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The Passion of Dorothy Day

A REVOLUTIONARY INFINITELY BEYOND MARX

By William D. Miller | October 1989
William D. Miller, Emeritus Professor of History at Marquette University, resides in Lloyd, Florida. The father of eight children and a Contributing Editor of the NOR, he is author of A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement and Dorothy Day: A Biography (widely regarded as the definitive biography of Dorothy Day). His most recent book is All is Grace: The Spirituali­ty of Dorothy Day.

From the time of the first issue of The Catholic Worker in May 1933, the position of Dorothy Day with respect to the Catholic Church has been subjected to scrutiny. Her steadfast affirmation of the Church in all its essential character has, over the course of her days, excited a critical response from varying quarters. For example, until World War II (and one still occasionally hears it) she was widely and roundly criticized on the point of having introduced into her Catholic enthusiasm the leftist radicalism of her youth. Her response was that her radical social involvements were signs of her faith and that the Church had not enjoined her to do the work of the principalities and powers. It had said that she should follow the Lord and put her mind and heart into the renewal of all that He had made. Her critics, on the other hand, were generally of a quieter disposition, feeling, more than think­ing, that the “good” Catholic was required to be a docile and affirming supporter of the principal political and economic conventions. Hence her social vagaries were assigned to an excessively romantic nature.

With the coming of World War II, liberal opin­ion added its voice to that of her conserva­tive critics. At last, America was fighting the “good war.” But to her, liberalism, which she had always disdained as a kind of hothouse plant of bourgeois cultivation, had nothing to do with the words of Christ that one should love one’s enemies. Even the Church’s conditions for a just war did not, in her mind, give her a legitimate position on which to base a show of martial zeal. Any war, in her view, no matter how trapped out with words of heavenly pur­pose, could not but sow more evil than it might overcome.

In recent times, liberal opinion has run contrary to many positions of the Church, especially the Church’s fundamental concern with affirming the transcendent sacredness of life, which, in part, is expressed in its teaching on sex and marriage. One may say that it is on life — its meaning and destiny — and on this point only — that the Church was founded. This was as Dorothy under­stood it, and amid the Church’s desire to respect life, Dorothy could find no excep­tion. To the contrary, she stood in an almost transfixed awe of life’s mystery, as she witnessed it in nature and human society, and she joyously affirmed the Church’s promise of its heavenly destiny.

It was, most immediately and profound­ly, this concern that had brought her into the Church. A major reason for her having become a Catholic was that, after the dis­traught character of her youthful (and some­times tragic) years, she was able to bear a child. The void of suicide, which in despair she had once sought after having had an abortion, became an idea that was evil to her, demonic in its absolute denial of life. This void was negation, but the creative act, in all of its character, reverberated in time with the promise of the final unity of heaven.

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