Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day

In the middle of the 20th Century self described Catholic writers, poets and activists mattered to global discourse. Today most Catholic poets and writers try to play down that part of their lives because many times the Church makes being faithful and thoughtful impossible.

In these days when Catholics are arguing whether it is acceptable for Barack Obama, the President of the United States to speak at Notre Dame. We look at a near past where intellectual discourse was welcomed within Catholic institutions.

The pre-Vatican II Church was more dogmatic and has been rightfully vilified as close minded in many things but it was also far more open than today's Church to debate. Within the same Church at the same time Dorothy Day and William F Buckley wrote, spoke and both were viewed as good Catholics.

During the period from 1930-1980 important Catholic intellectuals, activists, poets and writers like; John Courtney Murray SJ who with Reinhold Niebuhr defined a theology for the nuclear age; Flannery O'Connor, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, William F Buckley, Malcolm Muggeridge, William Everson, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Francois Mauriac, and Jacques Maritain all wrote important literature . These thinkers were not just read by a small ghetto of conservatives but often graced the cover of Time Magazine.

Catholics were also central in social change globally. Ernesto Cardinal in Nicaragua, Dom Helder Camara in Brazil, Cesar Chavez in the USA, Charles De Foucould in France, Pope John XXIII, Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, were all witnesses for peace and justice and among all of these great figures perhaps the most interesting and important for American Lay Catholics was Dorothy Day of New York.

In The Duty of Delight, The Edited Diaries of Dorothy Day, from Marquette University Press, Robert Ellsberg a long time editor for Orbis Books and friend of Dorothy's gives us 5 decades of her inner most thoughts. In this volume we get to experience the Depression in New York- and realize how our current economic situation is similar. Day also lets us see what it meant in Catholic parlance for a Lay Woman to start an organization with the word Catholic in the title. Along with Paul Elie's 'The Life You Save May Be Your Own.' Robert Ellsberg's Duty of Delight revives a lost world. A world that we are not likely to see again in our age of narrowcasting and Facebook.

The Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day's organization was uncompromising. Founded with her friend French philosopher Peter Maurin the Worker believed in the corporal works of mercy (See Matthew 25) were central. The Worker also believed in Labor Unions, Pacifism, and apostolic poverty which flumuxed Marxists and Conservatives alike. Dorothy Day was a radical the way St Francis was a radical and this upset everyone. She believed that the reason that there was war and poverty is because we failed to love as Jesus loved. Day was arrested in her life hundreds of times protesting war and poverty. She believed as well that the urine caked Bowery bum was the image of Christ and she lived accordingly. The Catholic Worker newspaper is still published over 70 years later and over 100 Catholic Worker houses exist today.

In a May 1973 entry in the diary she defined her creed;

" I am dogmatic, I believe in the Divinity of Christ, Christ as God, and Redeemer, Saviour, True God and True Man. I believe in a Heaven and Hell, Resurrection of the Body, Life Everlasting. I believe with St Augustine that we are all members or potential members of the Mystical Body of Christ,. In other words we are all members of one another and that if the health of one member suffers the health of the whole body is lowered. I also believe with the IWW (Early 20th Century Marxist Organization) that an injury to one is an injury to all" (TDD: P 531)

The Catholic Worker was listed in 1957 along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by J Edgar Hoover as Communist Front organizations. The FBI director wanted to arrest Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King as subversives. I guess Dorothy would have thought it good company. In the Duty of Delight Day's reflections on her many friends important people like Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton and Cesar Chavez are shared. But she also introduces activist priests, sisters and lay people who today are not remembered.

The book ends with Dorothy Day's death in 1980. 1980 was a perfect time for her to leave us. Soon after her death a campaign to marginalize the kind of activism promoted by Vatican II, Pope John XXIII, and his encyclical Pacem in Terris, and the Catholic Worker was begun by Right Wing groups and the Church Magisterium.

Today most of the important Catholic thinkers and activists of Day's time are not highlighted in Catholic media or in Catholic parishes. On many Catholics sites every major Catholic thinker and activist of the 20th Century from Day to Merton to Murray to John XXIII will not be mentioned because of some concern about "Doctrinal Purity". In fact the website Catholic Culture (Right Wing) Says of the Catholic Worker website "This site has articles which distort the Church's social teaching by promoting a radical pacifism." As if Jesus was something other than a pacifist? It seems to me that Dorothy Day would have laughed at that.

In the end The Duty of Delight edited by Robert Ellsberg shares with the world the inner life of an extraordinary woman. While the Church continues to canonize people for creating new novenas or devotions Dorothy Day's "cause" for sainthood is stalled in Rome. Could it be that she is already a saint and we should not bother with the paperwork?


jpbenney said...


"1980 was a perfect time for her to leave us",

as a self-taught sociologist interested in the root of today's culture wars, I think you have hit the bulls-eye. It was exactly that point when today's culture wars emerged. Dorothy's thought is much too religiously conservative for the Left and too critical of the rights of big business for the "Austrian" Right.

You are also right about how religious authors were much more widely read before 1980 than since.

In fact, many counterculture insiders will testify Catholic distributism was a major influence on such movements as the "back to the land" ideal and attempts at communal living.

The Truth said...

"I’ll never forget the time that I had to literally stand up against birth control. My sister Della had worked for Margaret Sanger, foundress of Planned Parenthood. When Della exhorted me that I shouldn’t encourage my daughter Tamar to have so many children, I stood up firmly and walked out of the house whereupon Della ran after me weeping, saying, “Don’t leave me, don’t leave me. We just won’t talk about it again.” To me, birth control and abortion are genocide. I say, make room for children, don’t do away with them. I learned that prevention of conception when the act that one is performing is for the purpose of fusing the two lives more closely and so enrich them that another life springs forth and the aborting of a life conceived are sins that are great frustrations in the natural and spiritual order.

The Sexual Revolution is a complete rebellion against authority, natural and supernatural, even against the body and its needs, its natural functions of child bearing. This is not reverence for life, it is a great denial and more resembles Nihilism than the revolution that they think they are furthering." -- Dorothy Day