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Dorothy Day’s Radical Faith | The New Yorker


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Dorothy Day’s Radical Faith | The New Yorker


She moved back to Chicago, where she took jobs in a department store, at a library, in a restaurant, and as an artist’s model. Her employment was erratic, but her politics were consistent. When the Chicago police raided the Industrial Workers of the World boarding house, Day was there, and got arrested for prostitution—only because the police couldn’t arrest people for socialism. She was released from jail a week later, and eventually made her way back to New York.

There Day fell in love with a man named Forster Batterham. After the abortion, she assumed that she could not have children, and so was astonished when she became pregnant, then awed by the birth of a daughter, Tamar Teresa, in 1926. Without consulting Batterham, an atheist, she stopped a nun on the street and asked to have the baby baptized. Plenty of new parents are inspired to return to religion, and Day would later write of how God had long haunted her life, but she could never fully explain why she was so suddenly and urgently drawn to Catholicism. The nun she stopped, Sister Aloysia Mary Mulhern, didn’t agree to the baptism right away, because Day was not yet Catholic; over the next few months, the pair studied the catechism together, and talked about the faith into which the activist had become convinced that she and her daughter needed to be received.

Batterham did not believe in marriage, and, after converting to Catholicism, Day left him. Then she met someone else: a fellow-Catholic named Peter Maurin, who, although never romantically involved with Day, was, in the deepest sense, her soul mate. Maurin liked to call himself a French peasant but in reality he was equal parts philosopher, troubadour, and troublemaker. He had heard about Day from some other Catholic radicals and was waiting in her apartment when she came home one day in December, 1932. Most people would have called the police, but she listened patiently as he expounded on his many ideas and theories and dreams and programs and plans.

Day had just returned from covering the Communist Party’s hunger march in Washington, D.C. What Maurin couldn’t have known is that, before leaving the city, she had gone to the basilica at Catholic University and prayed to find a way to alleviate the suffering of the hungry. The country was three years into the Great Depression, and Day worried that her writing was not doing enough to help; it seemed obvious that Maurin was the answer to her prayer. She quickly agreed to the first of many of his ideas: a newspaper to serve the poor.

The first issue of the Catholic Worker came out on May Day, 1933, and asked, “Is it not possible to be radical and not atheist?” A religious press printed twenty-five hundred copies, and, at a time when the economy was so constricted that there were literally no new nickels and dimes in circulation, Day sold the paper for a penny each in Union Square. She had written most of its eight pages herself—arts coverage, exposés on child labor and racial discrimination, an article about the Scottsboro Boys going to trial, and a list of upcoming strikes for those who wanted to support the labor movement. The editors confessed that it wasn’t “yet known whether it will be a monthly, a fortnightly, or a weekly,” since they had no idea if any subscriptions or donations would follow.

Trusting in what Christ preached about the lilies of the field, Day and Maurin focussed on the present, letting God provide for their future. That didn’t mean money wasn’t an issue; it always was. They wouldn’t hoard it, so an endowment was a nonstarter, and relying on government funds was anathema to them both, so they often went begging, which they felt helped them live in solidarity with those they served. Grocery bills, printer’s bills, electric bills: they asked for money to pay them all, and for extensions or forgiveness when they could not. (Years later, when they faced a substantial fine from the city for the allegedly slumlike and hazardous conditions of their headquarters, the entire amount was paid by W. H. Auden.)

“I can’t wait to get home, run around outside, and finally eat some fresh food.”
Cartoon by Brooke Bourgeois

Day and Maurin sent the Catholic Worker to parishes and priests around the country, and it soon had a circulation of a hundred thousand. They published the paper monthly, and it became a mixture of articles that Day thought would promote and influence the political left and what Maurin called his “easy essays,” prose poems that amounted to aphorisms: “The world would be better off / if people tried to become better. / And people would become better / if they stopped trying to become better off.”

It was Maurin who began writing about how the early followers of Jesus had kept “Christ rooms” in their homes, offering rest and hospitality to strangers. He lamented the end of that culture of welcome, and implored priests and bishops to use their rectories and diocesan properties for such a purpose. With more than ten million Americans unemployed, more than half the country living below the poverty line, and two million people without homes, Maurin asked why the Catholic Church wasn’t doing more to address the crisis. The newspaper had secured an office and enough of a budget that he and Day could occasionally rent apartments for people who had been laid off. But there were more than twenty thousand people living on the street in New York City alone, and the Catholic Workers, as the paper’s writers and readers came to call themselves, knew that far more sweeping action was needed.

In the winter of 1934, Day and Maurin rented a four-story, eleven-bedroom building on Charles Street, the first of their hospitality houses. From the start, the Catholic Workers served the sorts of individuals even other social reformers might not have allowed through the door: the mentally ill, the drunk, the offensive, the disobedient, the ungrateful. When challenged by another Catholic activist about an encounter with a racist and anti-Semitic guest on Charles Street, Day said she would not remove him: “He, after all, is Christ.” The man, an alcoholic with dementia, lived with the Catholic Workers until he died.

Within a few years, there were thirty-two hospitality houses, from Buffalo and Baltimore to St. Louis and Seattle. Day and Maurin continued to publish their newspaper and to organize for labor rights, racial integration, and radical equality. Hardly a protest took place in New York without at least a few Catholic Workers showing up. Not even the Bishop of Rome was spared: when the gravediggers of Calvary Cemetery went on strike against the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Archbishop of New York, the workers supported them, including by picketing the office of the chancery. The Church hierarchy was even more vexed by Day’s pacificism, which was so unpopular during the Second World War that the newspaper’s circulation collapsed and Church officials tried to have “Catholic” removed from its title.

But Dorothy Day was always equal parts “Catholic” and “worker.” Many followers of the Pope found her politics inconvenient and offensive; many leftists thought her faith oppressive and absurd. Day’s family initially mistook her conversion for an emotional crisis, and her friends suspected that she had simply traded her political fanaticism for the religious variety; both camps were surprised when it lasted. Had Day been an anodyne Protestant or an agnostic Unitarian, her spirituality would have raised fewer eyebrows, but she opted in to what many of her friends regarded as the most regressive and patriarchal institution outside of the federal government.



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