Acclaiming Saint Dorothy: An Argument Against Her Canonization

Many Catholic Workers support the process of adding Dorothy Day to the Church’s official roster of canonized saints—but not all do. While this opposition to the canonization process is often acknowledged, the reasons behind it are rarely detailed. In the spirit of “clarification of thought,” then, here are some of the those reasons.

Dorothy Day faces sheriff deputies at Giumarra orchard picket with the United Farm Workers Union, American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1973, Lamont, CA. Photo by Bob Fitch courtesy of the Bob Fitch Photography Archive,Department of Special Collections, Stanford University.

In September 2015, Pope Francis spoke to the assembled Congress of the United States: “In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.” Since that day the process toward having Dorothy Day canonized, officially declared a saint by the Church, that began 15 years earlier has gotten much public attention.

Many among those who knew Dorothy and members of the Catholic Worker movement she and Peter Maurin founded welcome this attention and support the work of the “Dorothy Day Guild” toward her canonization, but not all. While articles sometimes mention that there are some in the movement who are ambivalent or even opposed to the Church naming Dorothy a saint, those reservations are usually not articulated. It has largely been left a mystery, how Catholics who knew her personally or who came later and dedicated their lives to the movement she co-founded might not be enthusiastically in favor of having her sanctity officially recognized by the Vatican. By listing some of those reservations I do not intend to argue with good friends who do not share them or to cast aspersions on their good intentions, nor do I wish to derail or even to influence the process, even if I could. I write this in the spirit of “clarification of thought” that Peter and Dorothy called an essential facet of the Catholic Worker and I hope that it is not a cause for offense.

In the last years of her life, when I knew her, Dorothy Day was often irritated by the personality cult that was already growing up around her. The admiration of strangers was not a balm to her, to say the least. “Why do they want to talk with me?” she sometimes complained about the well-wishers she attracted. She was “just an old woman who lives upstairs,” she said. If these admirers were not motivated by idle curiosity but were truly interested in the work and vision of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy reasoned, they would be more interested in talking with the young people who were making the soup, planting the garden, putting out the newspaper, walking the picket line or going to jail than with her. She could be more gracious, sometimes, responding to the angry abuse of demented or intoxicated guests at our table than to the pious adulation of the good people who read in a magazine that she was a “living saint” and wanted to get a look at her while they still could. In the former she recognized “Christ in His most distressing disguise” deserving of her patience and deference. The latter were just wasting her time and their own.

“That’s the way people try to dismiss you,” Dorothy told a reporter for The Chicago Tribune in 1977. “If you’re a saint, then you must be impractical and utopian, and nobody has to pay any attention to you. That kind of talk makes me sick.” For someone who did not want to be regarded as a saint, though, Dorothy’s own devotion to the saints was boundless and she herself never dismissed them. She kept the saints in her thoughts, prayers, conversations and writings and they were ever present to her as exemplars, intercessors, comrades and friends.

The parishes I attended as a child, the Catholic high school that I graduated from and the Catholic college I had dropped out of, all taught me to pray to and honor and venerate the saints. It was only at the Catholic Worker, though, that the option of trying to be like them or to do as they did was even raised. This was a shocking new perception to me as a young man. The devotion to the saints that imbued the house was not so much one of overbearing piety as of easy familiarity. The icons and other images of the saints on the walls were interspersed at random with photos of friends and community members. One vivid memory of walking into St. Joseph House for the first time is seeing a crucifix flanked by the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on one side and a poster of Che Guevara on the other.

