I will not indulge in any sort of “what would Dorothy Day do” when it comes to thinking about the current US Catholic Bishops’ Conference taking place in Baltimore. However, it is interesting to ponder this woman who exemplifies so much of 20th century Catholicism and the bishops’ agenda, especially as the bishops discuss cause for her canonization, while on the same day failing to pass a pastoral message on economics.
Their last pastoral letter on economics was in 1986, “Economic Justice for All”. Certainly, many things have changed since then, but as Dorothy Day knew, “the poor you will always have with you”. Her life tells much of the story of the 20th century: socialism, suffrage, labor unions, a failed live-in relationship and abortion. But it also tells the story of redemption: a love of Christ and His Church, Scripture and prayer, the Rosary and Psalms.
In 1960, Dorothy Day returned money sent to the Catholic Worker house by the city of New York – interest on the house owned by the Catholic Worker Movement. In her letter to the city, she said, “We do not believe in the profit system, and so we cannot take profit or interest on our money. People who take a materialistic view of human service wish to make a profit but we are trying to do our duty by our service without wages to our brothers as Jesus commended in the Gospel (Matthew 25.)”
She was chided for this. Some thought the money should have been kept and used for the poor. A benefactor told Dorothy that it was interest from the benefactor’s estate that was donated; what was wrong with interest? Dorothy acknowledged she was only doing the best she knew how, and that,
[o]f course we are involved, the same as everyone else, in living off interest. We are all caught up in this same money economy. Just as “God writes straight with crooked lines,” so we too waver, struggle on our devious path – always aiming at God, even though we are conditioned by habits and ancestry, etc. We have free will, which is our greatest gift. We are free to choose, and as we see more clearly, our choice is more direct and easier to make. Be we all see through a glass darkly. It would be heaven to see Truth face to face…There is no simple solution. Let the priests and the economists get to work on it. It is a moral and an ethical problem.
Dorothy Day would be the first to say her poverty was voluntary. She did not expect everyone to live as she did. She felt profound allegiance with the poor, and chose the most personal approach of all to serving them: she became one of them, lived with them, ate with them, served them.
“Let the priests and the economists get to work on it.” That sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea, from a perfectly radical follower of Christ.
(image of Dorothy Day: copyright by Vivian Cherry)