BALTIMORE — The U.S. bishops will vote this week on advancing the cause for the canonization of Dorothy Day, a 20th-century Catholic social activist and tireless advocate for the poor.
The move is being sought by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, as his archdiocese was Day’s home from 1916 until her death in 1980.
Ecclesiastical law requires that the bishop pursuing a canonization consult with his regional bishops’ conference on whether or not the cause is prudent. Cardinal Dolan is asking for the consultation during the bishops’ general assembly, which is being held through Nov. 15 in Baltimore.
In 2000, Cardinal John O’Connor, then-archbishop of New York, submitted Day’s cause for canonization to the Vatican. At that time she was given the title “Servant of God.”
That title indicates that her cause is under investigation, and should the Vatican announce Day lived a life of heroic virtue, she will then be called “Venerable.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Day was baptized Episcopalian at the age of 12. As a young girl, she fasted and mortified her body by sleeping on hardwood floors. One journal entry from those early years expresses her desire to suffer for the sins of the world.
Her life soon changed, as the 1910s brought about a stark shift in the U.S. social climate. Day read Upton Sinclair’s scathing depiction of the Chicago meat-packing industry in The Jungle, which marked a turning point in her personal ideology.
She dropped out of college and moved to New York, where she took a job as a reporter for the country’s largest daily socialist paper, The Call. She eventually settled in Staten Island, living a peaceful, slow-paced life with her common-law husband, Forster Batterham.
Conflict arose, however, when Day became increasingly drawn to the Catholic faith — praying Rosaries consistently and even having their daughter baptized as a Catholic. Batterham, a staunch atheist, eventually left them, and Day was herself received into the Catholic Church in 1927.
Along with the personalist philosopher Peter Maurin, she founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933. Living the Catholic notion of holy poverty and practicing works of mercy, the two started soup kitchens, self-sustaining farm communities and a daily newspaper.
The Catholic Worker Movement continues to focus on justice and hospitality for the poor on the margins of society and expresses pacifism and nonviolence.
It is based on the philosophy of personalism, which holds that human beings must always be regarded first and foremost as persons and that their freedom and human rights must be respected.
Day was also an advocate for distributism, an economic system proposed as a third way between capitalism and communism. Distributism, inspired particularly by Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the New Things), was developed in large part by the English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton and seeks widespread property ownership.
Poverty, performing works of mercy, solidarity with the poor and faithfulness of Scripture were the marks of Day’s life.
“Because I sincerely loved his poor, he taught me to know him. And when I think of the little I ever did, I am filled with hope and love for all those others devoted to the cause of social justice,” Day wrote of her experiences in her 1940 work From Union Square to Rome.