Dorothy Day, a Witness for Today
EDITORIAL: The founder of the Catholic Worker Movement is a compelling witness of holiness, and hope, for our contemporary times.
Recent signs from the Vatican indicate that the cause of canonization for Servant of God Dorothy Day may be viewed favorably by Pope Francis.
But whether or not the Church ultimately publicly recognizes the American co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement as a saint or not, the fact remains: Dorothy Day is a compelling witness of holiness in our contemporary times.
Born in 1897, Day’s life spanned most of the 20th century. But it is not only the recentness of her life (she died in 1980) that makes her such a relatable, and therefore inspiring, witness, but the counterwitness she provides against some of the same challenges that plague Western culture today.
For one, in an age of increasing desperation, Day’s life is a witness to hope. Not merely because of the life of piety she embraced following her conversion at age 30, or through the heroic service to the poor and marginalized she was able to contribute to through the Catholic Worker Movement — but because of the depths of sin she allowed God to pull her from.
Prior to her conversion to the Catholic faith, Day’s life was marked by evil beliefs and practices. As has been chronicled, she was involved in communism, had extramarital affairs, and even had an abortion — and yet she is now being considered for canonization.
Day is a true embodiment of the maxim that “every sinner has a future, and every saint has a past” — and a potential source of consolation and hope for others struggling with their brokenness.
A related second point is the totality of Day’s embrace of her Catholic faith upon entering the Church — a pointed rebuff of the kind of lukewarmness that merely goes through the motions or willingly compromises principles. When Day became Catholic, she knew it would be the end of her relationship with Forster Batterham, a man she loved but who refused to get married, as well as her association with communist and socialist friends. But Day was willing to let these ties go because she wanted to remain true to something even greater: God.
And Day’s “all-or-nothing” tendency when it came to living out her Catholic faith also manifests itself in an area for which, perhaps, she is most famous: her social engagement. People who try to classify Day as more of a “liberal” or as a “conservative” do her a disservice. She did not see the movement she co-founded nor her social engagement as having a particular place along the partisan spectrum. She saw it as beyond the spectrum, informed not by the dynamics of American political concerns, but by the demands of the Gospel and Catholic social teaching.
Today, at a time when political partisanship can even threaten to distort the Church’s witness, Dorothy Day is a compelling witness of an integrated, Catholic approach to social and political engagement.
Finally, the connection between Day’s activism and her piety is another important (and oft misunderstood) witness to us today. While some portray Day’s intense Eucharistic devotion or her reliance upon the saints as a sort of sideshow to her life of protests and activism, Dorothy Day’s prayer and faith were essential to her work and to the mission of the Catholic Worker Movement.
“I do not know how to love God except by loving the poor,” Day said in 1950. “I do not know how to serve God except by serving the poor.”
Of course, the connection worked the other way, too: Day’s participation in the sacramental life of the Church compelled her to serve the poor and the needy. Again, that is the kind of integrated witness we are sorely in need of in the world today.