In recent months, the Catholic activist Dorothy Day has received ample praise in both the Catholic and secular press. Of course, the reason is that last November, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops endorsed the cause of canonization for Day, moving her one step closer to sainthood. The timing of this endorsement seems providential; as our recent presidential election has shown, Catholics are just as polarized as the nation at large, Day, on the other hand, combined traditional piety with a radical commitment to social justice. Her personalism, which she shared with the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, Peter Maurin, also provides inspiration for those fed up with the orthodoxies of the political left and right.
Although many praise Day, few are willing to embrace her way of life. She believed that pacifism, voluntary poverty, and to some extent withdrawal from the modern industrial economy were necessary for Christian discipleship. In a recent article in the theological journal Horizons, “’Apocalyptic Sectarianism’: The Theology at Work in Critiques of Catholic Radicals,” Benjamin Peters demonstrates the consistency in the critiques of Day and other Catholic radicals by fellow Catholics from the 1940s onwards. John Courtney Murray criticized the “eschatological humanism” of Catholic radicals based on “contempt of the world” and for which humanity’s supernatural destiny is “radically discontinuous” with human nature. Similarly, writing during World War II, Joseph L. Connor criticized Day’s pacifism as possessing “an air of exhilarating aloofness and detachment,” akin to “Albigensian purism and Calvinist theocracy.” More recently, in his book Public Catholicism, David O’Brien has characterized Day’s perspective as “apocalyptic sectarianism.” Charlie Curran has also commented on the apparent “radical incompatibility” between Catholic faith and American life in Day’s view, grounded in her understanding of the natural-supernatural relationship.
Peters argues, correctly in my opinion, that these critics do Day a disservice by not understanding her on her own terms. They interpret and evaluate her positions in light of their own theological commitments without adequately exploring Day’s theological presuppositions or how they might challenge the critics’ own commitments. Peters, drawing on earlier work by Michael Baxter and Frederick Bauerschmidt, claims that Day’s critics are operating out of a “two-tiered” or “dualistic” understanding of human nature and humanity’s supernatural destiny. Earlier theologians like Murray and Connor drew on the neo-Thomistic framework in which grace builds on an otherwise self-sufficient human nature (including the natural, temporal sphere of politics). As mid-century theologians such as Henri de Lubac and Karl Rahner pointed out, the problem with this view is that it creates the impression that the world could get along just fine without ever experiencing a need for grace. Later public theologians like O’Brien and Curran, whom Peters describes as advocating the “sacramental approach,” have attempted to overcome this separation between nature and grace by claiming that human nature is “always already” graced, but in an “unthematized” way, meaning that we do not experience grace explicitly as grace. Peters argues that this perspective, like neo-Thomism, fails to make clear how nature, even on its own terms, is incomplete without grace.
Through the lens of the neo-Thomists and the public theologians, Day appears to be irresponsible and otherworldly because she refuses to accept the “natural” institutions of American life as sufficient for human temporal well-being. She even insists that, to fulfill our supernatural calling, we must reject them by refusing to take part in the state’s preparations for war and, to the extent possible, refusing to participate in the modern capitalist economy. Peters proposes that through the lens of more traditional theology, Day’s path makes sense because it recognizes how even the natural can only be fulfilled through something higher, and that sometimes the pursuit of the divine requires not only leaving behind sin, but also things that are naturally good.
As much as I agree with Peters’s criticisms of neo-Thomism and Catholic public theology, though, I believe that the criticisms of Day still have some merit. Reading Day, one does not get the sense that grace fulfills or perfects nature, but rather is in conflict with it. For example, in a passage from The Long Loneliness cited by Peters, Day describes why she chose to enter the Catholic Church even though it meant losing her common-law husband Forster Batterham: “You do these things blindly, not because it is your natural inclination—you are going against nature when you do them—but because you wish to live in conformity with the will of God.” Note that for Day, “to live in conformity with the will of God” is not fulfilling one’s nature, but going against it. Day is even more explicit in Houses of Hospitality: “As long as we live there will be a war, a conflict between nature and grace, nature again and again getting the upper hand for the moment, only to be put down rigidly.”
