Dorothy Day for Saint: Love Matters After All

When we asked the esteemed American Catholic historian and the Guild’s good friend, David O’Brien, to write a reflection for the Winter 2021 newsletter, commemorating the historic send-off of Dorothy Day’s Cause to Rome, we received, not surprisingly, more than we ever could have hoped. But more, unfortunately, than we had space to print (the abbreviated version in the newsletter is entitled, “Dorothy Day as Saint: Hold Fast to Love”). But here, we can indulge ourselves in the entire piece!

Professor emeritus and Loyola professor of Roman Catholic Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, David has studied, taught, and written brilliantly and passionately about the American Catholic experience for decades. His many works include American Catholics and Social Reform: The New Deal Years (Oxford University Press, 1968); Renewing the Earth: Catholic Documents on Peace, Justice, and Liberation (Doubleday, 1977); and Public Catholicism (MacMillan, 1988; Orbis Books, 1996).

By David J. O’Brien


Dorothy Day made more than a little history. Along the way she changed a lot of lives, mine among them. Some of her history making was simply through her presence. The late John Cort when a student at Harvard in the 1930s went to hear her speak, then decided to join her movement, in part because while offering a challenging vision of Christian discipleship amid the wreckage of the great depression, “she seemed to be having fun.” Cort’s impression that Dorothy was light-hearted was rare among the many encounters with Dorothy Day’s witness and words that drew men and women to life-changing decisions. Others, including me, met her rarely but encountered her through people and communities she inspired in the Catholic Worker movement. That happened for me when I began graduate school and by chance rented a room with a Day-inspired couple, who introduced me to Christian ideas and practices I had not heard about in 15 years of Catholic education ending at the University of Notre Dame (to be fair I may not have been listening). They also introduced me to their Catholic Worker friends, many wrestling with problems of poverty and racism that had been outside my youthful experience. Advocates of Dorothy Day for Saint quite properly speak of the Catholic Worker movement itself, wider and more vigorous than ever almost 90 years after its launch, as a “miracle” — evidence of her holiness. I have always used the word “providence” for my encounters with the Worker and Dorothy Day, for the faith and friendships born of that 1960 encounter have shaped my personal and professional life ever since.1

History Happens
The Context of the Cause

It is now over forty years since Dorothy Day passed from us. A lot has happened. The American people, Catholics among them, have changed since she left, the American church is deeply divided, and our country’s struggles with poverty, racism and war are still with us. Far more than in 1933, when she and Peter Maurin launched their movement, and far more than 1980 when she died, everything now seems up for grabs, shared American memories seem thinner and more complicated, and many of us hunger for new aspirations for our own lives and for our country, our church and our world. Pope Francis said recently that ours is not an epoch of change but a changing epoch, and he offers us almost daily pastoral guidance as we move away from settled ways into an unknown future, drawing on our memories of God’s presence. As one of his devoted friends writes, he asks us to “remember our future.” Asking our church to join us in recognizing Dorothy Day’s exceptional holiness is a modest effort to draw on our memories of her life and work in order to move with greater faith, hope and love, into the history we are all making, remembering her and our future.

Once I fell in love with American Catholic history, courtesy of the Catholic Worker, I decided to try to clarify the meaning, and trajectory, of the history of my people, American Catholics.2 Figuring out where Dorothy Day fit into that history has been a central element of that project. As an American historian, not a church historian, I was and remain as concerned about the United States as I am about our Catholic Church. As I have in the past,3 I would like to try one more time to set a social context for understanding the significance of Dorothy Day as we propose her for recognition as a saint. For several years, dedicated people have worked to fill out our understanding of Dorothy’s life and work. Now with that knowledge, we stand in our present moment and look forward as we choose persons to guide our own making of history.

But for our country and our Christian churches, the past and present, and therefore the future, are not what they used to be. To understand our present perhaps we get some help from the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor.4 Taylor is very critical of our usual ideas of secularism, a term easily weaponized in culture wars. How often we blame society for our problems, as if that society is not our own. That is a particular temptation for religious communities, who understandably wish to establish their distinctive claims in a bewildering marketplace of social, cultural and religious options. Instead of secularization as an inevitable consequence of modernization, or progress, Taylor uses the term “unbundling” to describe the decline of once integrated Christian societies (though other religions have similar experiences), fueling passions for restoration for one faction of the church. That impulse was often associated with conservative nationalism, but in the United States Catholics were a minority, with no claim to take over. Yet even here the American Catholic subculture retained many of the assumptions of exclusive and integrated Christendom. As the lay theologian Frank Sheed put it years ago: ”We are the sweet, selected few/the rest of you are damned/there isn’t room enough for you/we can’t have heaven crammed.”5 Now, that “certain and set apart” piety is gone, eroded not by militant secularists, but by broad changes, among them our own hungers for freedom.

For some Catholics, here and elsewhere, what is hard to accept is that religion has become, as theologian Karl Rahner predicted years ago, “a matter of personal decision constantly renewed amid perilous surroundings.”6 That reality of individualism, better called personalism, is accompanied by another: the multiplication of options in what resembles a religious marketplace. What this combination of freedom of conscience and religious pluralism means for us, Taylor suggests, is that we have entered what he calls “a new epoch.” Christians have gained new freedom — and new responsibilities — in an emerging world where the old boundaries between sacred and secular — and between settled religious traditions — have become permeable at least. Some of us see huge benefits that speak of the Holy Spirit at work: people we know, indeed whole groups of people around us, who used to accept “their place” and keep quiet, now walk with heads held high and eyes locked in on others, often with chips on their shoulders.

Religion had a hand in that process. Christianity always nurtured human dignity and sustained personal and family aspirations, as it did for so many of our immigrant families as they experienced uneven and morally complicated economic, social and political liberation. But that liberation also brought with it that unbundling, some things were lost, and freedom brought new and sometimes burdensome responsibilities, personal and public. Some families once poor achieve economic security, immigrant outsiders become respected insiders, people who had to fight for their rights win a full share of responsibility for the common life. And in that process, often, faith, and Christian discipleship, become matters of personal decision amid perilous surroundings: John Cort listening to Dorothy Day at Harvard during the depression and Dave O’Brien discovering anti-poverty and civil rights causes with Catholic Workers and left-wing graduate student colleagues in Cold War Rochester, New York.

Charles Taylor thinks that we Christians should resist restorationist impulses, yearning for Christendom or more modest ethno-religious subcultures, and do our best to separate piety and power. At times it appears that religious and moral differences have become highly politicized and, at times, power seems to swallow our old pieties, American and Christian. Thus, division, and disappointment, deepening in recent years, even to the point of wondering whether by choosing someone as a newly declared Saint, and many are proposed, we might deepen divisions or hamper our mission as Christians and Americans. Why has this happened? Perhaps a clue lies in the fact that the American Catholic subculture our forebears constructed (and is being reconstructed by the many who have not experienced liberation from poverty, discrimination and exclusion) arose from “folk memories” brought to bear on “new aspirations,” the familiar aspirations for dignity, security, and agency shaped the memories just as family and ethnic and religious memories shaped the aspirations.7 For many, aspirations have been realized, though it was always a close thing.

Perhaps that is the problem now. Many think, mistakenly I believe, that many American Catholics, especially those who are of European origin, have forgotten their Catholic memories, and responsibilities, in order to realize their American, and secular, aspirations. But, if I read Taylor — and my own experiences — correctly, ours has not been a “modernization brings secularization” story where memories should trump aspirations. That is an inaccurate story of American Catholic experience, and it leads to unworthy prescriptions for American Catholic renewal. For example, some bishops and scholars suggest that our now overly Americanized Catholic community should be counter-cultural, known for our differences with other Americans and our distance from the surrounding, supposedly secular, non-religious, even anti-religious culture.8 We can blame “society” even though we have had a full share of responsibility for that society: it is ours.

That this secularism story is so widely accepted suggests that it is a shared loss of aspirations, of realistic visions of a gracious future for people and their families and their world, that has eroded faith, divided churches and helped cripple democratic culture and politics. What happens when future aspirations become unbelievable, and no longer energize women and men to work together for common goods which are also their own? There were shared American dreams, our own, many far more noble than skeptics allow. They still empower those long excluded and those newly arrived. But what empowers those who have succeeded and are supposed to help make democracy work? Pope John XXIII, the second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis all offered visions of global solidarity based on human dignity and shared responsibility for the human family and the earth.9 What happens if such ideas fade into fantasy? What then for the church? The “sweet selected few”? If the future is awful, or even treacherous, or if it is only personal, and family and community and shared hopes recede, then all we have are past and present, okay for now for some, disastrously shattering for others. Perhaps then freedom from fear trumps freedom from want, history and memory become battlegrounds, and fewer and fewer of us search for a usable future.

