Dorothy Day: Personalist Hero
Dorothy Day’s first jail stint, in 1917, was a brutal experience arising from a protest for women’s suffrage. Behind bars she embarked on a hunger strike and came to know the misery of forced feeding. Women eventually got the vote. But Day, an anarchist, never cast a ballot in her life.
She would go on to become a radical icon, famous for her work with the poor and her protests against racism, nuclear weapons, and war. A socially conservative Catholic, Day frowned on the casual sex rampant among her acolytes in the ’60s. Yet she had ended her first pregnancy with an abortion and her only marriage by divorce. A hard-drinking libertine in her youth, she is today under consideration for sainthood.
Day bowed meekly to the authority of the Catholic Church but regularly ruffled its finery. A lifelong friend of the downtrodden, she took a dim view of government programs on their behalf, feeling that they harmfully relieve us of our sacred responsibilities for ourselves and one another. A leading scholar of the Church, David J. O’Brien, has called her “the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.”
The enigmatic founder of the Catholic Worker Movement (and The Catholic Worker, the radical newspaper that sustained it) is having a moment. This November marks the 40th anniversary of her death at 83. And this spring she was the subject of two important new works: a powerful documentary and a deeply researched biography of surpassing insight and sensitivity.
Together these works reveal an extraordinary avatar of nonviolent dissent. Her popular resurrection is particularly welcome at a time when left and right seem bent on contorting themselves into mirror images of one another and a pall of orthodoxy increasingly stifles free expression. But her experience—at her chaotic Catholic Worker hospitality house, for instance—also demonstrates the limitations of anarchism, just as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone has done in our own time.
Day’s politics are hard to pigeonhole. A lifelong pacifist, union supporter, and civil libertarian, she would seem to fit easily among such icons of the left as David Dellinger and César Chávez, who were indeed her friends. But Day was more complicated than that. While she supported a minimum wage and a 40-hour workweek, she criticized much of the New Deal and opposed Social Security. She thought government handouts bred corruption, complacency, even a love of luxury. And she condemned the “tremendous failure of man’s sense of responsibility for what he is doing. You relinquish it to the state. He’s n
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