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Happy Birthday, Dorothy Day

A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement

by William D. Miller
Liveright, 354 pp., $8.95

I assume that all readers of The New York Review of Books Know something about the activities of the Catholic Worker movement, even if they have never read its newspaper or visited one of its hostels or communal farms. So, since the philosophical outlook that inspired it was Peter Maurin’s Christian “Personalism,” most of what I have to say will be “personal” in a lay sense. Let me begin by saying that I am eternally grateful to Dorothy Day for conveying to me the nicest poetical compliment I have ever received. She had been in jail in the old Women’s Prison at Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue for protesting against air-raid warnings. There the prisoners got a shower once a week. It so happened that a poem of mine had recently appeared in The New Yorker, of which the last line ran: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” One of Dorothy Day’s co-in-mates was a whore who went off to her weekly shower quoting it. “My God,” I thought, “I haven’t written in vain.”

Those who joined the movement deliberately chose, like St. Francis and his followers, a life of poverty. The problem about such a choice is that, while it is possible to choose poverty rather than riches, to live on nothing at all is, in any modern society, impossible. A communal farm—the Catholic Workers had several—may become self-supporting, but the land has first of all to be bought. As for their hostels, which looked after the poor, deserving and undeserving, these, obviously, could only be run at a financial loss. This meant, especially since it refused to accept ads for its paper, that the Catholic Worker movement was dependent for its survival upon the voluntary donations of others, most of whom were probably better off.

Somehow or other these contributions always managed to arrive, often, it must have seemed, miraculously, in time to stave off catastrophe. I once made a contribution myself. My conscious motive in doing so was my admiration for what the movement was doing to help the down-and-out, but unconsciously, I fear, I was trying to allay my conscience for not doing likewise. I don’t think God has ever called me to a life of voluntary poverty, but if He did, I know I should resist violently. I am far too worldly, far too fond of my creature comforts. Moreover, I cherish my privacy. Hard as I should find the monastic life, I should find it a great deal easier than working in a Catholic Worker’s hostel where, it seems, one is never alone for a second.

Dorothy Day and her colleagues were often accused of being “soft” on communism, even of being communist agents, and she certainly had no hesitation in working with communists if she felt they had a just cause. She recognized clearly enough the difference between the communist sense of community and her own:

Communism has said, with the evidence of history to back it, that historical Christianity has been only a pawn in centuries of international rivalry and warfare. It, to the contrary, offers men the idea of the universal state and universal peace. But from the Worker’s Christian point of view, this universality is an illusion, since it can never be anything more than a point running in the track of time. Communism’s promised community represents a deification of historical time, an attitude against which the Christian must rebel, since real love has no fulfillment except in the completion of time.

But she did not realize, I feel, the profound difference between Marxism as a Weltanschauung, and communism as a form of state government. She thought the former, and I agree, with its passion for social justice and its utopian daydream of the state withering away, closer to the Christian view of the world than capitalism with its greeds and ruthless competitiveness. (It is a long time, incidentally, since capitalism had any coherent philosophy of its own.) But capitalism with all its defects is in practice preferable to a one-party system, whether of right or left, which must inevitably become a tyranny. The Catholic Worker movement would never have been tolerated in Russia.

On political issues Dorothy Day has always shown enormous courage and, usually, common sense. At the time of the Spanish Civil War, when the Catholic press was almost unanimous in support of Franco as the leader of a holy crusade against atheistic communism, The Catholic Worker was the only paper to support the Loyalists. Though it probably foresaw that, if the latter won, the Church would be persecuted, it thought that a Christian must always choose to be persecuted rather than to persecute. During the Thirties, The Catholic Worker took an equally firm stand against racism and the anti-Semitism of Father Coughlin and the Brooklyn Tablet; and, after the war, against the anticommunist hysteria of the McCarthy era and, later, against the American involvement in Vietnam.

There is only one point on which I take issue with Dorothy Day—some of her colleagues, it seems, felt the same—namely, her assertion that all sides were equally to blame for the outbreak of World War II. She wrote:

We believe that Hitler is no more personally responsible than is Chamberlain or Daladier or any other leader. The blame rests upon the peoples of the entire world, for their materialism, their greed, their idolatrous nationalism, for their refusal to believe in a just peace, for their ruthless subjectic of a noble country. Capitalism’s betrayal came more quickly in Germany because of the Versailles Treaty, and Nazism flowered as a logical result.

…Hitler is incidental; the war must have come sooner or later under the circumstances.

