Sunday, July 29, 2012

Do Dissenting Catholics Do More for the Poor than Orthodox Catholics? Reflections On Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker

In recent months, the secular media has carried numerous stories about the tensions between the Vatican and certain women religious over Catholic doctrine--especially doctrine about sexuality. A lot of this commentary implies that the dissenting Sisters are the Catholics that truly care about social issues, while the Vatican and the bishops are portrayed as reactionaries, perhaps even sexists.
I do not mean to impugn the good work of any of the women's religious orders--whether their members adhere to Catholic doctrine or challenge it.  Nevertheless, over the long history of the Catholic Church, the Catholics who have done the most to help the poor have been orthodox.

Dorothy Day did more to help the poor than any other twentieth-century American Catholic.  I have not read all her writings, but from what I have read, Dorothy Day never challenged fundamental Catholic doctrine during her long life of service.

Dorothy Day was an unqualified pacifist, and she sometimes criticized American foreign policy in her famous newspaper, The Catholic Worker. Her views made the New York archdiocese hierarchy uncomfortable, and in March, 1951, the chancellor of the Archdiocese told her she must cease publishing The Catholic Worker or change its name.

Robert Ellsberg records Dorothy's response in his annotated publication of her diaries:
Dorothy replied: "First of all I wish to assure you of our love and respectful obedience to the Church, and our gratitude to this Archdiocese, which has so often and so generously defended us from many who attack us. . . " She noted that none of the staff wished to change the name of the CW, which had operated under that name for 18 years. . . . While she stood ready to receive criticism or disciplinary censure for any theological errors,she noted that ceasing publication "would be a grave scandal to our readers and would put into the hands of our enemies, the enemies of the Church, a formidable weapon." She resolved to be "less dogmatic, more persuasive, less irritating, more winning." The matter was not raised again.
(Ellsberg, 2008, p. 154, n. 124.)

When we reflect upon the saints--Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, Katharine Drexel, Edith Stein, Maximillian Kolbe--people who gave their lives to serve others in the name of their Catholic faith, I don't think you will find one saint who openly challenged fundamental Church doctrine.

Let's not let the secular media get away with portraying our Church's rebels as the good guys. Over the centuries, the good guys were the saints; and the saints did not spend their time wrangling with the Church hierarchy. The saints spent their lives in the service of others.


Ellsberg, Robert. The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2008.

Goodstein, Laurie. Nuns Weigh Response to Scathing Vatican Rebuke. New York Times, July 28,2012.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

"Just now a knock came at the door": A lovely passage from Dorothy Day's diary

I am reading Dorothy Day's diaries, and I call attention to this lovely passage from her June 20, 1950 entry:
Just now a knock came at the door and a young man wanted to spend the night. I told him to go eat but that we could not put him up. Always this impulse to say no. Yet each such encounter is an opportunity to see Christ in the other. Our brother. So I left the conference and told him to stay. He will make the conference tonight, Benediction, Mass in the morning. Who knows but that God would miss these prayers that might have been said, this praise, this thanks, this glory, no matter how inarticulate our brother is. (p. 137)

Ellsberg, Robert (ed.). The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2008.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Chick-Fil-A Is Not Welcome in Boston: What a Clucking Nightmare!

We do not want thy chicken sandwich
The Puritans still run Boston. They don't wear those funny black hats any more, but the Boston elites are just as priggish, self-righteous, and arrogant as they were when they stepped off Plymouth Rock in 1620.

Last week, Boston mayor Thomas Menino sent a letter to Chick-fil-A, the Atlanta-based restaurant chain, telling the company it is not welcome in Boston because its leaders espouse a traditional Christian view of marriage.

Catholics and Chick-fil-A basically hold the same views on marriage, so perhaps Catholics aren't welcome in Boston either.

Wait a minute. Catholics have never been welcome in Boston--at least not among the elites.  In 1647, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed an ordinance making it a capital offense for a priest to be inside the colony's boundaries.  That's right--if you were a Catholic priest in those days, the Puritans would kill you.

