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

Times tries to pin a label on Dorothy Day (updated) November 27, 2012


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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