Pope Francis was right, therefore, to tell us that Catholics (i.e., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton) can help renew the American aspirations of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. For some of us, as we encountered our history, we found in Catholic social teaching and the witness of the Catholic Worker a story of past and present that might draw us together, in freedom, to assist one another to experience liberation from fear and want, and together build “a new society within the shell of the old.” The key to that vision of shared history may be the presence earlier, and the relative absence for many of us now, of other than personal aspirations. For evidence of that possibility we might pay attention to the last days and words of Martin Luther King, as he saw his people, all of us, poised between “chaos and community.” Dr. King, who always balanced human dignity and solidarity, changed hearts with his dream in 1963, still held fast to that dream of the “beloved community” on the night before he was murdered. That night, amid disruptions and disappointments, he reaffirmed his confidence that someday, somehow, we would reach that beloved kingdom at the center of his faith-filled work and witness.10

What of Pope Francis signaling to us Americans that Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day might help? Here again, Charles Taylor offers a clue. In an informal talk, Taylor noted among the consequences for the Catholic community of disruption, displacement and ever multiplying diversities is the popularity of the image of life as a journey, where one moves forward, learning about God’s will while going along, making what history one can. Vatican II had anticipated this image with its references to a “pilgrim church,” moving through many epochs and many cultures. Taylor thinks the best image he can find of the church for this “new epoch” is the mustard seed, planting seeds here and there, some taking fruit, others not. Merton shows one way, the inner way, with prayer and meditation, and after years in the quiet monastery falling in love with the people he was once glad to leave behind. He dove as deeply as anyone could into the much heralded Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition, and emerged not to rebuild Christendom but to seek God, and wisdom, everywhere, with everyone he met a potential companion on the journey. He’s been dead since 1968 and his words and witness still move people and perhaps point one way to renewal of our Christian and American aspirations.

And then the Pope mentioned Dorothy Day, now gone for forty-one years, but better known than ever. Her journey had its inner path, to be sure, but her vocation was not Merton’s plunge into solitude but a lifelong and deliberate plunge into the world, the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, into conflicts over human dignity and solidarity, among broken people who were Christ among us. When I was young, people thought that Day — who welcomed strangers, accompanied strikers, faced up to racism and opposed war, all war — was at the radical edge of the Church. In 1976 I was responsible for bringing her to a hearing held with two dozen American bishops. To my surprise she was extremely nervous about facing bishops, in front of television cameras. What she did not know was that the bishops on the panel were even more nervous about facing Dorothy Day, worried not that she was on the radical edge, but that she embodied the Gospel they preached and might ask them what they might do for the poor and for peace. When she died I was asked to write a long obituary for Commonweal magazine. In part because of that experience I wrote that she was not at the edge but at the center of our faith and our church, living amid chaotic change, doing God’s will and trusting in God’s ever present love.

Day, and Charles Taylor, would love my Catholic Worker friends at the Mustard Seed Catholic Worker house in Worcester (and its partners at St Francis and Therese House up the road and the rural Agape community nearby). They spend their lives scattering seeds, making space for whoever shows up, asking everyone to consider the possibilities of compassion and nonviolence, offering ideas about the common life but, even in the midst of small demonstrations and modest civil disobedience, display the same faithful and serene trust one finds in other members of the communion of saints, some of whom we may have met. Dorothy Day expected, someday, to be with us all in the Kingdom of God. Pope Francis says that should generate “the joy of the Gospel.” Dorothy found that joy sometimes in community and prayer and literature and the sacraments. But disruptions sometimes made joy a bit distant, an aspiration: she called it “the duty of delight.”11

So aspirations are important as we think about saints. What might those of us who worry a lot about our country and our church be thinking about out of all this? As for the American side of our religious experience, certainly one lesson of our public history is that the American project of democratic self-government among people who disagree, sometimes over very serious matters, is profoundly endangered when its most liberated citizens no long love it and acknowledge a full share of responsibility for its common life. In the 1890s and again in the 1980s, church leaders and many theologians and scholars deliberately rejected what they called Americanism and neo-Americanism. Nevertheless it seemed abundantly clear to those pastorally oriented leaders who held such views that they had to provide a spirituality that would meet what one of them called the “aspirations of nature” and answer “the questions of the soul” for honest and open seekers.12 This required making spiritual and theological sense of America, a sense that would give meaning and direction to human work, to new opportunities for public service, and to shared responsibility for an ever more complex and interconnected common life. Catholic social thought and imagination provides rich and often untapped resources for connecting faith with shared civic and social responsibilities. But genuine love for the world has been and remains a vital and missing link. America matters, and today as it was for Lincoln, at key moments, for Dr. King and for Merton and Day, that means a love that is at best agape, unconditional love that opens hearts to everyone, to the whole human family, even to the earth and our universe. Today more than ever, internationalism, love to the whole human family, must accompany Americanism, but is crippled without it. Memories matter, but aspirations, and their absence, make history.

