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The Stumbling Block

On the cause for Dorothy Day's canonization.

Not long ago an acquaintance who is an avowed admirer of Dorothy Day asked me when her heroine will “be made a saint.” I tried my best to answer the question charitably, though I could not help silently objecting to the way in which it had been framed, as if it were the Church’s business to mint saints, like coins, rather than to recognize and pronounce them genuine, as a museum curator might an Etruscan bronze of somewhat dubious provenance, after a great deal of hesitation and some consultation with other experts.

Still, one hates to be obtuse (my interlocutor was not a Catholic) and, after all, the question of whether and when Day’s cause—first opened twenty-three years ago—will proceed is an interesting one. While I suspect that most of my readers will agree with me when I say it is unlikely that Day will ever be raised to the altars, it is worth considering why this is the case.

After all, unlike many persons canonized in the last thirty or so years, it would be absurd to deny that there is in fact a “local cult” of Day. Indeed, with the obvious exceptions of Newman and John Paul II, one could argue that no figure whose cause has been taken up in the last quarter of a century enjoys anything even approaching her popular following. While there is a certain meretricious quality to most depictions of her—they are often of a piece with the blasphemous Ruth Bader Ginsburg “prayer” candles one occasionally sees for sale—she really is the subject of what is rightly called Catholic “folk art,” which is more than can be said for, say, Paul VI. Point one for Day’s supporters.

It is in attempting to address the thornier questions of Day’s orthodoxy and her claim to a life of truly heroic charity that I think our answers begin to incline toward the negative. Her anarchism, for example, will strike most sensible Catholics as untenable at best if not worthy of condemnation. Her pacifism (which in any case seems increasingly unfashionable in the very liberal Catholic circles in which her admirers tend to be found) is also suspect, especially when one considers the extent to which it admitted of what were, if not exceptions, then certainly a kind of dubious equivocation. The neutrality of the Catholic Worker during the Spanish Civil War might now be forgiven her by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (though it was an anomaly in the English-speaking Catholic press at the time), but what about her views on the Cuban revolution? It is one thing to acknowledge, as she did, that the Cuban people might feel it “better to revolt violently than to do nothing about the poor destitute”; it is another to say:

I am most of all interested in the religious life of the people and so must not be on the side of a regime that favors the extirpation of religion. On the other hand, when that regime is bending all its efforts to make a good life for the people, a naturally good life (on which grace can build) one cannot help but be in favor of the measures taken.

Which measures, and could one, in fact, help it? This looks pollyannaish to say the least, especially coming from someone who took great pains to dismiss even the most qualified defenses of Spanish Nationalism among her fellow Catholics. It looks like, and probably was, an attempt to have it both ways.

Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss Day as a political hack. She was in her way a sincere and pious woman to whom prayer obviously mattered a great deal. She was also a more idiosyncratic figure than many people assume, and, I think, someone whose professed admirers would probably dislike if they considered the full range of her views, and whose critics probably agree with more than they realize. When Cardinal Dolan reflected on Day’s life in a sermon last year, some of her admirers complained that he had not given enough attention to her civil rights activism and her pacifism. One wonders whether they would feel the same way about airing her views on premarital sex and masturbation, which she once referred to as “demonic,” or her insistence that the abortion she had in 1920 was something she “regretted every day of her life” and “the ultimate act of violence against innocent life.”

Day and her political views resist facile categorization. She was certainly not an anodyne anti-war liberal. A lifelong non-voter who refused to pay federal income tax, she opposed much of the New Deal, including Social Security, at a time when the Roosevelt administration enjoyed nearly unanimous support among American Catholics. Even in the narrower world of ecclesial politics, Day’s views did not line up neatly with those of her fellow progressives. While she certainly agreed with the Berrigans about unilateral nuclear disarmament, she had no patience for faddish liturgical experiments. (She famously demanded that Daniel Berrigan put on a chasuble before saying Mass at the Catholic Worker house, for example.)

There are some interesting commonalities between Day and so-called traditionalists. Unlike mainstream conservatives of the John Paul II variety, who took the National Review line on foreign policy during the Bush years and still appear to be under the impression that we are living in whatever the “unipolar” moment was supposed to be, traditionalists are far more likely to share Day’s horror of armed conflict, even if for them pacifism is a prudential course to which we are driven by the realities of modern warfare rather than a first-order moral principle. There was certainly very little daylight in the 1960s between her and the saintly Cardinal Ottaviani (whose name will, I think, one day appear in the Martyrology) on the question of nuclear weapons. This set both of them apart from the pro-war Americanist consensus that emerged out of the Second Vatican Council and still holds illimitable dominion over much of the “orthodox” laity, though not, thankfully, the episcopate.

But to return to the question of her canonization, it is worth mentioning that at least some of Day’s own admirers seem to be opposed to it; they blanche at the very idea of her being recognized by some sinister caricature they refer to as “Church authorities,” even though she herself was very strident about the question of obedience to the hierarchy.

Are their objections misplaced? Enrollment in the calendar of saints in the barest sense simply affirms that the person in question has entered into the beatific vision and is thus worthy of veneration. But it is also meant to suggest that the saint is in some sense an exemplar (according to his or her station, of course: an exemplary bishop is not the same as an exemplary laywoman) of what is called “heroic virtue.” I somehow doubt that of the many millions of souls Day is the best example the Church can propose among the American laity of the last century of virtue, heroic or otherwise—and one suspects that she would have herself agreed. But then again I and many others also fail to recognize heroic qualities in the administration of the papal office by most of the popes canonized in my lifetime.

All of which is to say that while I do not expect Day’s cause to proceed, not only because of her support for Castro but because her writings are unlikely to be found free of doctrinal error, I do not think it likely that she will fade from memory. Instead, she will remain as she is today: an interesting byway in American ecclesiastical history, sometimes embarrassing to her fans, occasionally a stumbling block to her would-be enemies, and a reminder that the Church’s claim to universality is not easily undersold. A body in whose loving embrace Day can pass into eternity alongside John Wayne and Buffalo Bill Cody is certainly a catholic one.