In an earlier article, we pointed out how an American-style “Catholic-communism” has taken up residence in the Oval Office with the election of Joe Biden. There is now a growing symbiosis between the religious and political spheres in the United States. Starting with the President, an increasing number of leftist Democratic leaders are flaunting their religious faith as the foundation of their progressive political agenda. It is no coincidence that the new White House tenant has behind his desk a photo of Pope Francis and a bust of the agitator César Chávez, a well-known figure of left-wing social Catholicism mentioned in the earlier article.1
Dorothy Day (1897-1980) is another name that is increasingly circulating in American political circles. The current Administration also presents her as a model and source of inspiration.
“Biden’s Catholicism is very influenced by the Catholic social tradition of people like Dorothy Day,” writes Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth College.2 Samantha Power, Biden’s nominee to lead the powerful United States International Aid Agency, calls herself a “disciple and fan of Dorothy Day.”3
President Biden’s admiration for the activist matches that of Pope Francis. In his 2015 speech to the U.S. Congress, the Argentine pope proposed Day as an example: “In these moments of such difficult social situations, I cannot fail to mention the example of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker [movement].”4
The communist left echoes the praise of these two major figures. The Italian Communist newspaper, Il Manifesto, recently published a long tribute to Dorothy Day signed by Alessandra Pigliaru.5
Who was Dorothy Day, and why do so many propose her as a model?
Pigliaru defines her well as “a radical activist for social rights, an anarchist and pioneer of feminism, and later, a militant Catholic.” Dorothy Day began her revolutionary career during World War I as a communist activist, militant feminist and union organizer. She had several tumultuous relationships with Communist Party militants, one of which ended in an abortion in 1919. After the war, Day worked briefly as a prostitute in New Orleans. Yet another relationship with a militant anarchist resulted in the birth of a daughter.
In 1927, Day converted to Catholicism. She gave up atheism and agnosticism, but not her radical social activism, which, if anything, strengthened. She never disavowed the profound influence of her communist/anarchist past. “The bottle always smells of the liquor it once contained,” she used to repeat to explain her position.6
For the moment of her conversion, the only significant change was that her revolutionary commitment was based on the social Catholicism of the extreme left. Her conversion also allowed her to address a much wider audience. While the strictly communist current inside the Church was still a minority in the United States, the progressive Catholic movement grew strongly.
In 1932, Day met Frenchman Peter Maurin, a former member of Le Sillon [a leftist-progressive French Catholic movement condemned by Pope Saint Pius X]. He introduced her to the European current of democratic Catholicism, a doctrinal influence that would mark the rest of her life. Maurin convinced Day to found the Catholic Worker Movement, which quickly became a landmark of American Catholicism. The first issue of the movement’s mouthpiece, The Catholic Worker, was distributed on May 1, 1933, at a Communist Party rally.
The socially troubled atmosphere of the thirties provided a favorable environment for all sorts of revolutionary initiatives. Influenced by democratic Catholicism, many Catholic militants participated in labor union struggles. They did not shrink from collaborating with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which was then very close to the Communist Party.7
In 1962, Dorothy Day traveled to Cuba and devoted several articles in The Catholic Worker to singing the praises of the dictator Fidel Castro and his bloody revolution. In 1968, Day became passionate about Father Camilo Torres’s revolutionary example. This Colombian guerrilla priest died in 1966 during an ambush of an Army patrol. Day wrote the preface to the English edition of Torres’ works, which states: “Camilo Torres joined the guerrillas, their life in the mountains and jungle; he joined the pilgrimage of the people, the campesinos [peasants]. He broke bread with them and truly became a compañero, the one who breaks bread. I can imagine Camilo Torres with his fellow soldiers, sitting around a fire at night, being hunted by the Army and bringing the Gospel of hope to the poor. Camilo Torres, pray for us, that we may have your courage in offering our lives for our brothers!”8
The left’s veneration for Dorothy Day seemed to know no bounds. In 1972, this communist guerrilla sympathizer and supporter of bloody dictatorships received the Laetare Medal, the University of Notre Dame’s highest honor. A cardinal and several bishops were present at the ceremony.
When she died in 1980, The New York Times dedicated a half-page obituary to her, the amount of space usually reserved for heads of state. Written by Alden Whitman, a former Communist Party member, the piece stated, among other things, “Dorothy Day played a pivotal role in the development of social and economic thought for a generation of American priests and laypeople.”9
In 1983, the Claretian Missionaries proposed her cause for beatification. Despite opposition from many Catholics, Pope John Paul II allowed the cause to be opened in March 2000 in the Archdiocese of New York, officially conferring on her the title of Servant of God. In November 2012, the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, submitted the continuation of the cause to the Bishops’ Conference and received its approval.
This figure of the “Catholic” left now serves as an inspiration for both the Biden Administration and Pope Francis’s pontificate. Never has the metaphor of the two leaderships coming together been so true.
Photo Credit: © Vector FX — stock.adobe.com
Updated June 6, 2021.
- Amanda Mars, “Biden: devoto cattolico, apostolico e ‘gayfriendly’” [Biden, a Devout Catholic, Apostolic and ‘Gay-friendly’], El País, 01-31-2021.
- Michael J. O’Loughlin, Samantha Power, “Joe Biden’s pick to head up humanitarian aid, is a fan of Pope Francis and Dorothy Day,” America, 01-13-2021.
- Bill Chappell, “In Pope Francis’ Congress Speech, Praise For Dorothy Day And Thomas Merton,” NPR, 09-24-2015.
- Alessandra Pigliaru, “Dorothy Day, quell’inquieto amore per i diseredati” [Dorothy Day, That Restless Love for the Disinherited], Il Manifesto, 12/29/2020.
- Cited in Jim Forrest, “There was Always Bread,” Sojourners, December 1976, p. 4. For a story of Dorothy Day, see Mel Piehl, Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982); Nancy L. Roberts, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1987).
- During the thirties, the CIO served as a militant arm not only for the Communist Party USA but also for “Catholic-communism,” for which the AFL (American Federation of Labor) was too moderate. The CIO even boasted the support of some bishops, such as Most Rev. Bernard Sheil, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, who more than once sat next to CIO head John Lewis during worker demonstrations, encouraging Catholics to participate in them.
- Cited in Richard L. Rubenstein and John K. Roth, eds., The Politics of Latin American Liberation Theology: The Challenge to U.S. Public Policy (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute Press, 1988), p. 58.
- Alden Whitman, “Dorothy Day, Catholic Activist, 83, Dies,” The New York Times, December 1, 1980, p. D12.