DOROTHY DAY AND THE CATHOLIC WORKER MOVEMENT
It would be an exaggeration to say that Dorothy Day, all by herself, created Roman Catholic nonviolence in the United States. But it would not be too much of an exaggeration. For nearly half a century, she was the most famous, most influential, and most energetic voice proclaiming that Catholics could and should be nonviolent, precisely because they are Catholic. As founder and leader of the Catholic Worker movement from its creation in 1933, Day (1897 – 1980) insisted that the movement affirm nonviolence as a basic principle. She inspired many Catholics to commit to nonviolence and to explore specifically Catholic ways of expressing and explaining their commitment.
Dorothy Day’s own journey to nonviolence was long and sometimes difficult. Like A. J. Muste and so many others of her generation, her journey began during World War I. Unlike Muste and the others, though, she did not begin with religious faith and then move toward peace and justice in the political realm. Her path was quite the opposite. From her childhood, she showed a powerful love of ordinary working people and of nature. During and after World War I, she was a radical political journalist, espousing the cause of workers’ rights and an anarchist-socialist revolution. She denounced World War I and preparations for future war as the inevitable fruit of capitalist imperialism. But she wrote about all this on a purely secular basis.
At the same time, Day was gradually drawn toward the Catholic Church, where she was baptized in 1927. She became a Catholic, she said, because her love of and joy in the human and natural world led her to want even greater love and joy, the supernatural love and joy that she could find only in God and His Church. She wanted to live a saintly life, in which every moment would be filled with the kind of love that, she claimed, could only be found in a religious life. She also became Catholic because she wanted to escape a life that was, in her own words, "doubting and hesitating, undisciplined and amoral." In the Church, she found the certainty, order, and discipline she craved. But she never considered leaving the natural world behind. She knew that she wanted to combine pious Catholicism with active organizing efforts to create a new society, one that would alleviate poverty and offer justice for working people: "How I longed to make a synthesis reconciling body and soul, this world and the next."
When the Great Depression impoverished millions of workers, she was more convinced than ever that capitalism was an evil system that had to be overthrown. But at that time Catholics were universally, and often bitterly, opposed to communism because of its militant atheism. She still could not see how to link her political and religious beliefs, to be both Catholic and a revolutionary. After covering a worker’s protest march in 1932, she went into a church and prayed that God would show her some new way "to work for the poor and the oppressed."
When she returned home, a visitor was waiting for her who answered her prayer—an itinerant, left-wing, French Catholic preacher and agitator named Peter Maurin (1877 – 1949). For Maurin, it was self-evident that a Catholic not only could, but should, be a social revolutionary. Yet the revolution Maurin promoted, to whomever would listen, was quite different from the revolution of Lenin and Stalin in several important respects. With Maurin providing the inspiring ideas, and Dorothy Day the written words, organizing skill, and driving passion, the Catholic Worker movement was born in 1933.
Along with it was born, for the first time in the U.S., a Catholic organization promoting nonviolence as the authentically Catholic way of life. The basic principles of this movement would be familiar to members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and other Protestant nonviolence activists. The Catholic Worker movement put rich flesh on the bones of those abstract principles by drawing on all the resources Roman Catholicism, with its ancient, rich, and very detailed doctrine, language, symbolism, ritual, and church hierarchy. For Dorothy Day, though, it was not a matter of caring about workers’ rights or nonviolence and then seeking a religious framework for their concern. She always cared, first and foremost, about the religious truth and life she found in the Church.
Nor was it a matter of theoretical analysis followed out to its logical conclusions. Her commitment came far more from her heart and direct religious experience than from any intellectual theories or religious doctrines. Indeed, like so many great nonviolence leaders, she never developed her beliefs in any systematic theological or theoretical way. Her writing, while never irrational, was always more inspirational than analytical. It communicated feelings that could not be reduced to specific ideas. It inspired because it was filled with her own personal experience, which at every moment seemed to reflect her abiding concern for all other people.
Not surprisingly, the Catholic Worker organization that Day founded was also based on mobilizing feelings of love and translating them into action, rather than adherence to a specific set of beliefs. Day herself set the tone, not only with her words but with the example of her tireless activities. Sometimes she seemed to dominate the movement, because of her charisma and prestige. But she rarely tried to produce anything like dogmatic statements of belief that would be mandatory for all Catholic Workers.