Peters rightly notes that the primary influence on Day in these matters was the Lacouture retreat movement, particularly as presented by the priests John Hugo and Pacifique Roy. In The Long Loneliness, Day recounts how on a retreat, Roy described the relationship between the human and the divine with the analogy that dirt is taken up and transformed into a flower, and then the flower is eaten and transformed into the body of a rabbit, and then the rabbit is eaten, transformed into the body of a man. The implication is that just as the flower ceases to be a flower and becomes rabbit, the human ceases to be human and becomes divine. But this is not at all orthodox Christianity, but rather an anthropological version of monophysitism, the Christological heresy in which Christ’s human nature is so overwhelmed by the divine nature that it is practically absorbed into it. As the divine increases, so must the human decrease.
I believe that all three points of view—Day’s, the neo-Thomist, and the public theologians’—share a fundamental problem: they see the natural and the supernatural, the human and the divine, as necessarily in some form of conflict. Day is the most explicit about this, suggesting that we must fundamentally choose between the two. The neo-Thomists attempt to resolve the conflict by separating the natural and the supernatural into two compartments. The public theologians do so by blurring the distinction between the two so that the conflict appears to be erased. To return to the question of political theology and to over-simplify a bit: for Day, we must choose between being a good citizen and being a good Christian; for the neo-Thomists, we can be good Christians if we are good citizens and also go to church; and for the public theologians, we can be good Christians precisely by being good citizens.
None of these solutions is adequate; we need a political theology in which the natural and supernatural, the human and the divine, are truly integrated rather than in conflict. Day and her followers are certainly right that we are all called to a life of supernatural holiness, rather than leaving it an elite few, as neo-Thomism suggests. And we cannot simply sanctify or “baptize” a given public philosophy or institutional arrangement, as the public theologians sometimes seem to do, simply because of the always already presence of grace. Christian discipleship ought to make a concrete difference in our public life. But, contrary to Day, that does not mean rejecting the “natural” institutions of social life, but rather finding ways to live in them that fulfill us both as humans and that bring us closer to God.
I think that Dorothy would say that to be a good citizen would be to oppose imperialist war and capitalist exploitation.
To organise in opposition to these implies some kind of communal life in counterculture (which is one aspect of the Church herself).
I doubt that Dorothy had quite the “nature vs grace” theology suggested here.
Thanks for posting this.
I don’t think Day would say that we must choose to either be a good Christian or be a good citizen, rather I think her idea of “engagement” looked to discern what aspects of American society and culture could be embraced as part of a holy life of a Christian, what aspects needed be perfected, and what aspects must be abandoned. For her, it was neither a blanket affirmation nor a wholesale rejection, but an ongoing and critical process of discernment in light of the beatific vision.
This idea of discernment makes sense since Hugo’s version of the Lacouture retreat relied heavily on John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, and most especially on Ignatius of Loyola. And all three of these early modern spiritual writers emphasized the notion that renunciation and even going against some of one’s “natural inclinations” was necessary to live a life of holiness…think Ignatius’s “agere contra” and John of the Cross’s “nada, nada, nada.” Day often referred to Paul’s notion of dying to the old self and putting on the “new man.” And interestingly, both Day and Hugo refer to Aquinas’s discussion of “deification” or “divinization” of nature as the source for that dirt-flower-rabbit analogy.
All this to say, while critics have long tried to link Day’s radical Christianity with various heresies (Jansenism being a favorite), I’d argue that it has roots deep within the Christian tradition.
Anyway, good discussion.
Thanks for this thoughtful piece. There is lots of praise and criticism of Day, but you’re thinking about her in a different way here. I think you’re right that for Day “we must choose between being a good citizen and being a good Christian,” but perhaps not between being a good human being and a good Christian.
There’s very little in Day’s work to build a public theology on. Most contemporary Catholic Workers I know are similarly engaged in political protest, hospitality, and voluntary simplicity, rather than more mainstream forms of political participation. It’s hard to imagine her getting excited about voting or attending an inauguration.
