US Catholic Faith in Real Life

How are the bishops promoting Dorothy Day's case for sainthood?

The sainthood of Dorothy Day

By Elizabeth Lefebvre | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

One piece of news out of the U.S. bishops’ annual fall assembly was the unanimous vote to endorse the sainthood cause for Dorothy Day, one of the most well-known well-respected Catholic figures of the 20th century. But did the bishops have any underlying motivations for moving forward with the canonization process at this time?

Day is best known for co-founding the Catholic Worker movement, recognizable today in houses of hospitality and formed to provide for those in need out of duty to the common good. Though Day led by example to champion gospel messages of peace and human dignity, The New York Times reports that other elements of Day’s life—notably, her abortion which helped lead to her conversion to Catholicism and her skepticism of government—are what the bishops are now holding up as they promote Day’s sainthood cause.

As the Times suggests, the bishops may see common themes between parts of Day’s life and their own current struggles, such as fighting abortion and their concern about government intrusion into the affairs of the church. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York where Day spent the majority of her time, is a vocal opponent to the administration’s Affordable Care Act provision requiring that employers provide health insurance for contraception. The Times notes that Dolan, who leads Day’s endorsement for sainthood, has been cherry-picking Day’s accomplishments, skipping over her protests against nuclear weapons and her work for farm laborers. Instead, Dolan has focused largely on Day’s “sexual immorality, religious searching, pregnancy out of wedlock, and abortion,” noting that after her conversion, she then stood “for everything right about the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life.”

People are noticing that this is not the only lens through which to view Day’s life, and it is not how she likely would have summarized her work or message. Robert Ellsberg, a former editor of the newspaper The Catholic Worker and the editor of Day’s letters and diaries, said, “I think she would be appalled to have her commitment to voluntary poverty and works of mercy and charity in their deepest sense be used as cover for an agenda that I think she would see as part of a war against the poor.” Day’s granddaughter, too, is uncomfortable with the line the bishops are taking, saying, “I wish we would focus on the birth of her child more than on her abortion because that’s what really played a role in her conversion.”

The most telling quote from the Times story to me was from Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who said, “As we struggle at this opportune moment to try to show how we are losing our freedoms in the name of individual rights, Dorothy Day is a very good woman to have on our side.” To me, this misses the entire point of Day’s life: That there should be no taking sides, and that each individual has an obligation to his or her brothers and sisters. And if you insist on taking any side, it should for the least among us, and it should be manifested through love, the greatest solution to the pain and brokenness that each individual is capable of feeling.