Because of Dorothy Day (November 8, 1897 – November 29, 1980) UPDATED

This was written three years ago by my (then) blogging partner, Webster Bull.  Given all the excitement about her cause for sainthood, I think it’s a good time to take a look at Dorothy Day not only from Webster’s viewpoint, but in her own words too.

So sit back, relax, and meet Dorothy Day (and Peter Maurin) and come to know why an encounter with her helps lead us to Christ.


Today is the anniversary of the death of a great Catholic. A one-time radical, a sinner, a convert, a courageous pacifist (no, that is not an oxymoron), not yet a saint—she gets my vote for most compelling American Catholic of the 20th century. Her name? Dorothy Day. She died 29 (ed. 32) years ago today.

Let’s begin with three quotes:

“Dorothy Day has been described as a very erratic and irresponsible person. She has engaged in activities which strongly suggest that she is consciously or unconsciously being used by communist groups. From past experience with her it is obvious she maintains a very hostile and belligerent attitude towards the Bureau and makes every effort to castigate the Bureau whenever she feels so inclined.”—J. Edgar Hoover

“I write to initiate the canonization process of Dorothy Day. To be sure, her life is a model for all in the third millennium, but especially for women who have had or are considering abortions. . . . I contend that her abortion should not preclude her cause, but intensifies it.”—John Cardinal O’Conner

“Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”—Dorothy Day

Coolest.Dorothy Day.Photograph.Ever.

Despite her concern, Dorothy Day is difficult to dismiss. Yet she is dismissed, or overlooked by mainstream Catholicism. I prepared a talk on her for men’s group about a year ago, and more than half the guys admitted that they knew little or nothing about her. Amazing but true: I was a self-described Vietnam era peacenik, but I never learned about Dorothy until I became a Catholic two years ago (ed. See? Saints are obscure.) Unlike the Berrigan brothers or Father Drinan, more Catholics who came out against that war, Dorothy was too busy helping the poor to steal the headlines.

Born in Brooklyn in 1897, she was the daughter of a non-believing journalist father whose beat was horse-racing. He apparently spent quality time at the track. Dorothy lived through the San Francisco earthquake of 1908 and remembered it vividly in her memoir The Long Loneliness. Her family soon moved to Chicago, where she had her first prolonged exposure to poverty. She enrolled at the University of Illinois but left after two years, moved to New York City, and became a freelance journalist, principally for socialist, communist, and anarchist periodicals. In 1917 she joined a suffragist rally outside the White House, was jailed with other female demonstrators, and went on a hunger strike. She was 20.

In 1924, she published her first book, an autobiographical novel called The Eleventh Virgin. It was based on her own bohemian life and would be the only writing in a lifetime of writing in which she would refer to her own abortion. Soon she had moved into a beach house on Staten Island with her common-law husband, Forster Batterham, a confirmed atheist. She seems to have adored him, though he spent most of the weeks in Manhattan and was with her just on weekends.

Thinking she could no longer have children, she became pregnant by Batterham in 1926 and gave birth to a daughter, Tamar Teresa. She asked a nun about baptizing her daughter. The nun said, “Fine,” but Dorothy should consider becoming a Catholic herself. And knowing that it would mean losing her atheist “husband,” she did just that. Dorothy lived alone with Tamar as a single Catholic mother for six years, torn between the Church and her vision of social justice. She believed, not without justification, that the Church talked about caring for the poor while catering to the non-poor.

In 1932, Dorothy joined a hunger march in Washington (it was the Great Depression, folks). She prayed at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception that “some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers.” When she returned home to New York, she found Peter Maurin on her doorstep. (She told the story this way; others say Maurin appeared within a few days or weeks of her return.)

Maurin was an itinerant preacher in old beat-up clothes. He proposed to Dorothy a three-part plan: what he called round-table discussions, houses of hospitality, and agronomic universities. For the rest of her life (until 1980), Dorothy put this plan in action. The first issue of The Catholic Worker, a newspaper that sold for one penny a copy, was distributed at a Communist rally in Union Square. I like to think of that paper as Dorothy’s blog. She wrote for it constantly. And when she, or the paper, or her Houses of Hospitality (a string of homeless shelters founded in 1935) ran out of money, she wrote a front-page plea for funds, and the funds invariably arrived.

In 1936 civil war erupted in Spain. The Church supported Franco. The left supported the Communists. Dorothy Day outraged them all by remaining neutral. In 1939, alert to the threat of Nazism before many other intellectuals, she founded the Committee of Catholics to Fight Anti-Semitism. Despite her critique of Hitler’s regime, she espoused pacifism when the US entered the war following Pearl Harbor.

In the 1960s, Dorothy would join campaigns for nuclear disarmament and civil rights, and she would oppose the war in Vietnam. A Catholic Worker staffer would be the first personal jailed for burning his draft card. Another committed suicide by setting himself on fire in front of the US mission to the UN. (Dorothy’s CW editorial the following day is heart-breaking.) In 1973, she was arrested for the last time, on a United Farm Workers picket line in California.

In 2000, the cause for her beatification was formally opened with Vatican approval.

Without question, the most challenging fact of Dorothy Day’s life is her adamant pacifism. Here, I know I cannot speak more eloquently than Dorothy herself, so I’ll end with the most challenging thought of all: remaining pacifist in the face of Nazism.

Our Country Passes from Undeclared to Declared War; We Continue Our Christian Pacifist Stand (CW 1942)

Dear Fellow Workers in Christ,

Lord God, merciful God, our Father, shall we keep silent, or shall we speak? And if we speak, what shall we say?

I am sitting here in the church on Mott Street writing this in Your presence. Out on the streets it is quiet, but You are there, too, in the Chinese, in the Italians, these neighbors we love. We love them because they are our brothers, as Christ is our Brother, and God our Father. But we have forgotten so much. We have all forgotten. . . .

Seventy-five thousand copies of The Catholic Worker go out every month. What shall we print? . . . We will print the words of Christ, who is with us always, even to the end of the world. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, who makes His sun to rise on the good and the evil, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”

We are at war, a declared war, with Japan, Germany, and Italy, But still we can repeat Christ’s words, each day, holding them close in our hearts, each month printing them in the paper. In times past Europe has been a battlefield. But let us remember St. Francis, who spoke of peace, and we will remind our readers of him, too, so they will not forget.

In The Catholic Worker we will quote our Pope, our saints, our priests. We will go on printing the articles of Father Hugo, who reminds us today that we are all “called to be saints,” that we are other Christs, reminding us of the priesthood of the laity.

We are still pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urging others to these efforts.

But neither will we be carping in our criticism. We love our country and we love our President. We have been the only country in the world where men and women of all nations have taken refuge from oppression. We recognize that while in the order of intention we have tried to stand for peace, for love of our brothers and sisters, in the order of execution we have failed as Americans in living up to our principles.

[Dorothy urges daily, hourly prayer for an end to the war, along with acts of mercy.]

Because of our refusal to assist in the prosecution of war and our insistence that our collaboration be one for peace, we may find ourselves in difficulties. But we trust in the generosity and understanding of our government and our friends, to permit us to continue to use our paper to “preach Christ crucified.”

And may the Blessed Mary, Mother of beautiful love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope, pray for us.

Amen. Say a prayer for us when you can.


A documentary to see! Check out the trailer.

Learn more here.


How prayer helped her give up smoking.


This entry was posted in Culture, Learning, Living, Working and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Because of Dorothy Day (November 8, 1897 – November 29, 1980) UPDATED

  1. Maria says:

    The cause for Day's beatification gives great hope to this big sinner.


  2. Webster Bull says:

    Frank, The pope's 1939 response to Hitler's attack on the church is not a call to arms, it is a call to martyrdom. Look at his words: [He then put the sufferings of the Church in the context of grace,] “In congratulation, allow Us to address you and our beloved children who at your side are fighting the battle of our Lord, in the words of St. Cyprian" [This "battle" is obviously not armed conflict, the church had no guns at this time!, it's a battle of the spirit that he's calling for—and congratulating!]"‘Your present confession of faith is more illustrious and honored because of your greater strength in suffering." [Strength in suffering = martyrdom!] "As the combat waxed in intensity, the glory of the combatants grew. If the battle calls you, if the day of your struggle has come, fight bravely, fight constantly, knowing that you are battling beneath the gaze of our Lord who is ever present, that you are by your confession of His name attaining to His glory who not merely watches His warring servants but Himself joins battle, Himself crowns and is crowned by the decisive contest of our trial.’” [I know this sounds like a call to arms, but look at the key clause in the center of the quotation: ". . . you are by your confesion of His name attaining to His glory . . . ] We're back in the third century here, brother!


