    If they wanted to know why bishops were there or weren’t there at her funeral, why don’t they just ask around at the chancery? I can’t believe that the New York Times can’t find some old chancery geezer or geezerette who knows the details of Cardinal O’Connor’s schedule. Sheesh. Talk about work avoidance.

    If I had to guess, I’d guess that church hierarchy and VIP friends were asked not to come, or to come only in mufti. It was the fashionable thing to ask at funerals, back then. Presumably one might also check Day’s papers and find out whether she’d expressed any wishes that had to do with this.

    • http://www.marquette.edu/library/archives/day.shtml Phil Runkel

      The funeral was for friends and family members. Cardinal Cooke blessed the body outside the church before leaving for another appointment. He was principal celebrant and homilest at the memorial mass for Dorothy Day at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on January 26th, 1981.

  • Julia

    What Suburbanbanshee said.

    Also – because of liturgical protocol, a bishop can’t just slip into a pew at a funeral or wedding. The required ceremonies and garb might have turned her funeral into an event with which she would have been uncomfortable.
    A President can sit in the front (or back) pew, but a bishop has to be in the sanctuary, probably in choir dress. Re-call the presence of Cardinal O’Malley at Senator Kennedy’s funeral.

    Poust’s post is very thorough. I note her observation that it was the NYT itself which is “depicting” Dolan as the posterboy of the bishops’ so-called shift to the right. She also rightly castigates the NYT for not understanding that having had an abortion does not eliminate one’s chances of salvation (in Catholic understainding) – she points to Augustine as the perfect example of the repentant sinner who becomes a saint.

    I liked seeing the NYT get quotes not only from the ubiquitous Fr Reese, but also John Allen, Cardinal George and Aunt Blabby aka William Donahue.

  • Julia

    Another perspective Poust adds is her observation that both of Cardinal Dolan’s immediate two predecessors pushed for Day’s canonization. He didn’t think it up on his own to promote current-day political issues. An official recognition of sainthood starts locally and requires years of promotion. I’d heard about Kateri Tekawitha, the Lilly of the Mohawks, since I was in grade school and I’m in my late 60s. She was just recently declared a saint.

    Note that everybody in heaven is a saint. What is being discussed here is an official Catholic recognition of sainthood so that folks of various ages, cultures and circumstances in life have relatable saintly role models. I’ve not seen that explained anywhere. Some Protestant friends thought that only people declared saints by the Pope were thought by Catholics to be in heaven. And that the Pope has the power to put people in heaven. The way the sainthood process appears in the media I’m not surprised they think that.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I have a serious problem with this phrase: “In recent years, he and other conservative Catholics have come to embrace Day…” That’s malarky. Cardinals O’Connor and Egan weren’t exactly what the Times would call liberal Catholics and yet, as Mary Poust notes, they pushed her cause.

  • Martha

    An account of Dorothy Day’s funeral here. Sounds like there was some political hoo-ha behind it all; Cardinal Cooke did come, but had to leave early:

    “The day before, according to a Catholic Worker staff member, Cardinal Cooke’s secretary had phoned to request that the mass be held at 10 a.m., because it would then fit into the Cardinal’s schedule and he could preside. But Miss Day’s daughter had already decided on 11 a.m. because that was when the soup kitchen was closed for the morning break between cleaning up after breakfast and getting ready for lunch. The cardinal’s presence would be missed, the secretary was told, but with all due respect, feeding the poor came first.”

    Well, whatever the reasons, ’tis a long tradition in the church for saints to be fighting with bishops :-)

  • Julia

    Just so we don’t just pick on the NYT:

    In the past few days I saw TWO news casts on FOX News that described the recent consistory in Rome where new Cardinals received their red birettas as “crowning” them as Princes. Cardinals are created or elevated, not “crowned”. Why didn’t a producer change that?

  • Julia

    Just so we don’t just pick on the NYT:

    In the past few days I saw Two FOX Newscasts that described the recent consistory in Rome where new Cardinals received their red birettas as “crowning” them as Princes. Cardinals are created or elevated, not “crowned”. Why didn’t a producer catch that? Surely at least one of the many Catholic anchors on FOX should have spoken up.

    • Proteios1

      You are assuming they know?
      Regardless of where we fall on a political spectrum, our Catholic knowledge could and should be improved. This applies to me as well. What separates people is whether they only look at the projection of Catholicism onto their ore existing politics and morph our beliefs to comply. This versus the infinitely better approach. That approach is seeing the world, politics and all, through the life of Christ handed down through the infallible teachings of the Church.
      From what I’ve seen of Fox, I would doubt they know anything more about their faith than the pied piper known as the national catholic reporter…and it’s lost sheep.

  • DeaconJohn M. Bresnahan

    Someday the media will get it right and come up with the best word to describe Catholics who are not willing to regard the state or a corrupt culture as its god.

  • mike flynn

    one of the markers of sainthood throughout history, has been rejection, animosity, mistrust, of the “saint” by the church heirarchy in their time.

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