Saints Like Us
Love as Question, Answer, Decision

I still think that Dorothy Day, now proposed for sainthood, remains “the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.”13 I made that claim when she passed away in 1980 and I was not alone in my admiration. Garry Wills called her “The Saint of Mott Street,” Notre Dame theologian Lawrence Cunningham ranked Day with Thomas Merton as our most impressive American spiritual guides, a judgement later confirmed by Pope Francis. The American Catholic bishops, led first by Cardinal O’Connor of New York, now by Cardinal Dolan, think she should be canonized. Day, once considered a “radical” for her pacifism and uncompromising advocacy on behalf of the poor, now is claimed as an inspiration by Catholics of all parties, and by non-Catholics worried about American character, like New York Times guru David Brooks.14

The movement to make Dorothy Day a saint received a major boost a decade ago from the publication of her diaries and letters. In the journals we engage her as an impressive, even saintly, journalist observer, Christian witness and spiritual guide. In the letters we meet her again, but this time as a person very much like us, struggling with relationships, worried about her family, moved by the generous faith of those who join the Catholic Worker movement. She accepts, sometimes reluctantly, responsibility for that movement and provides as best she can care for the poor and for the dedicated but disorderly communities who try to provide “food, clothing and shelter at a personal sacrifice.” If saints are people who, over a lifetime, try very hard to live out the Gospel message of love, in the first place with those they meet every day, then these texts provide a lot of evidence of Dorothy Day’s saintliness.

But, in this case at least, holiness in action might make us all a bit careful about claiming to follow in her footsteps. “All the way to heaven” may be heaven, but it is far from easy, or clear, especially when you are keenly aware of your own weaknesses, as Dorothy surely was. She was profoundly grateful for the gift of faith, she began each day with Mass, and she prayed, almost always it seems. But she did not live in a convent, or even in a settled household, but within a movement, with scattered houses and farms, each filled with people wanting her attention. She was a prayerful leader and a very practicing Catholic, an organizer and administrator of sorts, a journalist, citizen, colleague, and friend. She loved to go apart and read, and pray, but as many of her friends have said, she thrived on conversation and loved community.

Dorothy Day was a life-long letter writer. Her letters confirm much that we knew about her: that she was very smart and had thought about every question you might ask; that she truly loved to read: when she was exhausted by the needs around her or by the tensions in her local community, she would retire to her room, or take the ferry to Staten Island, and read. We are reminded of how tough-minded she could be, responding forcefully at any suggestion that she was an idealistic, sentimental woman, and equally sharply when self-appointed leaders dismissed her movement’s opposition to violence against workers, to racism and anti-Semitism, and especially to war and all it demanded from good citizens. And, as she eloquently insisted to Robert Coles a few years before she died, she and her friends were good citizens, trying to practice the democratic disciplines of shared responsibility for one another required of all good citizens.

So it was a very human Dorothy Day we met in the journals and letters. Like everyone, she changed over the years, she knew her own limitations and she freely admitted to friends her disappointments and occasional discouragement. She spoke of her joy at the gift of faith, and she seemed convinced that following Jesus should make one happy. But often it did not. John Cort had a glimpse of a light- hearted Dorothy Day, and friends later reported on her sense of humor, her joy with her grandchildren, her love of God’s creation, and belief that “the world would be saved by beauty,” the title of a wonderfully warm and honest account by one of those grandchildren.15

She was not always delighted; the way to heaven was often hard, or unclear. Still, she never surrendered to self-pity. This was her vocation, others had theirs, and often theirs were much harder. Historian William Miller, entrusted with her papers and ready with one of the first books on Worker ideas, chose as his title A Harsh and Dreadful Love. Dorothy objected, partly because she worried people would think the phrase was hers (it comes from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov). As early as 1959 she admitted that, as she got older, she became “more convinced that we must only work on ourselves, to grow in grace” and that “all we can do about people is love them,” adding in a characteristic aside, “even when they read the Daily News and spend all their time watching television.” Love was often “harsh and dreadful”, but, as she often reflected, she had resources of faith and friendship to assist her in the daily works of love.

