Catholic Citizenship and the “Dorothy Option”

Last Monday’s Republican debate at St. Anselm’s College in New Hampshire was billed by CNN as the first major event of the 2012 presidential campaign. The choice of a Benedictine institution was weirdly appropriate because the debate also kicked off our quadrennial Catholic scrap over electoral politics. A year from now, the battle will be fully engaged. The two camps will have emerged from their respective quarters to savage each other on the deck of the ship of state, contending for control of the rudder, seeking to define each other down the plank and into the Davy Jones Locker of American Church history.

“Conservatives” and Republicans will come armed with abortion, ESCR, and gay marriage. They’ll hurl accusations of indifference to the unborn and the sanctity of marriage. They’ll intone “SOCIALISM” at every turn, and warn darkly of hidden agendas aimed at remaking the Church in the image of MoveOn.org. “Liberals” and Democrats will come armed with war and torture, capital punishment, and market idolatry. They’ll hurl accusations of indifference to the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. They’ll intone “CORPORATIONS” at every turn, and warn darkly of hidden agendas aimed at remaking the Church in the image of the Tea Party. Both sides will engage in hand-to-hand combat over the meaning and application of terms like “intrinsic evil,” “remote cooperation,” and “prudential judgment,” all the while accusing their opponents of distortion, dishonesty, or simple ignorance.  Then, on Election Day + 1, winners will celebrate the return or arrival of truth and justice, while the vanquished will foretell dire calamities soon to be visited on the land.

I used to engage in these war games, and enjoyed watching others engage in them. I fought under the conviction that the soul of the Church – at least in America – was being contested. Don’t get me wrong: my intent is not to trivialize or dismiss either the importance of the issues contested or the legitimate passions of the contestants. It is true that from a Catholic perspective there is a fundamental problem with a party that aggressively supports both the killing of the unborn and a revolutionary redefinition of marriage. And it is also true that from that same perspective there is a fundamental problem with a party that aggressively seeks to dismantle the social safety net in the name – acknowledged or not – of a Darwinian economic ideology, and which uncritically celebrates war, torture, and empire.

The deeper I drove into the authentic teaching of the Church and its implications for living as both citizen and Christian, the less satisfied I became with limitations of a binary political system defined by Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative. In fact, over time I came to see that the system isn’t binary at all, but unitary, with two distinct but ultimately complimentary and mutually supporting modes of expression. Moreover, I came to the conviction that neither mode is adequate to channel the radical demands imposed upon us by the Gospel. The Democratic and Republican parties are two dead ends in the same blind alley; but the essential problem isn’t the parties themselves at all. At the heart of the issue is what the Servant of God Dorothy Day called “this filthy, rotten system” itself.

And so, I recommend the “Dorothy Option.” Eschew both parties. Refuse to participate in their rigged game of electoral politics. Refuse to fight their wars. Pack a lifeboat with as many people as you can and row away from the ship of state and the staged battle being waged on its deck. The ship is going down anyway, and it will take all the partisans and courtiers from both parties with it. Are you a Catholic Tea Partier, sick of government debt and hubris? You should be, but you should also understand that government and the parties that serve it were captured, whole and entire, by their corporate co-conspirators a long time ago. Are you a Catholic MoveOn member, tired of corporate control of the political process? You should be, but you should also understand that the American government was designed to serve commercial interests above all else, and it always will.

The “Dorothy Option” is not about retreating into isolated enclaves like Ave Maria, Florida, or indulging in the kind of spiritual navel-gazing that so often marks New Age and fundamentalist Christian communities. Instead, it means a deeper, more radical engagement with the world through a life centered on service to the poor and marginalized. It also means resistance – including the use of non-violent civil disobedience – against systems that generate violence or offend the dignity of the human person. Dorothy was no socialist. She mistrusted the concentration of state power and even opposed the erection of a bureaucratic welfare state, which she thought was violent at its core and dehumanizing in its effects. But, of course, she was no capitalist either. She equally mistrusted private concentrations of power, especially corporations, which she believed commodified human persons and impoverished the many for the sake of a few.

