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Revisiting Dorothy Day

Their leader has taken full advantage of the rules of the game, which are that Catholics are free to express, and act on, any ideas, including anarchism, that have not (a) been decided by the Pope speaking ex cathedra or from his throne as the lineal successor of St. Peter and so the Vicar, or mouthpiece of God, to be “matters of faith and morals” (as against the extra cathedra decisions he makes daily, standing up so to speak, as the chief executive of an international cartel); and (b) also then denounced as unacceptable for members of the faith. Since the most reactionary modern Popes have not ventured to damn, ex cathedra, specific political doctrines, however repulsive, Miss Day was taking less of a chance in proclaiming her willingness to give up the Worker if so ordered by the Chancery than might, on the face of it, appear. Also, as she remarked to me the other day, reflectively: “There are ways of getting around a Cardinal.”

An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” is an Emersonian apothegm that sounds truer than it is. Exceptions swarm. Richelieu’s shadow is tenebrous indeed in the French Academy he founded. Nor, for all the campaign oratory, can much trace of Jefferson be discerned in the Democratic party of a generation after his death, let alone today, and likewise with Lincoln and the Republicans—their their shadows, in so far as they are traceable in those institutions, have been shortened, not lengthened. And what “one man” was post-shadowed in the Courts of Chancery Dickens wrote about, or his Circumlocution Office? The Pentagon? The Federal Reserve Board? The Supreme Court? AT&T? Yale? Certainly not Elihu. Harvard? Certainly not John.

The only American institutions I can think of which Emerson’s generalization fits are J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Workers. It is true that Peter Maurin had the original vision and that without it their movement would never have come into existence and the Greenwich Village beauty of the Twenties would never have become the radical abbess of today, still beautiful at seventy-two. Maurin’s primitive Christian insight into the sickness of our time struck the essential, creative spark, as she constantly reminds us—and herself.7

But what she doesn’t emphasize because she is strikingly lacking in vanity—she has plenty of ego or she couldn’t accomplish what she has, but ego is pride, not vanity: living up to one’s standards, not others’—is that she was able to give his vision flesh and blood because she has qualities he lacked: common sense; everyday housekeeping practicality; a flair in her writing and talking for making abstract principles concrete and even homely tactical skill in dealing with worldly phenomena like fund-raising, city commissioners, building inspectors, cardinals, and policemen; and finally—specially useful for guiding a free-form collective enterprise—a direct, easy way with people. Long before Peter Maurin died in 1949, the Catholic Worker style had been established by his grateful proselyte and admiring cofounder.8

At seventy plus, Dorothy Day is still what she was in her thirties—the active, personal center of the movement and its paper. Not the least of her qualifications for the job is that she never really wanted it. “Low in mind all day, full of tears,” is a typical entry in “On Pilgrimage,” her public-private journal. “What with Easton, New York, Boston, Ottawa, Toronto and Missouri groups all discouraged, all looking for organization instead of self-organization, all weary of the idea of freedom and personal responsibility—I feel bitterly oppressed. I am in the position of a dictator trying to legislate himself out of existence. They all complain there is no boss. Today I happened to read Dostoevsky’s ‘Grand Inquisitor,’ most apropos. Freedom—how men hate it and chafe under it, how unhappy they are with it!”

This was written in 1936, three years after she and Maurin had founded the Catholic Workers. Things are still about the same.

Postscript: The editors of The New York Review, after reading the above, wondered whether the recent trend toward violence in some New Left quarters might not again be isolating the Catholic Workers as in the Fifties, this time from the left. So I talked with Dorothy Day about it. “Of course we’re against any kind of violence including psychological,” she said, “and if this cuts us off from the young, we’ll just have to accept it. But I don’t think it has. Our New York place is swarming with them. [I talked there last March at one of those Friday night conversazioni they’ve been putting on since the Thirties, speakers ranging from Morton Sobell to W. H. Auden, and a lot of the audience looked to be under thirty.—DM] At Tivoli in the summer we don’t know where to put them, they sleep on the lawns, in the woods. And the paper’s circulation is still going up.”