The anarchistic flavor of Catholic Worker life was largely intentional. It reflected the founders’ conviction that anarchism could help point the way to a new kind of society. Dorothy Day certainly shared the utopian impulse that fueled anarchism. But she expressed that utopia in strictly religious terms: "I must see the large and generous picture of the new social order wherein justice dwelleth..…The new social order as it could be and would be if all men loved God and loved their brothers because they are all sons of God! A land of peace and tranquility and joy in work and activity. It is heaven indeed that we are contemplating." In that heaven on earth, no person would rule over any other, because each would serve all: "These are the words of Christ, ‘Call no man master, for ye are all brothers.’…Never to be severed from the people, to set out always from the point of view of serving the people, not serving the interests of a small group or oneself.…We must and will find Christ in each and every man, when we look on them as brothers."
She took the anarchists’ utopian impulse and translated it into the Catholic idea of "counsels of perfection," understood not merely as ideals to strive for but as commandments to be obeyed: "Perhaps St. Paul defined the Catholic Worker’s idea of anarchism, the positive word, by saying of the followers of Jesus, ‘For such there is no law’"— except the law of perfect selfless love. "Philosophical anarchism, decentralism, requires that we follow the Gospel precept to be obedient to every living thing…to serve others, not to seek power over them. Not to dominate, not to judge others."
Many people wonder how the Catholic Workers could combine their anarchist social and political views with their devotion to a Church that is so hierarchical and in some ways authoritarian. For Day, this was not a problem. She was convinced that Catholics could create a socially and politically anarchist society supported by the structure and authority of Church. She insisted on freedom to express herself and to quarrel with Church authorities. But she stopped short of claiming the right to contradict the authorities when they spoke officially on matters of spiritual doctrine. Moreover, she saw no contradiction between anarchism and orderly discipline: "All the anarchists I have met have been the most disciplined of men, lawful and orderly, while those who insist that discipline and order must prevail are those who out of plain contrariness would refuse to obey and are most unable to regulate themselves." In Day’s ideal society, people would cooperate willingly because they feel responsible for each other, and those who are Catholic would accept Church order willingly because they love God and His Church.
THE WORKS OF MERCY AND THE BODY OF CHRIST
Although Dorothy Day never set out to develop a theory, she always drew heavily on the very theoretical and rational theological traditions of Catholicism. Her writings therefore provide the resources for a theoretical explanation of her view. One place to start is with the doctrine of the Works of Mercy, which all Catholics are supposed to perform. There are two types of Works of Mercy: spiritual and corporal (i.e., material, physical). The Spiritual Works of Mercy are "to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to admonish the sinner, to comfort sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead." The Corporal Works of Mercy are "to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to ransom the captive, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick, and to bury the dead." Dorothy Day wrote: "When Peter Maurin talked about the necessity of practicing the Works of Mercy, he meant all of them." Maurin helped her to see that the spiritual and corporal Works could not be separated. From then on, she never doubted this principle, which became the foundation of the Catholic Worker’s unique approach.
Why must the spiritual and the material go together? For the Catholic Workers, the answer flows logically from the center of Catholic life: going to Mass (the worship service) and receiving the Eucharist, the bread and wine sacramentally transformed into the body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist is the most often repeated ritual act by which a Catholic receives God’s grace, according to the theological doctrine that all Roman Catholics affirm. Among the many symbolic meanings found in the Eucharist, one is that material things like bread and wine should not be rejected or abandoned; they should be transformed into a higher, spiritual level of existence. "We are working for ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’" Day wrote. "We are trying to say with action, ‘Thy will be done on earth as is it in heaven.…This work of ours toward a new heaven and a new earth shows a correlation between the material and the spiritual, and, of course, recognizes the primacy of the spiritual."
The correlation of material and spiritual, as experienced in the Eucharist, is reinforced by another theological doctrine central to the Catholic Worker movement: the Mystical Body of Christ. According to that doctrine, the Church—the community of all believers—is bound together in a "mystical" (i.e., mysterious, more than rational) way. The believers are a single organism; the Church is itself the Body of Christ, Christ made visible. The act that creates and holds together the Body of Christ is taking the Eucharist. So the Body of Christ is not merely a spiritual analogy to a physical body; it is actually based on a material reality transmuted into spiritual reality.