  3. Anonymous says:

    Dorothy Day was a completely traditional and observant Roman Catholic when it came to worship and practice. Liberals then and liberals now cannot reconcile this. The Deacon at our Church gave a homily in which he compared liberal and conservative Catholics–liberals are the ones who show compassion he said. I let him know that both Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day were conservative Roman Catholics.–William


  4. Webster Bull says:

    Agreed, William. She prayed the LOTH, said the rosary daily, wore a mantilla to mass, and (more than traditional) slept (and raised her daughter) in Houses of Hospitality, like a Franciscan oblate/ascetic.


  5. Anonymous says:

    Her Pacifism really troubles me. This is not in teaching with the church, despite more modern tendencies to the contrary. To say one's mission is to follow the sermon on the Mount is fine and dandy, but who is she to interpret the words of Christ to mean that we must not support the cause of our nation? I'm thinking of "Render unto Caesar…" Isn't this a sort of Cafeteria Catholic type attitude? Before this article, I've known extremely little on Dororthy Day, so I do not pretend to be an expert in any way. But it seems to me that, although personally she may have been saintly, the beliefs she espoused can give rise to scandal. Pacifism is idealistic and more likely utopian. Does anyone else see this as scandalous?


  6. Frank says:

    I love the idea of the nuns in "The Sound of Music" removing the distributor caps from the German soldiers truck engines while they are seaching for the Van Trapp family on the cloister grounds…ah, Hollywood.The link I posted above reads like a horror movie too unfortunately. Dorothy Day, like the Saints in general, was fearless!


  7. Webster Bull says:

    Anonymous . . . So let's define "Cafeteria Catholic type attitude." Would that be someone who reads the whole Catechism of the Catholic Church and then picks and chooses the paragraphs s/he wishes to adhere to while rejecting others? Then how about (re)reading CCC 2258-2330. The heading is "Thou Shalt Not Kill." This section includes portions on abortion, euthanasia, suicide, scandal, and war. In particular read 2302-2317 on "Safeguarding Peace." Then tell me how so many Catholics could vote "no" on abortion and "whatever" on safeguarding peace. That to me is the definition of Cafeteria Catholicism.


  8. Thanks for recognizing Dorothy and highlighting a little bit about her life. She lived a life dedicated to peace and faith; a model of disciplship that is both faithful and radical, in the way Jesus called his followers to live.If you're looking for a great book on Day, which parallels her life with that of Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Percy Walker, check out Paul Elie's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own". It is a biography of all 4 authors, connecting them as pilgrims of faith all writing in the 20th century.And thanks for this blog, as a twenty-something Catholic, it's my pleasure to get to touch on your reflections and thoughts every now and then to see where they speak to me. Peace.


  9. Webster Bull says:

    Thanks, Colleen. The Elie book is a great suggestion: I've read it. In fact, it's what really turned me on to Dorothy, also Flannery. Haven't figured out Walker Percy yet and, call me heretical, but I think Merton is over-rated. His book is a landmark, of course, but the last ten years of his life were quite murky, and his legacy, looking at the whole life, is quite mixed. I think he was born to be a "star of the 1960s" (though I know 7-Storey Mtn came out in 1947).


  10. Frank says:

    Ed. And the comment box takes us back three years as well. Follow the fun as I wondered about Day’s pacificsm…

    Regarding her stand on World War II, this is the difference between a personal belief and the official belief of Mother Church. What of the Magisterium? I think she "broke with the chain-of-command" as we would say in the Corps. You could argue that many in the Church today who are Pro-Choice and Pro Gay Marriage are in the same boat as Dorothy is here. See this after the German Bishops meeting in Fulda 1939:"The pope responded in September, lamenting the attempt to destroy the Church in Germany. He then put the sufferings of the Church in the context of grace, “In congratulation, allow Us to address you and our beloved children who at your side are fighting the battle of our Lord, in the words of St. Cyprian:"‘Your present confession of faith is more illustrious and honored because of your greater strength in suffering. As the combat waxed in intensity, the glory of the combatants grew. If the battle calls you, if the day of your struggle has come, fight bravely, fight constantly,knowing that you are battling beneath the gaze of our Lord who is ever present, that you are by your confession of His name attaining to His glory who not merely watching His warring servants but Himself joins battle, Himself crowns and is crowned by the decisive contest of our trial.’”"This is how the pope and the bishops saw World War II: a fundamentally religious war, fought for the very soul of humanity." What would Chesterton have thought?