Instead, Dorothy sought to live the Gospel in all its dimensions, without having to shoehorn the Faith into one party or another, or put it at the service of a system she saw as sinful. And she lived her convictions. The Catholic Worker communities founded by Day and Peter Maurin embraced voluntary poverty. They never registered as “tax exempt” organizations. They never sought government or corporate grants. They never charged more than $.01 for the newspaper they published. When it was time to march in protest, they marched. When it was time to be carted off to jail, they went peacefully. When it was time to feed the poor, they started ladling until the soup was gone. Dorothy even famously returned to the City of New York a check for interest on the forced sale of a Worker property, explaining in a cover letter that the Church has always taught against the taking of interest. Her conclusion to that letter is as succinct a description of the “Dorothy Option” as one could hope to find: “Please also be assured that we are not judging individuals, but are trying to make a judgment on the system under which we live and with which we admit that we ourselves compromise daily in many small ways, but which we try and wish to withdraw from as much as possible.”

Taking the “Dorothy Option” is difficult, and I’ll admit to compromising “daily in many small ways,” although I am trying. One way we can begin is by deciding to think like Catholics, not conservatives or liberals; by deciding to live like Christians, not Republicans or Democrats, or even Americans. We can begin by refusing to fight with one another, and by choosing to see identification with either party, and indeed with the system they both serve, as the cooperation with evil that it is.

"What I always wonder about is the presumed equivalency between admission to communion and recognition ..."

Resolved: the Pope is not a ..."
"I think that the Holy Father could save himself and the Church from some grief ..."

Resolved: the Pope is not a ..."
"Of course Pope Francis is not a heretic. He is simply spelling out the fullness ..."

Resolved: the Pope is not a ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • brettsalkeld

    Servant of God, Dorothy Day, pray for us.

    Mark,
    Thank you for this. I am very sympathetic to abandoning the two parties (or in my Canadian case, 5). On the other hand, I’d like to know more about what like-minded Catholics think about what this means practically on election day. Do we vote for a third (6th) party? Do we not vote at all? Do we hold our noses and vote for the lesser of two evils while admitting that even that is a cooperation with evil?

    Every time there is an American election I thank God I’m not an American citizen, but things in Canada aren’t really any better. I had determined to write my own name on the ballot in our last national election, but was unable to vote because I was traveling for a family funeral.

  • http://thewhitelilyblog.wordpress.com thewhitelilyblog

    We have no party, and we have no hope of a party as long as we fail to recognize the civic consequences of Vatican II. We have no options, nor hope of options. OK well perhaps there are a couple (I can think of one, in the health care debacle, but it’s only a logical option, and things economically are perhaps too far gone now to consider it–I am talking about the elimination of insurance for preventative and chronic health care purchases, just simple fee for service). But we don’t have many more.

    Take health care, without the possible window I mentioned. We can’t afford the Republican/protestant solution of health care as a profit-making enterprise, and we can’t trust the secular government in life-death decisions so as to be able to embrace a single-payer government solution. Take the economy. We can’t continue to feed the oligarchies that are strangling us, ala the Republicans, and we can’t stand the redistribute- income- but- never- redistribute- ownership state slavery fascist solutions of the Democrats.

    Both those parties are liberal, by the way. Guess which one is most liberal?

    We need a third party with Catholic morals and distributist economic solutions, which boils down to many more capitalists, breaking up Big everything, but gradually over generations, through tax structures, never by violation of private property, no class warfare ever.

    But we can’t have it because of Vatican II’s elevation of the secular state, making life and death issues relative and subject to vote, making regulation of morality or anything else impossible. Vatican II doesn’t believe in preventative legislaltion, says it violates the sinner’s ‘dignity,’ wants only to form consciences that are free to act any way they like: total denial of original sin and the need for regulation, economically, morally, and every other way.

    Patricia Zapor has an article today in the St. Louis Review about a poll result she finds curious, but oughtn’t: that young Catholics overwhelmingly are both pro-life *and* pro-choice. That is, they call abortion murder, but believe it’s the mother’s right to murder, since that’s what she believes. Zapor did point to Vatican II, however, as teaching the same contradiction–at the end of the article. Check it out. It’s definitely refreshing to find someone willing to read the damn VII constitutions and point out that ithe say the same stupid thing over and over, freedom freedom freedom, as stupid as endorsing ‘life’ and at the same time as endorsing personal freedom of conscience in all things, even the freedom to murder.. http://stlouisreview.com/article/2011-06-15/poll-finds-overlap

    We are paralyzed until Vatican II is repudiated point for point and the Restoration–restored. That’s the political reality, and it hasn’t changed in five hundred years. We can’t dodge it. We need the Catholic state, the promise of the Catholic state, the example of the Catholic state, the romance of the Catholic state, the hope of the Catholic state.

