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Anarcho-Catholicism: Dorothy Day's Day Has Come

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November 29th marks the anniversary of the passing of Dorothy Day, the foundress of the Catholic Worker Movement. Mark the date on your calendar, because this radical pacifist who had been a member of the I.W.W., met Leon Trotsky, had an abortion, and raised a daughter as a divorced single mother may be the next American canonized a saint in the Catholic Church.

Born in Brooklyn in 1897, she became a Greenwich Village Bohemian by the late 1910s and '20s, and was active in the radical socialist politics of the day, promoting women's rights, free love, and birth control along with the rights of the workingman. After two failed common-law marriages and an abortion, the birth of her daughter Tamar Teresa and the desire to have her baptized led her to formally embrace Catholicism. She converted in 1927.

In 1933, she founded the Catholic Worker movement with the itinerant French illegal immigrant Peter Maurin, a sort of modern Holy Fool in the mode of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Catholic Worker, which still costs one cent, adopted a neutral, pacifist, and anarchist stance as the world's leaders drifted toward war in the 1930s.

By US entry into World War II, there were more than thirty Catholic Worker communities, "houses of hospitality" in cities and communal farms in the countryside. But Miss Day's uncompromising pacifism and opposition to the draft during the war cost her a lot of support as even Americans sympathetic to the work she was doing were caught up in wartime hysteria and jingoism. Subscriptions to the newspaper and support for the communities fell drastically.

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By the 1960s, Miss Day was again a figure with whom to be reckoned. Abbie Hoffman called her "the first hippie," a title she gladly accepted. (Another title she never accepted: "Don't make me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed that easily.") She welcomed the antiwar, civil rights, and social justice movements of that decade, but never embraced the sexual revolution, having survived one herself in the 1920s, the period she wrote about in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.

However politically heterodox Dorothy Day was, she was always religiously orthodox, saying, "When it comes to labor and politics, I am inclined to be sympathetic to the left, but when it comes to the Catholic Church, then I am far to the right." She also said, "If the Chancery ordered me to stop publishing The Catholic Worker tomorrow, I would."

That day never came, not even in 1949 when she clashed with Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York City over the strike by unionized grave diggers of Calvary Cemetery. She, of course, publicly sided with the workers and took up their cause. But this only earned the Cardinal's respect for the politically radical but theologically traditionalist rabble-rouser. (One is reminded of the pope's decree during the Papal States period that other states could wage war against him but remain in good faith, since they would be waging war with him as a temporal, not spiritual leader.)

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In fact, she was embraced by the Church hierarchy up to the Vicar of Christ himself. Pope Paul VI honored her with the Pacem in Terris ("Peace on Earth") Award in 1972. Dorothy Day was never a fringe figure on the Catholic left. The conservative aristocratic English novelist and fellow Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh made it a point of seeking an audience with her on a visit to America. But not all were impressed; William F. Buckley spoke of the "anti-Catholic doctrines of this goodhearted woman," strange coming from a man whose heretical "Mater Si, Magister No" (mother yes, teacher no) statement about the Church paved the way for a generation of neo-conservative Catholics to ignore Catholic Social Teaching.

By the time of Dorothy Day's death in 1980, the Catholic Worker Movement was global, and there are now over 100 communities worldwide (including one in the author's Archdiocese of Daegu, South Korea, which provides for the Filipino migrant laborer community). In 1983, the Claretian Missionaries proposed that she be sainted, and in 2000, Pope John Paul II gave Archbishop John O'Connor of New York City permission to open her cause. Along with Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, her cause was opened and she received the title Servant of God. She is now on her way to veneration, beatification, and eventual canonization.

Dorothy Day's mission was simple: to perform the Corporal Works of Mercy as commanded by her Lord as articulated by her Church. And she went about doing this without government aid, support, or even permission. In this remarkable statement, she explains why her movement never registered with the Internal Revenue Service for non-profit tax-exempt status:

    Christ commanded His followers to perform what Christians have come to call the Works of Mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the harborless, visiting the sick and prisoner, and burying the dead. Surely a simple program for direct action, and one enjoined on all of us. Not just for impersonal "poverty programs," government-funded agencies, but help given from the heart at a personal sacrifice.

    On another level there is a principle laid down, much in line with common sense and with the original American ideal, that governments should never do what small bodies can accomplish: unions, credit unions, cooperatives, St. Vincent de Paul Societies. Peter Maurin's anarchism was on one level based on this principle of subsidiarity, and on a higher level on that scene at the Last Supper where Christ washed the feet of His Apostles. He came to serve, to show the new Way, the way of the powerless. In the face of Empire, the Way of Love.

    We believe also that the government has no right to legislate as to who can or who are to perform the Works of Mercy. Only accredited agencies have the status of tax-exempt institutions. After their application has been filed, and after investigation and long delays, clarifications, intercession, and urgings by lawyers - often an expensive and long-drawn-out procedure - this tax-exempt status is granted.

No, the Catholic Worker would never sell itself out to be another faith-based organizations in collusion with the Bush Régime. It has been said that America did not establish a State church; she established thousands of them. She did so through the IRS. And while many on the Left worry about Church influence over State, Dorothy Day knew the dangers when the State exerts its muscle on the Church.

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Her Christian Anarchism was born out of her exposure to Wobbly anarcho-syndicalism and her reading of Peter Kropotkin, and, above all, Leo Tolstoy's non-fiction magnum opus, The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Anarchy need not mean a descent into chaos and violence, a nightmare world where the strong prey off the weak. To prevent this, institutions providing moral clarity and "mutual aid" were needed.

Dorothy Day understood the importance of the "voluntary associations" Alexis de Tocqueville found in America, the "unions, credit unions, cooperatives, St. Vincent de Paul Societies" that she mentions. These corps intermédiares range from the most immediate, the family and community groups, to the most universal and transnational, such as the Geneva Conventions or the Catholic Church. Local or global, they serve as a buffer between the individual and absolute Statist power. State socialism and State capitalism both destroy these by atomizing society, leaving individuals defenseless against Tyranny.

Thus, Dorothy Day took issue with the New Deal not because she was against helping the poor ─ this was her life's work, after all ─ but because she knew that once the State took on the functions of the family and the other corps intermédiares, these, not the State as Karl Marx asserted, would "wither away."

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An American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder lives with his wife and two children in self-imposed exile in Pohang, where he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science and technology university. Religiously orthodox and politically heterodox, he might be (more...)
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