The Catholic Workers moved this doctrine in a particular direction by taking most seriously an idea found in the writings of the theologian Augustine. Since God transcends all time, what we call the past and the future are just as immediately present to God as what we call the present moment. Therefore, from God’s perspective, anyone who may in the future take the Eucharist as a Catholic is already part of the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ includes all potential as well as actual members of the Catholic Church. For Dorothy Day, this meant that every human being is part of that single Body. Since Christ and every person are parts of the same Body, Christ is present in every person. So a Catholic should be "seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in everyone we come in contact with." "A hard lesson to take," she admitted, "to see Jesus in another, in the prodigal son, or members of a lynch mob."
Yet in Day’s view, Catholics are commanded to aim at nothing less than this level of spiritual perfection. She took literally the last words of the Sermon on the Mount: "You shall be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect." She said that all Catholics should aim at being saints (though she also said that she did not want to become an official saint of the Church, because she didn’t want to be dismissed that easily). Saints make perfect love of God their only purpose in life. But there is no separation of spiritual and material. So loving God must mean loving all of His creation as Christ loved it, always willing to give up one’s own life for others: "We must be ready to give up everything. We must have already given it up, before God can give it back, transfigured, supernaturalized." Through such perfect love, the natural material world is transfigured, given supernatural meaning and value, just as it is in the Eucharist. Therefore, the Corporal Works of Mercy, which are the fruit and expression of love for others, are inseparable from the Spiritual Works of Mercy.
Peter Maurin taught the pursuit of perfection according to a theological trend that he brought with him from France: personalism. In this theology, every person has infinite value because every person is (as the Bible says) created in the image of God. Every person should be cared about and cared for. But every person has a personal responsibility to show that care to all others in direct ways. No one can wait for others, or for the Church or the state or any institution, to do it. Dorothy Day was inspired not only by Maurin’s ideas but by his daily life. "He loved all," she said, "saw all others around him as God saw them. In other words, he saw Christ in them.…He saw in them what God meant them to be." "He made you feel that you and all men had great and generous hearts with which to love God.…It was having faith in the Christ in others without being able to see Him." Once Maurin explained personalism and demonstrated it in his life, Day never doubted that it was the true Catholic path to sainthood, the way to transform natural society into a supernatural community of universal love.
Maurin’s personalism emphasized that the abilities as well as responsibilities of individuals are fully manifest in face-to-face relations. So he readily agreed with the anarchist emphasis on decentralization: "Governments should never do what small bodies can accomplish." "Because his love of God made him love his neighbor," Day recalled, "he wanted to cry out against the evils of the day—the state, war, usury, the degradation of man." Maurin saw a society where "man fed himself into the machine." He wanted, instead, a society "where it is easier for people to be good," because it is easier for people to love each other and freely respond to each other. Like all anarchists, Day and Maurin felt that institutions encourage people to rely on rules made by others, rather than taking personal responsibility. In particular, they urged non-cooperation with the state in all its aspects. (For example, Dorothy Day never voted in elections.) Indeed, Day admitted quite frankly the Catholic Worker’s "efforts to do away with the state by nonviolent resistance"
TO BUILD A NEW CIVILIZATION WITHIN THE SHELL OF THE OLD
Dorothy Day never left any doubt that she intended the Catholic Worker movement to be a revolutionary force: "We are trying to change the social order." "We would like to change the world—make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do." "We must try to make that kind of a society in which it is easier for people to be good. Man needs work, the opportunity to work." She brought to the movement a great deal of the worldview she had developed in her years as a secular revolutionary. The fundamental problem with the existing order was the oppression of workers by capitalism and capitalists: "The class structure is of our making and by our consent, not His, and we must do what we can to change it. So we are urging revolutionary change." She continued to support the struggle of organized labor to be treated as full human beings and as the partners, not the property, of the bosses. She continued to admire the mutual caring and solidarity she saw in organized labor, calling it an earthly manifestation of the spiritual unity of the Mystical Body of Christ. The unions, like the Church, taught that there were ultimately no boundaries separating one person from another. Since all are united in the Mystical Body, an injury to one is an injury to all. She even praised the communists for acting upon the same ideal of universal brotherhood, and she endorsed their slogan, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."
