New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan addresses the congregation during a Mass marking the conclusion of the Archdiocese of New York’s investigation of Dorothy Day’s candidacy for sainthood Dec. 8, 2021, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Charles Lewis: Wild days, Church ways gave us Dorothy Day

  • February 2, 2022

It was a celebration of a woman many hope will one day be declared a saint. It was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan and the man who gave the homily was New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

The woman being honoured was Servant of God Dorothy Day, a great American Catholic who followed the gospels as few would dare.

The New York Times used the Mass to ask this question in a feature article: “Was Dorothy Day Too Left-Wing to Be a Catholic Saint?”

I don’t think the headline writers got it right, given the tenor of Dolan’s remarks. Perhaps “Was Dorothy Day Too Promiscuous to Be a Catholic Saint?” might have been more accurate.

Cardinal Dolan emphasized her sinful state and her eventual conversion as opposed to the tangible good she did for the least of her brothers and sisters. Some of Dorothy’s relatives took umbrage with his remarks. They felt he should have focused on her work for social justice and not her sin.

But I think Cardinal Dolan got it right. He understood that all the good she did started with her entry into the Church.

Dorothy was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 28, 1897. She moved about the country but eventually settled back in New York. She was at times a journalist, nurse, social activist and fighter for women’s right to vote. She was also a committed pacifist, who opposed America’s entry into both world wars.

Her activism landed her behind bars several times. Her early life was one of booze and sex and palling around with the likes of playwright Eugene O’Neil and other celebrities of the 1920s. She had an abortion and then another child out of wedlock.

During her wild days the Catholic Church always seemed to call to her. She wanted to know why some were called to faith and she would often visit Catholic churches to absorb the holy atmosphere.

In 1927 she became a Catholic, a move that would spark the Catholic Worker Movement and the outlet for her radical interpretation of the gospels, and the creation of the Catholic Worker newspaper. Part of her move was the birth of her daughter, Tamar. She wanted her child to start her life in faith.

The paper first published on May 1, 1933, at the height of the Depression. It sold for 1¢ a copy. It was an outlet for Dorothy’s philosophy about how the poor should be helped — never by welfare — and the duty of Catholics to give from their abundance.

Dorothy and her fellow workers would rent run-down accommodations on the cheap so at least some of the homeless could be sheltered and fed.

She saw Communist groups in New York were doing more for the poor than the Church. The concern for her was that Communism was breeding atheism, something she could not abide. She felt as a loyal Catholic she had to push the Church out of what she saw as indifference.

“I felt that the Church was the Church of the poor ... but at the same time, I felt that it did not set its face against a social order which made so much charity in the present sense of the word necessary,” she wrote in her great autobiography, The Long Loneliness.

“I felt that charity was a word to choke over. Who wanted charity? And it was not just human pride but a strong sense of man’s dignity and worth, and what was due to him in justice, that made me resent, rather than feel proud of so mighty a sum total of Catholic institutions.” 

They were harsh words but she felt they needed to be said.

Cardinal Dolan described Ms. Day’s “far from sinless life,” the Times story reported.

“The important thing … to know was that when she was 25 she became kind of frustrated with her life. She had done quite a bit of experimenting and drifting, and she’d be the first to admit her promiscuity,” the cardinal continued. “But she kept detecting an emptiness, a searching in her life. And after a lot of prayer and study, that led … to her baptism as a Catholic.”

Without baptism, Dorothy might have gone on to obscurity in haze of booze and sex. Instead she left a beautiful legacy.

When Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress in 2015, he mentioned four great Americans worthy of our admiration: Abraham Lincoln, the writer and monk Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day.

So many of us who have entered the Church as adults know that our becoming Catholic was not just one event among many. It was the door to a new life in which we finally understood, as Dorothy did, the command to love God and love our neighbour.

Once understood, nothing can remain the same.

(Lewis is a regular contributor to The Catholic Register.)

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