So it is that the claim of Dorothy Day’s historical importance for American Catholics turns on at least three points. One is freedom, which she treasured. Hers was Catholic faith freely chosen, at a cost, and hers a vocation chosen with equal freedom. Voluntary poverty (not destitution) also freely chosen, could bring release from the multiple temptations of ordinary life to the freedom to live the love revealed in Jesus and prescribed in the Gospel. For Dorothy love was “the way;” that is why she was and remains at the heart of the church, not at some radical edge. And all love, from hers for her daughter Tamar and for her grandchildren to the self-giving love of the saints, all that love requires freedom. That is one reason she is so important. The “success” of poverty-stricken immigrant Euro-American Catholics meant education, economic security and political and cultural acceptance. It brought with it freedoms unimaginable in the peasant worlds from which so many families came. As we think about Dorothy Day as a saint we might ask, how are we to live, those of us who, like John Cort and me, are now Americanized Catholics, privileged women and men, who can ask such a remarkable question? And do so in truthful encounters with the suffering of so many whose hunger for dignity and freedom is denied, often by structures and ideas for which we share responsibility. Perhaps, Dorothy Day might suggest, by serving the poor, seeking justice, making peace, finding better ways to provide food, clothing, and shelter for one another, living to make “a new society within the shell of the old.”

The second point to which Dorothy Day witnessed in every period of her life was that religion is serious. As historian Robert Orsi says, religion is about “what matters.”16 Perhaps that is what lay behind reports that Dorothy was fierce. Her Catholic Christianity was not platitudes about salvation but truths about life and history. When she met young people she talked about work and books and events and her own experiences and expectations. She knew that the working class Catholics she saw at church took religion seriously because it helped make sense of hard lives. Then and now, Christians turned to learn about the Gospel to people who actually seemed to live it, priests, nuns, exemplary lay people like Peter Maurin. Maurin, Day and their Catholic Worker friends did that: they made clear truths the rest of us often forget, that the Christian vocation to love God and neighbor is serious. It makes personal and political demands. Perhaps we are right that we must earn a living, provide costly goods for our families, even occasionally use force to defend the innocent. But, Dorothy reminds us, when we do all that we depart a bit from what the Lord expects: we are not yet in the Kingdom of God. Our temptation is posturing, offering in our anguish moral pronouncements about life and justice and peace without actions to match them. If the Gospel is true, more is required; love and justice and peace must become verbs that describe how people live. As Robert Ellsberg wrote in his introduction to the journals: “The Catholic Worker movement was not intended to resolve the problems of poverty and violence in the world, but to provide a model of what it might look like if Christians truly lived out their faith in response to the challenges of history and the needs of their neighbors.”

Finally, there are those “challenges of history.” From her start as an American radical through her “long loneliness” and life as a Catholic lay leader, Dorothy saw her life as part of a great historical drama. Its meanings were often obscured by ignorance and sin, but Christian faith reaffirmed a narrative of expectation that love was indeed the way, not just for each person to find God but for the human family, together, to reach its destiny. The duty of delight arises from the gift of God in Christ and his church, and in humanity’s long historical struggle for dignity and justice and peace. The way to heaven is heaven, and love, often harsh and dreadful, is the most basic reality of all. Dorothy Day never lost her radical sense that the “big shots” were deceived, and that the truth would be found in out-of-the-way corners where men and women in freedom practiced the works of mercy and justice. History was also made a long way from Washington, Moscow or Rome. Dorothy Day is very important for American Catholics because she bore witness to the altogether Catholic idea that history matters, and so do we.

Dorothy Day’s Legacy
Faith, Friendship, Communion of Saints

What is the legacy being passed on forty-one years after Dorothy’s went to God, and as we send all that we know about here off to Rome? I can only offer my personal answer to that question, and invite others to share theirs.

First, there is faith, what Pope Francis calls “realistic faith”, confidence, trust, that our deepest convictions are true, that men and women are of equal dignity, that we must always work for solidarity, the unity of the human family, and that love is the most important question and often the only answer, that these are not just figments of our imagination or life-saving assertions of desire but the very heart and meaning of our shared history. Dorothy Day’s witness to such faith was realistic, forged out of often painful encounters at the centers of life. That faith, our faith, is about our histories with everybody, everywhere, and, everything in this universe we share. God loves us, unconditionally, and for many of us our capacity to believe that has been enlivened by our graced connection to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.

