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Revisiting Dorothy Day

Many of the individuals who are now working in such strange Catholic vineyards were given their first impulse and their training by the Catholic Worker movement. As Father Dennis Geaney, a Catholic educator, recently wrote of Miss Day in Work, ‘It was a Christian revolution she was starting. She was opening the minds of bishops, priests, seminarians, and lay people to the fact that Christianity was not a stuffy sacristy affair. She was a trumpet calling for all of us to find Christ in the bread lines, the jails, as a tenant farmer, migratory worker, or Negro. We think of Church history as being made by popes and bishops. Here is a woman who has placed her stamp on American Catholicism. The seed she sowed in the thirties is bearing fruit a hundred-fold in the fifties.’ “2

A graph of the Catholic Worker‘s influence would show a long trough between 1940 and 1960. My New Yorker profile was written at its dead center, in 1952, twelve years after the social ferment of the Thirties had been smothered by wartime patriotism and prosperity, eight years before Kennedy’s election broke up the Eisenhower stasis. World War II made the Worker part of their title obsolete by removing the working class from our radical scene, so far permanently. The postwar depression predicted by all left-thinking prophets from Trotsky to Henry Wallace—and by many right-thinking ones too—never materialized. The poor were there but didn’t become visible until the mid-Sixties. The blacks were also there, more visible—the 1954 Supreme Court decision integrating the schools; the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott that made Martin Luther King, Jr., a national figure—but their problems were not a crucial issue. There were no crucial issues then, by Presidential order. There were no military adventures overseas either, to be fair—no Bay of Pigs, no Dominican occupation, no Vietnam horror. Ike was at least consistent: his foreign policy was as undynamic as his domestic.

The graph has turned upward in the last decade. The Worker‘s circulation has risen from 58,000 in 1952 to 85,000 today.3 Vietnam has made pacifism no longer the “embarrassment” it was in the martial Forties or the moot issue it became during the Ike Pax. Draft resistance comes naturally to the Workers—they had plenty of (rather lonely) practice during World War II, many have gone to jail since 1965 and many are still there. Their anarchism, an eccentricity, almost a solipsism, in the Marxian Thirties, has become the norm of radical behavior in the Sixties: direct action (“We just went out and did things”); their antibourgeois, infra-rational, free-form style (when Abbie Hoffman told Miss Day, “You were the first hippie,” she was flattered). And the communal trust their houses of hospitality—there are still fifteen—have as their disorganizing principle: everybody welcome, everything free, the Marxist utopia, “To Each According to his Needs, From Each According to his Abilities.”

As for their Catholicism, the conflict between it and their radicalism of which Miss Day was as conscious as her Union Square critics—Cardinal Spellman’s Chancery impressed it on her frequently—has been relaxed of late, and it is the Church that has given ground. Slowly, grudgingly, with last-ditch defensive sorties from the Holy Office; but that a freer spirit is breezing through the rectories and seminaries hardly needs documenting.4

The long, dogged insistence of the Workers on practicing what other Christians preach has been a major factor in radicalizing many American Catholics. Their example may have been in the minds of those Catholic priests, like the Berrigan brothers, who have participated in midnight raids on draft boards or Dow Chemical offices to destroy records—violence that is restricted to inanimate objects, a sabotage technique borrowed from those earlier American anarchists, the “Wobblies.” The “Milwaukee Fourteen” who in the fall of 1968 incinerated some 10,000 draft files with homemade napalm before the cops arrived were mostly Catholic priests, scholars, and laymen, including two staff members of the local Catholic Worker house of hospitality.5 And Emmaus House, founded in 1967 in New York City by some extremely emancipated—in both the political and the “swinging” sense—young Catholic clerics, was directly inspired by the Workers. “I am a spiritual stepchild of Dorothy Day,” says one of its leaders, Father Kirk. “Since the Thirties, the Catholic Worker has used the word ‘revolution’ in its non-violent sense…. Emmaus is trying to bring the same kind of activism into the problems of religious freedom, race relations, draft resistance.”

