Dorothy Day: Are We Ready to Call Her A Saint?March 27th, 2013
I introduced my students to the Catholic Worker movement and Dorothy Day recently. I say “introduced” because despite the majority of my first-year college students having backgrounds in Catholic high schools or at least parish catechesis, only one in all seventy of them had ever heard of the Catholic Worker. Our discussion of Day coincided nicely with a recent piece from Religion and Ethics Weekly on her life and the road to sainthood. While the idea of “St. Dorothy Day” is a welcome one to many of us in the Church, we are left to wrestle with her iconic plea: “Don’t call me a saint.”
Catholic Workers and their supporters worry, as the piece highlights, that Day’s pacifism and radical commitment to the works of mercy will be overshadowed by her sexual history, one marked “immorality…pregnancy out of wedlock and an abortion,” according to Archbishop Dolan. She might, they fear, be held up as a champion for the pro-life aims of the Church to the exclusion of the majority of her life and work with the poor and against violence and injustice.
It should be possible, of course, for Day’s life to be a witness for a consistent ethic of life that encompasses both the pro-life and social justice aspects of the Church’s mission. Even in this, however, we may miss the depth of her prophetic voice. As I prepared my lectures this week, one line from Day rang in my ears. In 1949, she wrote, “Certainly we disagree with the Communist Party, as we disagree with other political parties who are trying to maintain the American way of life. We don’t think it’s worth maintaining” (source). At the height of post-war patriotism, then, Day expressed the less-than-popular opinion that the American way of life was deeply in tension with the Gospel.
My intention is not to undermine the efforts to see Day’s canonization. My fear, however, is that she may go the way of one of her role models, Saint Francis, who becomes better known for his love of animals and his ability to stand guard over suburban gardens as a birdbath than for his radical devotion to a life of voluntary poverty and service to the poor. Indeed, our new Pope chose his pontifical name in wisdom, as the choice has already brought renewed attention to one of our most beloved and misunderstood saints. My hope and my prayer is that Dorothy Day will indeed be heard as a prophetic voice for American Catholics, challenging us to commit our lives to the works of mercy and to relinquish our militaristic impulses for lives led by the Prince of Peace. Let us call her a saint, but only if we’re ready to accept the challenges her life presents.