Then, second, intimately tied to faith, is vision: Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin’s confidence, trust, that someday, somehow, we will reach, all of us together, what Martin Luther King called “the beloved community,” theologians call the Kingdom of God, and my wife Joanne and I imagine as the peaceable kingdom portrayed by Quaker Edward Hicks in a painting hanging over our sofa for most of our sixty years together. The Workers and Worker communities we have known, chaotic and sometimes conflicted, but in fidelity and persistence, at moments almost sacramentally, make that expected destination present, if just for moments. We Americans often speak of life as a journey, but Pope Francis gently suggests that a journey is undertaken to go somewhere — it has a destination — without it there is not a journey, but wandering. Lincoln and King, Merton and Dorothy Day, Pope Francis’ selection as American icons, all understood that vision and aspiration give constructive meaning to our histories. None have held that dream closer, resisting its betrayal, than our African-American sisters and brothers. Recall Langston Hughes’ “Hold fast to dreams/for if dreams die/Life is a broken-winger bird/that cannot fly.”17 Dorothy Day dreamed like that.

And third, with realistic faith and visionary hope there is a third legacy, community. Dorothy ended The Long Loneliness with community, and a friend who recently interviewed Catholic Workers in my area found continued, if often amused, reference to community. Dorothy and many of the Catholic Workers I have known had “a genius for friendship” and the most inspiring Cardinal I ever met called our American Catholic church a “community of faith and friendship” (again: an aspiration). In literature and film visitors to the Catholic Worker notice an egalitarian connection of servants and served, while insiders speak of the profound gifts given them by those they meet in shelters and soup kitchens, evident in the most iconic image, Fritz Eichenberg’s Christ in the Breadline.

Pope Francis grounds so much of Christian life in relationships, “encounters,” with one another and, hardly separated, with God. In one Catholic Worker community Joanne and I love, the Hartford Catholic Worker, the life-long daily practice is simply friendship, with neighbors, with children, with volunteers, with any of us who show up. That spirit of on-the-ground solidarity inspires and informs the local Workers in their courageous visits to arenas of violent conflict across the globe. Community is a means and also an end, an experience, a vision, a faith.

Faith, vision, friendship, all words that spring out when we encounter Dorothy Day and the movement she founded. Pope Francis warns us against indifference and asks us to care. Care, he tells us, is essential to peacemaking and justice seeking. Social activists encountering social injustices continually discover that, as they say, “it’s all connected.” For Day, they were indeed all connected, the personal and the public, the sacred and the profane, the biggest questions and the most modest daily responsibilities. Dorothy Day in her work and witness, touched things we all want: to live among friends who know us and care for us, and that hope grounds our desire for a world where such communities of realistic faith and friendship are part of the fabric of everyone’s life. That’s why so many people who do not share Dorothy’s Christian faith find her story compelling. For those of us who are Christian that is the content, or at least part of the content, of our faith and trust in the God revealed and embodied in Jesus, and entrusted to all of us gifted with God’s Holy Spirit. As Pope Francis said so beautifully in a Christmas homily, we are loved, without condition, and that “we” is all of us, and those among us who are Christians have no greater responsibility than to accept that love and pass it on. Dorothy Day experienced that love, God’s love, and passed it on to everyone she encountered. And the Catholic Worker movement she founded, past, present and future, helps us believe that this creed makes sense.

One Catholic Worker “lifer,” Michael Boover, has thought a lot about Dorothy Day’s legacy and thinks she was, like so many saints, a teacher, teaching by her daily life, and, as St. Francis advised, when necessary, using words, in her case a lot of them. In her small book about Saint Therese, Dorothy wrote: “Love is a science, a knowledge, and we lack it.” Mike Boover says that Dorothy Day “tried to gain the knowledge of love and to receive it as a gift,” offering us “a powerful witness and a lesson regarding the future. This makes her a teacher who is a saint on those grounds. Her words and witness invite us ever to be about the project of learning the science of love.”18 Place this “science of love” in the setting of human dignity and solidarity and we have the seriousness of the challenges posed by Dorothy Day.

