Love is the measure: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker
On 13 May 1963 I opened my post, and there was a thin tabloid newspaper called the Catholic Worker. That evening I read it all, and the following day wrote to the editor, one Dorothy Day, and sent off a subscription to it. It impressed me greatly as a publication produced by people who seemed to take the Christian faith seriously. It was clearly not a Sundays-only hobby for them, but something for every day and every hour.
I was then a student at the University of Natal, and it had been sent to me by Brother Roger, of the Anglican religious order, the Community of the Resurrection, who had recently returned to the mother house at Mirfield in England after serving in South Africa for several years. I had met Brother Roger four years previously, and had got to know him fairly well. He encouraged me to publish a series of tracts to try to stir up people in the church, and one of the tracts, which he himself wrote, can be read here, as well as more about him.
He sent me the Catholic Worker with a note saying that they were doing the kind of thing that we had been trying to with our tracts, only it seemed that they had succeeded in actually doing things that we were only talking about.
It had articles about poor and exploited workers in the USA. It had articles by and about radical bishops in South America, like Helder Camara of Brazil, who saw it as part of his ministry ot conscientizar the matters, a word that was explained in the Catholic Worker, and later Anglicissed as “conscientise”.
One article described a young man, dressed like many youth gang members who was picked up by the New York police, who questioned him about the rather large crucifix he was wearing, and asked him why he was wearing it, and his reply was a long the lines of “I wear it because I kind of like identify with |Jesus.” Back then there were no laws against the wearing and disoplaying of religious symbols in most Western countries, though many are now beginning to introduce such laws.
And behind the newspaper was a community that fed the hungry, and lived in community on farms and in the cities. Nowadays there is much talk of new monasticism or urban monasticism, but the people at the Catholic Worker were already doing it in the 1930s.
Eventually my subscription to the Catholic Worker and I did not renew it because I was moving around too much, but I always remembered it, and wished I could have met the editor Dorothy Day, who was also the inspiration of the whole movement.
It was finally Glenn Beck who prompted me to read Dorothy Day’s biography. He provoked a response from Jim Forest, who wrote the biography, and I discovered a copy in our university library, and hastened to read it.
I’ve known Jim as a cyberfriend for some years. We’ve never met in the flesh, but we’ve corresponded for some time, and I read Jim’s blog. He coordinates the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and is webmaster of their web page In Communion. I wish I could get to know him better too. His biography of Dorothy Day helped me to join the dots, and see how her vision developed, and it still continues today.
Dorothy Day was born in 1897, and grew up in New York, San Francisco (where her family lost most of their possessions in the 1906 earthquake) and Chicago. Her father was a journalist, and she became one too, working for left-wing papers, and becoming a radical anarcho-pacifist.
She did not have much of a Christian background, though she had been sent to an Episcopalian Sunday School when she was younger, and had learnt something about prayer. Eventually her praying led her to the Roman Catholic Church, and she was baptised, and turned to producing a radical Christian newspaper. She was helped by Peter Maurin, whose more theoretical vision was for a simplification of life, and going back to the land, and he would have preferred the Catholic Worker to be filled with theoretical essays, rather than with actual news that was of interest to the working-class poor.
The Catholic Worker gave me a vision of a new monasticism and community living, but when we actually tried it, in Windhoek 1969-1971, it did not seem to work so well. So the Catholic Worker communities seemed to me to be a kind of unattainable ideal, until I read the biography, and found that they had similar difficulties to the ones we had.
Community life at Mary Farm, as it was named, proved often difficult and sometimes grim, “Eat what you raise and raise what you eat,” said Peter Maurin, who came to live at Mary Farm. Unfortunately there were always more people interested in eating food than in raising it, who preferred a discussion of theology or politics to care of the fields or repair of a hinge (p. 68).
It was somehow both disappointing and reassuring to learn that something I had looked on an idea and often dreamed of emulating turned out to have the same weaknesses as our own real-life attempts. It was the death of many a hippie commune that dreamed of a “back to the land” movement: the cows need to be milked twice a day, whether you are grooving on that or not.
Another thing that I found interesting was to read more about Dorothy Day’s own faith. The Catholicism to which she was converted was pre-Vatican II, and in many ways she preferred older form s of devotion and prayer, yet she welcomed the increased concern with social justice after Vatican II, even though they were often compromises that did not go far enough.
That was something one could not learn from reading the Catholic Worker and confirmed a theory of mine — that liberal theology often goes hand in hand with conservative politics and vice versa.
Dorothy Day believed in obeying bishops, even when she thought they made wrong decisions, and there were sometimes agonising discussions about what they would do if the Archbishop of New York banned the Catholic Worker, which at some points seemed a real possibility. Fortunately he never did, though he was strongly anti-communist, and did not really approve of Dorothy Day and other Catholic Worker people continuing to associate with communists and other radical leftists right through the McCarthy era. Her way of peace and non-violence and love of enemies was very different from that of Cardinal Spellman, who told American soldiers in Vietnam that they were fighting a war for civilisation.
Dorothy Day was also very much aware of the moral dilemma referred to by the Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras in his book The Freedom of Morality Contemporary Greek Theologians No 3:
Going by the example of America and the pietistic basis of the ‘gospel of wealth’ that took shape there, one might venture to make a further assertion. The whole of mankind lives today in the trap of a lethal threat created by the polarization of two provenly immoral moralistic systems, and the constant expectation of a confrontation between them in war, perhaps nuclear war. On the one side is the pietistic individualism of the capitalist camp, and on the other the moralistic collectivism of the marxist dreams of ‘universal happiness.’ At least the latter refuses to cloak its aims under the forged title of Christian, while the name of Christianity continues to be blackened in the sloganizing of even the foulest dictatorships which support the workings of the capitalist system, upholding the pietistic ideal of individual ‘merit’.
Two modes of life can be seen nowadays, ‘individualism’, in which the individual holds a central position, and in this case there is no real communion, and ‘collectivism’, in which man becomes a part of a mass and loses his freedom. In the first mode, individualism, the person is abolished in the name of freedom. In the second, collectivism, man becomes part of a mass in the name of the unity of society, and so the freedom of the person is abolished… St Gregory the Theologian makes some excellent observations on the subject. Man, being in the image and likeness of God, can neither be considered a numeric unit nor can become part of a mass. Thus, in the Orthodox Church, as preserved in parishes and monasteries that securely move within the Orthodox framework, both the person and communion among men is vouchsafed, in which case man can neither be enclosed in a barren individualism nor be transformed into part of a mass.
Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement built their philosophy of communitarianism on the basis of this Christian anthropology, a view that is summed up in the Zulu proverb “umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu” (a person is a person because of people). As the web site of the Dorothy Day Center notes:
The Nazis, the Fascists, and the Bolshevists are Totalitarians. The Catholic Worker is Communitarian. The principles of Communitarianism are expounded every month in the French magazine Esprit (The Spirit).
So I’m grateful to Jim Forest for writing this biography, which helped me to see Dorothy Day in her setting. Jim also tells me that he is planning a revised version, as new material has become available since he wrote this one. So there is more to look forward to. But don’t wait for the new edition — learn about this marvellous Christian woman now.
Update – January 2012
The revised and expanded edition, All is grace, is now available, and you can see my review here: