Dorothy day: personalist hero
DOROTHY DAY’S FIRST jail stint, in 1917, was a brutal experience arising from a protest for women’s suﬀrage. Behind bars she stumbled on a hunger strike and came to understand that the distress of forced feeding.
Girls eventually got the vote.
She’d go on to become a revolutionary icon, renowned for her work with the poor and her protests against racism, nuclear weapons, and war. A socially conservative Catholic, Day frowned on the casual sex uncontrolled among her acolytes in the’60s.
Nevertheless she had finished her ﬁrst pregnancy with an abortion and her just marriage . A hard-drinking libertine in her childhood, she is today under consideration for sainthood.
Day bowed meekly to the author- ity of the Catholic Church but regularly ruﬄed its own ﬁnery. A lifelong friend of the downtrodden, she took a dim view of government programs in their behalf, believing they harmfully relieve us of our sacred responsibilities for ourselves and one another. A leading scholar of this Church, David J. O’Brien, has called her”the very signiﬁcant, intriguing, and inﬂuential person in the history of Ameri- could Catholicism.”
The enigmatic creator of the Catholic Worker Movement (and The Catholic Worker, the radical paper that continued it) is having a moment. And this spring she was the subject of two important new works: a potent documentary and also a deeply researched biography of surpassing insight and sensitivity.
Collectively these works reveal an extraor- dinary avatar of nonviolent dissent. Her favorite resurrection is particularly wel- come at a time when left and right seem bent on contorting themselves into mirror images of one another along with a pall of ortho- doxy progressively stiﬂes free saying.
But her expertise –at her chaotic Catho- lic Employee hospitality home, for example — also shows the limitations of anar- chism, as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone has done in our own time.
Day’s politics are difficult to pigeonhole. A lifelong paciﬁst, marriage supporter, and civil libertarian, she’d seem to ﬁt eas- ily one of such icons of the left as David Dellinger and César Chávez, that were really her friends. But dawn was more complex than that. While she sup- ported a minimum wage and a 40-hour workweek, she criticized much of the New Deal and opposed Social Security.
She believed government handouts bred corruption, complacency, even a love of luxury. And she condemned the”tremen- dous failure of man’s sense of responsibil- ity for what he is doing. You relinquish it to the country. He’s not obedient to his promptings of conscience.”
Though she was an avowed anarchist, the faith scholar June E. O’Connor reminded us,”she favored the words lib- ertarian, decentralist, and personalist.”
It was Day’s personalist prognosis specifically that made her”as cynical of lots of the tenets of modern liberalism because she had been of political conservatism,” write John Loughery and Blythe Randolph within their new biography,” Dorothy Day: Dissent- ing Voice of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).
Not much invoked lately, personalism has been severely underrated as a inﬂu- ence on American cultural and political life. Leaving undisturbed its tangled cultural roots, the version of interest here insists upon the inviolable value and dignity of the individual, whose fulﬁllment is always communal.
The historian James J. Farrell identi- ﬁes personalism using the spirit of the’60s but situates it ﬁrmly in the mainstream of the American intellectual tradition.
Personalism, he says, is wary of systems, including both the market economy and the state. It also gives a special role to the weak and marginalized, who form the yardstick where a society’s value can be measured.
Personalists believe you can change the world by changing yourself, but also that we are morally responsible for one another. People should be more self-govern- ing, sincere, decided to harmonize means and ends, and bent not simply on personal transformation but on shaping policy, law, and institutions, all which in turn shape people.
“The personalism of the 1960s,” Far- rell writes in his 1997 book The Spirit of the Sixties,”was a combination of Catholic social thought, communitarian anar- chism, radical paciﬁsm, and humanistic psychology.”
And it explains a lot. Day’s activism looks a lot more cohesive once you see it as an energetic and imaginative personalist enterprise that calls for a”revolution of the heart” But again and she emphasized personal responsibility, hinting that the Catholic faith required human adherents to take action against injustice. Becoming overly dependent on”Holy Mother State,” as she called it, would curtail our freedom, undermine our spiritual obligation to another, widen the gulf between helper and helped–and frequently don’t solve the issue.
“She wasn’t, as people might think, a religious leftist,” the theologian and activist Jim Wallis tells ﬁlmmaker Martin Doblmeier from the brand new documentary Revo- lutionof the Heart. “Dorothy on theological things, ecclesial matters, biblical mat- ters, was rather conservative. And she was radical in her social, economical, political views because of her conservative faith.”
Day’s intense personalism was obvious in her suspicion of hierarchy, bureaucracy, and far-oﬀ authorities. “She was a anar- chist from the meaning that she thought too much of our responsibility toward others, toward one another, was being taken over by the nation,” the Jesuit priest Mark Massa says in the ﬁlm. “And she was deeply distrustful and suspicious of what kind of world that was likely to create.”
But she didn’t like capitalism either. What she enjoyed –what she awakened –was the dignity and moral liberty of the person as derived from God. Constantly swimming against the tide, she made the journey from collectivism to Catholicism at about the same time most American reform movements were becoming ever more secular.
DAY AND a lot of her fellow 20th century personalists shunned violence. It’s note- worthy that Martin Luther King Jr. studied at Boston University, the middle of Ameri- can personalism. He confessed that the doctrine’s strong inﬂuence on his thinking.
Day took paciﬁsm seriously. In 1940, she testiﬁed before Congress against a proposal for the country’s ﬁrst peacetime draft. She opposed American involvement
In World War II even after Pearl Harbor, a stance that smashed her newspaper’s circulation and bitterly split her move- ment–but from that she never devi- ated. She had been an early advocate for Euro- pean Jews in their peril and also an outspoken opponent of Japanese-American intern- ment. She prohibits war bonds and other sources of proﬁt in the conﬂict, proclaimed (when women’s conscription was rumored) that she’d never coop- erate in any way, and allowed that a Catholic anti-war group to urge draft immunity in the Catholic Worker, an episode that attracted ecclesiastical reproach (leading to Day’s entry ). After Hiroshima, she bitterly condemned America’s use of nuclear weapons. It’s not too much to say that Dorothy Day made paciﬁsm, after the province of Protestants, accessible to American Catholics as well. She also regu- larly diminished to pay federal taxes, lest the money fund weapons.
Yet it would be erroneous to conclude that she spent her time at a fury of political recrimination or she regarded Amer- ica as irredeemable. She was tired at times from the magnitude of her undertak- ing at the Catholic Worker Movement, however she exuded a characteristically American optimism. Her personalist prognosis gave her religion that individuals can organize their own lives and make the world better without intervention from coercive authorities.
Like so much else about dawn, this faith was at least partially rooted in her Catholicism, which she came to as a young woman by means of conversion. However, it may also owe something to her”lived experi- ence,” from the redundant parlance of our times. However, Day’s life, spent largely in service to other people, was by any standard a glorious experience.
Compared with the diligent résumé-builders, she discovered college so wanting she graduated. She also worked at a printer’s shop, at a public library, at a department store, at a restaurant, and as an artist’s model. She never had much money, but people helped her and she, in turn, aided them.
In 1975, Robert Ellsberg, whose father Daniel was then famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers, left Harvard for a short stint that would become ﬁve years at The Catholic Worker. “Being fresh out of college,” he states in Revolution of the Heart,”the sole question that occurred to me was, how do you reconcile Catholi- cism and anarchism? And she just kind of looked at me and said,’It’s never been a problem for me. ”’