Day rejected communism because of its atheism. Maurin persuaded her of another reason to oppose it: communists held it necessary to destroy the old order before the new could be created. It would be better, he argued, "to build a new civilization within the shell of the old." This approach fit better with their personalist and anarchist tendencies. Marxists of their day generally envisioned a revolution from the top down, a highly organized vanguard destroying the existing institutions and replacing them with new institutions controlled by a new state apparatus. A personalist anarchist approach would encourage individuals to do what needed to be done each day, on a person-to-person basis, outside the framework of the existing institutions. Those institutions would eventually fall of their own weight and uselessness, not from a direct frontal assault in a class war, but by patiently performing the Works of Mercy.
The problem was how to create this new civilization of personal love, inside the shell of the old. Peter Maurin came to Dorothy Day with a three-point program in which he fervently believed: education and consciousness-raising by round-table discussions; caring for the poor and needy in Houses of Hospitality; teaching the poor and needy to feed themselves and become economically self-sufficient on cooperative farms (Maurin called them "agronomic universities"). He knew that it would take far more than faith and ideas to change the world. He found in Day someone with the skills to turn his ideas into an organized program for change. Day offered her journalistic skills, her organizing ability and experience, and, most importantly, her unlimited enthusiasm.
The Catholic Worker movement that soon emerged was based on Maurin’s program, although the education came more through the movement’s most famous vehicle, its newspaper The Catholic Worker (edited and largely written for many years by Day herself). There were a number of Catholic Worker farms, though these were never very successful economically (and only a few still operate). There were many more Houses of Hospitality (over 150 in the U.S. as of 2003).
The Houses of Hospitality were and are the center of Catholic Worker life. From them come all the activities of a progressive Catholic left: organized protests and demonstrations, active resistance to injustice, educational efforts to explain systemic oppression and the path to a better world. However, Day knew that it would take a very long time to bring the better world into being. Meanwhile there is immense suffering all around that must be alleviated: "While we are trying to build a new civilization within the shell of the old, we must perform the Works of Mercy and take care of our brothers in need." So the day-to-day activities of the Houses of Hospitality center on caring for those in need in whatever ways possible. Above all, they feed the poor.
From the very beginning, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement focused on the needs of the poor. They were not offering charity. The state could give charity, but that only made the poor more dependent on state institutions. They wanted, rather, to create a new societal structure for dealing with systemic poverty, replacing charity with justice. More importantly, for them, they wanted to be true Christians: "We felt a respect for the poor and destitute as those nearest to God, as those chosen by Christ for His compassion." To care for the poor was not simply to imitate Christ; it was to see Christ in the poor, following the Gospel’s words: "For inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto me." "I firmly believe," Day wrote, "that our salvation depends on the poor with whom Christ identified Himself." "The mystery of the poor is this: That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him. It is the only way we have of knowing and believing in our love."
Working daily with poor people, she discovered that many were kept in poverty by physical, mental, and emotional infirmities. Those who refuse to see Christ in the poor, the sick, the insane, and the alcoholic are the real atheists, she insisted. Christ is in them all, because all suffer with Him: "We are, here in our community, made up of poor lost ones, the abandoned ones, the sick, the crazed, and the solitary human beings whom Christ so loved and in whom I see, with a terrible anguish, the body of his death." In eloquent words like these, she used The Catholic Worker newspaper to spread to others her deep emotional connection with the poor, a connection based more on love and human feeling than on any abstract logical concepts of economic justice. Sometimes, she wrote about the special affinity between women and the poor. As bearers and nurturers of life, she suggested, women are especially aware of God’s gift of life. So they are especially concerned to see that everyone has enough food, shelter, and the other basic necessities of life.
Day followed her thoughts on poverty to their logical conclusion. If Christ is encountered most fully in the poor, then the way to encounter Christ most fully is to be among the poor. It was not enough, for her, to live among the poor and care for them. Catholic Workers had to be poor themselves. "Whatever we have over and above what we need belongs to the poor, we have been told again and again by the Fathers of the Church." "What is superfluous for one’s need is to be regarded as plunder if one retains it for one’s self." "We cannot even see our brothers in need without first stripping ourselves. It is the only way we have of showing our love."