The Workers’ example has also helped along the internal loosening-up process inside the Church, in matters of doctrine, regimen, and liturgy, but not always as their leader might have preferred. The radical-v.-Catholic dilemma has turned out to be real, but in a curious rebound neither Miss Day nor the Marxist skeptics anticipated. Because of her intransigent radicalism, many Catholic reformers assume she is on their side when they press for drastic changes inside the Church. Sometimes she is but often she isn’t. She supports the traditional rejection of abortion and birth control as immoral and unnatural. Although she thinks priests should be allowed to marry, on the pragmatic grounds that the shepherds would better understand their flocks if they shared this basic experience, she thinks celibacy appropriate for nuns and monks, whom she sees, also pragmatically, as specialists in the other world who should, therefore, set themselves apart from this one.

For the same reason—that there should be a difference marked between the religious and the secular if the holy is not to be blandly homogenized with the profane—she deplores nuns giving up their habits and eschewing communal prayers, and she disapproves of the innovations now being introduced into the liturgy by with-it young prelates who often consider themselves her disciples. “I guess I’m pretty much of a conservative in Church matters,” she remarked the other day with her usual offhand directness.

Secular radicalism and ecclesiastical conservatism are a more common mix than one might think, as one learns from Francine Gray’s recent collection, Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism (Knopf, $6.95). The Emmaus House crowd in Harlem are indeed liturgical swingers. But when Father Kirk calls himself “a spiritual stepchild of Dorothy Day,” he speaks more truly than perhaps he realizes: her reaction to their free-form masses is stepmotherly—in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales sense. However, the Berrigan brothers and Monsignor Ivan Illich, whose profiles take up seven-eighths of the book, are real and not step relatives of Dorothy Day.

The traditional mass was a center of Philip Berrigan’s life,” we read. “Unlike Daniel, Philip was never interested in reforming liturgy.” And as for Monsignor Illich, who founded and still runs, under the protection of the liberal Bishop of Cuernavaca, despite Vatican harassments, that innocuously named Center of Intercultural Documentation which might more realistically be called The Anti-Imperialist Academy or The Institute of Advanced De-Yankeefication (“o centro do desgringalizaceo” the Bishop of Rio de Janeiro has called it, approvingly)—as for this subversive Jesuit who describes the Alliance for Progress as “an alliance pregnant with violence that has maintained or swept into power military regimes in two-thirds of Latin-American countries,” or, more temperately, “a deception designed to maintain the status quo, a bone thrown to the dog,” and who is cynical even about the Peace Corps—Father Ivan makes Dorothy Day look permissive.

What makes the place run here,” he told Mrs. Gray, “is le bon ton, our basically correct behavior…. I am profoundly opposed to the Underground Church because it is counter-revolutionary. You reform by staying within the system. I believe in good manners, in playing the rules of the game…. An American priest comes here and starts saying mass in a sports shirt…. Quelle horreur! Underground churchmen, no thank you. On n’est pas frères et cochons avec le Seigneur. I am theologically profoundly conservative…. I take my stand with Spellman against a married clergy.” As Mrs. Gray puts it, with her dry irony, so rare and refreshing in political writing today, especially on the left: “Underground clerics who have come to Cuernavaca to learn from Illich’s progressive thinking are appalled to hear that he rises at six every morning to say his breviary; goes to confession in an old-fashioned booth; dutifully takes Communion every Sunday; and delights in observing feast days, holy days, saint’s days and other ancient forms of Catholic ritual.”

Daniel Berrigan is harder to place. On the one hand, his “impatience with traditional parish services” led him to experiment with “spontaneous, artistic liturgies.” Mrs. Gray has eight pages on a mass Father Daniel celebrated at the New York Catholic Worker house of hospitality while out on bail after Catonsville. “He said the litany calmly, softly, with a deadpan air that verged on boredom. His entourage exchanged amused looks, for a Berrigan liturgy, these days, would more likely consist of long readings from Pablo Neruda, Auden, T. S. Eliot—but today he conceded, with delicacy, to Dorothy Day’s traditional tastes.”

Not delicately enough, it appears. When I asked her about that mass, she had some complaints not recorded by the usually encyclopedic Mrs. Gray: “He used a loaf of French bread for the Host, tore off hunks with his hands, crumbs all over the floor. And later they were swept up and dumped into the garbage pail. If you really believe they had become the flesh of Jesus, as I do, literally—well, that was no way to treat the body of Our Lord. Those crumbs bothered me.” Her tone was apologetic—she was talking to a non-believer—but there was a note of defiance too, for the same reason. I suddenly realized the simplicity of her faith, also what a strength it must be for radical action.