But, like Chris, I’m not sure that she always separates nature and grace as starkly as she does in the quotes above. A study of her words on these concepts would be fascinating. Did you catch Michael Baxter’s presentation in the ethics section of the CTS last summer? He seems to be rethinking his own analysis of Day (characterized by Kristin Heyer In Prophetic and Public as prophetic or radical) by looking at the whole of the Catholic Worker movement, which always included Catholics and non-Catholics, philosophy and theology, this worldly concerns and spirituality, etc. Maybe there is more integration there than we’re used to seeing.
Dorothy Day’s social-political views were established years before she converted to Catholicism. She rejected (and morally condemned) wage capitalism and the “American state” because, in her judgment, these “natural” social-political structures made it impossible for human beings to be truly human. Whether you describe Dorothy Day as a “syndicalist” or a “distributionist,” she advocated a radical restructuring of American society–something that could be achieved by re-establishing social institutions on their original “natural” foundations.
Don’t we risk trivializing her prophetic voice by filtering it through the theological categories of “grace” and “nature?” Her political prescriptions may be deemed “utopian” and/or naive. But they flowed, not from theological reflection, but from her first-hand experience of how American capitalism dehumanized real people.
Thanks for the excellent post. I must disagree with the conclusion. Dorothy Day was not sectarian. Rather, as David L. Schindler observes, she is one to look to for a concrete embodiment of Benedict XVI’s political and social vision in Caritas in Veritate (hardly a sectarian document). I think Rubio points the way forward here by suggesting the inadequacies of dichotomies like “prophetic” and “public”. Day cannot be made to fit into these categories. I am not aware of her simply rejecting the natural institutions of social life. Her life was and is a challenge to consider whether our contemporary natural institutions are acceptable in light of the radical gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, we are not stuck with choosing between a rejection of those institutions and withdrawing into sectarian perfectionism on the one hand, or on the other hand “finding ways to live in them”. As Mark and Louise Zwick say in their book on Day and the Worker, the retreat Day loved so much “taught that there must not be a cleavage between what one believed and read in the New Testament and what one lived. The abstract categories of neo-scholastic theology were not sufficient; the gospel must be lived. The idea was not abandoning the world, but calling the world itself to a whole new set of values and way of life, that of the gospel.” This is the alternative politics of Day. Selective participation in the usual notions of politics (voting for example) are not necessarily precluded here. She was not otherworldly. As Patrick Jordan remembers in the January 2013 issue of Commonweal, Day said, “I cannot bear the religious romantics. I want a religious realist. I want one who prays to see things as they are and to do something about it.”
Again, a fine post to continue perhaps the most important conversation that needs to take place today. Day witnessed to the possibility of a life in which worldly concerns and holiness are fully integrated in ways that continue to both attract and baffle the neo-thomists and the public theologians. She does not provide a way to “bridge the divide” between the prophetic and the public (K. Heyer). Is giving bread to a hungry sister or brother a prophetic or a public act?
Matt– Thanks for instigating a really important conversation, and for making the point that we need a proper integration of the natural and supernatural in order to do good social ethics.
Three points: one, I’d be wary of pinning precise theological meanings on Day’s writings. After all, she was no theologian (in the professional sense), and was not writing as one. I think she (far better than most theologians) exemplified some kind of integration of thought, writing, and life. So while one would want to stay away from Jansenism, I think by “nature” we can understand “fallen nature.”
Two, in reading Paul Elie’s marvelous The Life You Save May Be Your Own and in reading her journals, I have come to respect more and more Day’s “severity.” That is, when compared to a Merton (whom I love), Dorothy’s story suggests a kind of conversion that is really what makes for sainthood. I don’t yet know exactly how to put this into words. It is important that the severity is as much or more with herself. It comes through in the interviews we can now see on You Tube. It is a kind of… intensity? Discipline? Severity? I don’t want to be misunderstood – I don’t mean a kind of pharisaically righteousness. I mean… a seriousness? A fullness? I think this is related to finding the right way to relate natural and supernatural.
