Conservative Bishops Try to Hijack Dorothy Day’s Legacy

by Randy Shaw on November 30, 2012

The New York Times reported this week that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, New York City’s extremely conservative archbishop, is promoting efforts to declare the legendary pacifist and anti-poverty activist Dorothy Day a saint. According to the Times, “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.” The bishops also “see echoes of their fight with the Obama administration over health care.” Yet nobody who knows Day’s history will accept this misrepresentation of her legacy.

The idea that Dorothy Day of Catholic Worker fame would ever be associated with those backing politicians waging war on the poor seems incomprehensible. And when I saw the Times headline to the story I thought there had been some mistake. I was not alone.

Robert Ellsberg, the editor of Day’s letters and diaries and a former editor with the Catholic Worker newspaper that Day founded in 1933 noted,

“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.”

Martha Hennessy, Day’s granddaughter, was also “uncomfortable” with the bishops’ focus: 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. It’s hard for me to hear these men talking about my mother and grandmother that way.”

The truth about the remarkable Dorothy Day is available in books and other media, and a good sense of her is found on her Wikipedia page.

Dorothy Day was a saint to the poor and deserves sainthood on the basis of her pacifism and anti-poverty work. The bishops should be ashamed of these efforts to hijack her legacy.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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