29 November 2012

Dorothy, Servant of God and Revolutionary of the Heart

Dorothy Day, labour activist, distributist, Catholic convert and the mother of the Catholic Worker movement, passed away 32 years ago today, as I was reminded by the excellent Subversive Thomism blog earlier today. The cause of her sainthood is also being avidly pursued by Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, on account of her ability to bridge the gap between the American ‘left’ and ‘right’ wings of Catholicism (fragmented as they have been by America’s secular politics). Though her sainthood would certainly come as more than welcome to many American Roman Catholics (and even a few non-Roman Catholics like myself), I rather doubt that she would have embraced such a cause for herself. As her most famous quote goes: ‘Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.’

Her politics are not to be so easily dismissed, either, by trying to shoehorn them either into modern American welfare-liberalism or into modern American pseudo-conservatism. She was (very much unlike me, I should add) an anarchist, who distrusted the will and ability of secular authorities to contribute to the cause of justice. She disliked the reliance of so many upon ‘Holy Mother State’ for relief, but (contrary to what her American pseudo-conservative admirers would like to believe) she never castigated the poor for going on welfare. Indeed, the Catholic Worker movement often went with people going on the dole to advocate for their fair treatment by the government! The Catholic Worker newspaper, started by Day and her colleague Peter Maurin, would run articles critical of welfare, not for creating habits of ‘dependency’ and servility amongst the poor, but for welfare institutions’ contempt of the poor they were supposed to serve, and the inadequacy of the benefits they received. She castigated relief offices for advocating birth control, seeing it as a renewed form of eugenics. She detested the fact that the ‘welfare state’ would treat poor people who went on the dole as criminals and cheats, but would unthinkingly and unquestioningly provide bailouts (though that term was not in use then) to huge corporations.

She and the Catholic Worker movement she birthed were adamant that a just society was one in which labourers earned a fair wage, and could speak on their own behalf on an equal basis with rich and powerful corporations interested only in their own profits. She even dared to stand up to the authorities within her own Church when their actions did not align with their own social teaching, even going so far as to support a gravediggers’ strike against a local parish. (At the same time, though, she remained every bit as faithful a Catholic as, say, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.)

She was no ‘rugged individualist’; indeed, the Catholic Worker scorned such Americanisms as destructive of personal responsibility: particularly that personal responsibility to care for the poor. She believed also that the government should take greater responsibility for the brutal facts of poverty on account of the great power it wielded, but was insistent that there had to be a revolution of values, a revolution of the heart, for that to occur - a revolution which could transform the state and its secular logic of violence into something quite different.

Dorothy Day, Servant of God and Revolutionary of the Heart, pray with us.


  1. Hello Mr. Cooper

    Just want to ask the following concerning your last article about the "Southern strategy". About those "assertive expressions of local culture and community in the United States," would you include the Southern black communities on that list? They seem to have created a culture in their area that combines both African and European influences and rooted in the specific nature of their place.

    Also, have you heard of Ron Dart? You can access his articles (and videos) at this link: http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/ron_dart/

    You may share something in common with him.

  2. Hi idrian!

    I would indeed include the Southern black communities on that list, though with some exceptions. Like gangsta rap, which (even though they divide themselves into 'Northern' and 'Southern', 'East Coast' and 'West Coast') still is basically crassly-consumerist garbage without (among other things) a sense of local identity.

    Oh yeah, Ron Dart! I remember him from when I was reading his articles about the life and work of Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant. I greatly appreciate his high-Tory perspective (just as that of Dr Grant), which I think remains much-needed in Canadian politics. I'll have to check out his videos on Clarion Journal - many thanks!

    All the best,