Margaret Pfeil on Dorothy Day’s anarchism
Q: How could a Christian anarchist also be a pious Catholic? Didn’t she need also to submit to the authority of the church’s hierarchy?
Someone once asked her, “What would happen if the cardinal said to close the houses of hospitality tomorrow?” And she said, “Oh, I would obey that, but then I would also refer all requests for the 1,000 people we serve on the soup line, and the 200 people we house, and all the vegetables grown and requested on our farm, I would refer all that to the cardinal’s office for him to deal with.”
Robert Ellsberg, the editor of Orbis Books now and editor of much of Dorothy’s work, was first shown he had gifts as an editor by Day herself. He was no more than 20 when Dorothy said, “I think you should edit the Catholic Worker newspaper.” When he first met her he wanted to ask her a good question. So he went up to her and asked, “Miss Day, how do you reconcile your Catholicism with your anarchism?” And she looked at him and said, “Well, it’s never been a problem for me.” And that was it. He didn’t know what else to say. That was the end of the conversation.
Q: How did she resolve the similar tension between being an “anarchist” and being faithful to Catholic tradition?
Tradition was a living thing for Dorothy, not a dead thing. Tradition did not mean for her that you grip things past in such a rigid way that they can’t be life-giving today. She looked back to the early church and said, “Why are we not doing this?” In the early church there was no usury, for example. In the early church we shared everything in common. In the early church Christians were pacifists. And so she modeled the Worker on this.
But Catholic Worker did this in the living church of today, as a prophetic witness, not in defiance against others. It wasn’t oppositional, though sometimes some perceived it that way. She absolutely understood herself to be within the tradition of the church, offering this witness in a very humble way.
When she insisted on pacifism even during World War II, and spoke on behalf of Catholic conscientious objectors to that war, she received a lot of criticism from members of the hierarchy in the Catholic Church. Her pacifism was taken as a personal affront by some in the hierarchy. They confronted her and said, “Who are you, a laywoman, to speak on behalf of this, on behalf of Catholic CO’s?” And she said, “I’m speaking on behalf of laypeople. We’re the ones who do the fighting.”
Forty years later, in “The Challenge of Peace,” the U.S. bishops named her personally as a witness of nonviolence in our times. That was a sea change, brought about partly because she remained faithful to that vision her whole life. That’s her gift to the church.
The fact that subsequent generations keep adding to tradition is what makes it a living thing. She knew that in her bones. It was not merely an intellectual commitment. It was an incarnate commitment for her.
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