Servant of God Dorothy Day’s life serving the poor, advocating radical pacifism, founding the Catholic Worker Movement, and taking on the U.S. government is a complex one with many contradictions, as filmmaker Martin Doblmeier noted during a recent screening of Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story, a new documentary of her life.
Day was a radical communist who later converted to Catholicism. She marched and was even jailed and beaten in the suffragette movement but never voted. She was a woman who had lived with multiple partners, had an abortion, and after her conversion was a single mother who went on to denounce the sexual revolution. Day advocated peace and refused to back the U.S. entering World War II, but praised aspects of the communist revolution in Cuba.
The film explores her complicated life and devotion to the poor, which led her to found the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality for those in need and advocate for workers’ rights in The Catholic Worker newspaper. It provides insight into Day’s particular call to serve the poor, noting her childhood in San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906 when the community came together among the devastation. It traces her life as a young intellectual and radical communist who partied with famous writers in New York. She was pursued by God during this time and became close to famed playwright Eugene O’Neill, who recited The Hound of Heaven poem to her, an experience that made an impression.
Grace finally caught up with Day several relationships and one abortion later. She was in a relationship with activist and biologist Forster Batterham and became pregnant despite believing herself sterile from the abortion. She was delighted to become a mother to her daughter, Tamar, but because Batterham did not want to be a father and became angry with Day’s increased obsession with Catholicism, the relationship later ended. Before entering the Catholic faith herself, Day had Tamar baptized. Day remarked upon reading Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ: “I felt that the Church was the Church of the poor.”
Soon, Catholic Worker co-founder and social activist Peter Maurin came into Day’s life and gave her the theological grounding to pursue her social activism in the Catholic sphere.
Speaking at his Ash Wednesday general audience in 2013, Pope Benedict XVI praised Day’s ability to “oppose the ideological enticements of her time in order to choose the search for truth and to open herself to the discovery of faith.” He said, “God guided her to a conscious adherence to the Church, in a life dedicated to the underprivileged.”
Pacifism and Controversy
Following her remarkable conversion, Day continued to court controversy. The film noted that The Catholic Worker lost most of its readership when Day came out against U.S. intervention in World War II.
“We believe that Hitler is no more personally responsible than is Chamberlain or Daladier or any other leader. The blame rests upon the people of the entire world, for their materialism, their greed, their idolatrous nationalism, for their refusal to believe in a just peace, for their ruthless subjection of a noble country,” Day once wrote. “Capitalism’s betrayal came more quickly in Germany because of the Versailles Treaty, and Nazism flowered as a logical result.”
In an essay wishing Day a happy 75th birthday, one of her admirers, the famous author W.H. Auden, called that argument “nonsense” and said it was the “one point on which I take issue with Dorothy Day.”
Auden also raised a point that was not addressed in the film, namely, that Day, “to the dismay of some of her co-workers,” spoke highly of the Castro revolution in Cuba despite her radical pacifism.
“We are certainly not Marxist socialists nor do we believe in violent revolution,” Day wrote in 1961. “Yet we do believe that it is better to revolt, to fight — as Castro did with his handful of men; he worked in the fields with the cane workers and thus gained them to his army — than to do nothing.”
During a press discussion before the screening, the Register asked Robert Ellsburg, the editor of Day’s diaries who worked with her briefly as an editor at The Catholic Worker, about her comments on the Castro regime.
“I think it’s not really fair to say she praised the Castro regime,” Ellsburg said. “She went to Cuba on a pilgrimage and wanted to promote dialogue at a time when a lot of people just in an instinctive way wanted to denounce everything about the revolution, and she felt that Catholics should be prepared to be open to positive work that the revolution was trying to accomplish in the form of education, health care, overcoming inequality and exploitation and that sort of thing.”
“She didn’t embrace violence, and she certainly was not blind to human-rights issues,” Ellsburg emphasized. “In a way she was pointing in the direction of the idea that communism was taking force in Latin America because of the failure of Christians to take social justice and the condition of the poor seriously; and so, rather than just when this happens, then denounce it all blindly, if Christians really lived out the message of radical solidarity with the poor, revolutions would not take an anti-Catholic or anti-religious or anti-Christian direction.”
