St. Dorothy Day?

It was written by Robert Ellsberg, a Catholic Worker volunteer in the mid-1970s. If I had to bet, I would put my money on Day being canonized. (I can hear the Maalox bottles popping.)

Day died in 1980. Throughout her life, she was a lightning rod for American Catholics. She remains one all these years after her death. Whenever I write anything about her, I can be assured of angry emails from both her supporters and critics. Her critics will attack me for even considering the possibility that this “pinko” with a “sleep-around past” who aborted one of her children might be a serious candidate for sainthood. Her supporters blast me for raising the issue of her left-wing political affiliations, as if only someone who has sold out to American militarism and corporate greed would give credence to the notion that Day’s political activism implied a moral equivalence between the United States and Marxist tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung. I think she was guilty of that error in judgment.

I never met Day. But I always thought I would like her if I did, in spite of the fact that I am on the other side of the political fence from her and her supporters. I found her public persona attractive. She was no limousine liberal. She lived an austere life. And it was always my impression that she was a Catholic first and a political leftist second; that she was committed to the Church and its teachings and sincerely believed that the anti-war and socialist policies she advocated were the most effective way to carry out the Lord’s command to love our brother as ourselves for the love of the Father.

I think she was wrong in that belief, and am convinced that I can trot out passages from Milton Friedman and James Burnham to demonstrate why. But Day struck me as a classic example of how it was possible for a good and holy person to be guilty of bad judgment about politics and economics. Being politically naïve and economically illiterate is not a disqualification for sainthood. I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

What do I mean by giving her the “benefit of the doubt”? The benefit of the doubt about what? Here’s my problem: All I know about Day was what appeared in newspapers and magazines. Which means that I may be wrong in my belief that she put Catholicism first and politics second. That is not always the order of things for Catholic leftists. I think it fair to hold that there are those who exploit the Church’s social teachings as props in their struggle against capitalism and the American military.

There are ways to use “love” as an expression of hate. Think back to the years of the anti-Vietnam War protests and the smiling girls who placed flowers in the barrels of the guns of the soldiers sent to keep peace on their campus. That “innocent” gesture was a taunt. Those who conduct the investigations during the process of Day’s canonization will have to determine if there was any of that going on in her solidarity with the poor. I repeat: I don’t think that there was. There are numerous accounts of her love of the Mass and the sacraments and her impatience with those who took them lightly. But the question has to be raised and answered.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. A few years ago, I volunteered for what was called the “Social Justice Committee” in a new parish I had joined in Connecticut. (I have since moved on to another neighborhood and another parish.) The committee was a good one. It conducted food and clothing drives for the poor in the area. The parishioners in charge of the committee were not political activists. They were good-hearted, middle-class folks who wanted to help the poor and those less fortunate than themselves.

One afternoon, after sorting the donations from a clothing drive, the chairman of the committee asked me to help him load the clothes onto a truck and drive them to what he called a “poverty center.” It turned out to be a Catholic Worker facility in a nearby urban area.

I didn’t give the idea a second thought. During the years I grew up in New York City, I would sometimes stop at the Catholic Worker’s East Village headquarters to buy their newspaper or to make a donation to support the soup kitchen. Whatever you think of the Catholic Worker’s politics, it is hard to find anything wrong with giving a hot meal to the Bowery homeless or providing temporary shelter for battered women.

So we loaded up the clothes and drove into the inner-city neighborhood where the Catholic Worker had set up its operation. We were met by a thirty-something young man with a beard and a pony tail in coveralls and work boots. Nothing wrong with that. You wouldn’t expect a Catholic Worker volunteer unloading donated clothes to dress like a corporate executive. And I’m getting used to those pony tails — sort of. De gustibus non disuptandem est.

It was what I found inside the Catholic Worker building that got my goat. The entire hallway wall was covered by a mural. I can’t remember all the details, but I can come pretty close. There were a few biblical passages about caring for the least of our brethren and loving our neighbor as ourselves scattered about the edge of the mural. But the dominant theme was a string of sycophantic portraits of people such as Malcolm X, Che Guevara, and Bob Marley.

Sorry: I can’t think of any way to give the benefit of the doubt to the people who commissioned this mural. I submit that the “Catholic” element in Catholic Worker is a useful appendage for them, a source of funds and human resources in a radical leftist agenda. If they wanted to portray a Catholic concern for the poor, they could have focused in their mural on images of missionaries and nuns and priests devoting their lives to Catholic orphanages, hospitals, schools and hospitals, depictions of St. Francis distributing bread to the poor, of St. Martin of Tours sharing his cloak with a beggar. The possibilities are endless, if the goal had been to depict a Catholic commitment to remaking all things in Christ, rather than glorifying proletarian class struggle and the benefits of a socialist economy.

What would Dorothy Day have said about that mural? That is the question.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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