Yet many on the religious left considered Day a hero, and big names in the sphere of antiwar and anti-poverty activism, including Abbie Hoffman and Cesar Chavez, mingled with bishops and nearly 1,000 others at Day’s funeral in New York’s East Village.
Today, as socialism, activism and anti-institutionalism surge into the American mainstream, a new campaign has begun to honor Day as a saint — literally. Catholics pressing the Vatican to canonize Day are beginning a nationwide tour, promoting a new documentary about her and hoping that a new generation will see Day as someone ahead of her time.
“When many people think of saints, they think of people who are kind of removed from the world in some sacred way. She showed there can be a holiness of action, of engagement of the challenges of our time,” Robert Ellsberg, who worked closely with Day and edited her letters and diaries, said Monday night at a screening of “Revolution of the Heart” at Georgetown University. “She’s not someone from the past — she’s someone from the future. In some ways she’s the American counterpart of the vision Pope Francis has brought to the universal church. She isn’t encapsulated in institutionalism, not mired in clericalism. She just stands there and points the way.”
Among older Catholics and Americans in general, Day is among the most famous modern-day Catholic religious figures. During the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s she was best-known as a radical and best-loved by the Catholic left for focusing not on clashes with cardinals about sex and marriage but instead on workers’ rights, food and housing for the poor, and war protests — butting heads with church hierarchs who took a more nuanced view of military conflict. She wouldn’t even vote because she saw it as participating in a system she was trying to upend, her family says.
In recent decades, Day’s legacy has grown, church historians say. Today her image and name are common on Catholic campuses. At the time of her death, there were 30 Catholic Worker houses — respites for the poor and gathering places for justice activists — around the United States; today there are nearly 250, said Martin Doblmeier, the documentary’s filmmaker and president of Alexandria-based Journey Films.
Her name was blasted across the world in 2015 when Pope Francis made a historic address to Congress during his visit to Washington and singled out Day as one of four “great Americans,” along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk and writer.
On Monday night, more than 600 people nearly filled the elegant Gaston Hall on the Georgetown University campus to watch the documentary and afterward hear a panel talk. The panelists were Doblmeier; Ellsberg, son of the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg; Martha Hennessy, Dorothy Day’s granddaughter; and Carolyn Zablotny, a leader of the efforts to have Day canonized as a saint.
The event was run by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown. The movie will be shown across the country for the next six weeks before airing in March on PBS.
At a news conference before the showing, Doblmeier said he thinks Day’s popularity can rise in a time when religion isn’t defined by religious institutions. In fact, he noted, people are highly skeptical of officialdom. While Day didn’t focus on bucking the church, she wasn’t hesitant to criticize the hierarchy for not doing enough, in her view, on justice causes — nonviolence and workers’ rights in particular. Her fight on behalf of striking New York City archdiocesan gravediggers against the archdiocese made news in the 1950s. In general, he said, her faith was about serving the less fortunate, rather than an entanglement or search for approval by clerics.
“Where hypocrisy [in institutional religion] is rampant, you can’t help but admire her authenticity, the conviction she brought to every day of her life,” Doblmeier said. “We’re hungry for someone living a life in an authentic way.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Doblmeier said he sees Americans becoming more attracted to activism. “This is a time when people are out on the streets again,” he said. “I didn’t see that in the ’90s or even the early 2000s. Now people want to change the systems, and one of the things she’s signaling is when it’s time to say: ‘Enough is enough.’ ”
Tessa Bloechl, 25, a graduate student at Georgetown in global human development, was among the minority of young people at Gaston Hall on Monday night. “One thing that’s appealing is the idea that you can love the Catholic Church while challenging it, or while not seeing [the institution] as the focus of why you’d belong to a religion.”
The case for making Day a saint was formally opened in 2000. It is a lengthy process, including compiling for the Vatican a rich historical and canonical biography of all a candidate’s writings and interviews. Advocates also have to work to promote the person’s legacy and to spur interest in and knowledge about the candidate and the canonization effort.
Zablotny said the biography will be sent to Rome within a year. A “postulator,” or lawyer, “arguing” for the cause then brings it to a body called the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. If the members approve of Day’s case going further, her advocates will be required to prove one recognized miracle for her to be beatified, and two for her to be canonized.
Miracles can be of various types, but in recent years they have involved cases of healings considered miraculous.
Zablotny and Doblmeier noted that the Vatican is careful about making mistakes in such a process and that Day’s life carries various controversies. For instance, Day had an abortion before becoming Catholic, which to some would automatically disqualify her, the filmmaker said. She also challenged Catholic teaching on war, arguing against the idea of “just” wars, another issue that could affect her chances.
Day has walked the inside-outside line before. At her funeral, a peace activist close to Day confronted Cardinal Terence Cooke, then archbishop of New York City, The Post reported from the scene. The cardinal ignored the man. But the undertaker at the funeral told The Post who had footed the bill for the digging of Day’s grave: the archdiocese.