I asked her about the sabotage raids on draft boards that have been mounted, mostly under Catholic leadership, in a dozen or more places. (The exact number is hard to come by since the press, including that whited sepulchre of “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” The New York Times, hasn’t reported them until an actual trial makes it impossible to ignore the brute fact.)

To my surprise, though I shouldn’t have been surprised by now by this Catholic-disciplined free-thinker, she didn’t approve. “I know the violent spirit of the Catholics. Yes, it’s only directed against inanimate objects now, as you say, but it could lead to the real thing. Bombings are the next step—and when it comes to bombs you can’t control it, no matter what your intentions, you can’t be sure there isn’t a late worker or a cleaning woman around…. Those priests and sisters! I admire their courage and dedication but not their arrogance. In the old days Father LaFarge said to me: ‘We have a subservient laity and a bullying clergy.’ When I became a convert, I noticed that Catholics reacted more explosively, to radical ideas than Protestants did. Once they’d gotten up the courage to defy the hierarchy, they exulted in their new-found freedom, they kicked up their heels.” There was affection in her voice as well as reproval, also a kind of pride; and she didn’t bother to mention that she had gone to Baltimore to publicly support the Berrigans and their Catonsville co-conspirators.9

She had two other objections to the raids on draft boards. First, they provoke retaliations in kind: she cited last year’s burglarizing of the War Resisters League headquarters in New York and the theft of its membership lists, also two episodes I hadn’t heard about: the busting up of Dave Dellinger’s cooperative print shop at Glen Gardner, New Jersey, and the burning out of the Philadelphia headquarters of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. “You won’t understand this, Dwight,” she prophesied about her second objection, and she was right, I didn’t. It is that poor kids, especially blacks, want to get into the army: “They get a uniform, free board, and they’re treated like men—for once, the State is on their side—and they even have a chance to go to college free after they get out. So they resent white idealists making it harder for them.”

DM: “But it just delays the process a bit—couldn’t they wait a few weeks?”

DD: “Why should they? They have a right to decide for themselves, the priests and sisters shouldn’t choose for them.”

DM: “You certainly believe in freedom of choice anyway.”

DD: “I also believe in the golden rule and if we bust up their offices we can’t complain when they bust up ours. Gandhi never used violence even against inanimate things.”

DM: “But don’t you think, Dorothy, that things are pretty desperate here now and we can’t be strict constructionists about Gandhi’s teachings, that they’ve got to bend a little to accommodate our very different historical situation and needs?”

DD: “No.”

She ended by complaining about a review in the NYR of a book on the late Father Camillo Torres which called her Introduction “sweet.” I asked how come she had written an Introduction to a book on a priest-intellectual who’d been killed leading a guerrilla band, and she explained that while she deplored his having fallen for “that Che Guevara nonsense,” she admired his dedication to the Colombian peasants—her tone was of a weary governess, disapproving and loving—“those children, they’ll be the death of me yet!”

But that “sweet” did rankle—she didn’t want to be praised as a sweet old lady (who would, indeed?) and in fact she isn’t. Strict and tolerant, contemptuous and forgiving, understanding and intemperate, these antimonies describe her attitude toward radical violence—unless it’s directed against people. On that, she’s not ambivalent. Still, there’s quite a gap between her speech at the pretrial rally for the Catonsville Nine (see footnote 9) and what she said to me a year and a half later. It can be partly explained by later events, and her reaction to them, such as the rise in leftist bombings, a technological escalation beyond the Berrigans’ handicraft methods that is sinister because hard to limit to inanimate targets.