    We won’t even think it, so beaten down are we.

    • brettsalkeld

      I’m reasonably sure that Mark does not want this thread to turn into a debate about whether or not to repudiate Vatican II point by point. Just sayin’.

  • http://michaeliafrate.com Michael Iafrate

    Although I have been attracted to anarcho-Catholic “don’t vote” arguments, I find it really depends on the election and what seems to be at stake in a given context. Universal rules about whether to vote or not or how to do so don’t seem to be the way to go. The difference between national elections vs. more local ones is obviously huge. Even the meaning of “democrat” and “republican” can mean different things in different contexts. Here in West Virginia, “democrat” means coal-owned moderate republican while “republican” means completely heartless, coal-owned inhuman worshiper of mammon. Gotta talk specifics in just about every case imaginable.

  • http://michaeliafrate.com Michael Iafrate

    We need the Catholic state, the promise of the Catholic state, the example of the Catholic state, the romance of the Catholic state, the hope of the Catholic state.

    The Holy Spirit will not allow it, thank God.

  • http://www.muenn.net Frank M.

    Mark:

    You aren’t kidding when you say taking the “Dorothy option” is difficult. Total faith in God. Total devotion. Try a visit to dublincatholicworker.org, and look at the videos posted there. They are as radically “Dorothy” as any other Catholic Worker house. Anyone who wants to take the Dorothy option had better take a really hard look at the videos, the people who made them and how they live. What would it feel like to be one of them, to be like them? Then, decide: Is this is really what you want? Carrying Bradley Manning posters and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Praying the rosary and defying the most powerful state ever on the face of the earth. Getting jailed for speaking out.

    And, anyone who doesn’t want the Dorothy option had better take a look at what we have without her. If you haven’t already done so, view the video Manning released to Wikileaks. Then, decide: Is this is really what you want?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=754886024 Sean Arago

    “And it is also true that from that same perspective there is a fundamental problem with a party that aggressively seeks to dismantle the social safety net in the name – acknowledged or not – of a Darwinian economic ideology, and which uncritically celebrates war, torture, and empire.”

    -Uh oh, we have obvious ambiguity and prejudice, without knowledge I presume. Can I take the easy one first? Empire?!? Really? Unless you wish to make the crazy argument about Puerto Rico and Guam can anyone with a serious face say that America has participated (never the less celebrated) in anything anywhere near empire? I appreciate the attempt at neutrality but this is [silly]. I will leave all other arguments to the side b/c this one point is just [silly] at best. If the US wished to “own” the world, it could. Yes, the Chinese naval fleet is substantive and the Israeli Air Force is respectable; but in all reality the US could in fact disarm and stand at guard against every nation in the world; therby able to dictate every action; monetary or otherwise.

    [Square brackets indicate an editorial change by VN.]

    • Liam

      Actually, since 2001, the USA is no longer in the position of being *able* to own the world, as it were. Maybe in 1992, but not after 2001.

    • Paul DuBois

      Empire does not require military posesion any more, and has not since the beginning of the 20th century. The Empire the US had (I believe it is now in the decline) was defined by economic power. We controlled many countries through corporate ownership, or by their dependance on the US economy. The naval fleet was built (and used) not just to defend us from military aggressors, but to replace regimes that would not allow American economic intrest to dominate. Examples abound but Iran is a prime example of the US military being used to serve American corporate interest.

  • Liam

    The people most eager for a Catholic state are the people least suited to govern it.

    That’s may be why the Holy Spirit has allowed it to pass into history.

  • Mark Gordon

    I think the “Dorothy Option” must necessarily involve both positive and negative elements, and in this piece I stressed the latter at the expense of the former for the sake of its rhetorical power. But it is simply not sufficient to become a “refusenik.” One must also be positively modeling and building the kind of system that will (or should) replace this one. As Peter Maurin said, “building a new civilization within the shell of the old.” That is the positive work that should accompany the “NO” of resistance.

