US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Dorothy Day—the disturbing “holy fool”

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By guest blogger Kevin Considine

It is not easy to write about Dorothy Day.  Gallons of ink have been spilled discussing her life and legacy.  At this point, describing her as an inspirational Catholic woman has almost become trite.  Hasn’t enough already been written?  What about other women, such as Dolores Huerta, Kateri Tekakwitha, Sor Juana de la Cruz, St. Katherine Drexel, and many others?  That’s not to mention the countless unsung heroines who work tirelessly to imitate Christ in their work and lives.

Nevertheless, I continue to find Dorothy Day an inspiring figure.  This isn’t because she makes me “feel good.”  And it’s not because other Catholic women are undeserving of praise.  It’s because she disturbs me.  Like no other, she rattles my soul as I supposedly profess discipleship to Jesus Christ.  This is because Day literally gave up everything to become a “holy fool” for Jesus Christ—comfort, stability, wealth, and even her common-law husband.  I have given up little.

As a “holy fool,” she sacrificed her reputation.  She was not seen as a “good” Catholic, so to speak.  Day often was accused by some Catholics of subverting the church with her ongoing relationships with communists, anarchists, and other radicals.  She dedicated herself entirely to the despised, the powerless, and the spat upon.  I have been a social worker and now am teaching theology.  But I have not dedicated every molecule of my being to following Christ.  Nor have I sacrificed my name or reputation.  I do not want to be a “holy fool.”

Day’s holy foolery also led her to espouse complete pacifism, including her protest against WWII.  This isn’t because she was naïve.  She held that being a “fool for Christ” demanded such protests.  She was convinced that even though the Nazis were evil, defeating them with violence would lead to even greater destruction.  In this, Day wasn’t incorrect.  The atomic age and the prospect of global annihilation was a consequence of WWII.  She also gave up being seen as a “good” American.  After all, J. Edgar Hoover advised the U.S. Attorney General to prosecute Day on sedition charges on three separate occasions.  I don’t have the courage to set such an example.

Dorothy Day inspires me because she disturbs me.  And this is how it should be.  I suspect this is similar to how Jesus of Nazareth disturbed many of his contemporaries with his teachings and way of life. This is why it is still worth writing about Dorothy Day as an inspiring Catholic woman.  Unlike almost any other Catholic figure, she continues to disturb comfortable Christians like myself with her radical politics, deep connection to God, love of the church, and her complete dedication to being a fool for Christ. She counted her life a blessing even when visible results were lacking from her work (which was often the case).

It may be easier to inspire through making someone “feel good.”  It may be more important, however, to inspire through disturbing the consciences of comfortable Christians. 

Kevin Considine is a Ph.D. candidate in theology at Loyola University in Chicago.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.

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