There is also the increasing pressure of a new style of radical dissent, which is disorderly in form as well as content, while she holds to the old style, which accepts the prescribed forms (of the Catholic Church or the American Constitution) and tries to inject a radical content into them—to restore them to or pervert them from their original historical meanings, the verb depending on one’s politics. Legal illegality, so to speak, as against the illegal illegality Daniel Berrigan felt himself compelled to adopt, much against his temperament and his past behavior, when he decided not to surrender himself after his conviction because he had concluded that justice now lies outside the Department of Justice. “It is impossible to remain Christian and abide by the law of this land,” he said when he surfaced for a brief sermon in a Methodist church near Philadelphia, urging the congregation to “refuse to pay taxes [and to] aid and abet and harbor people like myself, so that a solid wall of conscience confronts the warmakers.” A Scarlet Pimpernel who wore his red with a difference, he evaded capture for three months, Mr. Hoover’s agents being, like Citizen Robespierre’s, more in the tradition of Hawkshaw the Detective than of Sherlock Holmes. And when he was finally run to earth—on Block Island, by a covey of G-men who surrounded the house posing as bird-watchers—the news photo of a beefy agent clutching his handcuffed little prisoner firmly by the arm was puzzling, for the prisoner was smiling broadly, triumphantly, while his captor glared at the camera with a scowl of disgust. Who had won, really?

Like many of us, Dorothy Day seems to be of two minds as to “how far” the antiwar resistance should go—or rather of one heart (soft) and one mind (hard) that don’t always jibe. Also, there’s an experimental, imaginative quality to her way of thinking which I’d agree with The New York Times in calling anarchistic, though with the opposite valuation. As she said, impatiently, when I pressed her: “Really, Dwight, you’ve known me long enough not to expect me to be consistent!”

  1. 7

    Primitive” Christianity was such psychologically as well as historically. In Maurin, as in the early followers of Jesus under the Caesars, was a simplicity, a singleness of utopian belief that dared practice, as well as preach, loving their neighbors and returning good for evil. Like them, he was radically unsophisticated—to use “to sophisticate” in the old-fashioned sense: “to make artificial, to deprive of genuineness, naturalness or simplicity; in earlier usage: to debase, spoil or corrupt.”

  2. 8

    I showed a draft of this Introduction to Miss Day. She corrected some factual errors and also wrote the following general remarks—she thought, not to my surprise, I gave her too much and Maurin too little credit—which she has kindly allowed me to reproduce:

    It was St. Augustine’s Confessions, Dostoevsky, William James, and having a baby that turned me on religiously—and since ‘the bottle always smells of the liquor it once held,’ in St. Augustine’s phrase, I had started to write about hunger marches and organizing the unorganized in The Commonweal and America, the Jesuit weekly, before I ever heard of Peter Maurin. He read my articles and sought me out to listen to his ideas and incarnate them. He was my teacher and it is his attempt at a synthesis of Cult, Culture and Cultivation which we have been working on ever since…I revered him and listened to him as one would to an old staretz or guru or sufi. In fact, we esteemed him, all of us, as a saint.

    I know the C.W. movement would not have had the cooperation it has had from so many brilliant young men (it was the men who started the houses and farms and wrote most of the articles in the paper) had it not been for Peter’s influence. Far be it from men to follow a woman—although I am sure we ‘got away’ with a lot because I was a woman and a convert. The latest child of Peter, ‘The Green Revolution,’ came out last month in Ridgefield, West Virginia, and it is all Peter.

    But I do admit it takes a woman to put flesh on the bare bones of an idea.”

  3. 9

    She had said there, in fact, according to Divine Disobedience: “I came here to express my sympathy for this act of non-violent revolution, for this act of peaceful sabotage which is not only a revolution against the State but against the alliance of Church and State which has gone on much too long…. Only actions such as these will force the Church to speak out when the State has become a murderer…. But we must restrict our violence to property…. We must hang on to our pacifism in the face of all violence the way Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez retained it, it’s the most difficult thing in the world, and one that requires the most faith.”

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