And elite Bostonians have been bigoted toward Catholics ever since.   A Boston mob burned the Charlestown convent in 1834, whipped up by sermons from Protestant preachers, including Lyman Beecher--an open anti-Catholic bigot.  Although the rioters were tried in criminal court, most were acquitted.

In 1859, a Boston school official whipped young Thomas Whall, a Catholic school boy, for refusing to read from the King James (Protestant) version of the Bible.  This incident triggered the Eliot School Rebellion--a walkout from the public schools by Catholic school children.

And let's not forget the Know-Nothing Party of Massachusetts, which took over Massachusetts government in the mid-1850s and passed several anti-Catholic laws. To this day, the Massachusetts Constitution contains a provision prohibiting any public funding for a religious organization--passed specifically to hinder the Catholic Church.

Mayor Menino's disdain for Chick-fil-A is only the latest in a long series of incidents in which elite Bostonians have showed their disdain for traditional religious values.

Chick-fil-A is fortunate to get a clear snub from Mayor Menino.  Having been warned, it seems unlikely that Chick-fil-A will open a restaurant in Boston.

And that is truly unfortunate, because Boston food is lousy; and Bostonians would have benefited from a restaurant that cooks good Southern food.

Ellis, John Tracy. Documents of American Catholic History. Milwaukee: Bruce, 1956.

Fossey, Richard & LeBlanc, Robert. "Vouchers for sectarian schools after Zelman: Will the First Circuit expose anti-Catholic bigotry in the Massachusetts Constitution?" Education Law Reporter 193, 343-352 (2005).

McGreevy, John T. Catholicism and American Freedom. New York: Norton, 2003.

Mulkern, John R. The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of a People's Movement.  Boston; Northeastern University Press, 1990.

Schultz, Nancy Lusignan. Fire and Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002.

Severson, Kim. "Chick-fil-A Thrust Back Into Spotlight on Gay Rights." New York Times, July 26, 2012.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Doing the Things That Come To Hand: Dorothy Day and the Aurora Movie Shootings

Dorothy Day
I finished reading Loaves and Fishes this week, Dorothy Day's account of the Catholic Worker movement. I had read the book several years ago. Reading it again, I was struck by the fact that Dorothy Day spent most of her adult life among irritating people--eccentrics, drunks, homeless people who didn't bathe, the mentally ill, thieves.  These are exactly the kind of people I try to avoid.

Mr. O'Connell, for example, who lived at the Catholic Worker's Easton farm for nine years, was a racist, a drunk, a person so irascible that no one could work with him.  Anna, a homeless woman who sheltered at a CW hospitality house, had lived on the street so long that she refused for months to sleep in a bed.  She was also a bit wacky. Dorothy wrote that Anna appeared one day wearing a pair of peach-colored women's underwear on her head. Even Peter Maurin, co-founder with Dorothy of the Catholic Worker movement, did not bathe regularly.  

And yet Dorothy Day saw the face of Christ in all these people--in all the poor. And were she alive today, I feel sure she would see the face of Christ in James Holmes, the young man accused of shooting 70 people iat a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

James Holmes may not be poor financially. Reportedly, he was able to buy $15,000 worth of guns, ammunition and body armor.  But surely he is poor spiritually--isolated, almost friendless, and probably mentally ill. 

As individuals, we cannot do much to stop tragedies like the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado or the other mass shootings that have occurred in recent years.   We don't have the power to stop the sale of assault rifles or the online purchase of assault-rifle ammunition.  We don't have the skill to identify and restrain mentally ill people before they pick up a weapon and start killing people.

James Holmes
But we can be kind to people. We can do more on a personal level to easing the suffering of people around us.  We can cultivate the virtue of patience when we are irritated by our co-workers. Who knows how James Holmes's life would have turned out if some individual had simply smiled at him during the days he was amassing weapons and ammunition--if someone had bestowed some act of kindness on him?

For, as Dorothy Day wrote in Loaves and Fishes, "We do the things that come to hand, we pray our prayers, and beg also for an increase of faith--and God will do the rest."