  11. Frank says:

    @ Anonymous:I'd love to hear your thoughts on Chestertons'"Lepanto". Scoot over there and take a look!"Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck…"


  12. Patrick says:

    I love your blog, by the way. I'm on a similar journey.It is hard, at least for me, to justify pacifism during Word War I, given the attrocities committed by, among others, Hitler in Europe and Japan in Asia. I've often wondered how many lives would have been saved if Europe and the United States had the ability and the will to fight a preemptive war against Hitler when it should have been obvious to all, and at least was obvious to some, such as Winston Churchill, what his intentions were.


  13. Webster Bull says:

    Patrick, ThanksI don't disagree about WW II. What I think is important and provocative about Dorothy is that she poses the question, making Catholics think deeply about war and their position on it. The Church poses the question too: pacifism and "just war"–both are OK. We all have free will. What's the call? Problem is, I think most often we abdicate our free will, go with the crowd, don't think. Dorothy thought long and hard.


  14. Anonymous says:

    Take care in canonizing World War II; a just war must be just in its manner of conduct, not solely in its objectives – and one key and historically precedent-making characteristic of the manner of conduct of WW II on both sides was the deliberate wholesale killing of civilians through aerial bombardment.Consider this (not the prefatory note), from G.E.M. Anscombe, the most serious Catholic philosopher of the 20th Century:


  15. Webster Bull says:

    Anonymous, I think it is that "wholesale killing of civilians through aerial bombardment"—magnified many times since WWII—that has led both John Paul II and Benedict XVI to lean toward the pacifist camp. The nature of modern weapons makes it often impossible to adhere to the 4th condition of a "just war" (CCC 2309): "The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition."


  16. Frank says:

    Food for thought: Is the Church's Just War Doctrine primarily aimed at Governments & Heads-of-State or to Rank & File Church members? I ask because there has not been armed conflict on U.S. soil since 1865. Those of us in the US haven't had our streets bombed and farmhouses used as bivouacs for enemy occupying troops lately. So was/is joining a resistence movement allowed? When the Germans, for example, annexed Alsace-Lorraine with tanks rolling through the streets (Kuwait City is another example)what's a citizen to do? In summary, is the Just War Doctrine only applicable to States or is it also a Code of Conduct for members of the church. Is there a Pastor in the House to My inner Marine says protect my family at all costs…and do as much damage to the "invader", or at the very least not aid and abet an invading force.Thoughts?


  17. Anonymous says:

    Frank — Same anonymous as Anscombe quote above. In short, you can apply the same standards, but the results are different than they usually are for states. Check CCC 2309: By the time the tanks are rolling through the streets, the damage is "lasting, grave and certain" and all other means have surely proven "impractical or ineffective" or it wouldn't have gotten to that point. The two remaining issues are (a.) reasonable chance of success (i.e. you're better off hiding or lying low if all you're doing is getting yourself and your family killed quicker or more brutally) and (b.) not bringing about greater evils (i.e. not torturing or killing prisoners or engaging in suicide bombings that kill your own people along with the enemy – killing enemy non-combatants is not an issue, since invasion forces don't normally include non-combatants.) Once you disengage the madness of modern total war, just war theory is common sense.


  18. Anonymous says:

    Hi Webster, I went to Mass on vacation a few years ago and the priest, God love him, looked like an extra from the Sopranos. That being said he gave, what I think, was the best homily I ever heard in my life. I go to daily Mass so I hear a lot of homilies. The Gospel was that tough one in which Jesus says I didn't come to bring peace but cast mother against child etc. You know the one. Anyway, he explained that the peace of Christ is not the peace as the world knows it. It's not saying nothing when a family member wants to get an abortion, or a friend wants to cheat on his wife. It's addressing it. It's calling things what they are. It's defending truth and innocence. Sometimes what we characterize as peace is not peace, but aquiesance to evil to keep our own status quo or good standing. That is my one issue with pacifism. It seems like it, in the name of peace, allows evil to flourish. Thanks Webster, sorry for the spelling mistakes-Regina