    As Michael Iafrate acknowledges, the difference between the two dominant parties in the United States is one of degree, not kind. Because of this, I contend that a vote for either of them is an endorsement of the system they jointly serve; and, by extension, of all that system represents. Just as universal acts have particular consequences, so particular acts have universal consequences.

    • http://www.samrocha.com samrocha

      I don’t write this often: I agree. Mucho.

      Sam

  • Mark Gordon

    Sean Arago: By any measure, the United States is an empire, but a failing one. We maintain over 700 military bases around the world and spend more on ‘national security’ annually than the rest of the world combined. We are able to project military power to any remote corner of the globe within a matter of days, and are currently conducting active military operations in (at least) five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and Yemen.

    You attribute my assertion to “prejudice” and a “lack of knowledge,” but I’m a former active duty US Army officer, and my son has just returned from two tours as an M1 Abrams tank commander in Iraq. My perspective on these questions has been informed not only by intellectual curiosity and a willingness to question the reigning mythology of American history (for the sake of the Gospel), but by personal, first-hand experience, as well.

    • Phillip

      I suspect if your measure of empire as described is actually true then America is an empire. Though I suspect many may reasonably disagree.

      I do more strenously disagree with the thought that Republicans seek to dismantle the social safety net in the name of a “Darwinian economic ideology.” Clearly we cannot afford military spending at its current level. I also believe one can legitimately claim that we cannot afford current welfare policies as currently constructed. Attempts at having an social net that works in the long-term is not an evil let alone to be equated with abortion and gay marriage.

      Add to this the claim that the Republicans uncritically celebrate war and torture. There have been many Republicans who have rejected torture. John McCain himself sought laws to restrict this. And torture is not enshrined in the Republican platform as abortion is in the Democratic platform. As for war, given the current expansion of “empire” in Libya, it is not unique to Republican Presidents.

      The bottom line for me is that there is equivocation here that would not be befitting a post dedicated to Dorothy Day.

      • http://www.thefeverchart.com Mark Gordon

        I haven’t used ambiguous language in order to deceive, so “equivocation” is the wrong word. If you mean that I have attempted to draw a moral equivalence between the two parties, then you are correct.

        You are also correct that some will contest my definition of “empire” (which, of course, is not mine alone), but I disagree that they will do so “reasonably.”

        As for dismantling the social safety net, you may have heard or read that the philosophy of Ayn Rand – who called Christianity “evil” and “monstrous” – is dominant among the leadership of the GOP. Rep. Paul Ryan, before whom every Republican must now bend the knee, requires his staff to read all of her books. Rand’s Objectivism is built on the primacy, the duty of selfishness and a complete renunciation of the idea that one is morally obligated to others in any way. I’m sure you can detect the moral equivalence of this notion with the worldview that undergirds arguments for “choice” on abortion.

        It’s true that John McCain has been stalwart against torture, but then he’s been tortured, and the exception proves the rule. Unfortunately, John McCain has also been to war, and yet he relentless cheerleads American warmaking.

        Finally,

      • Phillip

        “If you mean that I have attempted to draw a moral equivalence between the two parties, then you are correct. ”

        That is the sense in which I use equivocation.

        “You are also correct that some will contest my definition of “empire” (which, of course, is not mine alone), but I disagree that they will do so ‘reasonably.'”

        Please state why those who disagree with your definition of empire are unreasonable. It seems that if America is an empire it is an, excuse the term, exceptional one.

        “As for dismantling the social safety net, you may have heard or read that the philosophy of Ayn Rand – who called Christianity “evil” and “monstrous” – is dominant among the leadership of the GOP. Rep. Paul Ryan, before whom every Republican must now bend the knee, requires his staff to read all of her books.”

        Fortunately for us and unfortunately for your argument this seems to be untrue.

        http://newledger.com/2011/04/paul-ryan-doesnt-require-staffers-to-read-ayn-rand/

        Yes Rand is hardly a source for Christian inspiration. But neither is Marx whom I suspect has been widely read by commentators and those who post on this blog. I think most would argue that reading a person’s work doesn’t make one identify with all the points of that writer’s work.

