WASHINGTON — The recent vote by America’s Catholic bishops to move Dorothy Day along toward canonization was controversial, but mainly among those who manufacture controversy for a living. The media have enjoyed pointing out that Day’s main advocate, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, is a traditionalist, while Day was a socialist who once had an abortion. It must be something like a conservative president nominating a raging liberal to the Supreme Court, except with eternal tenure at stake.
The application of political categories to theological matters is usually a mistake. In this case, it exceeds the media’s usual quota of religious ignorance.
Day, to be sure, would make for an interesting chapter in “Lives of the Saints for Children.” She began her pilgrimage as a left-wing journalist in 1920s New York, writing for journals with names like The Masses. Day interviewed Leon Trotsky, was friendly with John Reed, picked up pocket money by modeling nude and drank to excess with playwright Eugene O’Neill. One boyfriend promised to leave her unless she got an abortion — and left her anyway after she did.
Then in her late 20s came the birth of a daughter and a decisive Catholic conversion, complete with rosaries, devotion to the saints and daily mass. Her common-law husband at the time, a militant atheist, could not abide the change and left her as well. He accused her of “absorption in the supernatural” — a pretty good description of sainthood. Day set out to serve the poor, hungry and homeless while criticizing the “filthy, rotten system” that seemed to produce so many of them. She founded dozens of communal farms and “Houses of Hospitality” where those in need were treated as humans and guests, not merely as the masses. She also protested for workers’ rights, against nuclear weapons, and got arrested with the best of them. In 1980, at the age of 83, Day died at a House of Hospitality in Manhattan she shared with the indigent.
Not being a Catholic, I’m not sure how the posthumous duties of saints are assigned. But Day is qualified for an interesting range. She could be the patron saint of Greenwich Village bohemians. Or of intense, combative New Yorkers. Or of women with jackass boyfriends.
Those who are surprised that this could be the story of a saint haven’t been paying much attention for, well, more than 2,000 years. According to church tradition, Mary Magdalene had an interesting past. St. Paul had the blood of saints on his hands. St. Augustine had been the party boy of Hippo. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor,” explained Jesus, “but the sick.” The most inspiring, accessible saints are not models of piety but models of grace. They provide at least a faint hope that the road to spiritual excellence might begin at any moment — even now — in our flawed and tangled lives.
Sainthood for Day — still a long procedural road — would also be a reminder that the Christian church is not defined or bounded by political ideology. The views of Day’s Catholic Worker Movement resist easy categorization. Her pacifism was of the muscular variety that opposed World War II. She criticized the profit motive but also distrusted all concentrations of governmental power. Her socialism was patterned on the communal provision of the early Christian church and medieval religious orders. Day’s ideology might best be called localism — a vision she described as consisting of “land, bread, work, children and the joys of community in play and work and worship.”
It is a tribute to the breadth of Catholicism that Day shared the same faith, at the same time, in the same city, with another prominent Catholic layman: William F. Buckley Jr. The church is an institution strengthened by such political contradictions — between pacifists and just-war theorists, distributionists and free marketeers, establishment figures and impatient prophets — because it serves to highlight the place of overlap. The Eucharistic altar is large — as large as politics and the world.
Above all, St. Dorothy would be a reminder of the radical, shocking demands of human dignity. Day was gobsmacked by the notion. “The mystery of the poor,” she said, “is this: That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for him.” It may be pious overstatement. If true, however, we yawn at duties that should cause us to tremble. And those who take those duties literally and seriously are already saints.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.