The list of saints that Dorothy revered and emulated was not limited to those who had been officially recognized by the ecclesial institution through a canonical process. Some of those included in her calendar of saints were unknown or even disapproved of by that establishment. We might even include the saintly Father Zossima amongst her circle of holy men and women, though he was not Catholic and was a fictional character in Dostoyevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

Historically, the Church of Rome did not canonize anybody at all until the tenth century and it was another couple of hundred years before it established even a limited monopoly on the practice. Before this, the naming of saints was a homegrown affair. Sometimes a bishop would proclaim a local deceased person’s sanctity and sometimes that saint’s reputation spread to other places. Other times a saint was named by a popular acclamation of the laity that left the clergy no choice but to join in. None of the apostles and evangelists and none of the Roman martyrs were canonized. Not St. Nicholas, not St. Patrick, not St. Martin of Tours, not the Blessed Mother and not St. Joseph, whom Dorothy “picketed” to pay the bills, not one of these is a canonized saint.

Sometimes, the Church has gone back in its files to make an old saint official. Dorothy’s beloved St. Benedict, for example died in 543 and was long revered as a saint before he was finally canonized in the year 1220. The visionary St. Hildegard of Bingen lived until 1179 and from the time of her death, people called her a saint. Even though countless churches, monasteries and baby girls were named for St. Hildegard the world over, she was not canonized until Pope Benedict XVI did the honors in 2012. With few exceptions, though, any person that the Church calls a saint who lived in the first millennium and some who came after, were recognized by a process other than canonization.

“In all history popes and bishops and father abbots seem to have been blind and power loving and greedy. I never expected leadership from them. It is the saints that keep appearing all thru history who keep things going,” Dorothy said. She did not look to the popes and bishops to tell her who is a saint, and she did not need them to instruct her concerning from whom to seek intercession. One did not need to be a Catholic or even a Christian to be held up by her for veneration: “There is no public figure who has more conformed his life to the life of Jesus Christ than Gandhi,” Dorothy wrote in her column when he died in 1948. “There is no man who has carried about him more consistently the aura of divinized humanity, who has added his sacrifice to the sacrifice of Christ, whose life has had a more fitting end than that of Gandhi.” Preempting any such proclamation that might have come (but of course, did not come) from Pope Pius XII, Dorothy took that authority upon herself as one of the faithful to announce, “Truly he is one of those who has added his own sufferings to those of Christ, whose sacrifice and martyrdom will forever be offered to the Eternal Father as compensating for those things lacking in the Passion of Christ. In him we have a new intercessor with Christ; a modern Francis, a pacifist martyr.”

In her early autobiography recounting her conversion, From Union Square to Rome, Dorothy justified her belief that labor organizers struck down in their defense of poor working people, even those who were nonbelievers, are martyrs who died for Christ. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” she quoted Jesus. She also cited novelist François Mauriac’s assurance, “What glorious hope! There are those who will discover that their neighbor is Jesus himself, although they belong to the mass of those who do not know Christ or who have forgotten Him…. It is impossible for any one of those who have real charity in his heart not to serve Christ. Even some of those who think that they hate Him have consecrated their lives to Him.” Dorothy regarded the places where these radical saints were murdered by the agents of capitalism, “places like Everett, Ludlow, Bisbee, South Chicago, Imperial Valley, Elaine, Arkansas, and all other places where they have suffered and died” as holy ground. “This,” she said even as a Catholic, “I still firmly believe.”

In his book Making Saints, Kenneth Woodward describes in detail how the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints goes about the drawn-out procedure of canonization and he suggests that perhaps Dorothy is too good for that process! I agree with him, but this is beside the point. This is not about Dorothy Day—the canonization process itself is a top down patriarchal, stultifying, expensive, misogynous and arcane accretion on the Catholic tradition that should not have survived the Second Vatican Council. Canonization is no more useful or edifying an institution than the Index of Forbidden Books or the popes’ red shoes. The recent revelations that came to light about Pope John Paul II only after his fast-track canonization have raised further reservations about the efficacy of the practice. Attaching Dorothy’s good name to this process runs the risk of giving it credibility that it does not otherwise have and does not deserve.

