Life Lessons from Dorothy Day


Dorothy Day (1897-1980)

Dorothy Day (1897-1980)

Richard Sahn

In 1933 Dorothy Day, a progressive journalist and Catholic convert, and Peter Maurin, a French peasant and philosopher, founded an anarchist-pacifist movement and newspaper they called the “Catholic Worker.” The paper was meant to be the Christian answer to the Communist Party paper, “The Daily Worker.” Not affiliated with the Catholic Church, the movement aimed to follow the Christian gospels by promoting peace—nationally and internationally—and serving the poor and homeless. It urged a culture where the scholar could be a worker and the worker a scholar. It advocated non-violent changes in the very structure of society, based on social justice and economic equality.

Formal rules and strict laws imposed by states and virtually all institutions within society, Day and Maurin believed, were unnecessary and could only impede the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional fulfillment of the individual. Their perspectives were shaped to some extent by the “personalism” philosophy of Emmanuel Mounier.  The laws and political policies of most modern societies were ultimately the products of oligarchs and plutocrats, they believed.  Human nature is essentially benevolent or at least non-competitive, as long as physical needs are satisfied.  The new movement ultimately challenged the culture of greed that has only grown in virulence in these United States.

By the 1950s—Maurin died in 1949—there were Catholic Worker houses of hospitality in almost every major city in the U.S. These “houses” were really shelters for the homeless and provided soup kitchens. In keeping with their anarchist philosophy and Day’s interpretation of what she considered the real meaning of Christianity, CW houses had no formal rules regarding who received hospitality. The one principle every house had to follow—even though no one was directly in charge—was, and still is, that “every guest is treated as Christ.”

During the 1950s Ms. Day denounced the Cold War air-raid shelter program, primarily in New York City, for misleading people into believing that nuclear war was survivable, hence doable. She favored total unilateral disarmament, realizing that nuclear war was the greatest threat to humanity in history. Her advice to citizens was to refuse to “take cover” during air raid drills.  Indeed, Dorothy Day participated in numerous antiwar, civil rights, and social justice demonstrations, never hesitating to commit civil disobedience in the process, hence going to jail.  Her visits to support Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers rallies in California’s Central Valley are particularly worthy of mention.

Although a practicing Catholic, Dorothy Day never had  a problem with atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, etc. working with her in the cause of  political and social changes to improve the lives of the disenfranchised and to engage in the search for world peace.

I first met Dorothy Day in 1965 during my senior year at Bard College. The CW had a farming community about five miles from the campus, outside the town of Tivoli, N.Y. Dorothy had purchased the property about a year earlier. Situated on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River with the Catskill mountains the distance, the farm was a temporary home to indigent residents, scholars, and journalists. In fact, anyone who wanted to stay indefinitely at the Catholic Worker farm—or any of its houses of hospitality– could do so as long as there was room.

I had developed friendships with some of the residents of the farm when they would visit the college for lectures and various events, including the then editor of the newspaper, Marty Corbin. Marty suggested that I stay at the farm for my month long Winter break from the college and volunteer to help paint one of the old mansions on the property. Dorothy herself would stay at the farm on weekends whenever she would return from a speaking tour or doing business at the CW headquarters in NYC’s East Village.

My first impressions of Dorothy—I didn’t know much about her in 1965, just how extensive her national and international reputation was and that her circle of friends around the time of the Russian revolution included Eugene O’Neill, Jack Reed, Emma Goldman—was that she was unassuming, down to earth, and focused on her lifelong message. I soon learned that there was no other organization in the world, perhaps in world history, such as the Catholic Worker. Or, that the movement was as much opposed to Marxism as it was to capitalism.

Nine years later I was teaching sociology at a small Catholic college in Dodge City, Kansas. Dorothy was on a speaking tour of the Midwest. I called CW headquarters in New York City to invite her to speak at the college. She agreed. On a cold weekday night, about 11PM, I met Ms. Day at the bus depot in Dodge. (She rarely ever traveled by plane or in her own car.) I drove her to the nearby home of a colleague at the college since my own apartment was too small to accommodate her. We reminisced during the ride about my days at the Tivoli farm, as if we were old friends. Her talk at St. Mary of the Plains College went very well. The students and faculty were introduced to one of the twentieth century’s most radical journalists and peace activists

On a poster hanging on the wall of my living room is a photo of Dorothy Day at a farm workers rally in California. The quote from Dorothy at the bottom of poster reads: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”  Good therapy for those of us who blame ourselves for what Woody Guthrie called our “hard times.”

Dorothy Day wanted to remake the world in the image of Christ. She served the less fortunate and the causes of economic justice and peace. Too many people have never heard of her, and far too many Christians have refused to embrace her (and Christ’s) message of peace and love and understanding. In meeting her and getting to know her, if only for a short time, I believe I encountered a woman deserving of canonization by the Catholic Church (even though I know she would likely have rejected the honor).

Like Dorothy Day, we need to recognize that our problems today stem from our acceptance of a filthy, rotten, system that enshrines greed and injustice and inequity, a system tailored for exploitative competition, brutal punishment, and forever war.

Richard Sahn is a Contrary Perspective regular and a professor of sociology.

13 thoughts on “Life Lessons from Dorothy Day

  1. Richard.. A beautiful story. Thank you. Does the Catholic Workers organization still exist today and in what form if it does? Or are they all working for hedge funds as others are?

  2. Though I am far from well-informed on this individual’s life story, I can make these observations: 1.) Ms. Day may have designated herself “a practicing Catholic,” but she was obviously way outside the “approved/acceptable” philosophy and practice of the Vatican hierarchy; 2.) a note on terminology: Marxism is a method of analysis of the relations within human society; Socialism is a proposed method for governing society with equanimity that has never been given a chance to spread its wings in a hostile Capitalist world. A proper Socialist government would be officially secular–as the U.S.A. was meant to be by its “Founding Fathers”!–but would tolerate individuals pursuing whatever spiritual practice appeals to them. It would suppress only organized activity perpetrated in the name of “religion” that tried to impede the functioning of government in the interests of the masses. Doubtless Ms. Day, like 99.99999% of the U.S. population, was ignorant of these matters and that pleased the Ruling Class no end. How little things have changed in the century since Ms. Day was growing up!

    • 1.) Ms. Day did not follow the Vatican hierarchy. She followed the Christiam gospels as a Catholic.
      2.) Ms. Day was not “ignorant” of Marxism or Socialism. She was sympathetic to both, but did not agree with all their tenets. She believed in Christian anarchism and Personalism. She had many friends who were Socialists or Communists. Michael Harrington, one of the most prominent American socialists, was one of her editors at the Catholic Worker. Mike Gold and Max Eastman, editors of the Communist Daily Worker, were her personal friends.

  3. ‘… The laws and political policies of most modern societies were ultimately the products of oligarchs and plutocrats, they believed. Human nature is essentially benevolent or at least non-competitive, as long as physical needs are satisfied. The new movement ultimately challenged the culture of greed that has only grown in virulence in these United States.’

    I strongly agree with the first sentence.

    As for sentence two: maybe in time human evolution will result in societies which tolerate only altruistic benevolent behavior; maybe in an even more lengthy period human evolution will transcend gene expression resulting in hatred, greed, lust, shame, envy, and all other negative emotions/thoughts which underpin flawed hierarchical structure destined to result in hoarding of too much by a few, unnecessary deprivation by the many, and a to date endless violent anti-social behavior loop as a result of this imbalance.

    There can never be overmuch challenge to greed any time, and never more so in the USA and everywhere else on planet home right now. Greed run rampant on the present scale literally imminently threatens the future of life on Earth.

  4. “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”
    Overcoming acceptance of this, according to Dorothy Day, rotten system, can only occur when the specific negative aspects become widely articulated and acknowledged, then reasoned arguments for more positive, feasible, solutions-focused alternatives become simultaneously articulated and acknowledged. There is no reason to believe that acceptance of particular immoral aspects of the filthy system cannot be rejected in this time period/generation, or that such good societal transformation will only occur in the future, or “not in our lifetime”. Depending upon one’s spiritual perceptions concerning reincarnation, and looking soberly at people’s living conditions around the world, one’s only conclusion is that the best time for transformation is now.

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