On November 29, 1980, thirty years ago yesterday, Dorothy Day died, just a few weeks after the election of Ronald Reagan. Day was one of the twentieth-century architects of the Catholic Left, which in 1980 was not yet implicated in its current ménage à trois with the pro-choice movement and the Democratic Party.
Day's 1955 autobiography, The Long Loneliness, is a classic to those who still love her, and a quite respectable feature film based on the book was released in 1996, under the title Entertaining Angels. By "long loneliness" Day meant the basic but often unsatisfied human need for community. Her own long loneliness was remedied by a life of service to the poor and membership in the Catholic Church, which, not coincidentally, she considered the church of the poor.
But that solution had not come quickly to her. She experienced inklings of religious belief in childhood, but by her early 20s Day lived a Bohemian, free lover's existence, inspired by the message of the early birth control movement and predisposed to embrace the causes of the unbelieving radical left. She quickly demonstrated painfully bad taste in men. Compelled by a sharp, acquisitive love for a writer, Lionel Moise, she practically forced her way into his life—into his apartment, into his bed. He forewarned her that if she became pregnant, he would abandon her. When they conceived, she aborted the child to keep the man, but lost both. She then married a strange loser on the rebound, dumped him after a year, and pursued Lionel to Chicago, where she failed to recapture him.
Only later did Day find familial happiness when she settled into a common-law marriage with Forster Batterham, a man of no particular distinction except to be the undeserving recipient of her love. She conceived again and this time her unborn child brought her great happiness. She began to return to thoughts of God and to pray. As a leftist, she wondered whether she was simply swallowing the opiate of the people. But Marxist theory, she realized, did not fit her situation. She turned to God not as one oppressed but as one who, like C.S. Lewis, had been "surprised by joy." She had her infant daughter baptized into the Catholic Church and then became a Catholic herself. Forster, an atheist and anarchist who had rejected even a mere licensed union, could never accept sacramental marriage with a Catholic. They broke up. Shortly thereafter, at the height of the Great Depression, Day found her calling when she began offering food and shelter to the poor of New York City. The ministry was quickly imitated elsewhere and persists to the present day, in one form or another.
Almost seamlessly, Day integrated her secular political philosophy with Catholic social teaching. She absorbed the Catholic esteem for distributism—widespread ownership of the means of production—and united it with her pre-existing taste for anarchism. For Day, anarchism was not the absence of all government. It was local self-government. She envisioned a society of small businesses and farms directed by individuals in small communities. She was opposed to the dominance of both large corporations and expansive centralized governments. She appealed to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which states that the most local unit of society capable of handling a matter should do so. She had a Franciscan regard for instantaneous, unmediated aid to the poor. She had far too little faith in the state to keep easy company with American liberals.
Sometimes Day seems caught in an ideological time warp. Is she conservative? Is she liberal? Today it is hard to peg someone who distrusts both the state and the corporation, and who does so in resolutely Catholic language. Our vision sharpens somewhat when we follow her into the 1960s. As the Sexual Revolution unfolded, Day refused to go along with it. She was now too steeped in the full range of Catholic teaching to be enticed by calls for a loosening of Catholic moral strictures on birth control, divorce, premarital sex, and abortion. She set herself firmly against the claims of homosexuality. She instinctively recognized that the openness to human life represented by concern for the poor was equally represented by respect for the procreative power of sex. Despite her own libertine past, she does not seem to have feared the charge of hypocrisy. She viewed her own history with shame and sorrow. She believed the youth of the '60s were sinking into the same sexual mistakes she and her peers had made in the '20s. Some of the young liberated volunteers in her ministry began to see her as something of an old hag.
Although Dorothy Day lived a long, full life, I still think it worthwhile to ask what would have become of her had she survived beyond 1980. Her traditionalism on sexual morality would have left her with few ardent friends on the Catholic Left, which has tacitly agreed with the Secular Left not to make too much of a fuss about such things as abortion and homosexuality. The Right, meanwhile, would have penalized her for her anti-capitalism. She would have been isolated, intellectually and perhaps socially. For a woman intent on merging ideas with action in a community of true believers and doers, this would have been the longest loneliness of all.