This, I’m sorry to say, I think nonsense. To begin with, it seems to imply that history is wholly determined by blind anonymous forces and that individuals play no part. Those of us who knew Germany well and followed the events there closely felt certain that, from the moment Hitler came to power, which he might very easily not have done, a second world war was only a matter of time. Ironically enough, if England and France had reacted when he reoccupied the Rhineland, Hitler would almost certainly have been ousted by a military Putsch. They did not react because, by that time, public opinion in both countries felt that the Allied occupation had been unjust.

We all know that war is a horrible thing and that, whoever is to blame for starting it, atrocities will be committed on both sides; but the blame for World War II, surely, lies with Germany and Japan (Russia, because of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, cannot be altogether exonerated), not with England, France, or America.

Dorothy Day’s pacifism, as distinct from her historical analysis, is another matter. It is always legitimate for a person to say: “My conscience forbids me to kill another human being under any circumstances.” I should have thought it possible for such a person to enlist in the army, provided he could be in a medical corps, devoted to saving lives not taking them, but, perhaps, he could not feel certain that such a job would be assigned to him. In that case, he must declare himself a conscientious objector whatever the consequences. Fortunately, both in England and America, COs were assigned to jobs in work camps; in Germany or Russia, if there were any, they were liquidated.

In the case of Vietnam, I find my personal conscience and my impersonal historical analysis in complete agreement. Luckily for me, I am too old to have to make a decision, but I whole-heartedly sympathize with those draftees who, instead of registering as COs, publicly burn their draft cards or abscond to Canada.

Rather oddly, and to the dismay of some of her coworkers, when Castro seized power in Cuba, Dorothy Day abandoned her hitherto uncompromising pacifist postion. She did not deny that Castro had made much use of firing squads, but she excused him on the grounds that his revolution had been for the poor, and if one had to choose between the violence done the poor by the acquisitive bourgeois spirit of many Americans and the violence of Castro, which was aimed at helping the poor, then she would take the latter.

We do believe that it is better to revolt, to fight, as Castro did with his handful of men…than do nothing.

What I had not realized until I read Mr. Miller’s book was how rapidly success came to the movement. First published in 1933, by 1935 The Catholic Worker reached a circulation of 65,000 copies, and very soon Worker hostels were started in many American cities besides New York.

As the Franciscans had discovered in the Middle Ages, any “leftish” Christian way of life attracts not only potential saints but also cranks of all kinds, and Mr. Miller gives some amusing accounts of the sort of thing the movement had to put up with.

It was an unusual group at the farm that summer—a circumstance that for the Catholic Worker was completely usual. There was a man just out of Sing Sing who planted flowers, a seminarian who brought six pigs…and an ex-circus performer who would do cartwheels down the hill in back of the house when the moon was full.

At another farm:

A cabal developed against Dorothy Day, the leader of which was the head of one family that lived on the upper farm…. Emphasizing “the priesthood of the laity,” he gathered about him a group of which his family was the center. This man designated one of the group its “spiritual adviser,” and then proceeded to bedeck his person with symbols of authority, insisting on the performance of solemn obeisances from the others—bowing, kneeling, and the like—and when they ran afoul of his edicts, penances were imposed…. The women were forbidden to speak unless spoken to, and were compelled to knock on the doors of even their own kitchens if men were present.

Then, in the Sixties, came the middle-class hippies with their promiscuity and drugs. They were too much even for Dorothy Day’s tolerance, and she turned them out, observing that their behavior was

…a complete rebellion against authority, natural and supernatural, even against the body and its needs, its natural functions of child bearing. It can only be a hatred of sex that leads them to talk as they do and be so explicit about the sex functions and the sex organs, as instruments of pleasure…. This is not reverence for life, this certainly is not natural love for family, for husband and wife, for child. It is a great denial, and is more resembling Nihilism than the revolution which they think they are furthering.

In diagnosing, correctly in my opinion, their attitude to life as a form of Manichaeism, she reminds us that, today as in the Middle Ages, all groups that try to live a Christian life without compromise attract heretics, persons, that is to say, who, disgusted by the worldliness of the Church Visible, attribute this to Her theology, and the kind of theology they adopt in its stead is nearly always Manichaean.

To this temptation Dorothy Day never succumbed. She was always aware that, because we live in time, the existence of the Church as a temporal and social organization is essential; that, without Her, she would never have heard of the Gospels, in the light of which she could criticize Her failings.

Where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother…. Love is indeed a harsh and dreadful thing to ask of us, of each one of us, but it is the only answer.*

This year the Catholic Worker movement will be sixty-nine years old and Dorothy Day herself has just turned seventy-five. I need not wish her a happy birthday because I am certain it will be.

  1. *

    Three books by Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness, Loaves and Fishes, and On Pilgrimage: The Sixties, have just been published in paperback (Curtis Books, $1.25 each).

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