In Hero of the Catholic Left, a Conservative Cardinal Sees a Saint

Dorothy Day is a hero of the Catholic left, a fiery 20th-century social activist who protested war, supported labor strikes and lived voluntarily in poverty as she cared for the needy.

But Day has found a seemingly unlikely champion in New York’s conservative archbishop, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who has breathed new life into an effort to declare the Brooklyn native a saint.

Cardinal Dolan has embraced her cause with striking zeal: speaking on the anniversaries of her birth and death, distributing Dorothy Day prayer cards to parishes and even buying roughly 100 copies of her biography to give out last year as Christmas gifts to civic officials including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

This month, at Cardinal Dolan’s recommendation, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted unanimously to move forward with her canonization cause, even though, as some of the bishops noted, she had an abortion as a young woman and at one point flirted with joining the Communist Party.

“I am convinced she is a saint for our time,” Cardinal Dolan said at the bishops’ meeting. She exemplifies, he said, “what’s best in Catholic life, that ability we have to be ‘both-and’ not ‘either-or.’ ”

Cardinal Dolan is often depicted as one of the most visible symbols of the rightward shift of America’s Catholic bishops. He has been critical of President Obama’s policies — he accused the Obama administration of “an unwarranted, unprecedented radical intrusion” into church life after the administration said it would require some Catholic institutions to provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraception — and he has been an outspoken opponent of the administration’s support for same-sex marriage.

In recent years, he and other conservative Catholics have come to embrace Day, finding inspiration in her decision to support the church’s opposition to abortion, as well as her distrust of government and her overall religious orthodoxy. As someone who was both committed to social justice and loyal to church teachings, Day bridges wings of the contemporary church in a way that few American Catholic figures can.

“For quite a while, the church at the grass roots in the United States has been fairly badly splintered to a kind of peace-and-justice crowd on the left and pro-life crowd on the right,” said John L. Allen Jr., senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter. “And Day is one of those few figures who has traction in both those groups.”

Day, born in 1897 to a nonobservant Protestant family, dropped out of the University of Illinois and moved to New York to work as a journalist for leftist publications in the bohemian literary world of downtown Manhattan. She converted to Catholicism in 1927, citing a spiritual awakening that was accelerated by the joy that she felt upon the birth of a daughter, Tamar. She said she chose Catholicism for many reasons — partly because it was the religion of so many of the workers and poor people whose cause she fought for as a socialist writer, and partly because she had lived in Chicago with Catholic roommates whose faith had deeply impressed her.

She spent decades as a passionate lay Catholic, devoting her life to the principles of social justice, including pacifism and service to the poor, that she felt were at the root of her religion’s teachings.

Though she was traditional in her religious practices and strong in her love for the church, her relationship with the church hierarchy in her lifetime was not always smooth. Not a single Catholic bishop came to her funeral in 1980, according to Robert Ellsberg, the editor of her letters and diaries.

But bishops now say Day’s life resonates with the struggles that they are most engaged in today: the fight against abortion and their concern about government intrusion in their affairs. In her radical rejection of government — Day believed all states were inherently totalitarian — the bishops see echoes of their fight with the Obama administration over health care.

“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,” Cardinal Francis E. George, archbishop of Chicago, said during a discussion of Day’s sainthood cause at a meeting of bishops.

Cardinal Dolan is, in one sense, the natural advocate for Day, because she lived most of her life in his archdiocese and her canonization was proposed by one of his predecessors. But promoting Day’s sainthood cause is also politically useful for him, and other bishops, at a time when the hierarchy is often described by liberal Catholics as caring more about reproductive issues than poverty, some Catholics said.

“It is an opportunity for him to demonstrate that conservative Catholics are not uncaring, without accepting liberal principles in how you service the poor,” said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a conservative antidefamation organization. “She was not, like many liberal Catholics today, a welfare state enthusiast.”

But some of Day’s closest supporters are critical of how conservatives interpret her message on the role of government.

“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,” said Mr. Ellsberg, a former editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper that Ms. Day founded with Peter Maurin in 1933.

To be canonized as a saint, Day will face several major hurdles, according to the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center. First, the Vatican must determine that two miracles have occurred as a result of prayers to her since her death. Second, she needs organizational support to keep up a lobbying effort for her, and the Catholic Worker movement she helped found is often ambivalent about the canonization process, fearful that her message will become oversimplified. Day herself once said, according to the church, “Don’t trivialize me by trying to make me a saint.”

Then there is simply the matter of time — the heavily bureaucratic canonization process can take decades. “Dolan is behind this, but it might take more than his lifetime to get this whole thing through,” Father Reese said. “And there’s no way of knowing if the next guy will place it as high on his agenda.”

When Cardinal Dolan talks about why he supports Day, he tends not to mention her arrests at protests of nuclear weapons or at a farm labor protest with Cesar Chavez. Instead, he describes her as a sinner whose life was transformed when she converted.

Describing for reporters at the bishops’ meeting Day’s life as a young woman, Cardinal Dolan offered a litany of concerns: “Sexual immorality, religious searching, pregnancy out of wedlock and an abortion.” But, he said, after her conversion, she not only flourished, but she also became an icon “for everything right about the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life.”

But her granddaughter, Martha Hennessy, 57, who volunteers in the East Village at Mary House, a Catholic Worker refuge for the poor that Day founded, said in an interview that she found the bishops’ increasing focus on her grandmother’s abortion uncomfortable.

“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,” said Ms. Hennessy, whose mother, Tamar, was Day’s only child. “It’s hard for me to hear these men talking about my mother and grandmother that way.”

Her daily work continues. The Catholic Worker, a newspaper she helped start has grown into a broad movement, and more than 200 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality continue to serve the poor around the country. Followers of the movement — who do not have to be Catholic — run soup kitchens, rooming houses and clothing distributions, and continue to hold protests, which these days are focused on torture, drone attacks and other aspects of the war on terror.

At St. Joseph House on First Street in the East Village on a recent Thursday, a kitchen full of volunteers rinsed down giant stockpots and bowl-size ladles after finishing the morning’s soup line for the neighborhood poor. Around 25 residents and volunteers live in the graffiti-tagged building, relying on donations for their work. More Catholic workers live two blocks away in Mary House, the refuge where Day lived the final years of her life.

As the volunteers gathered for lunch at St. Joseph House — in a simple dining hall hung with hand-drawn pictures of Day, a portrait of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a crucifix — Carmen Trotta, who has lived in the house for a quarter-century, said that while he believed Day’s message of pacifism and works of mercy should be the focus of discussions about her possible canonization, he was confident that anyone who read her writings would understand her priorities.

“None of us really have any doubt that she was a saint,” he said.