A Weird Catholic

posted 5/12/20

Recently, a friend of mine very thoughtfully gave me a new biography about Dorothy Day (1897-1980), who was one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, along with her friend and mentor Peter Maurin.  I became interested in Day when I was in seminary through a friend of mine who had a great love for her.  He recommended that I read her spiritual autobiography, The Long Loneliness, as an introduction, and now I share his love for Day.  A caution to the reader: Dorothy Day is not for the faint of heart.  If you take the risk of reading her writings, be prepared to have your comfortable life challenged! 

As a young woman, Day was intensely concerned about the plight of the poor and the injustices committed against workers.  She worked as a journalist, covering radical politics, and was a regular on the Greenwich Village social scene, hanging around with playwrights and Communist agitators, living a life that many have characterized as “bohemian.”  Her two attempts at suicide, that were likely the result of a dysfunctional and abusive relationship that led to an abortion, are well-documented.  Healing came through a subsequent relationship that led to the birth of her daughter and a discovery of God through her discovery of the beauty of creation while living near the beach in Staten Island.  She who had abandoned the religion of her youth became Catholic, even though it meant having to break off her relationship with the father of her child who refused to marry her because he would not betray his anarchist principles. 

Day was drawn to Catholicism because it was the religion of the working class and the immigrant, and because it transcended culture, language, and ethnicity.  Her faith truly deepened, however, when she met Maurin, who introduced her to the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition, including the social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI.  These writings revealed to her that her political and social views were not necessarily in conflict with her Catholic faith.  Maurin helped her to see that they in fact would be most fully expressed when shaped by her Catholicism.  Day remained politically an anarchist, who spoke out against society’s tendency to abandon the poor and needy to the welfare state and bureaucratic organizations, decrying it as an abdication of our personal responsibility to care for our neighbor.  She was also a strong defender of traditional Catholic teaching on human sexuality.  She was a pacifist, opposing entrance into the Second World War and Vietnam.  She protested often against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  She was arrested for picketing with Caesar Chavez’s farm laborers in California. She deplored consumerism and lived a life of voluntary poverty with other members of the Catholic Worker Movement in the slums of lower Manhattan. She could be strong in her criticisms of worldly priests and prelates. She was a daily Communicant who prayed the breviary and loved the Latin prayers and elaborate ritual of the Tridentine Mass. 

Larry Chapp, a retired professor of theology and member of the Catholic Worker Movement in Pennsylvania has lamented that Day’s orthodox Catholic faith and her obedience to the magisterium of the Church has been treated as a strange and even embarrassing quirk by many of her more secular fans. They don’t understand how her criticisms of the state and adherence to the Church’s teaching on abortion and contraception can be reconciled with her fierce advocacy for the poor, for peace and justice. Chapp writes in a recent book review that “her orthodox Catholicism was not an ornamentation or a superficial piety, but the very food of her soul…. If one ignores the central role played by her deep orthodoxy, one simply does not understand Dorothy Day on even the most rudimentary level.”  He continues, saying: “Dorothy Day was a radical in her political and social views because she was first a truly radical Catholic in her appropriation of the deepest currents in the Church’s ancient Tradition.  Day’s obedience to the magisterium, in other words, was so deep, that it allowed her to critique that very same magisterium when it failed to live up to its own teachings.” 

I thought of Day when I read an opinion piece from last Sunday’s New York Times called “The Future of Christianity is Punk.”  The author, Tara Isabella Burton, writes about how many young people seem to be turning to “old-school forms of worship as a way of escaping from the crisis of modernity and the liberal-capitalist faith in individualism.”  She calls them “Weird Christians” and they are repulsed by the toxicity of contemporary politics, fearful of economic uncertainties, and saddened by the spiritual emptiness of our culture.  So, they seem to be drawn to the otherworldly aesthetics of beautiful churches, high liturgy, challenging ethical systems.  Many “see Christianity as a bulwark against the worst of modernity, but they are more likely to associate modernity’s ills with the excesses of capitalism or with a transactional culture that reduces human beings to budget line items, or anonymous figures on a dating app.”  They desire authenticity, and associate it with traditional forms of religion.  But her article seems to reveal a danger that this is being driven (even unawares) by a consumerist mentality, where one makes selection of a religion based on how well it meets one’s perceived needs rather than whether or not it’s actually true.  And so this new “trend” as described in the article approximates but falls far short of what makes Dorothy Day so compelling.  For Day was fundamentally a realist.  And she knew that at the foundation and the heart of reality is the Incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ, who founded the Church as the community that helps us to live in accord with reality. Day saw that with a clarity that tends to elude us.  That’s why her writings unsettle the easy political binaries of right-left politics with which we tend to identify.  I hope that the young people described in the article who are searching for “more” come to discover Dorothy Day.  Her “weirdness” might be just what we need. 

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