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Dorothy Day and Her Enduring Example of Concern for the Poor

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October 13, 2015

During his recent speech to Congress on September 24, Pope Francis paid special tribute to the contributions of four great Americans – two Catholics, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and two non-Catholic Christians, Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In this second installment, we examine the life and legacy of Dorothy Day, with particular emphasis on her concern for the poor and the continued importance of that message today.

Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn in 1897.  She initially lived a rather bohemian lifestyle but converted to Catholicism in 1927, in large part due to the influence and instruction of a religious sister she met in New York.  In the 1930s, together with Peter Maurin, she founded the Catholic Worker Movement.  Partially inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic Worker Movement focused on social justice and its connection with the poor.

Day described the Catholic Worker Movement as being aimed at those suffering the most in the Great Depression and "those who think there is no hope for the future."  The movement aimed to dispel that notion by declaring that "the Catholic Church has a social program…there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare."

In addition to being a social activist, Day was a journalist and co-founded the Catholic Worker newspaper in 1931, serving as its editor from 1933 until her death in 1980.

Day was also a noted pacifist.  In 1955, she and others refused to participate in mandatory civil defense drills that were scheduled for that day.  They were subsequently charged with violating the law, but Day described her refusal to participate as a moral objection and "public penance" for the United States' first use of an atomic bomb during World War II.

In later life, and despite ill health, she visited India and witnessed the work of Mother Teresa.  She also visited Poland, the Soviet Union, Hungary and Romania as part of a peace delegation during the Cold War, and publicly defended Soviet dissident and writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Pope Benedict XVI cited her conversion story as an example of how to "journey towards faith…in a secularized environment."  In 2000, Cardinal John O'Connor opened the cause for her canonization and, as a result, the Church refers to her with the title of Servant of God.

In his remarks to Congress, Pope Francis described Day by stating, "Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints."  In particular, the Holy Father noted her concern for the poor, and how this struggle to live out the Gospel message continues to this day.

Dorothy Day represents a uniquely American approach to the issue of poverty, but one which echoes the Church's well-documented tradition of pursuit of the common good and care for "the least of these" (Mt. 25).

This Gospel tradition is reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "The Church's love for the poor…is a part of her constant tradition.  This love is inspired by the Gospels of the Beatitudes, of the poverty of Jesus, and of his concern for the poor.  Love for the poor is even one of the motives for the duty of working so as 'to be able to give to those in need.'  It extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural and religious poverty."  (CCC 2444).

Despite the fact that we live in the wealthiest nation on earth, poverty continues to be an endemic problem.  According to PovertyUSA, a domestic anti-poverty program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in 2013 over 45.4 million Americans lived in poverty.  The number of people living in poverty in 2012 (46.5 million) was the largest number seen in the 54 years for which poverty rates have been provided.

These figures are equally stark here in California, particularly for children.  According to a new methodology for measuring poverty used by the U.S. Census Bureau, California has the highest level in the country.  In addition, according to a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, California's child poverty rate – 27 percent – is the worst in the nation.

These figures remind us that the concern for the poor that Dorothy Day championed in her social activism during the last century remains one of our most serious challenges.  As Pope Francis stated in his remarks about Dorothy Day:

"How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world! How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem."