Friday, May 30, 2008

St. Dorothy

Kyle Cupp has a provocative post up, suggesting an approach to dialogue on life issues that controverts the culture-war paradigm. It got me thinking about Dorothy Day, whose cause for sainthood is being promoted by the Archdiocese of New York (they have a stylish website up to publicize it, too). I can't help but wonder if Dorothy Day's acclamation as a saint would ruffle feathers among American Catholics, who are already rather starkly aligned along the lines of conservative and liberal, orthodox and dissenting. These designations, however, are misleading; like most aspects of American Catholicism, they bear the taint of what Pope Leo XIII referred to as the heresy of Americanism. Most orthodox or conservative Catholics identify their spiritual beliefs with conservative political beliefs, while, conversely, liberal Catholics align themselves with liberal American politics. So conservative Catholics are pro-life, but many of them are harshly opposed to any governmental solution to ameliorating the lives of poor women who choose life, and they tend to be for the Iraq War and for capital punishment. Liberal Catholics, on the other hand, believe that abortion is a right, while condemning the execution of criminals and the prosecution of the war. Perhaps Servant of God Dorothy Day is just who we need to guide us out of this impasse.

Dorothy Day was a true political radical and a true religious orthodox, someone who sought to defend and protect the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. She endured the suffering of divorce and abortion, and underwent a dramatic conversion from communism to Catholicism. While her approach to aiding the weakest was transformed in light of her conversion, her dedication to justice and peace was unwavering throughout her life. It seems to me that her life and work are a true reflection of Catholic belief.

As far as the pro-life cause being a conservative one, this essay, published in The Progressive in 1980, was one of the earliest to make the powerful case that the protection of the unborn is rightly under the purview of the political Left. Read Mary Meehan's concise and cogent arguments in support of a leftist pro-life movement: "It is out of character," she notes, "for the Left to neglect the weak and helpless . . . . abortion is an escape from an obligation that is owed to another."

Some of my readers know that I grew up in an off-the-charts progressive family. I have never been able to understand why pro-lifers stereotypically oppose any measures, such as increased welfare and food-stamp benefits, subsidized childcare, and a guaranteed wage subsidy (supported, incidentally, by that great liberal Richard Nixon), that would assist the women who are most vulnerable to abortion but who courageously choose life. Should women and children be left to live in poverty? Should women already abandoned by the fathers of their children be further abandoned by our society? Is that Christian? Is it American? Dorothy Day, pray for us.


Kyle R. Cupp said...

I really need to learn more about Dorothy Day. Any suggestions for where to start?

Pentimento said...

She wrote a wonderful autobiography called The Long Loneliness (interestingly, she left out a lot of the more sordid episodes in her life, like the abortion). You should also take a look at The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie, which is a study of her life as well as those of Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy. There's a nice film about her, too, called "Entertaining Angels."

Retired Waif, if you are reading this, could you make some suggestions?

Tertium Quid said...

Great post. Dorothy Day shows the "middle way" for American Catholics. She forces a conservative such as I to consider the radicalism of St. Vincent de Paul and the liberals in the American Church to reject the false messiah of social reform through politics.

Here are a few posts:

Jay Anderson said...

"So conservative Catholics are pro-life, but many of them are harshly opposed to any governmental solution to ameliorating the lives of poor women who choose life, and they tend to be for the Iraq War and for capital punishment."

Pardon me, but who are these "conservative Catholics" who "tend" toward the positions you describe?

Almost every Catholic I know (even the "conservative" ones), opposes capital punishment. There are exceptions, of course, but I find most conservative Catholics with whom I am acquainted are against the death penalty. And many conservative Catholics, though perhaps we are in the minority, don't believe the Iraq War to have been just (although we struggle with what should be the proper course for extracting ourselves from Iraq).

And your description of these conservative Catholics "who are harshly opposed to any governmental solution to ameliorating the lives of poor women who choose life" just doesn't ring true. That might describe a lot of libertarian-conservatives, but I know very few "conservative Catholics" who fit that description. Many of us are quite open to government interventions that help the poor. In fact, I can't think of a single government program to serve the poor that has been cut in the past 8 years or any program that conservative Catholics have advocated cutting; instead, government programs to assist the poor - be they faith-based programs or otherwise - seem to have grown considerably with the support of many conservative Catholics.

I am quite in agreement that Catholics should follow the examples of people like Dorothy Day in seeking, as Tertium Quid puts it, "the middle way". But I must say that I find it ironic that, in a post that began by citing Kyle's post about the proclivity of pro-lifers to engage in demonization, we should see such caricaturing of the positions of "conservative Catholics".

Pentimento said...

Jay, I'm astonished that you believe I was "caricaturing" conservative Catholics, as I am speaking from long personal experience of acquaintances, friends, and loved ones. Would there were more like you in my sphere.

caleb said...

Regarding works by Dorothy Day -- you can find archived articles she wrote for the Catholic Worker at

Also, her book Loaves and Fishes is tremendous -- better, in my opinion, than The Long Loneliness.

A really excellent biography about her by Robert Coles is called Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion.

(I just stumbled across your blog - I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts.)

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Caleb; I'll look for those writings.

Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin said...

@Jay Anderson: As for the conservative Catholics who tend towards the position Pentimento describes: an exemplary group of them can be found at The Lair of the Catholic Cavemen (in case the link doesn't work, URL is ). The Cavemen are very strongly for our military adventures and capital punishment, and against abortion. I can't speak as much for their desire to have government-funded aid to unwed mothers either increased or eliminated. (Me, I would rather eliminate ALL wealth transfers accomplished through government: see for why I oppose this sort of thing on moral grounds.)

Frankly, if the State didn't yank so much of our property from us, to give to the likes of everyone from Microsoft to US Steel to unwed mothers (all of which payments help people that are to some degree deserving), then we would have far more wealth to help the poor ... and their wealth would be far more, so they would need our help far less.

As for myself, in addition to opposing coerced transfer payments, I'm very much against abortion, capital punishment, and our foreign adventurism.