If ever there was an American defying easy categorization, it was Dorothy Day. She was a quiet child who became a bohemian; a bohemian who became a journalist; a journalist who became a radical; a radical who became an anarchist; an anarchist who became a Catholic; and a Catholic who became an apostle of peace, hope, and charity—and may someday be added to the calendar of saints.1 Given the fascination surrounding her life, it’s no surprise that Day has been the subject of many books and films—the latest book being John Loughery and Blythe Randolph’s major new biography Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century,2 and the latest documentary being Martin Doblmeier’s Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story.3 Both have already won wide acclaim, much of it earned. At the same time, neither quite captures the full dimensions of Dorothy Day’s inspiring faith and public witness—which underscores just how difficult it is to find her.
Dorothy’s Early Years and Influences
To its credit, the new biography—which I will review here—presents a vivid portrait of Dorothy’s earliest years during the dawn of the twentieth century. Loughery and Randolph are accomplished writers, able to evoke the sights and sounds of that era well.
Dorothy was born in Brooklyn, in 1897—the middle of five children—to John and Grace Day, whose marriage was a challenge, to say the least. According to the authors, Dorothy’s father:
. . . was a difficult man. A southerner of modest means, he had come North in his early twenties to make a living and find a wife, which he did, but his enthusiasm over the course of his married life was often directed less toward career advancement or family and more toward his race horses, professional sports, gambling . . . and, on occasion, other women.
John was a hard-drinking sportswriter who had trouble holding a job, compelling his family to move often: from New York to Oakland to Chicago, then back to New York. Grace, a gentle and caring woman, deserved far better, as did her children. But she kept the family together, despite John’s repeated failings and insensitivities.
A staunch Republican, John was not happy that “three of his five children— two of them his girls, no less—became as critical of capitalist America, as politically radical, as it was possible in the United States in the early twentieth century.”
Worse, from John’s standpoint, was that Dorothy also rebelled against him on religion. Though her parents had long since given up practicing Christianity, young Dorothy was fascinated by it—reading the Bible, attending church with neighbors, and learning about the saints from her Catholic schoolmates. John and Grace thought Dorothy was simply going through a phase, but when she was 12, she convinced them to have her baptized in the Episcopal Church. Grace, raised an Episcopalian, sympathized with Dorothy, while her father, a lapsed Congregationalist, “grudgingly agreed, if only out of concern that worse yet might happen—namely that his most eccentric child would eventually be lured to the embrace of Rome by her Catholic friends. That thought was intolerable. ‘Only Irish washerwomen and policemen are Roman Catholic,’ he informed his daughter.” Little did he know what lay ahead.
A precocious teenager, Dorothy earned a scholarship to the University of Illinois at Urbana when she was just 16. An avid reader, her social conscience had been stirred by the works of Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and Peter Kropotkin; by the time she arrived at college, she was keenly aware of the appalling conditions of the poor, new immigrants, and the working class. Immersing herself in the great Russian writers—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov—who highlighted the plight of the oppressed, Dorothy was determined to help them. Her political views became increasingly radical, so much so that they began to clash with her nascent Christian faith. She consciously tried to distance herself from that faith—by smoking, cursing, and listening to atheist professors. After only two years in college, she was ready to leave, filled with passionate and idealistic beliefs about reforming the world.
Moving to New York, she began writing for two socialist journals, The Call and then The Masses, before the latter was suppressed for opposing America’s entry into World War I. By this time Dorothy had become a fervent activist, joining forces with anyone who shared her social concerns, including Communists, though contrary to legend she never actually became one herself.4 She protested the War and picketed the White House for women’s suffrage—an act that landed her in jail for two weeks in 1917, where she was treated brutally. The experience awakened her to the harsh realities of America’s prison system, which she would come into conflict with again.
Back in New York, in Greenwich Village, Dorothy took breaks from these political struggles with her soon-to-be-famous literary friends: Eugene O’Neill, Malcolm Cowley, John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, and later, Katherine Ann Porter. Despite their heady gatherings at a drinking café nicknamed “The Hell Hole,” Dorothy’s religious yearnings began to re-awaken. One night, O’Neill, the fallen-away Catholic, regaled Dorothy with a slightly drunken rendition of Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven.” Its theme—about God’s relentless pursuit of a sinner—spoke to Dorothy directly.
