Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"I am dogmatic," Dorothy Day wrote: Once again, the New York Times displays its ignorance about Catholicism

 Once again, the New York Times editorial writers have demonstrated their ignorance of Catholicism. On today's editorial page, the Times praised the Sisters of St. Joseph for their work with homeless and paroled women at Providence House in New York. The Times claimed that the Sisters' witness contradicts "the Vatican's sweeping accusations of 'serious doctrinal problems' and 'radical feminist' tendencies among the nation's Roman Catholic Nuns." Of course, the Times is talking about the ongoing controversy between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious over doctrinal issues.

Christ of the Breadline
Credit: Lamb Catholic Worker, Columbus, Ohio
Like so many fuzzy-minded liberal thinkers, the Times assumes that any Catholic who works with the poor must be a rebel against orthodox Catholic doctrine.  The Sisters of St. Joseph help the poor; therefore in the Times editorial writers' minds, they must be in conflict with the Vatican regarding Catholic doctrine. 

But, as the Times itself admitted, "The nuns of Providence house don't have time to be distracted by doctrinaire dust-ups as they serve paroled and homeless women." That's exactly right, and I see no evidence that the Sisters of St. Joseph are in serious disagreement with the Vatican over doctrinal matters.

The Times's confusion echoes the confusion of the Unitarians back in the 1973, when the Unitarian-Universalist Church gave Dorothy Day an award for "best liberal religious writing of the year." (Ellsberg, 2008, p. 529).

Dorothy thought the Unitarians had made a mistake. She should not be getting an award for liberal religious writing.  "I am dogmatic," Dorothy wrote in her diary. "I believe in the Divinity of Christ. Christ as God and Redeemer, Savior. True God and True Man. I believe in Heaven and Hell. Resurrection of the body. Life everlasting." (p. 530).

Although Dorothy decided to accept the Unitarian award, she was probably right to conclude that the Unitarians did not understand her writings.  Like the New York Times editorial writers, the Unitarians probably assumed that a woman who lives a life of voluntary poverty and practices the works of mercy must be a religious liberal.

If the Times writers want to understand American Catholicism, they should delve into the history of the American Catholic religious orders and the Catholic Worker movement that Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded. The Times would see that Catholics who work with the poor have generally been orthodox Catholics--not rebels against the Vatican.

But I suspect the Times editorial team doesn't want to understand Catholicism. It just wants to criticize it.


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

Speaking the Truth to the Vatican. New York Times, September 18, 2012.

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