(Photo by Valerie Schmalz/Catholic San Francisco)
Larry Purcell, executive director of Redwood City Catholic Worker House, where he has been for nearly 40 years, is pictured with volunteers Aida Figueroa and Susan Crane.
Some followers question Day sainthood cause
December 5th, 2012
By Valerie Schmalz
The U.S. bishops voted unanimously Nov. 13 to support the sainthood cause of pacifist and Catholic convert Dorothy Day, but many of those in the Catholic Worker Movement she founded view canonization with skepticism and even hostility.
“I don’t think she would want to be canonized,” said Aida Figuerroa, who lives at the Catholic Worker House in Redwood City, citing Day’s oft-quoted, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
“I am glad that she gets the attention for her commitment to the very poor,” said Larry Purcell, executive director of the Redwood City Catholic Worker House, one of three Catholic Worker houses in San Mateo County. “I am concerned that the canonization process will sanitize her life and will not emphasize how categorically she opposed the empire of the United States and how the empire is expanded and maintained with massive military might.”
Right after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Catholic Worker newspaper’s banner headline read: “We continue our Christian pacifist stand,” leading to the marginalization of the movement until the Vietnam War era.
New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who is leading her sainthood cause, said Day shows the Catholic Church’s commitment to the dignity of human life and social justice.
“She dedicated her life to aiding and advocating for the poor, leading a life characterized by voluntary poverty, works of mercy and Scripture,” said Cardinal Dolan, “Her life, of course, like Saul on the road to Damascus, was radically changed when she became introduced to Jesus Christ and his church.”
Before her conversion to Catholicism, Day had had an abortion, a common-law marriage, and a child out of wedlock. In 1932, Day met Frenchman immigrant and former Christian Brother Peter Maurin, who proposed they found the Catholic Worker newspaper. Its philosophy of pacifism, voluntary poverty , decentralized economics based on ethical treatment of the worker, care for the poor, and small-hold property ownership quickly took concrete form with Catholic Worker hospitality houses and farming communes. Today Catholic Worker houses number about 200 and the Catholic Worker newspaper still sells for a penny.
After her conversion, Day “became an apostle – an icon – of everything wrong with what she did before and of everything right about the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life,” Cardinal Dolan said.
Day, who died Nov. 29, 1980, was arrested many times for civil disobedience. She was jailed in 1917 for demonstrating before the White House for women’s right to vote, refused to participate in civil defense drills during the Cold War and was last jailed at age 75 for demonstrating with the farm workers.
Day was a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily, discussed her practice of frequent confession and the disarray caused by sexual immorality in her diaries. She fasted for peace at the Second Vatican Council.
She was one of two Americans chosen to receive Eucharist from Pope Paul VI in 1967 during her a visit to Rome to participate in the International Congress of the Laity.
Orbis Books editor Robert Ellsberg, who met Day when he was 19, and is viewed as the foremost contemporary literary expert on Day, backed New York Cardinal John O’Connor when he proposed her sainthood cause originally. Day was declared a Servant of God by Blessed John Paul II in 2000, opening her sainthood cause.
“I am all in favor of recognizing Dorothy Day as the saint I believe she was, not because it matters to Dorothy Day but because it will help to amplify and spread her message and show us how to live more faithfully the radical message of Jesus,” said Ellsberg, who edited “The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day” (Image Books, 2008).
“What was so distinctive about her, what was so different from everyone else was how outspoken and courageous she was in defending life in all the ways it is threatened and violated by and large by most Catholics,” Ellsberg said in a telephone interview from upstate New York.
But some Catholic Worker volunteers say they are worried that the canonization process will mean her life story will be hijacked for a pro-life conservative agenda. “I think they’ll focus just on parts of her, focus maybe on Dorothy Day as this pro-life icon,” said Peter Stiehler, who with his wife founded the San Bruno Catholic Worker House 17 years ago.
“What we are trying to do here is to follow the example of Dorothy Day in service to the poor and we think that the church’s position is clear on pro-life issues and that they don’t need Dorothy for that,” said Eric DeDode of the Kelly Avenue Half Moon Bay Catholic Worker House. “What they need Dorothy for is her nonviolent peacemaking, her support for ending war, and her support for economic justice for those who struggle.”
Ellsberg said Day completely supported the church’s teaching of the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, but kept her own abortion private so it would be “a kind of exploitation” to make that the most salient fact of her story.
“She certainly supported church teaching on abortion and it was not a major theme in American society or in the church until the last decade or so of her life,” said Ellsberg, saying she signed a letter protesting the legalization of abortion. “She felt she had a comprehensive pro-life position.”
“Her whole life was affirming life. She would agree with Cardinal (Joseph) Bernardin who spoke about the seamless garment approach to the affirmation of life,” said Ellsberg. “If that were really widely accepted or characteristic of the church’s prolife activity and message, I think that Dorothy Day would be a very appropriate icon for that message.”
Catholic News Agency and Catholic News Service contributed to this article.
From December 7, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.