Often, after spending a night carousing at the Hell Hole, she would slip away to attend early morning Mass, just to experience a taste of the divine. Dorothy kept these visits quiet, lest she receive blowback from her avant-garde friends. As Loughery and Randolph perceptively note: “She understood that her curiosity was best kept to herself. Disdain for what friends called superstition and a rejection of conservative institutions, especially the Catholic Church: that was the orthodoxy of the Village she knew.”
With one foot in the Church, and one in the world, Dorothy alternated between the sacred and profane. Soon she made a decisive choice—exactly the wrong one.
A Double Tragedy
In 1918, while Dorothy was training to be a nurse during the flu pandemic, she fell deeply in love with a reporter named Lionel Moise. Robust, confident, opinionated, and highly attractive, he could have been a character created by Ernest Hemingway—whom Moise actually knew, when they both worked at the Kansas City Star. Moise was a “ladies’ man,” but he didn’t really care about women, beyond the sexual intimacy they provided him. He had no interest in getting married, much less in having children, and was surprisingly frank about this. But Dorothy “was in the grip of an obsession she could scarcely control,” write Loughery and Randolph, and still thought she could win Moise’s lasting affection. After she became pregnant with his child, that illusion quickly disappeared. She worked up the courage to tell Moise about her pregnancy, only to hear his brutal reply that he was leaving for Chicago and wanted nothing more to do with her—the pregnancy be damned. Unwilling to accept this stark rejection, Dorothy followed Moise all the way to Chicago; in a desperate effort to retain him, she underwent a crude, dangerous abortion, which had a lifelong effect on her. It did nothing to change Moise’s conviction that the relationship was over, so Dorothy suffered a double tragedy: losing not only the love of her life, but also their child through a traumatic abortion.
Physically and emotionally overwrought by the affair (Moise’s cruelty led Dorothy to attempt suicide twice), she then fell for another dubious suitor. In 1920, she met and abruptly wed Berkeley Tobey. Tobey, who was sixteen years Dorothy’s senior, is best remembered for founding the Literary Guild book club, and for having married six times (Dorothy was his fourth wife). The couple embarked on a sumptuous tour of Europe, and seemed to enjoy themselves, but the pleasure was fleeting and superficial. Neither was truly in love. By the end of 1921, they were back in Manhattan and ready to part ways. Dorothy took the decisive step, leaving her wedding ring on the bureau one morning before she left, never to return. She always regretted the marriage, believing she had used Tobey as much as he had exploited her as one of his “trophy” wives.
At this point Dorothy was still only 24, but already had an abortion and divorce on her conscience. Even during those dark days, however, the pull of her childhood faith never entirely left her. She began to read more and more about God, the supernatural, and the saints, and wondered whether a miracle would ever grace her life as well.
Forster Batterham and the Hound of Heaven
If there was one ameliorating aspect to these otherwise painful years, it was the unexpected success of Dorothy’s first book, The Eleventh Virgin—a thinly disguised autobiographical novel that recounted her early life and loves, right up to her wrenching abortion. In later years Dorothy expressed embarrassment at having written it, but at the time its melodramatic flavor attracted Hollywood, which bought rights to it for a movie (never produced, to Dorothy’s relief). She used the proceeds to purchase a beach cottage in Staten Island, where she sought to build a new life.
Dorothy appeared well on her way to doing so after meeting Forster Batterham, a biologist who provided Dorothy with the most genuine and caring relationship she had ever had, albeit a secular one. They lived happily together for several years in a common-law marriage, but there was one huge catch: As Dorothy was moving closer to Christianity again, Forster, a rugged individualist and atheist, was moving in the opposite direction. At first, their differences were suppressed by their intense physical attraction for one other, but that eventually caught up with them when Dorothy became pregnant in 1925. Overjoyed by the news—having believed she could never again become pregnant after the internal injuries she suffered during her abortion—Dorothy expected Forster to share her delight and want to marry her. But “he was anything but pleased,” write Loughery and Randolph. “He wasn’t brutal in his response in the fashion of Lionel Moise, but he made it known that that was not what he had bargained for.”
Tensions increased after Dorothy gave birth to their daughter, Tamar Teresa, in 1926. She decided to have Tamar baptized, and then—after meeting a nononsense nun named Sister Aloysius—Dorothy began receiving instruction in the Catholic faith. This was a bridge too far for Batterham, the proud unbeliever. He left the cottage every time Sister visited to teach Dorothy catechesis, lest he be exposed to organized religion, which he feared and resented.
