The following comes from an April 19 Crisis Magazine article by Father Brandon O’Brien:
Dorothy Day was a complex person who hardly fit into anyone’s preconceived categories or notions. She was staunchly pro-life and much of her work with the Catholic Worker Movement centered on social justice. She was also a pacifist, marching against the Vietnam War. Even more than thirty-five years after her death she is still a divisive figure. The opening of her cause for canonization has further highlighted this divisiveness.
Perhaps more than anyone else, British-born poet W.H. Auden, in a 1972 article, presents the most even-handed and fair analysis of Day and her work. As a Christian humanist he is able to appreciate her ministry to the poor while his life as an artist and public intellectual in the twentieth century also allows him the ability to recognize Day’s missteps and inconsistencies.
John L. Allen Jr. has written in Crux that “Dorothy Day is the ideal American sainthood candidate in the Francis era, and it would be both symbolically and substantively apt if he can be the pontiff to raise her to the honors of the altar.”
I wouldn’t dare argue against the fact that Day and Pope Francis are kindred spirits. However, what I would argue is that Day is neither the “ideal American sainthood candidate in the Francis era” nor the ideal American candidate for sainthood in any other era.
This is because decades before her protest of the Vietnam War, Day was arguing that all sides in the Second World War were equally culpable for its outbreak: “We believe that Hitler is no more personally responsible than is Chamberlain or Daladier or any other leader. The blame rests upon the people of the entire world…. Capitalism’s betrayal came more quickly in Germany because of the Versailles Treaty, and Nazism flowered as a logical result.” Auden calls this argument “nonsense” and cites it as the “one point on which I take issue with Dorothy Day.” Auden explains that “[w]e all know that war is a horrible thing and that, whoever is to blame for starting it, atrocities will be committed on both sides; but the blame for World War II, surely, lies with Germany and Japan (Russia, because of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, cannot be altogether exonerated), not with England, France, or America.”
It is interesting to note that while Day might have marched against the war in Vietnam and assigned blame to all sides during the Second World War, she wasn’t afraid to support the leftists in various other twentieth-century conflicts. Auden notes that Day’s paper The Catholic Worker was the only Catholic publication to support the anti-Catholic Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. Auden himself briefly participated in the Civil War on the side of the Republicans before the horrors of the Second World War turned him off from extremism on the left and the right. Auden is able to rationalize the paper’s position against General Franco and the Catholic Nationalists saying that though “[The Catholic Worker] probably foresaw that, if the [Republicans] won, the Church would be persecuted, it thought that a Christian must always choose to be persecuted rather than to persecute.” If this was the reasoning of The Catholic Worker while priests were being murdered and nuns were being raped by Spanish Republicans, its reasoning was obviously a false dichotomy. One wonders if it would approach the persecution and murder of Christians at the hands of ISIS with the same passivity and quietism today.
Day seems to have applied the same policy to Fidel Castro’s seizure of power in Cuba. Even Auden notes that “[r]ather oddly, and to the dismay of some of her coworkers, when Castro seized power in Cuba, Dorothy Day abandoned her hitherto uncompromising pacifist position.” Thus, while Day would have preferred persecuted Catholics to remain docile in Spain, she had no problem with the poor rising up in revolt in Cuba: “We do believe that it is better to revolt, to fight, as Castro did with his handful of men … than do nothing.” Again, we see another horrifying example of Day’s acceptance of violence, if, and only if, it fits into the narrative of leftist rebellion: “[Day] did not deny that Castro had made much use of firing squads, but she excused him on the grounds that his revolution had been for the poor, and if one had to choose between the violence done the poor by the acquisitive bourgeois spirit of many Americans and the violence of Castro, which was aimed at helping the poor, then she would take the latter.”
John Allen argues that if Pope Francis “were looking around for a current American cause under which he might want to light a fire, it’s hard to imagine Dorothy Day wouldn’t seem an awfully attractive possibility.” Unfortunately, this is a patently dangerous and dishonest remark to make.