Three, I think the commenters helpfully point out ways in which abstract categories (nature/grace, prophetic/public) can actually obscure what is necessary – which is living out the gospel. I tend to find the categroies helpful in a “negative” sense – we know we can’t be so prophetic that we condemn the world entirely and seek to escape it. We can’t be so public that Christians become a kind and helpfiul department of the enterprises of the state. Etc. In concrete terms, the Ignatian necessity of discernment – some parts of the world as we find it should be condemned – enters in. For Day, as for Peter Maurin, as for Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, the modern market-and-state represent a severe and pervasive distortion of the proper role of the state. Would we discern the same? Are militarism and consumerism so overwhelming that they permeate everything? These are good and serious questions to discuss – and live, since of course Day’s questions have import insofar as her holiness of life pierces our hearts. Abstractions may provide helpful “guardrails” or “out of bounds markers” – but the real action is the playmaking on the field.
I wish this web site would tell me when someone commented on my post. Does anyone know how to make it do that?
Some of the issues addressed in the comments, I would have covered if the post was longer, but I was already well over 1,000 words. I will break up my responses into two, the first on Day’s politics, the second on her theology.
Ben, I am glad you saw my post and were able to respond. I think I would agree with your description of Day’s engagement with American society, I just think that the question is what criteria was she using and were they adequate? And how did theological concepts like nature and grace shape those criteria? Also, maybe I should have put “good citizen” in scare quotes, as in we have to choose between being a good Christian and a conventional notion of what it means to be a good citizen, or even what traditional Catholic thought had considered being a good citizen.
JPFARRY, I agree with you that Day’s basic political views (anti-capitalism, pacifism, etc.) originated prior to her conversion to Catholicism. And I would add that even if we all agreed that there was something problematic about her theology of nature/grace, that would not at all be an argument against her political views, which others hold for very different reasons. On the other hand, once she did convert, her own theological understanding of Catholicism became the overriding rationale for her political views. As she wrote very early on, the Sermon on the Mount was the manifesto for the Catholic Worker! I think the real disservice to Day would be to regard her theological views as tangential to her political views.
Mike Lueken, I tried to make clear in the post that I agree that it is unfair to try to wedge everyone into either a “Public” or “Prophetic” point of view. Also at the very end of the post, I was suggesting that I am sympathetic to the point of view expressed in the quote by the Zwicks. But I would add that there is quite a bit of divergence between Day’s political and social vision and Benedict XVI’s. For one, Benedict is not a pacifist. Second, even though he does have some strong criticisms of contemporary capitalism, he does not reject the entire wage labor system, as Day does. As Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a document on Catholic participation in political life, which was focused exclusively on elected officials and voting, hardly a Day-like reflection on politics. My point is, a Christocentric political theology does not necessarily lead to a radicalism like Day’s. (More in my second post.)
David, I think you are right that the issue we need to look at is “nature” vs. “fallen nature,” but I don’t think that for Day you can say that “by nature we can understand ‘fallen nature,'” for two reasons. First, that is one of the main points of Ben’s article, that what distinguishes Day from both the neo-Thomists and the public theologians is her belief that grace requires us to not only leave behind sin (fallen nature) but even aspects of what is good about nature. I think there is something to that, if it is understood correctly.
Secondly, Day is pretty clear that she does not just mean “fallen nature” when she says “nature.” For example, in a passage from On Pilgrimage she is again describing what is taught at the retreats:
“There are good actions, supernatural and natural, divine and human. There are bad actions—sin. We turn from God, from good to evil, from light to darkness, from heaven to hell. We are going to be saints in heaven to the degree that we are on earth. Natural actions are imperfect actions and lead to venial sin, which leads to mortal sin. So we are separated from God. No one sins to offend God, but to gain pleasure. Natural actions mean a slight turning from God. Sin and purely natural actions show difference in degree. When we commit a mortal sin, it is not a sudden thing. We started to move to that mortal sin a long time ago. The more we go in for purely natural actions, the more we have the tendency to sin. Fight mortal sin? Impossible. Fight venial sin? But natural actions feed tendencies which lead to venial sin, which leads to mortal sin.” (p. 193)
So while in one sense Day classifies both natural actions with supernatural actions as good, in another sense she considers natural and sinful actions as being on one side of a divide and supernatural actions on the other. So while she does distinguish between nature and sin (thus avoiding technical Jansenism), she sees the natural as inevitably leading toward sin.
