Dorothy Day and the Catholic Left

On November 29, 1980, Dorothy Day died, just a few weeks after the election of Ronald Reagan. Day was one of the twentieth-century architects of the Catholic Left. She is currently up for canonization in the Catholic Church, a rare thing for any American Catholic, particularly one like her.

Day’s 1955 autobiography, The Long Loneliness, is a classic to those who still love her, and a quite respectable feature film based on the book was released in 1996, under the title Entertaining Angels. By “long loneliness” Day meant the basic but often unsatisfied human need for community. Her own long loneliness was remedied by a life of service to the poor and membership in the Catholic Church, which, not coincidentally, she considered the church of the poor.

But that solution had not come quickly to her. She experienced inklings of religious belief in childhood, but by her early 20s Day was living a bohemian, free lover’s existence in New York. She was inspired by the message of the early birth control movement and the causes of the unbelieving radical left. She quickly demonstrated painfully bad taste in men. She fell hard for a writer, Lionel Moise, and practically forced her way into his life—into his apartment, into his bed. He forewarned her that if she became pregnant, he would abandon her. When they conceived, she aborted the child to keep the man, but lost both. She then married a strange loser on the rebound, dumped him after a year, and pursued Lionel to Chicago, where she failed to recapture him.

Only later did Day find familial happiness when she settled into a common-law marriage with Forster Batterham, a man of no particular distinction except to be the undeserving recipient of her love. She conceived again and this time her unborn child brought her great happiness. She began to return to thoughts of God and to pray. As a leftist, she wondered whether she was simply swallowing the opiate of the people. But Marxist theory, she realized, did not fit her situation. She turned to God not as one oppressed but as one who, like C.S. Lewis, had been “surprised by joy.” She had her infant daughter baptized into the Catholic Church and then became a Catholic herself. Forster, an atheist and anarchist for whom even a marriage license savored too much of government, could never accept sacramental marriage with a Catholic. They broke up. Shortly thereafter, at the height of the Great Depression, Day found her calling when she began offering food and shelter to the poor of New York City. The ministry was quickly imitated elsewhere and persists to the present day.

As a Christian convert, Day managed to integrate elements of her secular political philosophy with Catholic social teaching in an intellectually credible way. She absorbed the Catholic esteem for distributism—widespread ownership of the means of production—and united it with her pre-existing taste for anarchism. For Day, anarchism was not the absence of all government. It was local self-government. She envisioned a society of small businesses and farms directed by individuals in small communities. She was opposed to the dominance of both large corporations and expansive centralized governments. She appealed to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which states that the most local unit of society capable of handling a matter should do so. She had a Franciscan regard for instantaneous, unmediated aid to the poor, person-to-person. She had far too little faith in the state to keep easy company with American liberals.

That difficulty increased in the 1960s as the Sexual Revolution unfolded. Day refused to go along with it. She was now too steeped in the full range of Catholic teaching to be enticed by calls for a loosening of Catholic moral teachings on birth control, divorce, premarital sex, and abortion. She set herself firmly against the claims of homosexuality. She instinctively recognized that the openness to human life represented by concern for the poor was equally represented by respect for the procreative power of sex. Despite her own libertine past, she does not seem to have feared the charge of hypocrisy. She viewed her own history with shame and sorrow. She believed the youth of the ’60s were sinking into the same sexual mistakes she and her peers had made in the ’20s. Some of the young liberated volunteers in her ministry began to see her as something of an old hag.

Dying just after Reagan’s election, Day passed from the political scene just as it was altering beyond recognition.  Soon the Catholic Left, planting itself firmly within the Democratic Party, would tacitly agree with the Secular Left not to make too much of a fuss about such things as abortion and homosexuality. Indeed, an unseemly ménage à trois would soon develop between the Catholic Left, the Democratic Party, and the pro-choice movement. It would have been difficult for a leftist Catholic like Day, self-consciously faithful to the Church’s teachings, to find her place in such a scene.

That is the problem, of course, for orthodox Catholics today. Catholic teaching does not cleanly correspond to either liberalism or conservatism. But on particular moral questions such as abortion and homosexuality, the antipathy between Catholicism and liberalism is acute and beyond compromise. And this antipathy extends to Catholicism’s relationship with the Democratic Party, the standard-bearer for liberalism. For the intellectually honest, there is really no getting around the fact: The Democratic Party today has made it very hard to be a Catholic, and the Catholic Church has made it very hard to be a Democrat. It is not inconceivable that if the Democrats continue on their present moral course, a day might come when the bishops of the Catholic Church treat membership in the Democratic Party with the same censure as they treat membership in the Masons.

For the moment, though, I can only consider with admiration the achievement of Dorothy Day. She was able to integrate her secular political ideas and her Catholic principles without compromise or incoherence. That was a work of intellect and will that has not been often enough replicated, although it grows more and more necessary every day.

7 responses

  1. This is a fascinating story, Tony. Thanks for posting. My favorite line: “She quickly demonstrated painfully bad taste in men.” Glad that was not the end of the story! Actually it is very moving that she overcame so many bad decisions–it is an inspiring life.

  2. Where did you get all this information, tony? I hope this opens the door wide for Thomas Merton. I’m not sure he had any miracles connected to him. Did Day? Have a Happy Birthday, Tony!

  3. Paul – my info is based mainly on her autobiography. As for Merton, I don’t know that anyone has proposed him for canonization. I would see him as another mid-20th century Catholic figure who would have struggled to find a place on the Left under the present arrangement.

  4. Brendon – Day was a pacifist, pro-worker, and “pro-poor”. It’s hard not to place her with the mid-20th century Left. But my belief is that her Catholic moral framework would put her outside today’s Left. This is a counterfactual speculation, of course, but I think it points to the larger truth that the Left, especially the Catholic Left, has changed significantly since the mid-20th century. Others have noted this and resorted to distinguishing “traditional” liberals from the “new” liberals that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.

  5. Pingback: Shall We Call Her a Saint? The Cause of Dorothy Day » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  6. Pingback: Dorothy Day – Catholic Worker | A. J. MacDonald, Jr.

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