A “final, fierce argument” between Dorothy and Forster broke out at the end of 1927. According to Loughery and Randolph, “She asked him to leave and not come back. She would have the locks changed, if that was necessary. Enough was enough. Four days after Christmas, on December 29, 1927, Dorothy Day was baptized”—just five months after Tamar had been. “I do love you more than anything in the world,” she wrote to Forster shortly thereafter, “but I cannot help my religious sense, which tortures me, unless I do as I believe right.”
The Lord’s pursuit of Dorothy had finally ended in victory, for which Dorothy was forever grateful—even as she recognized its high price and enormous personal sacrifice.
For the next five years, Dorothy did what she could to raise Tamar, traveling and freelancing her talents. To his credit, as the bitterness of their break-up faded, Forster also helped out. The one thing that kept propelling Dorothy forward, as a struggling single mother, was her Catholic faith. It kept her focused, and maintained her moral and spiritual equilibrium.
During the depths of the Depression, while Dorothy was covering a hunger strike in Washington, DC, she asked herself why the strike wasn’t being led by the Church, if it was truly committed to helping the least among us, as Christ commanded it to do. She then went to the nearby National Shrine on the campus of the Catholic University of America: “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and with anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.”
It was December 8, 1932, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception; and what happened next would change Dorothy’s life forever.
When she returned to New York, a man named Peter Maurin was there to greet her; he had been given Dorothy’s address by the editor of Commonweal, who thought the two were kindred spirits. They proved much more than that: Peter, a brilliant if somewhat eccentric Catholic layman from France, was the answer to Dorothy’s prayers, as someone who could intellectually kick-start a major Catholic reform movement; and Dorothy was the ideal Catholic to lead it as a writer and speaker. Together they founded the Catholic Worker Movement, which became the most successful lay movement in the history of the modern Church.
From the opening issue of its feisty newspaper in 1933, the Catholic Worker was grounded in Peter and Dorothy’s unswerving Catholic faith and fidelity to the Gospel, which they advanced on the wings of grace. Their only “manifesto” was the Sermon on the Mount, and their guides were the popes, the saints, and the greatest teachers of the Church. The Catholic Worker Movement preached— and practiced—love, forgiveness, voluntary poverty, prayer, moral discipline, pacifism (even when it was most unpopular, during World War II), and social justice for all. It also created “Houses of Hospitality” and communal farms to take care of the poor and dispossessed, or anyone inhibited by age, illness, or the travails of modern life.
By any fair measure, and in spite of the controversies, failures, and criticisms it received, the Catholic Worker Movement succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams. Peter and Dorothy sought to “make a world easier to be good in,” as Peter would say, and countless people who have had their lives elevated by it are ample evidence of its manifold good fruits.
Throughout a dozen chapters, Loughery and Randolph recount the movement’s story in copious detail. One drawback, in fact, is the book’s information overload. Another is that the basics of this story have already been told by Dorothy in her four great autobiographical works: From Union Square to Rome (1938), Houses of Hospitality (1939), The Long Loneliness (1952), and Loaves and Fishes (1963), not to mention her letters and diaries and countless columns for the Catholic Worker’s newspaper—which Loughery and Randolph quote only sparingly. The mistake they make is to assume they can write better about Dorothy’s experiences than Dorothy herself. It would have been far wiser for the authors to allow Dorothy to speak in her own voice, and thus enliven this hefty but occasionally tedious volume.
That said, the biography does have its merits, describing, for example, how Dorothy correctly prophesied the catastrophe of a war in Vietnam long before it commenced. The book also details how the Catholic Worker, by its peaceful protests of resistance, helped shame the U.S. government into ending its mandatory civil defense drills during the Fifties, when it tried to lull people into normalizing weapons of mass destruction by pretending they could survive a nuclear war by hiding in a closet or ducking under a school desk. Equally impressive is the authors’ handling of Dorothy’s Catholic witness during the Sixties, when she welcomed youthful opposition to the Vietnam War but resisted, with every fiber in her soul, the moral and cultural revolution the young sought to bring about through sex, drugs, and a complete disrespect for the JudeoChristian mores that Dorothy believed essential for any healthy society.