“I loved the Church for Christ made visible,” Dorothy wrote, “not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me.” She loved the Church as the Church of the poor and for its saints and sacraments. Out of charity and gratitude, perhaps, she did not list all the institutions of the Church itself that she did not love and that so often were a scandal to her. I can’t but wonder, though, if those ecclesial bureaucracies that, for a price, bequeath the title “Saint” might be among these. When she mourned “I feel that over and over again in history the church has become so corrupt it just cries out to heaven for vengeance,” might not the profligate machinations of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints be included in her grievance?

Like many of the saints before her, in the process toward her canonization the figure of Dorothy Day has often been held up as an icon to be venerated rather than a practical example to be followed. The New York Times columnist David Brooks is made much of by the pro-canonization Dorothy Day Guild for his admiration of Dorothy. In his 2015 book, The Road to Character, Brooks praises the virtues of Dorothy Day along with those of the war-makers Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Marshall. Likewise, Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations and member of the Security Council under President Obama, admires both Dorothy Day and Henry Kissinger at the same time! Brooks is convinced that the world is better off for the Iraq War and insists that “free trade reduces world suffering” and Power served as an official apologist for drone assassinations, the war on Yemen and the destruction of Libya, and both claim to be inspired by Dorothy Day.

These two prominent figures are among many Catholics who venerate the saints, including those who would add Dorothy to their number, without being inconvenienced by the “impractical and utopian” aspects of their lives and teachings. They are following in a tradition of dismissal that Dorothy recognized long ago, and it is not my intention to single them out.

In introducing Dorothy’s “cause” for canonization in 2000, the late Cardinal John O’Connor promoted her by exaggerating some aspects of her life and omitting others altogether, making a construct more appealing to the ecclesial institution than the person as she existed in history. The U.S. Catholic bishops, meeting together in November 2012, further canonically compromised Dorothy’s memory when they unanimously voted to support her canonization. Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, it was reported, “drew applause on Tuesday as he promoted Day’s canonization by enlisting her in the bishops’ battle against the Obama administration’s contraception mandate and endorsement of gay rights.” “As we struggle at this opportune moment to try to show how we are losing our freedoms in the name of individual rights,” he said, “Dorothy Day is a good woman to have on our side.”

Editorial cartoon by Chuck Trapkus

The late cardinal and the bishops who applauded him exhibited audacious presumption, I think, claiming Dorothy for their “side.” As early as 1935, less than two years after the Catholic Worker’s founding, Dorothy Day wrote to the archdiocesan censor in response to his suspicions about the editorial line of the newspaper she edited: While The Catholic Worker supports “all that is being done to give free, or reasonably cheap care to mothers in the way of clinics and hospitals, prenatal and post-natal care,” she was also adamant that “we are not going into the subject of birth control at all as a matter of fact.”

I arrived at the Catholic Worker in 1975, seven years after the encyclical Humanae Vitae condemned artificial birth control and only two years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, made abortion legal and these were hot topics for the Catholic press in those days. The Catholic Worker was an exception and the paper largely kept Dorothy’s forty-year-old resolution not to go into the subject of birth control at all. Dorothy clearly saw abortion as a tremendous tragedy, but in her lifetime her opinion on this matter was almost as privately held as was the fact that she had an abortion herself as a young woman.

Dorothy’s insistence that “we need to overthrow this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system,” is more imperative today than ever. At this critical juncture, the world does not need more Dorothy Day admirers, nor does it need Dorothy’s posthumous patronage of the bishops’ cultural agenda. The world does desperately need coworkers in her holy work, and I fear that this talk of canonization is a distraction from that.

Let us acclaim Dorothy Day as a saint but let us do as she did and bypass the canonization process altogether. Let us reclaim the more ancient (and cheaper) tradition of the people acclaiming the saints who have lived among us. Let us do this quickly and get back to work. If it takes the popes and bishops a few centuries to catch up and certify her holiness (assuming we even have that time) it would not bother Dorothy and it should not bother us.

Saint Dorothy, pray for us.

Similar Posts