The Common Good

Dorothy Day: Unapologetic Radical, but no Marxist

Dorothy DayIt was surprising to see Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, described on the Glenn Beck show as a Marxist. Beck himself acknowledged that he had no idea who "the Marxist Dorothy Day" is, though he supposed she must be known to other Marxists.

Day, who died in 1980 at the age of 83, was accustomed to being called names. Though no Marxist, she was an unapologetic radical -- which meant, for her, a determination to get to the root of social problems -- both in human selfishness and greed, and in the social structures build on selfishness and greed. Although she spent her life living among the destitute, practicing the Works of Mercy -- feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless in her House of Hospitality -- she believed that personal charity was not enough. She believed that charity must be combined with social justice (Beck's fearsome "code word"). By that, she meant that it was not enough just to feed the poor and hungry; it was important to protest and challenge the structures and systems that keep so many people poor and hungry.

Beck is not the first person to suspect Day of Marxist leanings. Fifty years ago J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, observed:

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.

(When I read her this text -- which appears in her voluminous FBI file-she was quite amused: "Why, he makes me sound like a mean old woman!")

Why do people like Beck and Hoover find it easy to tag Day as a Marxist? Perhaps because they have no category for comprehending a social radicalism that is not rooted in Marx but in scripture.

Yes, Day was a radical. But she was also a devout Catholic. In fact, 10 years ago Cardinal John O'Connor, archbishop of New York, proposed her cause for canonization to the Vatican. It is very likely that one day she will be recognized as St. Dorothy. If so, she will certainly represent a new kind of saint. She herself anticipated the need for such new models of holiness when, as a child, she first came upon the lives of the saints. While admiring their heroic ministry to the poor, the weak, and the infirm, she remembers asking herself another question: "Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? . . . Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?" Dorothy Day's vocation was planted in that question. Where were the saints to try to change the social order? It was a question she answered with her own life.

Many people have found it hard to reconcile Dorothy Day's very traditional piety with her commitment to nonviolence and social justice. But for her there was no paradox. Her stance was rooted in the Incarnation -- the essential doctrine of Christianity. In Jesus Christ God entered our history and our humanity; whatever we did for our neighbors we did directly for Jesus. For the hungry, God appeared in the form of bread; for the oppressed, in the form of justice.

Were Glenn Beck to know more about the actual Dorothy Day, to know that she repudiated the materialism and atheism of Marxism, that she rejected violence in all its forms, that she was no fan of state power, I doubt that he would like her any better. He might even like her less. But that would be all right with her. She might even be amused.

Robert Ellsberg, a former managing editor of The Catholic Worker, is the editor of Dorothy Day: Selected Writings and The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day. He is the publisher of Orbis Books.

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