Ellsburg added that “in a way she anticipates the friendliness that subsequent, more recent popes have taken, visiting Cuba, embracing the Cuban people. Pope Francis went there, John Paul II went there, and the preferential option for the poor that the Church later would take in Latin America — really taking those kinds of challenges, the questions that she was raising very seriously.”
The Sexual Revolution and Tradition
In addition to looking at Day’s pacifism and political activity, the documentary also mentioned, albeit briefly, Day’s distaste for the sexual revolution. Her writings on the matter reflect her own experience in condemning premarital sex, contraceptives and abortion.
“Man and woman are co-creators,” she once wrote. “In this lies their great dignity. Sex is in its pleasure, its joy, its ‘well-being’ — the image throughout the Old Testament of the beatific vision — the nearest we come to God. Sex is a gigantic force in our lives and unless controlled becomes unbridled lust under which woman is victim and suffers most of all. When man takes to himself the right to use sex as pleasure alone, cutting it away from its creative aspect, by artificial birth control, by perverse practices, he is denying ‘the absolute supremacy of the Creative Deity.’”
Day also opined on the sacrifice of celibacy: “To offer the suffering of celibacy, temporary or permanent, to the Lord is to make use, in the best possible way, of man’s greatest joy.”
The film includes the perspective of many who worked closely with her and noted her sadness at her grandchildren’s embrace of the sexual revolution. Ultimately, Day’s daughter, Tamar, and nearly all of her grandchildren left the Catholic Church, something she silently mourned.
Day also worried about the Catholic Worker movement. “At the end of her life she said, ‘They’ve turned day into night,’ and I fear she was right,” the late Cardinal Francis George told The New York Times in 1998 regarding Day’s concerns about her movement. The Times reported that, after her death, while some of the Catholic Worker houses remained traditionally Catholic, one of the houses hosted a “gay marriage” and another celebrated a mock “mass” officiated by Sisters of Loreto.
These events would have likely horrified Day, who, the film observed, valued the traditional liturgy and once demanded that a priest formally vest for Mass. She was also troubled by another incident that occurred in the movement, writing in 1966, “I am afraid I am a traditionalist, in that I do not like to see Mass offered with a large coffee cup as a chalice.” She noted the struggles within the movement between freedom and the authority of the Church.
Some of Day’s admirers featured in the documentary commenting on her life have had their own troubles with Church teaching, particularly on the evil of abortion. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate and a baptized Catholic who is in favor of legal abortion, is featured in the film, as is Sister Simone Campbell of “Nuns on the Bus,” whose group has run afoul of the Vatican in the past and who told Democracy Now, “I don’t think it’s a good policy to outlaw abortion. I think, rather, let’s focus on economic development for women and economic opportunity.”
Doblmeier told the Register that one of the themes he tried to stress in the film is the idea of “personalism” in Day’s life and philosophy — an emphasis on the importance of the human person.
“I tried to weave that throughout the course of the film, and I did that intentionally because I think especially young people today can feel as though the problems in the world are just insurmountable,” he said. “One of the fundamental messages from Dorothy Day’s life was: We can’t fix everything, but we can fix this problem that’s right here in front of us, if we just take the time, we pay attention, and we open up our eyes and hear how God’s directing us.”
Day’s granddaughter, political activist Martha Hennessy, told the Register that her grandmother “was a layperson; she was a woman; she was a mother, a grandmother. She lived an ordinary life in the world, and I think that that’s an inspiration for people: that you don’t have to be exceptional or clergy. … She is a great example for young people to step out and make every effort they can for world peace.”
Hennessy is facing a prison term of up to 20 years following her conviction for participating in a faith-based nonviolent and symbolic disarming of a Trident submarine’s nuclear weapons in Georgia. She has taken to heart her grandmother’s pacifism and said at the screening that she hoped the Church will move from its just-war doctrine to a “just peace” position.
The film was funded in part by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communication Campaign and The Lilly Foundation. It will air in March on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.