This was also the message of St. Therese of Lisieux, whom Dorothy Day much admired. "I have tried it: when I feel nothing, when I am incapable of praying or practicing virtue, then is the moment to look for small occasions, nothings that give Jesus more pleasure than the empire of the world, more even than martyrdom generously suffered."

Of course, I don't live this way. I don't follow the example of Dorothy Day or St. Therese of Lisieux. I am caught up in the day-to-day distractions of living, worried about whether I have enough money to retire, annoyed by people in the checkout line at the grocery store, frustrated by traffic on the Interstate. Had I encountered James Holmes, I feel sure I would have brushed him off, signaled him by my demeanor that I did not want to expend the small amount of energy it would have taken to extend him a little kindness.

I believe Dorothy Day understood how God wants us to live in this world--this postmodern, materialistic, hedonistic, power-hungry, recognition-seeking, violence-obsessed world.  And if we followed her example, we, like Dorothy, would make the world a better place for people to live. 


Day, Dorothy. Loaves and Fishes. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1963.

Nelson, John. The Little Way of Saint Therese of Lisieux. Liguori, MO: Liguori, 1997.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

"Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" Reflections on Protestantism, Fidelity and the Catholic Faith in America

I grew up a Methodist in the small town of Anadarko, a farming community in southwestern Oklahoma. Anadarko's First Methodist Church still stands on the courthouse square, a magnificent neo-Grecian building with tall pillars, wide steps, and beautiful stained glass windows. The First Presbyterian Church, also a lovely structure, stood just across the courthouse square, and Anadarko's First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was located across an alley from First Methodist.

When I was a child, all these churches were full, solidly packed with middle-class white families. Today, the First Methodist Church is struggling. Attendance has shrunk to less than half of what it was when I was a child, and most parishioners are elderly. The First Presbyterian Church closed several years ago. The Disciples of Christ limp along.

In my overwhelmingly Protestant community, no one paid much attention to St. Patrick's Catholic Church when I was growing up. As a child, I did not know that St. Patrick's had been founded by French Benedictine Fathers in 1894 as a mission to the Comanche Indians and that St. Katharine Drexel donated the money to construct all the mission buildings. I recall seeing an occasional group of nuns in downtown Anadarko. I did not know they were the Franciscan Sisters of Philadelphia.

I worship at St. Patrick's when I visit my home town, and the church is always overflowing at Sunday Mass. Solid farmers, with faces deeply tanned below their hat lines, attend with their wives and children. They look like Baptists to me, and I am always a little shocked to see them genuflect and make the sign of the cross. Mexican immigrants and people of Vietnamese descent intermingle with Anglo worshipers and Comanche, Kiowa, and Caddo Indians. Without a doubt, the Mass at St. Patrick's is the most multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-racial collection of people in my home town.

I thought of my hometown's religious life a few days ago as I read Ross Douthat's column in the New York Times, in which he commented on the decline of the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Episcopal Church, Douthat wrote, is "flexible to the point of indifference about dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology in favor of secular political causes."

Nevertheless, Douthat continued, in spite of its limitless willingness to accommodate itself to modern culture, the Episcopal Church is not thriving. On the contrary, it is on the verge of collapse.

Other mainline Protestant denominations are also in trouble: the Methodists, the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and Disciples of Christ. Venerable denominations that trace their roots to the Reformation are sinking into oblivion. As Douthat correctly observed, the liberal Protestant faith traditions are disappearing because they "often don't seem to be offering anything you can't already get from a purely secular liberalism."

Douthat urged Episcopalians and other liberal Protestant groups to "pause amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world."

I contend, however, that the mainline Protestant groups threw out the essence of Christianity long ago, although they retain the habit of Christian charity. As Eamon Duffy wrote in The Stripping of the Altars, his seminal history of the English Reformation, the Church of England cast away essential Catholic doctrines in the sixteenth century:  veneration of the saints, devotion to Mary, and the bedrock belief in Christ's real presence in the Eucharist. As Ronald Knox observed, in time the Anglican Church came to represent mere kindliness, "especially toward animals." No wonder, the Anglicans and the American Episcopalians are withering away.