For Catholic Workers, voluntary poverty is also a very secular recognition that everyone is part of the same economic system that keeps millions in poverty. Everyone is guilty of perpetuating that system unless they actively remove themselves from it. Through the suffering of voluntary poverty, people can atone for their complicity in the oppressive system. At the same time, they can weaken the grip of the economic system and, at the same time, of the state that supports the system. Voluntary poverty is perhaps the ultimate act of non-cooperation with the state, the ultimate way to start building the new civilization within the shell of the old.
The praise of voluntary poverty also reflects the distinctively Catholic quality of the movement Dorothy Day founded—its emphasis on sin and suffering. In Protestant Christianity, there may be a strong sense of personal sinfulness (though this has generally not been so evident in 20th century Protestant nonviolence circles). But the Protestant response is always rooted in the biblical words that Martin Luther cited to launch the Protestant Reformation: "The righteous are justified [i.e., set right with God] by faith alone." Catholics, on the other hand, live a life of striving for perfection, always knowing they have failed to be perfect, confessing their sins, and doing "works" (actions) that serve as penance for their sins. The utopianism of a Catholic like Day is tempered by a constant sense that sin is an inescapable part of life, because all people are sinners. Therefore each person must take personal responsibility for all of the world’s ills. Their penance is always some form of self-suffering, understood as an act of love and an imitation of Christ’s ultimate act of love, his self-sacrifice on the cross. Redemption is a process of suffering being freely offered in response to suffering. Becoming poor voluntarily is choosing to , to suffer as the poor suffer, as Christ had suffered
A CATHOLIC NONVIOLENCE
From the outset, Dorothy Day set the Catholic Worker movement on a course of strict principled nonviolence. (It is not clear how firmly Maurin himself was committed to this principle.) She was even less concerned about logic and theory in this area than in others. So she left no sustained arguments on behalf of nonviolence. Yet her writings offer a rich reservoir for constructing a Catholic argument for nonviolence.
For Day, the inescapable starting point (and in some sense the end point) of the matter was the Sermon on the Mount. To achieve perfection, Jesus clearly said, we must love our enemies, return good for evil, and turn the other cheek. Unlike most Catholics, Day took these words directly, in their plain meaning, without any interpretation through the lens of Church tradition. She rejected the official Catholic view that Jesus’ counsel of perfection could not always be applied literally; that sometimes war is justified and therefore necessary. Even before the development of nuclear weapons, Day argued that there is no such thing as a just war. In an era of total warfare, there is no way to protect innocent civilians, as the just war theory requires. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed the power of the new weapons to kill indiscriminately, she had an even more powerful case. Just war theory requires the killing to be proportional to the evil being fought against; nuclear weapons make disproportionate killing seem inevitable.
Day went beyond war to reject all forms of coercion, because as she read the New Testament she saw Jesus setting an example of never coercing others. Instead, he relied on the power of self-sacrificing love. "Love is not killing," she said simply. "It is laying down one’s life." Those who truly follow Christ have "given up all ideas of domination and power and the manipulation of others" In other words, Jesus provides a model that show the necessary link between nonviolence and anarchism. A future anarchist society of voluntary cooperation would have to rely on love, not force. Since the means must suit the end, anyone working for such a society would have to rely on love, not force, in the present: "We will be pacifists—I hope and pray—nonviolent resistors of aggression, from whomever it comes, resisters to repression, coercion, from whatever side it comes, and or activity will be the Works of Mercy. Our arms will be the love of God and our brother."
Day criticized the communists for their contradiction of means and ends: "They are protesting against man’s brutality to man, and at the same time they perpetuate it. It is like having one more war to end all wars." They set the capitalists apart from the rest of humanity, declaring them enemies to be liquidated, rather than respecting their dignity as fellow human beings to be redeemed through love. "We love God [only] as much as [we love] the one we love the least," she quoted one of the priests who was inspired to develop a theology of nonviolence. Then she added: 'What a hard and painful thing it is to love the exploiter." Day often quoted the words of her favorite novelist, Dostoevsky: "Love in action is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams." She wanted Catholic Workers to learn "not only to love, with compassion, but to overcome fear, that dangerous emotion that precipitates violence." "We must love our enemy, not because we fear war but because God loves him."
The doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ made clear to Dorothy Day the folly of all war and violence. She applied Jesus’ words, "Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me," to killing in war. During the Vietnam war, she wrote: "We are all one body, Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese, and He has commanded us to love one another." If all human beings are members of one body—if an injury to one is an injury to all—then war could result only in injury to all, never in good. War is, in effect, a single body attacking itself and tearing itself to pieces.
The same theological doctrine also argued against war from another perspective. If all people are members of a single Body, not only do all suffer from any act of violence, but all share the responsibility and the guilt for any act of violence. From Dostoevsky she took words that captured her own sentiments precisely: "Every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man." Applying this belief to the political reality of the present, she commented: "We cannot ever be too complacent about our own uncompromising positions because we know that in our own way we, too, make compromises.…We are all part of this country, citizens of the United States, and share in its guilt." "We must all admit our guilt, our participation in the social order which has resulted in this monstrous crime of war."
As a Catholic, Day assumed that all humans are sinners, but all can perform acts of penance that will atone for sin. Indeed, this is the only way to truly emulate the love of Christ, whose self-sacrifice atoned for all sin. "Christ continues to die in His martyrs all over the world, in His Mystical Body, and it is this dying, not the killing in wars, which will save the world." "‘An injury to one is an injury to all,’ the Industrial Workers of the World proclaimed. So an act of love, a voluntary taking on oneself of some of the pain of the world, increases the courage and love and hope of all."
However Dorothy Day’s nonviolence, like her concern for the poor, did not stem principally from theological belief. Indeed, it might be more accurate to say that her nonviolence stemmed principally from her concern for the poor. Her first encounter with war, during World War I, convinced her that war, violence, and the sufferings of the poor were all symptoms of the same disease: state-sponsored capitalism. Protesting against war, she wrote, was also protesting against "the terrible injustice of our capitalist industrial system which lives by war and by preparing for war." She never changed that view. She only strengthened and amplified it in the context of her adopted Catholic faith.
She pointed out that the Corporal Works of Mercy—giving food, clothing, and shelter—are diametrically opposed to "the works of war which starve people by embargoes, lay waste the land, destroy homes, wipe out populations." Throughout her life, she watched the military budget steadily increase and the poor continue to line up at the Houses of Hospitality, waiting for food and shelter. In her mind, the contrast always remained vivid and bitter. Day, and all Catholic Workers, lamented all the resources that could have gone into wiping out poverty, rather than people. When they explained their activism against war and militarism, they almost always put it in the context of their mission to care for the poor and alleviate the systemic roots of poverty.
Day’s response to war was the same as to poverty: to acknowledge her own guilt and use that guilt as a spur to great efforts toward peace and justice. Self-suffering love would be the key to solving both sets of problems: "Our whole modern economy is based on preparations for war, and that is one of the great modern arguments for [voluntary] poverty. If the comfort one has gained has resulted in the deaths of thousands in Korea and other parts of the world, then that comfort will have to be atoned for. …Whatever you buy is taxed, so that you are, in effect, helping to support the state’s preparations for war exactly to the extent of your attachment to worldly things of whatever kind." To detach from the state by voluntary poverty would also be detaching from the wars of the state.
But voluntary poverty would not be enough to end the scourge of war. Day and the Catholic Workers intertwined with their Works of Mercy a consistent, active campaign on behalf of peace and nonviolence. (They were well aware that Spiritual Works of Mercy like instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, and admonishing the sinner could be implemented in peace activism.) The Catholic Worker newspaper consistently preached nonviolence and opposed all wars, beginning with the Spanish Civil War of 1936. This was a courageous act for the fledgling movement, because almost all Catholics strongly supported Franco’s forces, who were allied with the Spanish Church.
It took even more courage for The Catholic Worker to oppose U.S. participation in World War II. Before Pearl Harbor, The Catholic Worker was one of the many voices urging the nation to stay out of war. After Pearl Harbor, it was one of the few voices that continued to condemn the war. Dorothy Day continued to see war as part of the larger picture of injustice and oppression in her own land: "We cannot keep silent. We have not kept silence in the face of the monstrous injustice of the class war, or the race war that goes on side by side with this world war." She wrote that she could understand why some of her fellow Catholic Workers supported the war cause; she asked for "mutual charity and forbearance among us all." Nevertheless, this issue divided the movement itself, sometimes bitterly. Subscriptions to the newspaper fell nearly 75% by 1945. The number of Houses of Hospitality dropped precipitously. Still, Day persisted in her commitment to nonviolence.
