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.