Meanwhile, in the United States at least (and also in Africa and Latin America), the Catholic Church is thriving. At the time of the American Revolution only two percent of Americans were Catholics, and they were mostly confined to the colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland.Today, about a quarter of the American population are Catholics. We have been the largest religious group in the U.S. since the 1850s.

Why does the Catholic Church remain strong in the United States while the liberal Protestant communities are faltering?  We have remained strong through our fidelity--fidelity to the ancient Catholic faith. Through times of tolerance and times of bigotry, through good times and bad--our people have remained faithful; they have not wavered.

But American Catholics should not be smug about our enhanced strength and status. We face the same mortal threat that confronts liberal Protestantism in the U.S.--prosperity.

We were a stronger and more vital Church when Catholics were poor. Indeed, Dorothy Day, perhaps the greatest American Catholic convert, wrote that she was drawn to the Catholic Church because Catholics were poor. "It was the Irish of New England, the Italians, the Hungarians, the Lithuanians, the Poles, it was the great mass of the poor, the workers, who were Catholics in this country, and this fact in itself drew me to the Church."

Today we see a few small hints of the old anti-Catholic bigotry in the columns of the New York Times and the Obama administration's Health Care Mandate. Perhaps we should pray for this bigotry to intensify. Catholics would be better Christians if we were again despised and discriminated against like we were in the nineteenth century. God save us from too much prosperity (although a little would be nice). God save us from the esteem of the New York Times.  And--although most Episcopalians are very nice people--God save us from becoming Episcopalians.


Day, Dorothy (1952). The Long Loneliness. New York: Harper & Row.

Douthat, R. (2012, July 14). Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? New York Times.

Duffy, Eamon (1992). The Stripping of the Altars. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Monday, July 16, 2012

When You Get the Blues About Our Church's Sexual Abuse Scandal, Read Dorothy Day

Our Church's sexual abuse scandal goes on and on. Recently, Monsignor William Lynn a was convicted of covering up sexual abuse by priests in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. This is the latest installment in a long sad saga--story after story of priests raping young boys. George Weigel, writing in 2002, called this torrent of priestly abuse  "the Long Lent," and that was a decade ago.

Sometimes this terrible scandal gives me the blues and even makes me question my faith. After all, devotion to family is at the core of Catholicism.  We are the people who celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. We are the people who worship the Holy Child. How could a priest brutalize a young boy?  How could a bishop cover up such an outrage and allow a child molester to remain in the priesthood?

A few days ago, I picked up my copy of Loaves and Fishes, Dorothy Day's account of the Catholic Worker movement.  I had read this book several years ago, but I began reading it again.
After reading a few pages, I was completely restored.  Dorothy's book reminded me of the essence of our faith, a faith strong enough to overcome even something as horrendous as our Church's sexual abuse scandal.

Dorothy's reflection on the priesthood was especially comforting to me, and I quote it here:
There are many times when  I grow impatient at the luxury of the Church, the building programs, the cost of the diocesan school system, and the conservatism of the hierarchy. But then I think of our priests. What would we do without them? They are so vital a part of our lives, standing by us as they do at birth, marriage, sickness and death--at the great and critical moments of our existence--but also daily bringing us the bread of life, our Lord himself, to nourish us. "To whom else shall we go?" we say with St. Peter. (p. 126)
So let us soldier on. Let us strive to be constant in our small duties and responsibilities. For as Dorothy wrote:
 "I believe because I want to believe, I hope because I want to hope, I love because I want to love."  These very desires would be regarded by God as He regarded those of Daniel, who was called a man of desires, and whom He rewarded. (p. 105).
Our saints and martyrs will comfort us in these times. Let us not forget them, and let us pray for Dorothy Day to be canonized.


Day, Dorothy. (1963). Loaves and Fishes. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Hurdle, Jon, & Eckholm, Erik (2012, June 22). Cardinal's aide found guilty in abuse case. New York Times.

Weigel, George (2002). The Courage to be Catholic.  New York: Basic Books.