Pope Re-Introduces Americans to Dorothy Day

Posted September 24, 2015 at 11:10am

In his address to Congress, one of the four Americans Pope Francis chose as inspirational figures was a woman whom even many American Catholics today may not know.

Dorothy Day, who died in 1980 at age 83, was an anti-war activist, a champion of the poor and a founder of Catholic Worker homeless shelters or “houses of hospitality.” Some are still operating today in places from Memphis to Danbury, Conn.

For a generation of young American Catholics, Day was an inspiring figure whose willingness to go to jail to protest nuclear weapons in the 1950s served as an example that anti-Vietnam war activists of the 1960s followed.

One fact the pope did not mention Thursday in his address to Congress was that Day’s unyielding pacifism went so far as refusing to support the United States in its war against Nazi Germany and Japan.

She became well known in New York City in the 1950s for refusing to take part in civil defense air raid drills, going to jail to express what she saw as the evil of nuclear arsenals and “mutually assured destruction.”

Her uncompromising pacifism came at a time when millions of American Catholics served in the military and when New York Cardinal Francis Spellman was the vicar of the United States armed forces, famous for his fierce anti-Communism and for visiting the troops in Korea and Vietnam.

Day was also a religious conservative, accepting the authority of bishops and cardinals even as she criticized them. She called birth control and abortion “genocide.” She said in a letter in 1972 that people must “make room for children, don’t do away with them.”

And she assailed the Catholic Church for not using more of its vast wealth to help families in poverty: “Up and down and on both sides of the Hudson River religious orders own thousands of acres of land, cultivated, landscaped, but not growing food for the hungry or founding villages for the families or schools for the children.”

She was extreme in her simplicity, living in lower Manhattan as the people of the Bowery whom she served–in other words, as far from today’s style of celebrity political activist as one could imagine.

Hers was distinctly a minority view and the church hierarchy did not know what to make of her. But one of her admirers, socialist writer Michael Harrington, said in the 1960s when Spellman was still cardinal in New York, “When the history of the Catholic Church in America in the 20th century is written, Francis Cardinal Spellman will be a footnote and Dorothy Day a chapter.”

Spellman’s successor, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, is supporting the move to canonize Day as a saint of the church and the pope’s mention of her Thursday in his address to Congress indicates that in a way her time has come, 35 years after her death.