On a recent morning at New York’s smallest soup kitchen, volunteers — or Catholic Workers, as they are known here on the ground floor of St. Joseph House in the East Village — served coffee, soup, and bread to a hundred or so hard-luck New Yorkers, a tradition on the block going back decades.
Mostly of college age, the servers were inspired by the example of Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, promoting Christ-centered pacifism through its newspaper, houses of hospitality, and farming communes. The leadership of the Holy See has been similarly inspired: During his 2015 speech to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis praised Day for her “social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed,” which gave a boost to an ongoing effort to have her declared a person of “heroic virtue” — a saint.
And now there is the current president, whose malevolent disregard for society’s “losers” couldn’t be further from Day’s vision of a world dedicated to Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
“Of course Dorothy Day opposed just about everything Trump stands for,” says Robert Ellsberg, a writer and editor who worked with Day in the final years of her life. “But what was appealing about Dorothy was that she was not just an ‘oppositional’ figure; she embodied deeply positive and attractive values: love, solidarity, hope.”
Day, who died in 1980, was no plaster saint. Born into an Episcopal family in Brooklyn in 1897, she grew into a bookish young woman with a burgeoning social conscience. After dropping out of college she moved to the Lower East Side and worked as a journalist at a string of socialist newspapers. She lived the life of bohemian activist, drinking with Eugene O’Neill, protesting in the streets, interviewing Trotsky, having love affairs (one of which ended with an abortion), and traveling in Europe. She fell into a relationship with an anarchist and gave birth to a daughter, Tamar, which drew her closer to the Catholic Church. She converted in 1927, offering a prayer “that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor,” as she wrote in her autobiography.
That way emerged when Day met Peter Maurin, a French Catholic intellectual and vagabond, who came up with the idea to start a newspaper that would broadcast the social teachings of the Church as a counter to the prevailing Depression ideologies of communism, fascism, and “finance capitalism.” The Catholic Worker, first published on May Day 1933, still costs a penny. Its mission quickly broadened to include “houses of hospitality” to aid the destitute (like the one on East 1st Street) and farming communes to reconnect people with the land. Today, there are almost 250 Catholic Worker communities, mostly in the United States.
Day’s politics don’t fit easily onto a left-right axis. American Catholics were appalled in the 1930s when she refused to support Francisco Franco’s pro-Catholic fascist insurgency during the Spanish Civil War. Catholic Worker membership plummeted when she maintained her pacifism throughout World War II. During the Vietnam era, Abbie Hoffman called her “the first hippie,” and Catholic Workers were among the first protestors to burn their draft cards. Day was 73 at the time of her last arrest, spending ten days in a California jail in 1976 for joining Cesar Chavez’s farm labor campaign.
Yet she wasn’t a strict leftist, said Geoffrey Gneuhs, a longtime Catholic Worker who gave the eulogy at Day’s funeral. She was a “decentralist,” someone who opposed big government and thought citizens had a Christian obligation to aid each other without the intrusive hand of the state. “Like Thomas Jefferson, she believed that the government is best which governs least,” Gneuhs said. Day was on record as opposing Social Security, abortion, and “socialized medicine.” She preferred a localism centered on “land, bread, work, children, and the joys of community in play and work and worship,” as she wrote in Worker in 1949.
In 2000, the Archdiocese of New York began conducting an inquiry into the life and works of the “Servant of God,” as those deemed eligible for sainthood are called. Day’s cause will move next to Rome, where a labyrinthine process will determine if she should be formally raised to the altars of the Church. “We have collected 98 percent of her writings so far,” said Jeff Korgen, who is coordinating the archdiocesan effort. The public support of the Pope, as expressed most prominently during the 2015 speech, is expected to speed the process along.
The emergence of Trump might also help the cause. Robert Ellsberg suggests there is much about the resistance to the 45th president that is consonant with Day’s message. “It is a fundamental response to a regime that promotes fear, regards helpless refugees as enemies, sets one group of people against another, promotes an idolatrous view of patriotism in which America’s greatness is achieved by putting other people down,” he says.
“It’s hard to imagine two people more different than my grandmother and Donald Trump,” says Kate Hennessy, Tamar’s youngest daughter, who recently published a memoir about her relationship with her grandmother. “She dedicated her life to the poorest of the poor, ‘losers’ as Trump would call them, but in them she saw the face of God.” Hennessy doubts that Day’s appeal to her followers “would make any sense to Trump — a sense of giving oneself for others and a look to the long view in terms of change.”