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Does the world need a saint like Dorothy Day?

WASHINGTON (SE): Billed as a saint to transcend partisan politics, the champion of the Catholic Labour Movement in the United States of America (US) from the time of the Great Depression of 1929 to 1932 through to her death on 29 November 1980, Dorothy Day was put forward by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as a candidate for sainthood in December 2012.

Unlike the recently canonised Filipino missionary to Guam from the 17th century, St. Pedro Calungsod, who can be warmly embraced by anyone from any strata of society, as nothing much is known about him, thus leaving people free to invent an image of sanctity for him that they think they can relate to, Day lived a well-documented life.

Her cause is further complicated by the fact that she cannot be pigeonholed in the area of politics, religion or social philosophy.

As Leslie Fain says, borrowing a phrase from Peter Kreeft, she has something to offend everyone!

Day was a woman ahead of her time. She was a staunch anti-war campaigner in the US during World War II, at a time when most of the country saw itself as fighting for the freedom of the whole world.

She was dogged in her support for civil rights and on more than one occasion clashed with the officers of the law in her determination to push her ideal through to the end.

She championed the poor; the right to housing, the right to eat and the right to a decent wage, at a time when the nation was championing the free market and condemning anyone who spoke a warning word as a Communist.

Consequently, she did not make friends on the right wing of politics. As Frain points out in writing for The Catholic World (USA) on January 3, “A host of conservative websites and blogs opine that Day was a Communist who flouted Church teaching.”

However, she notes, “These conservatives never provide proof, but only make statements to the effect that she was trying to push the Church in a Communist direction.”

However, Chad Pecknold takes a different perspective. The professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC simply says that she was obedient to a higher authority.

“Advancing her cause—especially in the wake of the recent presidential election in which the Catholic vote was divided by political calculus that her life rejects—is providential in the Church in America today,” Pecknold writes.

Tom Cornell, a deacon assigned to the Peter Maurin Farm, which Day founded, calls her a bridge between left and right in what he calls the polarised Church of today. “I don’t think labels are very helpful,” he adds, as whatever people may think of her, she was indeed a bridge figure in her own lifetime as well, with the ability to talk not only to Catholics, but to people of any faith and none in society.

However, Cornell says that her early life has been radically misrepresented. He notes that while she did work for a communist front organisation, she was never comfortable there, but stayed on at the advice of her confessor, “You have to do something for a living.”

Although she later described herself as an ex-Communist, she stated publicly that abortion and birth control are genocide, even though she had had an abortion in her younger days, and in 1974 was one of seven Catholic signatories to the Catholic Peace Fellowship Statement on Abortion.

Also contrary to popular opinion, she was not a fan of government welfare.

Maurin, the cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement, quoted her as saying in his memoir, Loaves and Fishes, “The city, the state—we have nicknamed them Holy Mother the City, Holy Mother the State—have taken on a large role in sheltering the homeless: But the ideal is for every family to have a Christ room, as the early fathers of the Church called it.”

Maurin continues saying, “The prophets of Israel certainly emphasised hospitality. It seems to me that in the future the family—the ideal family—will always try to care for one more. If every family that professed to follow scriptural teaching, whether Jew, Protestant or Catholic, were to do this, there would be no need for huge institutions, houses of dead storage where human beings waste away in loneliness and despair. Responsibility must return to the parish with a hospice and a centre for mutual aid, to the group, the family, to the individual.”

However, Day was not against the government, but simply believed that problems should first be solved at the lowest level. She also believed that people in society are not individuals at war with everyone else and nor are they subsumed into a collective, but rather are formed by and in the community.

Nor was she against business, just suspicious of it, especially where business and government meet to hammer out deals.

She was also in love with the papal words on justice and peace, but did not believe that either people or the hierarchy saw the need to take good heed of them.

Who was Day? In the long run, she was simply a dedicated Catholic.

George Horton, from Catholic Charities in New York, describes her this way. “I think that there can be a problem with people on the left and the right. Some people on the left can only see her social activism and pacifism. In some curious way, everyone wants to define her, but she wants everyone to go back to the gospel and let it define us,” he said.

She believed that she had a loyalty to a much wider community than just the US.

Nevertheless, what would Day herself think about being canonised? While in all probability she never seriously considered the prospect, she is on record as saying, “Do not belittle my life by making me a saint!”

Maybe her mission is to question some of the criteria used in the making of saints in the Church today.