When the United States instituted a military draft in 1940, it gave the Catholic Worker movement another front on which to work for nonviolence. This issue became the focus for a theological debate, with a handful of Catholic theologians developing, for the first time, sophisticated arguments to justify Catholics in being conscientious objectors. These arguments reflected the personalism so basic to the Catholic Worker perspective. If the goal of society is to enhance the unique personal quality and destiny of each individual, no individual can or should be made subservient to the state. Yet when the state drafts people into military service, it turns them into mere cogs in its machine, ignoring their individual human dignity. Indeed, in an era of total war, the state at war tends to do this to all its citizens. The state claims absolute authority and demands absolute obedience from everyone, and especially from its soldiers. This would put the state in place of God, Day argued, something that no Christian could dare accept. Catholic personalism means that the individual must retain ultimate power over the state, not vice versa. So it provides another powerful incentive for Catholics to oppose war and refuse to participate in it.
As in so many others issues, though, when Dorothy Day looked at conscientious objection she saw, above all, a way to take personal responsibility for showing love through self-sacrificial suffering: "The impulse to stand out against the state and go to jail rather than serve is an instinct for penance, to take on some of the suffering of the world, to share in it."
By the 1950s, the personalism of Catholic Workers led Dorothy Day and others to feel that it was not enough to speak out against war and militarism. They must take personal responsibility to act. (By this time, the movement was clearly influenced by Gandhi.) Their first, and perhaps most important, action was refusing to take shelter during air raid drills in New York City in the mid-1950s. Day and others served short jail terms each year for this repeated offense. For Day, it was an act of conscience, refusing to participate in state-sponsored preparations for a global holocaust. It was a way of calling attention to the absurdity of "preparing" for a suicidal and genocidal war fought with nuclear bombs. Most importantly, though, going to jail was another opportunity to suffer, to do penance for the collective guilt of the nuclear arms race, and to sacrifice on behalf of the humanity that she loved.
In the long run, these seemingly tiny and irrelevant protests in New York had unexpectedly large results. They brought Catholics and non-Catholics together in a core of dedicated antinuclear activists. They became the mainspring of a growing protest against nuclear testing and nuclear weapons that became a prominent political force in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Among them were a number of veteran activists who had been conscientious objectors, and learned Gandhian civil disobedience techniques, during World War II. Their antinuclear activism kept the Gandhian tradition alive in the white community during the 1950s, just as that tradition was blossoming in the black community’s civil rights movement. The lessons learned and structures created in the antinuclear movement, in turn, became the foundation of the largest peace movement in U.S. history: the movement to stop the Vietnam war.
When the Catholic Workers in New York publicly refused to take shelter, they could not know that they were planting a seed that would blossom in the great peace movement of the late ‘60s. However, they did not ask for assurance that their actions would have great results. Like Gandhi, Dorothy Day looked beyond results to the intrinsic rightness of her actions. Doing the right thing, day by day, was the only kind of success that mattered, she insisted. Jesus had seemed to be a failure in his lifetime, too. "But unless the seed fall into the earth and die, there is no harvest. And why must we see results? Our work is to sow. Another generation will be reaping the harvest."
In 1965, she wrote prophetically: "The Christian revolution has scarcely begun in its pacifist-anarchist aspects." That year marked the beginning of eight years of massive U.S. involvement in Vietnam. During those eight years of war, the Catholic peace movement grew rapidly, bringing the names of priests like Thomas Merton and the brothers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan to national prominence. By the end of the Vietnam war, there seemed no longer any question that nonviolence had a lasting (though always contested) place in the American Catholic scene. Indeed, when the peace movement began to fade in the latter 1970s, it was largely Catholics who kept alive the tradition of civil disobedience against the state’s preparations for nuclear war, in what they called the Plowshares movement. When antinuclear activism faded again in the 1990s, the Plowshares movement continued its often lonely witness in that cause. All Catholic peace activists acknowledge a great debt to Dorothy Day as the founder of their movement.