Michael Boover and many thoughtful disciples of Dorothy Day have told us over the years that Dorothy’s “politics” engaged the very meaning of Catholic Christian faith. At one point Pope Francis told young people that to discover the Catholic “program” they need only read the Beatitudes and Matthew 25 “and nothing else.” Loving God and neighbor are one and the same. So far, the dramatic challenges of Dorothy Day’s vocation — “the science of love” — have been faced in the process of asking for canonization. May that continue. Her sainthood cause is serious, like the woman herself. Placing her at the center of American and Catholic self-understanding would be a genuine and timely contribution to the world, but as her less reverent followers would remind us, love in action “ain’t easy.” But it alone makes the only history worth living for.


1 The Rochester Catholic Worker community claimed to be the first one established outside New York City. My friends, Bernard and Lorna Lancer, introduced me to writings of Dorothy Day in the Catholic Worker newspaper and to the local community engaged at that time with problems of poverty and race in the city. When it came time to write a dissertation I thought first of Dorothy Day, who kindly informed me that she had already made her papers available to historian William Miller, so I wrote of Catholic social thought and action in the 1930s with a chapter on “radical” Catholicism that included Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. American Catholics and Social Reform: The New Deal Years (New York, Oxford University Press, 1968).

2 Trajectory, with awareness of the future as history, is of pressing importance. See my “Reflections on the Trajectory of American Catholic History,” American Catholic Studies, 128 (2018) 1-27.

3 “Dorothy Day: An American Pilgrimage”, Commonweal, December 19, 1980 and “Dorothy’s Days: Letters from a Saint”, Commonweal, March 25, 2011. Portions of this reflection are drawn from these articles.

4 Taylor’s widely discussed The Secular Age has revised the understanding of secularization and secularism. My thoughts here are drawn as well from several of his lectures available on line. A series can be found at the website of the Berkeley Center at Georgetown University I have also drawn on a talk on the contemporary Catholic Church available at I have discussed these matters more fully in the Monsignor Hugh Crean Lecture at Elms College in the spring of 2021 which will be published in a book honoring the late Msgr. Crean edited by Fr. Mark Stelzer. The lecture is available at

5 Frank Sheed, The Church and I (New York, Sheed and Ward, 1075)

6 Karl Rahner, SJ, “The Present Position of Christians: A Theological Interpretation of the Present Position of Christians in the Modern World” in The Christian Commitment (New York,1963)

7 For “folk memories brought to bear on new aspirations” for understanding American immigrant/ethnic religious communities, see the work of Timothy L. Smith, especially ”Religion and Ethnicity in America,” American Historical Review, 83 (1978).

8 This position has been presented persistently and ably by the now-retired Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput. See, for example, Strangers in a Strange Land (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2017).

9 I emphasized this in The Renewal of American Catholicism (Oxford University Press, 1972) and in many writings on U.S. Catholic life since.

10 See Michael K. Honey, Going Down Jericho Road (Norton, 2004) for those last days and Dr. King’s important last book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community? (Beacon, 1968)

11 Thus.the highly appropriate titles of two edited editions of Dorothy Day’s words: Robert Ellsberg, editor, The Duty of Delight: The Dairies of Dorothy Day (Image Books, 2011); Robert Ellsberg, editor, All the Way to Heaven: Selected Letters of Dorothy Day (Image Books, 2012).

12 These were terms used by the spiritual guide of Americanism, Isaac Hecker. See my Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic (Paulist Press, 1992)

13 These words were in the 1980 memorial listed above. Portions of this next section come from the second of those essays, a review of Robert Ellsberg’s edition of Dorothy Days letters noted above.

14 Wills and Cunningham quotes came at Dorothy Day’s passing. Brooks is only one of many contemporary writers fascinated by Day. See his In Search of Character (Random House, 2015), 74-104. A recent biography by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century (Simon and Schuster, 2020) received widespread literary and media attention. I have benefitted greatly from Dorothy Day: Love in Action (Liturgical press 2015) by her colleague and friend Patrick Jordan.

15 Kate Hennessy, Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty (Scribner 2017)

16 Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street (Yale University Press, 1985), xvii.

17 Langston Hughes, “Dreams” from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes (Knopf, 1994). See also has his “Let America Be America Again.” Similar life-informing American aspirations informed the work of almost all of the most celebrated African-American leaders.

18 Michael Boover, personal notes to me. See his Fifteen Days of Prayer with Dorothy Day (New City Press, 2013)

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