To provide some clarity on what Day means by natural and supernatural actions, a bit earlier in On Pilgrimage she writes:
““Good actions may be human or divine. There is confusion in regard to these. The only actions which lead to God are divine actions. Supernatural action has God for its end. The natural has ourselves. Action has value according to whom the action is directed. The act of eating, for instance. For our own pleasure, or to build our bodies to strengthen them to serve God.” (p. 191)
Her example of eating is instructive– she appears to be saying that the health brought about by eating has no intrinsic value, its true goodness comes if it is put to service in some truly supernatural type of action. Again, there seems to be a conflict between the intrinsic goodness of a created being and divine goodness. I know that needs some thinking out, but it is getting too late for that level of thought!
Michael Lueken writes that Day did not necessarily reject natural institutions. Back in 2004 Katherine Yohe wrote an interesting article for Horizons on Day and her relationship to her daughter Tamar. Yohe describes how the Lacouture retreat movement influenced Day’s understanding of her relationship to Tamar. Day consistently felt tension between her responsibilities to Tamar and her work with the Catholic Worker, leading to a certain level of neglect of Tamar, and Yohe shows how Day interpreted this in terms of the conflict between the natural good of family and the supernatural life of Christian discipleship. Interestingly, Yohe points out that when Day died and it was suggested that Fr. John Hugo do the service, Tamar refused to go if he did so! Yohe sums up by saying, “Lacouture’s message of sacrificing natural loves did not motivate Dorothy’s separations from her daughter. Most of those decisions had already been made. It did, however, influence how she described the separations after the fact.”
Ben, even if Day and Hugo appeal to Aquinas’s account of divinization, the rabbit analogy is inappropriate because for Aquinas, divinization does not imply the annihilation of the human, as the analogy implies. Aquinas does refer to grace as participation in the divine nature, but he also refers to it as an accident in relation to the soul: “Now what is substantially in God, becomes accidental in the soul participating in the Divine goodness.” (I-II q. 110 a. 2 ad 1) Obviously accidental doesn’t mean “unimportant’ here because grace is essential to human nature’s ultimate longing. But it does mean that human nature remains intact while participating in the divine nature. Like I said, I think there is an analogy here with Monophysite vs. Chalcedonian Christology.
This is an excellent discussion. Thanks, Ben, for your article–I look forward to reading it–and Matt for this post. I think it important to note how Day discusses her conversion in The Long Loneliness. What ultimately undercuts the haunting Marxian understanding of religion bouncing around in her head is that she is driven to pray when she is happy, not simply when she is in pain. The implication is that her “natural happiness” sought fulfillment in God.
As others have noted, Day was not by any means a systematic thinker so there are several at least apparently contradictory statements. As Matt notes, Day discusses her conversion, which prompted Forster to leave her, as contrary to her nature in one place. However, she also describes her life with her atheist, common-law husband on Staten Island in remarkably beautiful tones and characterizes her own state in this way: “I was happy but my very happiness made me know that there was a greater happiness to be obtained from life than any I had ever known. I began to think, to weigh things, and it was at this time that I began consciously to pray more” (The Long Loneliness, 116). This seems to me as good of a description of grace perfecting nature as I’ve read. It’s tragic that Forster leaves her, but I think it significant that she didn’t leave him. Its equally tragic that he couldn’t go where she is going.
Her story of this personal relationship gets at the heart of the nature/grace question for her precisely because it doesn’t involve the state, which she had clearly diagnosed as bankrupt to aid the worker, a prudential decision I think.