Justice Perspective: Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker

Fri, May 13th 2016 04:00 pm
Catholic Charities of Buffalo
Deacon Don Weigel
Deacon Don Weigel

There's not much these days you can get for a penny. Penny candy is long gone, and many economists are talking about doing away with the penny altogether. But the one thing that a penny will still buy is a copy of The Catholic Worker newspaper.

The Catholic Worker was first issued on May 1, 1933, and was published by Dorothy Day and her fellow activist, Peter Maurin. They set a price for the paper at one cent, and by December of that year they were selling 100,000 papers each month. The paper never changed its price - and still sells for one cent today.

But the really interesting part of all of this is not the history of The Catholic Worker newspaper, but its founder, Dorothy Day. The name might be familiar to you. She was mentioned by Pope Francis in his address to the U.S. Congress in September of last year.

Pope Francis had this to say: "In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints."

All these qualities mentioned by Pope Francis were rooted in her Catholicism, and especially in her love for Catholic social teaching. Right from the beginning, The Catholic Worker was a newspaper, and is to this day, that takes a stand on current issues in line with the teaching of the Church, especially through Catholic social teaching.

Among the positions that were taken by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in their paper were an unabashed support for workers, labor unions and living wages. They were critical of both capitalism and socialism, and tried to popularize the economic idea of "distributism" (a topic for a later time). They advocated that people (and especially Catholics) live lives of non-violence, dignified manual labor, voluntary poverty, and practice the works of mercy.
The works of mercy were particularly dear to Dorothy, as she soon found herself living what her paper promoted, opening Catholic Worker houses to feed the poor and shelter as many homeless as possible during the depression. Today, 236 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry and forsaken. In upstate New York, Catholic Worker houses operate in Syracuse, Rochester and Niagara Falls.

It is not a stretch to say that Dorothy Day was a revolutionary - but not the kind that you might think. She once said, "The biggest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution that has to start with each one of us."

What probably got Dorothy into the most trouble was her unwavering pacifism. She would often quote Jesus' words to Peter in the garden: "Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword."

She maintained her pacifism through World War II, and was frequently in hot water protesting the Cold War.  Dorothy Day remains, even after her death in 1980, a model of opposition to injustice, war, racism and violence of all forms.

"If I have achieved anything in my life," she once remarked, "it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God."

Following the example of this almost-saint, Dorothy Day, neither should we.

Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Buffalo and is a Global Fellow with Catholic Relief Services. He may be reached at deacondon@gmail.com.   

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