Dorothy Day – A Saint for our Time


Sometime soon we will witness the canonization of Dorothy Day. For many of us today, especially those who are not Roman Catholic, a canonization draws little more than a yawn. How does a canonization impact our world? Moreover, isn’t canonization simply the recognition of a certain piety to which most people cannot relate? So why should there be much interest around the canonization of Dorothy Day – who in fact protested that she didn’t want people to consider her a saint and asserted that making someone a saint often helps neutralize his or her influence?

Well, Dorothy Day wasn’t the kind of saint who fits the normal conceptions of piety. Many of us, no doubt, are familiar with a basic sketch of her life. She was born in New York in 1897 and died there in 1980. She was a journalist, a peace-activist, a convert to Christianity, who, together with Peter Maurin, established the Catholic Worker Movement to combine direct aid to the poor and homeless with nonviolent action on behalf of peace and justice. The movement remains vibrant today. She served too on the newspaper she founded, Catholic Worker, from 1933 until her death.

Her person and the movement she started have powerfully inspired Christians of every denomination to try to more effectively take the Gospels to the streets, to try to bring together Jesus and justice in a more effectual way. She is invoked today as the primary role-model for virtually everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, working in the area of social justice.

The honor is well-deserved. She, perhaps better than anyone else in her generation, was able to wed together the Gospel and justice, Jesus and the poor, and take the fruits of that marriage to the streets in an effective way.  That’s a rare and very difficult feat.

Ernst Kasemann once commented that the problem in both the world and the church is that the liberals aren’t pious and the pious aren’t liberal. He’s right. Politics and religion are both generally impoverished because the pious won’t be liberal and the liberals won’t be pious. You normally don’t see the same person leading the rosary and the peace march. You normally don’t see the same person championing both the pro-life movement and women’s choice.  And you don’t normally see the same person scrupulously defending the most-intimate matters within private morality and having the same moral passion for the global-issues of social justice. But that was Dorothy Day. She was equally comfortable leading a peace march and leading the rosary. Someone once quipped: If you drew out what’s deepest and best within both the conservatives and liberals and put them through a blender, what would come out is Dorothy Day.

A second feature which characterized Dorothy Day and her spirituality was her ability to simply act, and to act effectively.  She not only had faith, she acted upon that faith. She was a do-er, not just a listener; and she was able to institutionalize her faith and embed it into an institution, the Catholic Worker, which not only was able to minister directly to the poor but was able to form itself into something larger and more permanent than the faith, vision, and power of a single person. Dorothy was able to act in a way that was bigger and more effective than her own person. There’s an axiom that says: Whatever we dream alone remains a dream, but what we dream with others can become a reality.  Dorothy dreamed with others and made that dream a reality. Today, most of us struggle both to act on our faith and, even more so, to embed our faith concretely into effective, sustained community action.

Finally, Dorothy Day can be an inspiration to us because she did the right thing for the right reason. Dorothy’s commitment to the poor arose not out of guilt, or neurosis, or anger, or bitterness towards society. It arose out of gratitude. Her route to faith, Jesus, and the poor was rather unorthodox. In the years prior to her conversion she was an atheist, a communist, a woman ideologically opposed to the institution of marriage, and a woman who had had an abortion. Her turning to God and to the poor happened when she gave birth to her daughter, Tamar Theresa, and experienced in the joy of giving birth a gratitude that seared her soul.  In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she describes how, at seeing her baby daughter for the first time, she was so overcome with gratitude that a faith and love were born in her that never again left her. Her passion for God and the poor were fueled by that.

She was also an earthy saint. She will, no doubt, be the first canonized saint whose photographs show a woman with a cigarette in her mouth. She’s a saint for our time. She showed us how we can serve God and the poor in a very complex world, and how to do it with love and color.

Human Nature – Is it Somehow all Wrong?


An American humorist was once asked what he loved most in life. This was his reply: I love women best; whiskey next; my neighbor a little; and God hardly at all!

This flashed in my mind recently when, while giving a lecture, a woman asked this question: Why did God build us in one way and then almost all of the time expect us to act in a way contrary to our instincts? I knew what she meant. Our natural instincts and spontaneous desires generally seem at odds with that towards which they are supposedly directed, namely, God and eternal life.  A religious perspective, it would seem. calls us to reverse the order described by that American humorist, that is, we’re to love God first, our neighbor just as deeply, and then accord to the human pleasures we are so naturally drawn to a very subordinate role. But that’s not what happens most of the time. Generally we are drawn, and drawn very powerfully, towards the things of this earth: other people, pleasure, beautiful objects, sex, money, comfort. These seemingly have a more-powerful grip on us than do the things of faith and religion.

Doesn’t this then put our natural feelings at odds with how God intended us to feel and act? Why are we, seemingly, built in one way and then called to live in another way?

The question is a good one and, unfortunately, is often answered in a manner that merely deepens the quandary. Often we are simply told that we shouldn’t feel this way, that not putting God and religious things first in our feelings is a religious and moral fault, as if our natural wiring was somehow all wrong and we were responsible for its flaw. But that answer is both simplistic and harmful, it misunderstands God’s design, lays a guilt-trip on us, and has us feeling bipolar vis-à-vis our natural make-up and the demands of faith.

How do we reconcile the seeming incongruity between our natural make-up and God’s intent for us?

We need to understand human instinct and human desire at a deeper level. We might begin with St. Augustine’s memorable phrase: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. When we analyze our natural makeup, natural instincts, and natural desires more deeply, we see that all of these ultimately are drawing us beyond the more-immediate things and pleasures with which they appear to be obsessed. They are drawing us, persistently and unceasingly, towards God.