        So I still hold that equivocation your initial statement is.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    As a supporter of the local Catholic Worker house and a long time student of Dorothy Day’s Catholic anarchism, I find myself very conflicted over the “Dorothy option.” I am drawn in multiple directions which I can only articulate through a pair of cliches. On the one hand, as a wag put it many years ago, if you put a democrat and a republican in a barrel and roll it down hill, there will always be a bastard on top. On the other hand, given the reality of the two party system, at times I find that voting does matter: as Moliy Ivins (I believe) put it, the difference between bad and worse is often much greater than the difference between good and better.

    And on a more practical level, at least on the state and local level, politics does matter. The death penalty is being abolished, one state at a time, by old fashioned politics. As my confessor told me, when confronted with structures of sin, you must respond by attempting to build competing structures of grace.

  • Kurt

    The choice of a Benedictine institution was weirdly appropriate because the debate also kicked off our quadrennial Catholic scrap over electoral politics. …

    In addition to the Dorothy Option (and I deeply respect those who propose this option), perhaps the “Benedictine Option” should also be considered. I recall a monk once explaining the Benedictine committment to peace. He noted the Benedictine monastics had to understand peace, concord and mutual respect. They take a vow of stability. Each person entering the monastery will be there for life. You have to learn to get along and live together regardless of differences or the monastery fails.

    Perhaps as Catholics we can all take it down a notch and respect each other. Perhaps of all us can celebrate a Catholic voice and a Catholic presence inside the Republican Party and the Democratic Party; inside the liberal movement and the conservative movement. Perhaps we can stop calling each other sinners for our civic activities and voting behavior.

    It is not as impossible as you think. I serve as Democratic precinct captain. My Republican counterpart is also an active Catholic. We are great friends and have a grand time at the polling place together every election day. I share with her the coffee and donuts the Firefighters Union brings me. She shares her umbrella when it is raining. I ask about her son; we talk about the theatre, we see each other at Mass.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/ Sofia Loves Wisdom

    Am I understanding that Mark advocates a Theocracy? I agree 100% with Michael on this topic, both in politics depends on the circumstances and the issues and the candidates. My own cents, I think we are supposed to be in tension with the State and with society. Every generation, every nation, every culture needs conversion and I think that is our mission. We are supposed to be salt.

  • Mark Gordon

    Sofia, you do NOT understand me to support a theocracy. I associate myself fully with Michael Iafrate’s comment on a ‘Catholic’ state, not least because were one ever to come about it would immediately cease to be Catholic in anything but name.

  • digbydolben

    from a Catholic perspective there is a fundamental problem with a party that aggressively supports both the killing of the unborn and a revolutionary redefinition of marriage.

    This is a ridiculous exaggeraton; the “revolutionary redefinition of marriage” was fashioned by a culture so soaked in secularism and Protestant heresy that it was able, eventually, to devolve Christian “sacramental marriage” into “serial monogamy.” Marriage as a sacramental union was dead in the United States before the “gays” or the Demcrats even thought of some kind of “redefinition.”

  • http://www.fourthandwalnut.blogspot.com Jim H.

    I have often thought (dreamed?) of “conservative” and “liberal” Catholics meeting at the corner of Merton’s Fourth and Walnut (anywhere in the US) for a little cross-cultural engagement, or correlation. But to what avail? I recently attended a gathering of parish Peace & Social Justice committees and was exposed to the wide chasm that often exists between Catholic Social THOUGHT and Catholic Social TEACHING. Mark Gordon goes beyond cross-cultural engagement. The Dorothy Option is the answer for those of us who wish to surrender to the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom the know the difference”. Or as I often modify the prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one person I can, and the wisdom to know that that one person is me.” The Dorothy Option is the viable option for people like me. Thank you Mark Gordon..

  • Ronald King

    Mark, I am in total agreement with you and thank you for this intelligent insightful and spiritual post. The “Dorothy Option” seems to me to be “giving up everything” I identify myself to be within the worldly context in order to be a disciple of Christ. It is more than as Jim H. put it, “…to surrender to the serenity of prayer.” It is the serenity of prayer united to the action of God’s Love leading one away from the security of the known into the darkness and isolation of the unknown mystery of God’s Love. It is the possibility of a remake of the moveie “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. If enough chose the Dorothy Option the earth would actually come to a stop. There would be a unification resulting from the clarity that only Love can bring. I think I see what you are seeing. Please correct if I am wrong.

  • Pingback: Introducing our Newest Contributor, Mark Gordon « Vox Nova()