Dorothy Day may be best known for her engagement with the poor and activism on their behalf, which she saw as a mandate straight out of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, particularly the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. However, Day made a clear and emphatic distinction between charity and what she perceived as a matter of social and economic justice. If the poor were to be treated as equals with everyone else – as the Bible and Catholic social thought taught – then it followed that they had an equal claim to the resources of society. Sharing with the poor, and even living as they lived, was a matter of justice, not charity or even empathy. Thus, Day embraced voluntary poverty as a means of solidarity with the poor and an assertion of universal human dignity—which the poor possessed like everyone else.
Questions to Consider
- Why did Dorothy Day focus particularly on engagement with the poor? Why did that become a central concern for her?
- How did Dorothy Day understand the word hospitality? What did it mean for her in relationship to the poor? Does it mean the same for you? Consider the role hospitality plays (or does not play) in the stories involving Abraham and Lot in the Book of Genesis, and also the life of St. Meinrad, patron saint of hospitality. You can learn more about Meinrad here: https://www.saintmeinrad.org/the-monastery/history/life-of-st-meinrad/.
- Why was the idea of personal responsibility so important to Dorothy Day? Do you believe, as she did, that we are personally responsible for the welfare of others? Consider Cain’s response to God when questioned about the death of his brother, Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). What does scripture have to tell us about our personal responsibility to and for others?
- Why did Dorothy Day feel that, in order to best serve the poor, one must become poor oneself? Do you agree with this idea, or is it simply a heroic (and possibly dangerous) illusion?
- 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 such as capitalism?
- Why was Dorothy Day so opposed to the concept of charity? Do you agree with her? Is there a distinction to be made between charity and service, or charity and justice?
Related Day Quotes
Going around and seeing such sights [of those in poverty] is not enough. . . . [T]o give what you have for relief, to pledge yourself to voluntary poverty for life so that you can share with your brothers is not enough. One must live with them, share with them their suffering too. Give up one’s privacy, and mental and spiritual comforts as well as physical. (The Long Loneliness, 214)
. . . I must say I first became Catholic because I felt the Catholic Church was the church of the poor and still think it is the church of the poor. I think it is the church of the immigrant populations that came over. . . . (Bill Moyers film interview, 26:20)
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 emigrant. 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)
He [Peter Maurin] always reminded me that we are out brother’s keeper and the unit of society is the family, that we must have a sense of personal responsibility to take care of our own, and our neighbor at a personal sacrifice. “That is the first principle,” he always said. “It is not the function of the state to enter into these realms.” (The Long Loneliness 179)
My very experience as a radical, my whole make-up, led me to want to associate myself with others, with the masses, in loving and praising God. (The Long Loneliness, 139)
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