Karl Rahner, in trying to explain this, makes a distinction between what we desire explicitly and what we desire implicitly. Our instincts and natural desires draw us towards various explicit things: love for another person, friendship with someone, a piece of art or music, a vacation, a movie, a good meal, a sexual encounter, an achievement that brings us honor, a sporting event, and countless other things that, on the surface at least, would seem to have nothing to do with God and are seemingly drawing our attention away from God. But, as Rahner shows, and as is evident in our experience, in every one of those explicit desires there is present, implicitly, beneath the desire and as the deepest part of that desire, the longing for and pursuit of something deeper. Ultimately we are longing for the depth that grounds every person and object, God.  To cite one of Rahner’s more graphic examples, a man obsessed with sexual desire who seeks out a prostitute is, implicitly, seeking the bread of life, irrespective of his crass surface intent.

God didn’t make a mistake in designing human desire. God’s intent is written into very DNA of desire. Ultimately our make-up directs us towards God, no matter how obsessive, earthy, lustful, and pagan a given desire might appear on a given day. Human nature is not at odds with the call of faith, not at all.

Moreover, those powerful instincts within our nature, which can seem so selfish and amoral at times, have their own moral intelligence and purpose, they protect us, make us reach out for what keeps us alive, and, not least, ensure that the human race keeps perpetuating itself. Finally, God also put those earthy instincts in us to pressure us to enjoy life and taste its pleasures – while God, like a loving old grandparent watching her children at play, remains happy just to see her children’s delight in the moment, knowing that there will be time enough ahead when pain and frustration will force those desires to focus on some deeper things.

When we analyze more deeply God’s design for human nature and understand ourselves more deeply within that design, we realize that, at a level deeper than spontaneous feeling, and at a level deeper than the wisecracks we make about ourselves, we in fact do love God best; love our neighbor quite a bit; and, very happily, love whiskey and the pleasures of life quite a bit as well.

Political Correctness – Swallowing Hard


Just because something is politically-correct doesn’t mean that it might not also be correct. Sometimes we have to swallow hard to accept truth.

Some years ago, I served on a Priests’ Council, an advisory board to the bishop in a Roman Catholic diocese. The bishop, while strongly conservative by temperament, was a deeply-principled man who did not let his natural temperament or his spontaneous feelings dictate his decisions. His decisions he made on principle, and sometimes that meant he had to swallow hard.

At one point, for example, he found himself under strong pressure to raise the salaries of lay employees in the diocese. The pressure was coming from a very vocal group of social-justice advocates who were quoting the Church’s social doctrines in the face of protests that the diocese could not afford to pay the kind of wages they were demanding.  Their cause also leaned on politically-correctness.  This didn’t make things easy for the bishop, given his conservative temperament and conservative friends.

But he was, as I said, a man of principle. He came one morning to the Priests’ Council and asked the priests to give him a mandate to give the diocesan employees the wage increase they are demanding. The Priests’ Council told him that they would not bow to political-correctness and voted against it. A month later, the bishop came back to the Priest’s Council and asked the priests again for their support, prefacing his request by telling the priests that, should they vote against it again, he would do it on his own, invoking executive privilege. One of the priests, a close personal friend of his, said: “You’re only asking us to do this because it’s politically correct.” The bishop answered him: “No, we’re not doing this because it’s politically correct. We’re doing it because it is correct!  We can’t preach the gospel with integrity if we don’t live it out ourselves.  We need to pay a living-wage because that’s what the gospel and Catholic social doctrine demands – not because it’s politically correct.” In saying this, the bishop was swallowing hard, swallowing his own temperament, swallowing his friend’s irritation, and swallowing his own irritation at having to bow to something that was presented as politically-correct. But principle trumped feeling.

And principle needs to trump feeling because, so often, when something comes at us with the label that this must be accepted because it is politically-correct, our spontaneous reaction is negative and we are tempted, out of emotional spite, to reject it simply because of the clock it’s wearing and the voices who are advocating for it.  I’ve had my own share of experiences with this, in dealing with my emotions in the face of political-correctness. Teaching in some pretty sensitive classrooms through the years, where sometimes every word is a potential landmine that might blow up in your face, it’s easy to fall into an unhealthy sensitivity-fatigue. I remember once, frustrated with the hypersensitivity of some students (and the pompousness evident inside that sensitivity), I told a student to “lighten up”. He immediately accused me of being a racist on the basis of that remark.

It’s easy then to react with spite rather than empathy. But, like the bishop, whose story I cited earlier, we need to be principled and mature enough to not let emotion and temperament sway our perspective and our decisions. Just because a truth comes cloaked in political correctness and we hear it voiced in self-righteousness doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t the truth. Sometimes we just have to swallow hard, eat our pride and irritation, and accept the truth of what is being presented. Political correctness is normally irritating, exaggerated, unbalanced, pompous, and lacking in nuance, but it serves an important purpose. We need this mirror: How we spontaneously speak about others flushes out a lot of our blind-spots.

Among other things, political correctness, as a check on our language, helps keep civil discourse civil, something in short supply today. Talk-radio, cable-television, blogs, tweets, and editorials are today more and more being characterized by a language that’s rude, insensitive, and flat-out disrespectful and, in its very disdain for political correctness, is, ironically, the strongest argument for political correctness. Politics, church, and community at every level today need to be much more careful about language, careful about being politically-correct, because the violence in our culture very much mirrors the violence in our language.

Moreover, attentiveness to language helps, long-term, to shape our interior attitudes and widen our empathy. Words work strongly to shape attitudes and if we allow our words to chip away at elementary courtesy and respect and allow them to offend others we help spawn a culture of disrespect.

Political correctness comes to us from both the left and the right. Both liberals and conservatives help dictate it and both can be equally self-righteous and bullying. But we must always be conscious that just because something is politically-correct doesn’t mean that it also might not be correct. Sometimes we just need to swallow hard and accept the truth.