Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Advent, Week II: Love

day.jpgThe Second Week of Advent emphasizes Love. Therefore, this week I will profile Dorothy Day as my example of Christian peacemakers whose lives bear witness to the Word Made Flesh.  In my view, few Christians incarnated love as did Dorothy Day.  Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was the co-founder and guiding spirit behind the Catholic Worker movement.  Raised in a secular home, but early drawn to the Jesus of the gospels, as a young woman Day became an anarchistic socialist with Communist leanings out of her deep concern for the poor.  She worked as a journalist for several Leftist newspapers, hung around the New York intellectual scene (the playwrite Eugene O’Neill tried to make her one of his sexual conquests, but failedat least that’s the impression given by some of her biographers), marched against poverty and for women’s rights–including participating in a hunger strike of suffragists. (This despite the fact that Day distrusted electoral politics and never even registered to vote. She still wanted women to have the opportunity to do so.)

  In this early “bohemian” phase, Day became involved in a destructive love relationship in which she became pregnant out of wedlock and had an abortion in order to keep her paramour–who left her anyway.  The secular Day was ashamed of this act because she was horrified that would do such a thing for a man. Later, after her conversion to Catholicism, Day had even more guilt over this abortion–so much so that she only ever spoke of it in an autobiographical pre-conversion novel (The Eleventh Virgin) and tried to seek out and destroy all copies of the book.  She became convinced that she was barren as punishment for her sin.  But she fell in love again, much more healthily, and entered into a common law marriage with another anarchist. Unfortunately, he was an atheist and Dorothy was on her way to becoming a Christian and he hated and feared the institution of marriage.  So, after the birth of her daughter Tamar, Dorothy had her baptized and herself underwent catechism and baptism–and left her commonlaw husband.  She felt forced to choose between “natural happiness” and the “harsh and dreadful” love of the Gospels.

The newly Catholic Day scandalized her secular, Communist friends. To become Christian was bad enough, but they could think of no more regressive and oppressive institution than the Catholic Church (pre-Vatican II). But to Dorothy, although the Church’s sins were easy enough to see, it was the Church of the poor and the immigrant. She searched for a way to serve Christ, the Church, and the poor.

She found it when a French lay-brother and wandering prophet of sorts named Peter Maurin arrived on her doorstep to preach a form of Catholic anarchism which he called personalism.  Together they formed the Catholic Worker movement: opening “Houses of Charity” in which they would serve the poor unconditionally, and eventually forming similar rural houses or communal farms. To this was added a newspaper which Dorothy edited and wrote for, The Catholic Worker, which advocated pacifism and promoted a faith that was so radical that Communism looked tame next to it.

Day remained with the Worker houses her whole life, living in voluntary poverty, challenging the church and the world, and working for peace and justice. She remained a pacifist during WWII (which cost the movement many members) and led protests against the nuclear arms race after it.  She made connections with other Christian radicals like Clarence Jordan, and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.[or, at least, went south to interview him for The Catholic Worker], and with Cesar Chavez and the California grape farmworkers.  Day’s grassroots Catholic personalism probably had an influence on Vatican II–at least at the point in which the Church recognized pacifism and conscientious objection as legitimate options for Catholics.  She certainly transformed the American Catholic Church from a mostly conservative social institution to a major force for peace and social justice.

But Day was conservative in her theological views: devoted to the saints, not liking the changes in liturgy after Vatican II, disapproving of priests and nuns who were laicized to marry (perhaps because she had given up such “natural” love herself?), and disapproving of the move by some Catholics to allow women to become priests.  She could be a tyrant in the Catholic Worker houses and when faced with younger folks who dissented from some Church teachings would remark, (according folks like Jim Forest)”This is the Catholic Worker; if you want to be part of a Quaker Worker movement–there’s the door.” But she washed the tired feet of the poor, clothed them, defended them and denounced their exploitation by either church or state.

Love, Dorothy Day teaches us, is not an easy thing in real life as in dreams. In real life, love can be “harsh and dreadful,” but also wonderful, challenging, gripping, powerful. It is that kind of love she discovered in Jesus.  To discover more about Day or the Catholic Worker movement, click here.  I am not Catholic. I am an (ana)Baptist, a Believers’ Church Protestant. But Dorothy Day is a personal “saint” of mine.  Reading her life and her works connects me back to Jesus and to gospel love.

“If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” Dorothy Day.

December 9, 2007 - Posted by | Christian calendar, discipleship, heroes, liturgy


  1. Wonderful Michael!! I have been a fan of Dorothy Day for a long time. We receive the “Catholic Worker” newspaper at the church where I work and I always read it from cover to cover. It was this newspaper that gave me my first glimpse of what being a “Christ-follower” really meant. Thanks for this post.

    Comment by Marty | December 11, 2007

  2. I’m afraid that Gordon Zahn, another old Catholic Worker who would’ve appreciated your tribute to Dorothy, just passed on.

    Comment by Kerry | December 11, 2007

  3. I’m very sorry to hear that news, Kerry. I have read Gordon’s writings for years and enjoyed them immensely. It’s a good thing there are so many young peace and justice leaders, because the older generation keeps passing–as older generations do.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 11, 2007

  4. Dorothy Day was a pro-life fanatic and her stance on gays was a prejudiced and hateful as Jerry Falwell. I don’t see how you can be radically pro-choice and radical pro-inclusion of GBLT and be in favor of DD’s and the Catholic worker.

    Comment by anon | December 13, 2007

  5. Well, Anon, I don’t think much of those who are too cowardly to sign their names to their comments. 1) I am not “radically” pro-choice. I think most of the time abortion is an immoral choice. While I do not think that human personhood begins at conception, I do think that every zygote is a potential person and the fetus is developing into a person. That potential should only be overridden in the most dire of circumstances. 2)I have not found anything in Dorothy Day’s writings about homosexuality, so I have no evidence that she was “as hateful as Jerry Falwell.” I am hardly surprised that she did not favor GLBT inclusion. She died in 1980. During her lifetime very few straight Christians, Catholic or Protestant, liberal, conservative, centrist, etc., had any other view. The gay rights movement did not begin until the 1970s and it was initially quite secular. The Christian branch of the Gay rights movement started about 1978–two years before Day’s death. One can hardly blame her for not being far ahead of the learning curve. Many of us straight allies, including myself, only became inclusive after much struggle–and usually this was instigated by the “coming out” of a family member or close friend.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 13, 2007

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