There were certainly criticisms of Day, often from those who knew and loved her best. She could be irritable, impatient, and domineering. She sometimes seemed to act as if she were the entire Catholic Workers movement. During World War II, for example, she never took a poll of Catholic Workers about pacifism. She merely announced that the movement would resolutely oppose the war. Yet she usually retained the respect and loyalty even of those she offended.
Observers outside the Catholic Worker movement may ask other questions. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers are generally very well respected in the larger nonviolence movement for their courageous devotion to principle and for their willingness to act consistently on their principles, even at tremendous personal cost. It is rarely noticed that their courage comes, in part, from their willingness to accept, and sometimes even seek out, opportunities for suffering. Day’s nonviolence rested largely on the idea that it is better to suffer oneself that to inflict suffering on others. As she promoted the cause of peace, she also gave suffering a positive value. Perhaps this is a natural tendency in any movement based in Catholicism. But it is worth asking how this tendency impacts the larger nonviolence movement. Does it impart to the whole movement a greater tendency to value suffering, and therefore perhaps to accept or even seek it? Does it pull the whole movement subtly in that direction?
As a Catholic, Day could develop a more consistent rationale than Gandhi for putting oneself into poverty while working hard to bring others out of poverty. But does the same rationale hold good for suffering? Does it make sense to put oneself voluntarily into suffering while working hard to take others out of their suffering? Does it make sense, for example, for an activist to go to jail for years, when that same activist out of jail could spend every day organizing for peace and justice? If one seeks out penitential suffering to alleviate the suffering of all humanity, do the means contradict the end? Is self-suffering necessarily the path to greater love? Or is the kind of love that requires sacrifice and self-suffering only one among many kinds of love, and perhaps not the kind that most people would choose?
Catholic Workers could respond to these questions in two ways. First, they could contend that voluntary suffering is right and proper, because we all share guilt for the ills of the world. Awareness of our guilt makes us feel responsible and therefore spurs us to act to undo the ills of the world. However, guilt does not work the same way for everyone. Many people find it a burdening emotion that depletes their energy and makes it harder to work for social change. If a commitment to nonviolence is made to depend on accepting guilt, that commitment may be less appealing for many people, probably for a majority of the population. Moreover, if the goal of nonviolence is a society of active love, some will question whether guilt should be encouraged by giving it a positive meaning on the path to that society. Again, there is the question of whether the means contradicts the end.
Catholic Workers could also respond to questions about suffering and love by pointing out that the love they aspire to is more than the ordinary love most people know. Dorothy Day often called it "supernatural" love, and contrasted it explicitly with the natural love she had known before becoming Catholic. She never rejected natural love. But she always aimed to transform it into what she saw as a higher, supernatural kind of love. In her experience, she could love the created world more richly, and meet the needs of creatures more effectively, if she gave her fullest love to the Creator alone. No one can say that her experience was false. But one can ask how that experience affected others, as it was transformed into the Catholic Worker organization and tradition. No doubt some people found the same enhancement of love that Day found.
But others surely took it in a different, more conventional and familiar way. The familiar convention of Western civilization, rooted in Christianity, makes the natural and supernatural realms opposites and demands a choice between them. It says that the natural world is inferior to the supernatural and therefore less worthy of love. It pulls people away from their concern for creation and creatures. Day and the Catholic Workers are well aware of this danger and strive to avoid it. But does their quest supernatural love, and for suffering as the path to that love, unwittingly perpetuate the old tradition and pull people away from love of this world? Yet again, this raises the question of means and ends. If guilt and suffering are prized as the way to move toward a new society, how much will that path shape the new society being created? Will it help people escape guilt and suffering, or will it perpetuate them? Do Catholic Workers look at the goal of a nonviolent, loving society through too narrow a lens, and does that make their whole vision too narrow to appeal to most people?
These are all questions worth exploring. None of them diminish the major contribution that Dorothy Day made to the nonviolence tradition. She was the first to offer U.S. Catholics a specifically Catholic way to participate fully in the idea and practice of nonviolence. By bringing Catholicism into the nonviolence movement, she broadened and enriched the movement in many ways. For those contributions, she has deservedly won enormous respect from all those who are committed to nonviolence.
Notes to Chapter 10: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement