St. Dorothy Day? Controversial, yes, but bishops push for canonization

Religion News Service photo courtesy Milwaukee Journal/Marquette University Archives

BALTIMORE (RNS) The Catholic bishops gathered here for their annual meeting couldn’t agree on a statement on the economy on Tuesday morning (Nov. 13), but with a unanimous voice vote that afternoon they easily backed a measure to push sainthood for Dorothy Day, whose life and work were dedicated to championing the poor.

Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933 and became what many consider to be an American saint. She is seen here in 1968.

Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933 and became what
many consider to be an American saint. She is seen here in 1968.

Indeed, it was a remarkable moment for the reputation of Day, one of the most famous figures in 20th-century Catholicism.

Born in Brooklyn in 1897, Day lived a bohemian life in New York City in the 1920s while working as a leftwing journalist. She endured a failed marriage, a suicide attempt, and had an abortion when suddenly, after the birth of her daughter, she converted to Catholicism.

That decision confounded her literary friends but launched her on a new path of activism and piety.

In 1932, Day founded the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin, and became a radical, if often polarizing, voice for pacifism and social justice until her death in 1980.

“Of all the people that we need to reach out to, all the people that are hard to get at, the ones who are street people, the ones who are on drugs, the ones who have had abortions — all these folks whose lives we need to touch in some special way — she was one of them,” Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, a native New Yorker and the retired archbishop of Washington, told some 230 members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“What a tremendous opportunity we have now to say to them, you can not only be brought back into society, you can not only be brought back into the church, you can be a saint!”

The bishops’ vote formally asked the Vatican to continue the canonization process that was launched in 2000.

“She was a very great personal help to me when I was a young priest,” said Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y. “To be able to stand here and say ‘yes’ to this means a great deal to me.”

Yet if Day had a lasting impact on the church and on those who met her, she was also controversial precisely because of her compelling life story and her outspokenness. Her libertine lifestyle before her conversion still gives some pause, and she was blasted for being a pacifist during World War II and a lifelong sharp critic of capitalism.

It is a legacy of seeming contradictions that endures today as different people find different things to like about Dorothy Day.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George, who met Day after John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 – an election she characteristically dismissed as having no benefit for the church – drew applause on Tuesday as he promoted Day’s canonization by enlisting her in the bishops’ battle against the Obama administration’s contraception mandate and endorsement of gay rights.

“As we struggle at this opportune moment to try to show how we are losing our freedoms in the name of individual rights, Dorothy Day is a good woman to have on our side,” George said.

Next up was Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who instead highlighted Day’s “commitments to the social gospel of the church and her love for the poor.” Those “are things that resonate with our young people,” he said.

In his remarks, Dolan sought to connect the two poles of Day’s reputation, noting that since both conservatives and liberals often find much to love, and sometimes loathe, in Day’s life, “I’m more convinced than ever that she’s a saint for our time.”

The real problem, however, may not be what others say about Day, but what Day said about herself.

“Don’t call me a saint,” she has famously been quoted as saying. “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

Some of Day’s most ardent followers cite that passage as evidence that she herself would not want to be canonized, and would certainly prefer that the money needed for such a lengthy process be used for the poor.

But Robert Ellsberg, the publisher of Orbis Books and the editor Day’s journals and letters, said Day herself was devoted to the saints.

“What Dorothy certainly opposed — and what saint wouldn’t?– was being put on a pedestal, fitted to some pre-fab conception of holiness that would strip her of her humanity and, at the same time, dismiss the radical challenge of the gospel,” Ellsberg told America magazine.

The thought of such praise made Day uncomfortable because it obscured how difficult it was to live such a radical life — for her or anyone else.

“As is the case with all saints,” said Ellsberg, “it is her very humanity that makes her such a compelling model.”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • I find it fascinating that no one, from EITHER side, religiously or politically, has commented on this post about Dorothy. You mean, after all that bantering from the last few articles, NO ONE can complain or congratulate? I tend to think the lack of comments would tickle Dorothy silly! She has shut up EVERYONE from their ridiculous divisiveness. Perhaps only a true saint can do that….but to dismiss her that easily can only mean one thing… she is something much more….a true MYSTERY. And that’s where we’re called to be…Live in the balance of paradoxical mystery, people! It’s the only place we’ll ever come together.

  • The US bishops are free to present their case to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, of course. That will get you beatified and she will then be the Blessed Dorothy. But you don’t get to be an actual saint without performing two official, documented and investigated miracles. Some applications for sainthood have been pending for centuries … so don’t hold your breath. This could take a while.

  • Nov. 21st: I was talking with a friend this morning who worked for Dorothy Day…I have great admiration for Dorothy Day…it’s obvious to me that all that went on in her life was a passionate search for God, for meaning. She fell and she got up and kept going, she fell and she got up…and kept seeking. Her life should be an inspiration for all of us who seek holiness, wholeness…never give up!!! I once heard Glenn Beck – who I dislike, I must admit – rant on and on about how Dorothy Day was – he mentioned many terrible things and I wish I could have reminded him that he was a drunkard and worse and yet, by God’s grace he turned his life around…when I see Dorothy Day I see a woman who fell in love with Christ and sought to serve Him with all her heart and soul, all her being…daily, in small ways and big ways…He was always the object of her love, her compassion, her self-giving…I believe she will one day be canonized. I pray she will…

  • My grandmother met Dorothy Day several times and admired her. I have a short note from D.D. written to my uncle upon his ordination in 1956 that is a family treasure.

    Another friend, a German Jew who left Germany before WWII to marry an American and converted to the Catholic faith, worked at the Catholic Worker with her. She, too, was an admirerer who was so in awe of Dorothy she never mustered up the courage to speak to her.

  • I am not Catholic, though I admire the faith. I think Dorothy Day deserves to be counted as a saint. She stood up for her faith, and the poor, much like Mother Teresa did.