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    The Light of Day

    A review of Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century

    Tom Cornell

    July 15, 2020
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    • Calvin from Maine

      I have followed the life & theology of Dorothy Day for 30 years. I’ve had the honor of visiting Mary House & St. Joseph Catholic Worker Houses in New York! Thank you for this article that is sorely needed as the homeless and poor are ever visible as we move about in our community!

    Dorothy Day has been a driving force in my life for nearly seventy years. The causes of nonviolence, including disciplined civil disobedience, community of goods, simplicity of life, and voluntary poverty are the values that defined her life. What more does this world need today than a new social order based on, as she and Peter Maurin, her co-founder in the Catholic Worker Movement, liked to put it, “a philosophy so old it looks like new”?

    To research a new biography, author John Loughery came to interview me and my wife, Monica, at the Peter Maurin Catholic Worker Farm in Marlboro, New York, which is part of the New York City Catholic Worker, the original “mother house.” We found John’s questions to the point, and he listened! (For these contributions, I appear twelve times in the index.) The result is a fine and fun read, and a significant achievement, worthy of joining William D. Miller’s A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement (1973), Jim Forest’s Love Is the Measure (1986), and Kate Hennessey’s Dorothy Day : The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother (2017).

    I do have to qualify the book’s assertion that Dorothy counseled young men to refuse to register for the draft. She had published a box with that advice once, after the 1940 Selective Service Act was signed into law. She was later summoned to the chancery office, where she was advised that it is morally irresponsible to urge seventeen-year-old boys to subject themselves to penalties they cannot appreciate. The maximum sentence for failing to register with the Selective Service was and is up to five years in prison. Most men serve about two years. Not one of them knows what two years in prison will do to a man. Dorothy was reminded that conscientious objection is protected by the law and that she herself had pleaded before the Senate Committee on Selective Service for recognition of conscientious objection and that the bishops as a group had pleaded for the right to selective conscientious objection. Then, as now, a claimant must object to his own participation in any war of any kind.

    Many of us who knew her would also take exception to the book’s description of her as “libidinous.” It’s true that before she converted to Catholicism she had a series of intense relationships with various men, but these connections transcended some carnal understanding. She certainly was in love with Mike Gold (born Itzok Granich) at one point. At his death in 1967, decades after their romance, the Communist Party organized a memorial service at Town Hall in Manhattan. Dorothy was invited to speak, along with Gus Hall (national chairman of the party) and other top Communists. Each was given seven minutes to speak. When Hall or any of the others went overtime, they were cut short, all but Dorothy. She must have gone on for twenty minutes, without notes. No one dared to object. She alone spoke of a man of flesh, blood, and soul.

    Dorothy’s case for canonization as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church is well advanced. It’s a process that follows strict guidelines set by canon law. (Kenneth Woodward’s 1996 book Making Saints gives a good overview of what the process entails.) On this side of the Atlantic, almost all has been done, and will be taken to Rome in a few months.

    There are a lot of misconceptions about the process of canonization. It is not meant to honor anyone; it should not be understood as a reward. There is no longer necessarily a “devil’s advocate,” someone designated to speak against the nomination. There is much less emphasis on verifiable miracles, and more on the vox populi, the voice of the people. The Vatican really wants to know if devotion to this candidate is widespread, if people in diverse areas of the world invoke her name in prayer, and if they report any “favors” they may have been granted. When the church declares that someone is enrolled in the canon (rule) of saints that means that the church recognizes the individual as an authentic model of Christian discipleship for this time and place. This book will surely help.

    But Dorothy’s example shines a light to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, regardless of the question of official sainthood. Her life, her values are what matter, and they are needed more than ever in this time. Loughery and Randolph have done an amazing job of digesting a wide range of research, making it available in good, straightforward prose. Let us pray this book will be widely read.

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    Contributed By

    Deacon Tom Cornell is a sixty-seven-year veteran of the Catholic Worker movement who was lifelong friends with Dorothy Day. He was managing editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper from 1962–1964 and is now an associate editor. He was a cofounder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship and of Pax Christi, USA. With his wife, Monica, he now serves as co-manager of Peter Maurin Catholic Worker Farm in Marlboro, New York. Tom serves on the executive committee of the Dorothy Day Guild, established to forward her canonization as a saint. He has been a deacon in the Catholic Church since his ordination in 1988.

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