On September 24, 2015, Pope Francis became the first pope to address a joint meeting of the United States Congress. Dorothy Day was one of four Americans mentioned by the Pope in his speech to the joint session that included Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thomas Merton. He said of Day: “Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”
Dorothy Day (November 8, 1897–November 29, 1980) was an American journalist, social activist, and Catholic convert. She initially lived a bohemian lifestyle before gaining fame as a social activist after her conversion, and later became a key figure in the Catholic Worker Movement, earning a national reputation as a political radical. Some might perhaps deem her the most famous radical in American Catholic Church history.
In the 1930s, she worked closely with fellow activist Peter Maurin to establish the Catholic Worker Movement, a pacifist movement that combined direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action on their behalf. She did practice civil disobedience, which led at times to arrests, in 1955, 1957, and even in 1973 at the age of seventy-five.
As part of the Catholic Worker Movement, Day co-founded the Catholic Worker newspaper in 1933, and served as its editor from 1933 until her death in 1980.
Day supported herself as a journalist, writing a gardening column for the local paper, the Staten Island Advance and features articles and book reviews for several Catholic publications, like Commonweal.
She wrote in her autobiography: “I could write, I could protest, to arouse the conscience, but where was the Catholic leadership in the gathering of bands of men and women together, for the actual works of mercy that the comrades had always made part of their technique in reaching the workers?”
The Catholic Worker Movement
In 1932, Day met Peter Maurin, the man she always credited as the founder of the movement with which she is identified. Despite his lack of formal education, Maurin was a man of deep intellect and decidedly strong views, with a vision of social justice and its connection with the poor, partly inspired by St. Francis of Assisi. He provided Day with the grounding in Catholic theology of the need for social action they both felt.
The first issue of The Catholic Worker appeared on May 1, 1933, priced at one cent, and published continuously since then. It was aimed at those suffering the most in the depths of the Great Depression, “those who think there is no hope for the future,” and announced to them that “the Catholic Church has a social program…there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.”
It was an unapologetic example of advocacy journalism. It provided coverage of strikes, explored working conditions, especially of women and blacks, and explicated papal teaching on social issues. Its viewpoint was partisan and stories were designed to move its readers to take action locally, for example, by patronizing laundries recommended by the Laundry Workers’ Union. Its advocacy of federal child labor laws put it at odds with the American Church hierarchy from its first issue. (Ironically, the paper’s principal competitor both in distribution and ideology was the Communist Daily Worker.)
In 1972, the Jesuit magazine America marked her 75th birthday by devoting an entire issue to Day and the Catholic Worker movement. The editors wrote: “By now, if one had to choose a single individual to symbolize the best in the aspiration and action of the American Catholic community during the last forty years, that one person would certainly be Dorothy Day.”
Day suffered a heart attack and died on November 29, 1980, and is buried in the Cemetery of the Resurrection on Staten Island just a few blocks from the beachside cottage where she first became interested in Catholicism. Her many papers are housed at Marquette University along with many records of the Catholic Worker movement.
Much of her life in activism was fraught with controversy, Church versus anarchists, pacifism versus anarchism, respect for Castro and Ho Chi Minh, anti-Church and Franco. Yet despite all her works and writings, she and her life cannot be easily dismissed or hidden away. Her movement is a significant part of the cloth of American culture, of the spectrum of the American worker’s history, and is noted as part of her role in establishing non-violence as a Catholic principle: “the nonviolent witness of such figures as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King has had profound impact upon the life of the Church in the United States” as written in a May 1983 pastoral letter issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The Challenge of Peace.”
In 1983, the Claretian Missionaries put forth publicly a proposal for her canonization. At the request of Cardinal John J. O’Connor, head of the diocese in which she lived, in March 2000, Pope John Paul II granted the Archdiocese of New York permission to open her cause, allowing her to be called a “Servant of God” in the eyes of the Catholic Church. As canon law requires, the Archdiocese of New York submitted this cause for the endorsement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which it received in November 2012. However, some members of the Catholic Worker Movement objected to the canonization process as a contradiction of Day’s own values and concerns. Nevertheless, Pope Benedict XVI, on February 13, 2013, in the closing days of his papacy, cited Day as an example of conversion. He quoted from her writings and said: “The journey towards faith in such a secularized environment was particularly difficult, but Grace acts nonetheless.”