Catholic Teaching and the Church
Dorothy Day’s relationship with the Roman Catholic Church could sometimes be strained, although she was theologically conservative and always respectful of church authority, even when she disagreed with it. Day’s activism on behalf of the poor, and later, against war and nuclear weapons, implicitly challenged many stances of the American church hierarchy. And while she came to embody the ideas of Catholic Social Teaching, Day claimed not to know much about them when she joined the church in 1927. She was moved, rather, by the fact that the masses of the poor with whom she engaged in New York City—many of them immigrants from southern and eastern Europe—were faithful adherents of the Catholic Church. “[T]his fact in itself,” she wrote, “drew me to the Church.”
Questions to Consider
- Dorothy Day’s political radicalism and activism did sometimes cause tensions with the Church. Is there a place for radicalism in the Church, where it can be useful in bringing about change? Or is it mostly harmful in challenging or undermining established Church authority?
- Review the major tenets of Roman Catholic Social Teaching. (You can do so at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.cfm In what ways did Day’s life and work embody these teachings? Are there aspects of these teachings that she did not embody? How might she be a good model for a person attempting to live out these tenets?
- It has been suggested that Day saw the entire world as in some sense “sacramental” – reflective of God and God-ordained. How might that view of the world and everyone in it have influenced Day’s larger purposes and actions?
- Day has been named a “Servant of God,” a step in the process toward sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Do you consider Day a saint? Do you agree with commentators in the film that sainthood could be a way of domesticating Day’s radical witness?
- In her early years in New York City, Dorothy found herself caught between the allure of the Bohemian life and the solace and meaning she felt in the church. Can you identify times when you have felt torn between the pull of the world, whatever it may be, and the call of the spiritual life? How did you resolve this tension—or did you resolve it?
- Do you think of the church today (whether Roman Catholic or other) as being “the church of the poor,” as Dorothy Day envisioned it? If not, why? Is the church, as Dorothy Day suggested, too closely allied to an economic and political system (i.e. capitalism)? What does Catholic Social Teaching have to say about the role of the economy?
- Why did Day, who was nominally raised a Protestant, choose Catholicism? Or did it choose her? What accounts for her conversion to Roman Catholicism?
- What do you see as Day’s primary legacy for the Christian church today? For Roman Catholicism? Alternatively, what does she have to say to those outside the church today? Is she a figure who transcends religious boundaries?
Related Day Quotes
There was a real conflict going on in me at the time [the early 1920s] to overcome my religious sense. I started to swear, quite consciously, and began to take God’s name in vein in order to shock my friends…I felt the strong gesture I was making to push religion away. (The Long Loneliness, 42)
I felt that the Church was the Church of the poor, that St. Patrick’s had been built from the pennies of the servant girls, that it cared for the immigrant, it established hospitals, orphanages, day nurseries, houses of the Good Shepherd, homes for the aged but at the same time I felt that it did not set its face against a social order which made so much charity in the present sense of the word necessary. I felt that charity was a word to choke over. Who wanted charity? And it was not just human pride but a strong sense of man’s dignity and worth, and what was due to him in justice that made me resent rather than feel proud of so mighty a sum total of Catholic institutions. (The Long Loneliness, 150)
One must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church. The scandal of businesslike priests, of collective wealth, the lack of a sense of responsibility for the poor, the worker, the Negro, The Mexican, the Filipino and even the oppression of these and the consenting to the oppression of them by our industrialist capitalist order, these made me feel often that priests were more like Cain than Abel.” (The Long Loneliness, 149)
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