  19. Webster Bull says:

    Hey, Regina (Anonymous at 8:26), Thanks for the great comment. I agree wholeheartedly. What I think is important about Dorothy Day is that she sets the gold standard for pacifism. Maybe she wasn't "right" but we sure knew where she stood; and frankly, I think that during WWII especially, it took as much courage to be a pacifist as it did to enlist. (Hey, everyone enlisted: it's what a man did.) But as you can see in my post to be published later this evening (Position on War III), I think the "rightest" position is that of the snake: coiled, ready to defend its position, but striking only when legitimately threatened (and certainly not threatened by chimeras like WMDs that don't exist). The cleverness of the Church in giving us a choice between the Dorothy Day position & just war = the cleverness of the snake, deadly effective when it strikes but usually only coiled in defense, ready but choosing its moments.


  20. Webster,Did Dorothy Day think of herself as a "pacifist", or as a person promoting non-violence? In other words, without regard to the terms she used, did she advocate non-violent means of achieving justice for others, or simply pacifism?I think that all Christians are called to be non-violent and charitably-disposed toward all men (I believe that is exactly what John Paul II meant by "solidarity"). This should be our "default" position, so to speak.But others, especially Frank, echo the Catechism when he speaks about a husband and father having an obligation to protect his wife and children even, I would presume, and following the Catechism (and St. Thomas Aquinas), if he had to use violence to do so.Do we have a right to defend ourselves? And by extension, does the state have a right to defend itself from unjust aggession?What is the opposite of "pacifism"? Bellicosity? I don't believe that pacifism and self-defense are commensurate with one another; they are pretty much different discussions.


  21. Frank says:

    Michael: I hope you don't mind me chiming in here while the Skipper is "ashore" so to speak. He left me as Officer of the Deck (OOD)so…There is a fabulous comment over at Websters "On War III" post at this link: to us by the Anchoress and penned by Chesterton. Take a look and see what you think.I think that the way to behave if the scenario is as I imagined is this: as a husband & father my duty is to protect. Now, it isn't to provoke or retaliate offensively. Perhaps it is another shading on Our Lord's statement "to be as clever as snakes and as innocent as doves".In Anne Rice's novel "Christ the Lord: Out of Eqypt", she creates a scene (early not sure where) where rebels are wreaking havoc and burst into the house Joesph and his family are living in. Joseph is not bellicose, but submissive. In a way like Our Lord's "they want your shirt, then give them also your tunic." Shades of David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine? Maybe.


  22. Webster Bull says:

    Thanks, Frank. At ease!My answer to Michael is, I think Dorothy thought of herself as a Catholic, living her life as Jesus Christ instructed us to live ours, according to Beatitudes and the Ten Commandments, of which two are greatest. I think Dorothy must be appreciated in her simple obedience to what she understood as the Word of the Lord.


  23. Frank,OOD is fine by me. ;>I read the Chesterton quote, and I take the "money quote" to be: "The real problem is–Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted; THAT is the miracle she achieved."And you said, "I think that the way to behave if the scenario is as I imagined is this: as a husband & father my duty is to protect".I certainly agree with your statement (more importantly, Aquinas speaks of using "necessary force" not "any amount of force" (CCC #2264)), and if you can protect without the use of violence, so much the better. However, were you mistakenly under the impression that you needed to use some force, it would still not be sinful.I think I appreciate the point Chesterton is making, but, as usual he is trying to make a big point.I'm trying to make a small point, and perhaps I've missed the overall tenor of these posts. My small point is that pairs like "war" and "peace" are opposites: they are opposed to one another. But terms like "pacifism" and "self-defense" are not opposites, they are completely different subjects. On the other hand, being "non violent" as well as "ready to defend against bullies" are more like complements to one another.


  24. Frank says:

    Michael:Bingo on (CCC #2264) & Use of Deadly Force. The situation is fluid and we are constrained by "bounded rationality" a fancy way of saying we don't "know everything" before we make a decision. BR is an idea developed by economist Herbert Simon ( One of my professors at UCLA (now at the Naval War College) introduced me to his ideas of decision making with limited information. It confused everyone in the class (no life experience?)but me because, as a Marine, I had been operating in that kind of environment for my entire career.And Simons' ideas played a role in my conversion to the Catholic Church (which I hope to write up in my 2BFrank serial.)Also lookie here! A story of a resisting priest in Nazi Germany that you may find of interest:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s