On the other hand, even Father Dan has drawn the line many degrees north of the swingers. Divine Disobedience has a passage about a Protestant chaplain at Cornell who “with the enthusiasm of a gourmet lauding a four-star restaurant described Cornell’s thriving underground church”—the folk songs, the guitar strumming, the news clips, “the saying to hell with Canon law! the people talking and laughing during the service…. And our kiss of peace! Wow, man, that ain’t no handshake!” And then, sadly: “Curious that such a liberal man as Dan doesn’t get a kick out of our underground church. He came once and looked uncomfortable.” The explanation may be that “Father Dan,” as he is known even to the FBI, is not a liberal but a radical. “The underground church is a mess,” he told Francine Gray. “All talk and no action, just another liberal white ghetto. What a country club!”

Even politically Miss Day’s tactics vis-à-vis the Church hierarchy have been rather old-fashioned by current standards of militancy, going in for end runs rather than line-bucking confrontations, skillfully modulating between defiance in secular matters and obedience in the ghostly sphere. She has always insisted she is a Catholic first and a radical second. “The hierarchy permits a priest to say Mass in our chapel,” she told me in 1952. “They have given us the most precious thing of all—the Blessed Sacrament. If the Chancery ordered me to stop publishing the Catholic Worker tomorrow, I would.” But the Chancery never has. For there are many mansions in the Church of Rome, an ancient bureaucracy that rules with a sophisticated tolerance not yet achieved by its Communist rivals, and the Catholic Workers have been allotted if not a mansion at least a hall bedroom.6

  1. 2

    For a fuller version of these articles, see pp. 349-368 of my Memoirs of a Revolutionist, reprinted by Viking this fall under a new (and, I think, better) title: Politics Past.

  2. 3

    These figures are not comparable to those of more conventionally managed periodicals. At one cent a copy, bundle orders are easy to get and some 25,000 copies go out that way, not the best for active readership. Nor is 25 cents a year discouraging to subscribers. Also a Worker subscription is a metaphysical concept: there are 60,000 names now on the mailing list but nobody knows how many have expired, since at 25 cents a year it is about as cheap to keep sending the paper as to try to collect back payments; hence the subscription stencils are rarely, if ever, “cleaned.” (The paper’s economics are as free from bourgeois rationality as the movement’s operations in general. “When we need money, we pray for it,” is the closest Miss Day has come to a profit-and-loss statement.) Aside from “Moved, Left No Address” or going so far as to die, the one sure way of getting off the Worker‘s sub list is for one’s stencil to become so worn the post office can’t read it.

  3. 4

    A 1970 Times front-page story is irresistible: “Los Angeles, Feb. 2: About 350 of the 400 sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who have been in conflict with the Roman Catholic hierarchy over reforms in their rules and customs, will abandon formal religious life and become a secular community, the head of the order announced today.” The sisters had been negotiating since 1967 with their Archbishop, the lately retired Cardinal McIntyre, a conservative who stood fast, and when Rome backed him finally, they made their move—”the first time such a large group of American nuns or priests has left en masse with the intention of remaining a united community.” Their demands were varied: wearing nuns’ habits and attendance at communal prayers to be voluntary; the right to take jobs outside the parochial school system, also to marry. (“From what I hear,” their spokesman, Sister Kelley, remarked “with a laugh,” “celibacy is no more demanding than marriage.”) They also wanted to live less comfortably. “We aren’t really living lives of poverty now,” Sister Kelley explained. “We have no control over money, but our lives are well appointed.”

  4. 5

    They defended themselves in court, without benefit of counsel and most effectively, admitting the facts but justifying their action as an effort to rescue the registrants from complicity in an illegal war. Judge Charles Larson of the state court was rather different from his federal colleagues in the Spock and Chicago trials, allowing the amateur lawyers to say their say with slight judicial heckling, and breaking into tears when he had to sentence (a light two years) Father Anthony Mullaney, 39, Benedictine monk and Ph.D. in clinical psychology. For a detailed account of this remarkable trial see Francine du Plessix Gray’s article in the September 25, 1969, New York Review of Books, the best political reportage I’ve read in a long time.

  5. 6

    In Miss Day’s case, literally. At seventy-two, she alternates, when not on the road as she frequently is, between two modest specimens, one at the New York house of hospitality, where the Worker is published, the other at their country estate in Tivoli up the Hudson.

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