One small item in the New York Times this week that probably escaped many people’s notice concerned Dorothy Day, a woman I’ve written about in this blog before. She has been a hero to older liberal Catholics for many years, but her mission among the poor in America has faded from memory during the more than thirty years since her death in 1980. The article this week was about a move to canonize Dorothy Day and recognize her as a saint and it is being led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the rather conservative leader of the New York diocese.
For those of us who remember the 1950s and 1960s when Dorothy Day was leading a campaign for social justice and peace, her relations with Cardinal Spellman, a predecessor of Dolan’s, were frosty to say the least. Many of her followers, if not Day herself, considered Spellman a representative of everything that was wrong with American Catholicism at the time. I remember they delighted in calling him “strikebreaker Spellman” when the Cardinal appeared in a news photo digging a grave (or at least holding a shovel) in a cemetery to show his disapproval of a strike by the gravediggers. The Cardinal and Day disagreed on labor policy and on the measures needed to defend America, although they agreed on doctrinal issues. Dorothy Day led civil disobedience efforts to protest air raid drills in the city by refusing to take shelter when the sirens went off, a position that also put her at odds with Church leaders.
Now when so many people in this country have shifted to the right on issues of social justice, death sentences, and the value of voluntary poverty, many Catholic bishops appear to be closer to Dorothy Day than they have been in the past. Certainly she would approve their efforts to remind politicians that the drive for social justice for everyone, including the homeless, undocumented immigrants, and the working poor, is as much an American value as capitalism and entrepreneurial spirit. It is good to know that Cardinal Dolan is supporting a move to recognize the importance of the work Dorothy Day did to remind the world that the Catholic Church, like America itself, is a large institution that has room for many differing viewpoints and can support a variety of visions.