Day, a former Bohemian and communist sympathizer who converted to Catholicism at age 30, built the Catholic Worker Movement, which still runs “hospitality houses” that care for the homeless, the mentally ill and all manner of disadvantaged people, and which publishes the Catholic Worker, a radical newspaper. As a political activist, Day denounced America’s entry into World War II, as well as President Harry Truman’s nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as America’s “mortal sin.” She also believed that capitalism was destroying countless American lives, arguing even in the midst of McCarthyism that, because of America’s racial segregation and its role as the world’s arms supplier, “our way of life, as we are living it, is not worth saving.” Before joining the church, she had an abortion and gave birth to a child out of wedlock. Once baptized, she frequently attacked the Catholic Church hierarchy for its silence or complicity on matters of injustice. Despite this colorful past, nobody in the U.S. House chamber seemed to react to her inclusion. I wondered if this was because people were unfamiliar with her complex and altogether gripping life story.
With “Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century,” John Loughery and Blythe Randolph — each an author of an acclaimed previous biography — add to a growing canon on Day, whom the Vatican has been considering for sainthood since 2000.
Drawing on Day’s vast archive of letters, diaries, manuscripts and oral-history transcripts, the authors were fastidious in their research and were clearly swept up — as were so many during Day’s own era — by their subject’s charisma, political courage and utter selflessness in caring for the poor. One of Day’s close Catholic Worker associates once described the force of her magnetism by saying, “If she had operated the Mormon Worker, I would have become a Mormon.”
Unfortunately, the authors sometimes allow fidelity to chronology to dictate the book’s narrative. What at times reads as a nearly year-by-year account of Day’s life includes details about people and places that would interest only the most avid Day followers. (Readers looking for an introduction to Day might wish to start with David Brooks’s brisk and inspiring profile in “The Road to Character” or the Catholic activist’s own engaging memoir, published in 1952, “The Long Loneliness.”)
Nonetheless, in delving into such detail, Loughery and Randolph have also made an important and timely contribution to present debates, as the authors highlight stands Day took that have particular resonance in today’s divided America — for example, her biting attacks on corporate interests driving public policy, her spirited advocacy on behalf of Jewish refugees and interned Japanese Americans, her deep aversion to the use of military force, and her suspicions of an overzealous federal bureaucracy, which for years kept Day and the Catholic Worker Movement under FBI surveillance.
Loughery and Randolph have not written a hagiography. They are critical of Day for privileging her work with the poor over care for her own daughter, and they fault her reluctance to stand up for gay rights as she had for other oppressed minorities. They also question how she could fail to grapple with the costs of pacifism in the face of Hitler’s rise and terror. In citing the polemical headlines she penned in the Catholic Worker at the dawn of World War II, such as “We Are to Blame for New War in Europe,” the authors intentionally make readers cringe. However, even when her positions are objectionable, Day’s constancy — and willingness to pay a price (whether jail time or a massive drop in readership and funding) for her beliefs — stand out.
The most powerful dimension of Day’s work is her insistence on the dignity of those in need. Loving “the least of these” meant treating each and every individual as the embodiment of God. In building the sprawling network of Catholic Worker hospitality houses, Day and her associates lived in the same conditions as the impoverished “guests.” As Loughery and Randolph describe unsparingly, this meant wearing donated clothes and enduring constant thievery (even Day’s daughter Tamar’s precious seashell collection and microscope were pilfered). While some have romanticized lives of voluntary poverty, Day’s example exposes the grim reality: financial woes, a lack of privacy, constant overcrowding, bedbugs and lice, and physical and emotional abuse that can create unimaginable strains.
Day’s fierce independence of mind made her an incessant irritant to the church hierarchy, which she frequently criticized. Yet whenever she seemed to be on the verge of crossing the line — at one point, for example, causing the archdiocese to instruct her to remove the word “Catholic” from the Catholic Worker’s masthead — she backed off. She simply didn’t believe that she would be able to sustain her personal faith outside the organized confines of the Catholic Church. She loved the church, the authors write, “authentically and critically.”
Day was aghast at the ways people of professed faith would turn their backs on those in need, when the example of Jesus and the message of God were so clear. Her beliefs clearly conflict with the silence of many contemporary Christians in the face of government injustices against food stamp recipients, desperate migrants and other vulnerable groups. Day also rejected what today we call “canceling” — boycotting or withdrawing support for individuals because of their wrongdoings. Day’s capacity for forgiveness was capacious, and she was firm in arguing that nobody was beyond redemption.
Day did not serve the poor in search of recognition. When people raised the prospect that her devoutness and good works could one day result in her becoming canonized, she cut them off: “Bulls---!” She simply lived her faith through action, working to treat each person with love and compassion.
In November 1980, knowing that her end was near, Day, 83, asked to be released from a hospital so she could return to her Catholic Worker home to die among those with whom she had served for so long. In her last extended conversation before her death, Day spoke by telephone with her friend Eileen Egan, and asked about the victims of an earthquake in Italy and the aid efforts by Catholic Relief Services.
Egan later remembered, “Her voice was strong with compassion.”
We can be grateful to Loughery and Randolph for reviving a voice for our times.
Dissenting Voice of the American Century
By John Loughery and Blythe Randolph
Simon & Schuster.
436 pp. $30