Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dorothy Day - Founder of the Catholic Worker Movement

Dorothy Day was born on November 29, 1897.  Day and her colleague Peter Maurin are credited with establishing the Catholic Worker Movement – a pacifist movement that actively works towards social justice for the poor and homeless using the methodology of nonviolent direct action.  There are currently over 130 Catholic Workers houses throughout the United States.  

Her life spanned nearly a hundred years and she lived through the Great Depression, both World Wars, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.  She was a social activist for most of her adult life and was a passionate advocate for women's rights.  Day was never timid in confronting authority when social justice and equality were at stake.


Day was born in Brooklyn, New York.  Her father, John Day, was a sports journalist, but unlike his daughter harbored racial prejudice.  The Days periodically moved and they resided in San Francisco in 1906; the famous earthquake of that year entirely destroyed the newspaper headquarters where her father worked.  As a consequence, he lost his job.  Witnessing firsthand the human suffering that followed this catastrophe had a profound impact on the young Dorothy.  Moving around as the family did left Day feeling terribly isolated and alone.  As a matter of fact she felt so isolated that later in life she wrote an autobiographical novel that she entitled, "The Long Loneliness."   In their travels as a family Day witnessed conditions of severe and pervasive poverty that markedly impacted her sensibilities.  As a consequence, she sought spiritual meaning in her life.  Even as a young child, she found some degree of solace in the reading the Bible.

In 1914, she went to the University of Illinois where she was exposed to many ideas that reflected the social and political character of the times.  She avidly read the works of such notable thinkers as Upton Sinclair and Leo Tolstoy.  Day could not endure university life and ultimately left the university and moved to New York.  There she befriended those who shared her views that at the time were considered radical.

During this time, the Women's Suffrage Movement was gaining momentum.  Day joined demonstrations to accomplish this goal and was arrested for obstructing traffic at the White House.  Following her arrest, Day went on a hunger strike to protest the denial of the right to vote to women and for the way protestors were treated in prison.  In response to the publicity that this action caused, President Woodrow Wilson ordered Day and other hunger strikers released.  In addition to this activism, Day worked on a publication called, The Masses – a newspaper considered radical at the time.  With America's entry into the disastrous conflict known as World War I seeming imminent, the paper decried the possibility that the US might enter the war.  Once the US became involved, the government actively attempted to suppress the publication.  Day was so disheartened by these events that she left journalism and entered the nursing profession.  She did not return to an activist role until the 1930s after residing in Mexico City for a while.


Following the beginning of the Great Depression (1929) Day started a newspaper with her lover, Peter Maurin.  They entitled the publication, The Catholic Worker designed to reach those who has suffered badly from the economic crash that devastated so many lives.  In addition, the couple opened the first Catholic Worker House – as mentioned earlier – in order to address directly the needs of those who had become desperately poor.  This represented the beginnings of the Catholic Worker Movement.  Surprisingly, this effort met with considerable criticism from the catholic establishment for the reason that it made no attempt to convert the poor to Catholicism but offered tangible assistance to anyone who needed it.

As a publication, the Catholic Worker was avidly pacifist.  This view was controversial – as it is to this day – and came under severe disfavor in 1935 when the publication's editors refused to support Franco during the civil war that raged in Spain even though the Catholic Church hierarchy supported Franco's efforts.  In order to better understand Day's reaction to the catastrophic events in Spain, we will examine in some detail the nature and origins of the Spanish Civil War.


The Spanish Civil War that raged from July, 1936 to April 1, 1939 was of importance; because, its causes reflected the kind of social and economic malaise that would play such a critical role in World War II that ultimately brought about the death of some 50 million individuals worldwide. 

At the end of the nineteenth century the preponderance of power and influence in Spain was in the hands of a small minority of the owners of large estates called latifundia.  This produced a great abyss between the haves and the rest of the population.  As a result, popular uprisings resulted in the overthrow of Queen Isabella II and shortly after that the abdication of her successor, King Amadeo I.  This led to the formation of the First Spanish Republic to be replaced by the restoration of the monarchy in 1874.  The monarchy persisted with some interruptions; until, King Alfonso XIII, having little support from the general population, left Spain once The Second Spanish Republic was formed on April 14, 1931 under the leadership of President Manuel Azana until the end of the Civil War.   King Alfonso XIII formally abdicated the throne in 1941.

The Spanish Civil War began with an attempted coup spearheaded by a number of rightist groups especially the Spanish Confederation of Anonymous Right.  The opposition consisted mainly of monarchists, fascists and religious conservatives.  General Francisco Franco played a key role in the rebellion.  This conflict received international attention with Nazi Germany, Italy and Portugal providing support to the rebels while the Soviet Union and Mexico sided with the loyalists – republicans.  The Catholic Church opposed the republicans for at one point attempts were made to make substantial changes in the national constitution to reflect a desire to secularize the country.

The conflict finally ended with the defeat of the loyalists resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Spaniards from both sides.  At the aftermath of the civil war, General Francisco Franco was installed as the nation's dictator.  His regime was guilty of many atrocities in an attempt to brutally consolidate his power.  He remained in absolute control of the country until his death in 1975.  Ironically, the Spain of today has indeed become secularized much like the country that the republicans envisioned.


As a result of this controversy, the publication lost many Catholic subscribers.  Even during World War II – considered by many to be a so-called "just" war – the publication took a pacifist stance.  One of Day's impassioned goals was to convey the idea that Catholicism was a religion of peace – that peace was the essential message promulgated by Jesus Christ.  It should be remembered that violence played an important role throughout the history of the church.  There are those who continue to criticize the church to this day for its apparent silence during the exceedingly dark days of the Third Reich when the Nazi's attempt to exterminate the Jews had become well known.

Following the war, Day remained adamant in her pursuit of peace.  During the beginnings of the era that came to be known as the Cold War, residents of New York City were required by law to participate in the city's public air raid drills – this reality demonstrates how powerful the fear was of a nuclear attack.  Day was one of the first individuals that refused to participate, believing that involvement in these exercises validated the possibility of nuclear war in people's minds.  Eventually, this opposition grew to the point that the mandatory air raid drills ended in 1961.

Even well into her seventies, Day joined Cesar Chavez in his campaign to further the rights of migrant workers and was an adamant opponent of the Vietnam War.   Day passed away on November 20, 1980.  Maurin suffered from dementia and died earlier.  Her daughter Tamar was with her at the end of her life.


Dorothy Day led an interesting life and remained a controversial figure.  Yet, she was consistent in her beliefs and aspirations.  She remained dedicated to the causes of peace and social justice throughout her adult life and left a legacy that lives on through the Catholic Worker Movement that remains extant and vibrant.

I would like to conclude by offering this quotation from Day's writings, "What we would like to do is change the world, make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe and shelter themselves as God intended them to do.  And by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world."

No comments: