H.B. Littell, Associated Press
Moderator Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, back to camera, speaks with black and white Southerners about the problems of segregation during a radio show being broadcast by the Louisville Public Library, Sept. 10, 1954. Clockwise from left: Ann White, Dr. Henry S. Wilson, Joe Kimbrough, Edwin Chestnut and Day. Engineer in background is unidentified.

Since 1983, the American journalist and activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980) has been under consideration for sainthood at the Vatican.

Who was she? Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, New York, to nominally Protestant parents who moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where she experienced the great 1906 earthquake and its aftermath. As a young girl, she was unusually interested in religion. But she soon entered into an unconventional life filled with love affairs and eventually an illegitimate daughter. She also became a suffragist, a socialist (even, briefly, a communist), and an anarchist.

But political activism didn’t satisfy. (She may once have attempted suicide.)

“Food for the body is not enough,” she explained. “There must be food for the soul.”

In July 1927, her infant daughter was baptized a Catholic. Then, in December, she herself was received into the church. Years later, she would affiliate as a lay sister with the Benedictine Order. But she didn’t leave her political radicalism at the font. She refused to pay federal income taxes and proudly insisted late in her life that she had never voted.

In 1933 — not coincidentally, on May Day — the first issue of her magazine Catholic Worker appeared in New York City. Founded with a French immigrant named Peter Maurin, it offered a direct challenge to the Communist Party’s Daily Worker, which advocated class warfare, violent revolution, the abolition of private property and atheism. At its peak, the associated Catholic Worker movement ran shelters and communal farms in various locations across North America and even in the United Kingdom, and distributed food and clothing to the poor.

Arguing from the Sermon on the Mount while still professing her love for America, Day remained a pacifist throughout World War II, urging Christians to refuse to fight, work in arms factories, display flags or patriotic posters or buy government war bonds. Even many of her followers objected; circulation of the magazine plunged and many Catholic Worker houses closed.

Devoted to her principles, however, Day never backed down or sought popularity. Writing in May 1951, she told her readers that Marx, Lenin and Mao Tse-Tung “were animated by the love of brother.”

“This we must believe,” she wrote, “though their ends meant the seizure of power, and the building of mighty armies, the compulsion of concentration camps, the forced labor and torture and killing of tens of thousands, even millions.”

In 1960, she endorsed Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution and his promises of “social justice,” despite her deep misgivings about “a regime that favors the extirpation of religion.” In 1970, when the Vietnam War was at its height, she praised the North Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh as “a man of vision, a patriot, a rebel against foreign invaders.”

It wasn’t just communist atheism that she rejected, however. While she agreed with the communist principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” and, as an anarchist, shared the Marxist dream of the ultimate “withering away of the State,” she also believed in private property. Individual people, she said, should possess their own land and tools and means of production.

One of her distinctions may seem more than slightly curious: “The object of communism,” she wrote, “is to make the poor richer, but the object of Christianity is to make the rich poor and the poor holy.” She cared nothing for material possessions. “The best thing to do with the best things in life,” she said on one occasion, “is to give them up.”

Comment on this story

Her political radicalism often brought her into conflict with the relatively conservative Catholic hierarchy of her time. Nevertheless, Day was seriously Catholic. She believed in the immaculate conception of Mary, the virgin birth and the literal resurrection of Christ. She attended Mass daily, rising early to pray the rosary and read the Bible. Society’s increasingly rampant sexual immorality appalled her. And, once, when the radical Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan was about to say Mass at a Catholic Worker farm without first putting on traditional priestly vestments, she rebuked him. “On this farm,” she declared, “we obey the laws of the church.”

In a time of heated debates over “social justice,” the challenging and controversial story of Day, a religious socialist saint who annoyed both the religious and the socialists, seems relevant to the discussion. “Don't call me a saint,” she once said. “I don't want to be dismissed so easily.”