The book is also filled with marvelous little anecdotes about Dorothy that capture her mischievous but good-natured spirit. My favorite involves the visit of Katherine Ann Porter, the great short story writer, after Dorothy became a Catholic:
Dorothy’s conversion was a sore point between them. Porter hated it when Dorothy kept expressing her hope that Porter, a lapsed Catholic, might herself return to the fold, and when she placed little religious statues around Porter’s bed when she stayed overnight, her houseguest was irate.
That was Dorothy Day: ever the gentle evangelist, always trying to win wandering souls back to the heart of Christ.
When she died, in 1980, after nearly fifty years of devotion to the Catholic Worker, people from every walk of life, rich and poor, Catholic and non-Catholic, responded to her extraordinary life by coming to pay their last respects, an event movingly captured in the final pages of this book.
Omissions and Errors
For all its strengths, however, the Loughery-Randolph biography contains three major blind spots that cannot go uncorrected:
1. The biography gives a highly misleading picture of Dorothy’s position on abortion and the Catholic Church’s approach toward women who have had one. In their introduction, the authors write:
[Dorothy] was dismayed by the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, but was never willing to condemn those women as beyond redemption who had committed that grievous sin and would have been distressed by Cardinal John O’Connor’s attempts to enlist her as a “poster child” of the pro-life movement.
However, as her best-known biographer Jim Forest (who worked with Dorothy for nearly twenty years) told me: “Dorothy wasn’t simply ‘dismayed’ by Roe v. Wade; she was shaken to the very depths of her soul.”5 That is why she signed a major pro-life statement against Roe, issued by the Catholic Peace Fellowship in 1974, declaring:
The January 22, 1973, Supreme Court Decision on abortion deprives all unborn human beings of any protection whatever against incursions upon their right to life and has thus created a situation we find morally intolerable, and one which we feel obliged to protest. No one has the right to choose life or death for another; to assume such power has always been recognized as the ultimate form of oppression.
“A primary obligation of civil society,” the statement went on, “is to protect the innocent. A legal situation such as now exists in the United States, making abortion available upon demand, is an abdication of the state’s responsibility to protect the most basic of rights, the right to life.”6
That same year, in an interview with Boston television reporter Hubert Jessup, Dorothy made an even more striking statement: “We do believe that there is not only the genocide of the War, the genocide that took place in the extermination of Jews, but the whole program—I’m speaking now as a Catholic—of birth control and abortion, is another form of genocide.”7
Astonishingly, neither one of these statements—among the most powerful Day ever made—appear in Loughery and Randolph’s 436-page biography.
Further, the claim that Dorothy would have been “distressed” by Cardinal O’Connor’s support for her pro-life convictions is groundless; the CPF statement explicitly stated: “For many years, we have urged upon our spiritual leaders the inter-relatedness of the life issues, war, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia and economic exploitation. We welcome the energetic leadership our bishops are giving in the abortion controversy and we are proud to join our voices with theirs.” (Emphasis added.)
As Tom Cornell, another long-time associate of Dorothy’s, told me: “Dorothy would have embraced Cardinal O’Connor’s leadership because he too strongly believed in the interrelatedness of the life issues, and was not only a passionate defender of the unborn, but a noted champion of the poor, workers’ rights, and an outspoken opponent of racism, war and the death penalty—just like Dorothy.”8
In addition, the suggestion that the Catholic Church believes that those who sin are “beyond redemption” is profoundly wrong. The Catholic Church, along with every other Christian body faithful to the Gospel, teaches the exact opposite—namely, that Jesus Christ came to redeem and save us from our sins through His life, death, and resurrection, and that absolutely no one is beyond His infinite and all-embracing divine mercy. (If that were untrue, Dorothy’s Cause for sainthood would not now be steadily advancing in the Church.) That the authors of this supposedly “definitive” biography on Day could make such a serious error reveals how deeply immersed they are in secular assumptions, and wholly unaware of basic Christian principles.
2. Sadly, the authors are also uninformed about the twentieth-century popes. Loughery and Randolph criticize Pius XI and Pius XII for allegedly facilitating the rise of fascism and even Nazism, and accuse Dorothy of covering up for them. But even a cursory study of the best scholarship on this subject disproves these claims,9 as do contemporaneous witnesses. When Pope Pius XI died in 1939, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency honored him with the headline, “Jews Mourn Loss of Champion of Human Rights, Foe of Racialism,” followed by a story that began:
Jews throughout the world joined Christianity today in mourning the death of Pope Pius XI who in his lifetime had led the Church in a campaign against anti-Semitism and racialism which placed him among the foremost defenders of human rights, put him in conflict with the Italian fascists and made him the target for abuse in the German press.
Similarly, in 1943, in a cover story on Pope Pius XII, Time magazine commented: “No matter what critics might say, it is scarcely deniable that the Church Apostolic, through the encyclicals and other papal pronouncements, has been fighting against totalitarianism more knowingly, devoutly and authoritatively, and for a longer time, than any other organized power.” Instead of violent revolution, Time continued, “the Catholic Church wants a conservative reconstruction of society in the name of God, justice, peace. Moreover, it insists on the dignity of the individual whom God created in his own image and for a decade has vigorously protested against the cruel persecution of the Jews as a violation of God’s tabernacle.”
Three years later, after World War II ended, the Conference on Jewish Relations published Essays on Anti-Semitism, leaving no stone unturned in describing the sins of Christians against Jews throughout history, but singling out these two popes as prominent exceptions: “We may agree or disagree with the general lines of political policy of the Vatican. But this much is undisputed fact: never has the papacy spoken in such unmistakable terms against racialism and anti-Semitism as in the words and deeds of the present Pope, Pius XII, and his predecessor Pius XI.”10 Dorothy’s admiration for both popes was sincere and well-founded.
3. Finally, now that the Church is seriously considering Dorothy for sainthood—a decision this biography is clearly ambivalent about—Loughery and Randolph try to chip away at her reputation for holiness. At least half a dozen times they suggest that Dorothy was an absent, negligent mother, affecting Tamar and her family for the worse. But Tamar’s own children, as well as those who worked with Dorothy and Tamar, emphatically say this is untrue.
Tamar’s daughter Kate, author of Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, has addressed this charge directly: “My grandmother has been accused of being an indifferent and neglectful mother, and that is just not what my mother experienced. It really is not. Dorothy was heroic in terms of her family obligations—it was really quite extraordinary, how much she was involved.”11
Speaking of Dorothy’s love for her many grandchildren, Martha, Kate’s sister, says: “You have to have a sense of humor when you’ve got nine grandkids running wild. I mean, her willingness to be in the midst of chaos and very gently enjoying it.”12
Marj Humphrey, who became a Catholic Worker in 1978 and spent the next two years taking care of the then-elderly Dorothy, told me: “It was a period of great reminiscence for her What she did speak to me about (many times, in fact) was her great love for, and great pride in, Tamar and her grandchildren . . . .
Likewise, I never heard Tamar speak in any way about not feeling Dorothy was a good mother to her.”13
Anne Marie Kaune, who also spent years at the Catholic Worker in New York, and became the managing editor of its newspaper, affirmed: “Dorothy loved her daughter and grandchildren deeply and without reserve. No one should have to defend that position and her grandchildren are the best ones to speak to it. I was with Dorothy and Tamar several times and witnessed the love between them.” 14 With so much compelling and first-hand evidence that Dorothy was a dedicated, loving mother and grandmother, why would Loughery and Randolph depict her as anything less? Did the authors not seek out these witnesses to give their book an alternative perspective?
For all these reasons, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, cannot be considered Dorothy’s definitive biography. While the book contains a great deal of interesting information and outlines her life, its inability to truly appreciate Dorothy’s dynamic Catholic faith—to find and highlight her inner sanctum—and its serious errors and omissions make it more a missed opportunity than a lasting achievement.
The better news is that, as Dr. Michael Baxter recently observed in Commonweal, forty years after Dorothy’s death, while there are still many mouths to feed, injustices to end, and souls to comfort, there are also many more Houses of Hospitality than ever. Small farms inspired by the Catholic Worker “have sprouted up in unprecedented numbers,” and Dorothy’s dedicated followers continue to witness for peace and uphold the principles she embraced and hoped would proliferate: reverence for God and the beauty and dignity of all human beings, as He created them, from conception until natural death.15
Postscript: A review of Martin Doblmeier’s documentary, Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story, will appear in William Doino’s complementary essay, “Finding Dorothy Day,” in the upcoming Fall 2020 Human Life Review.
William Doino Jr., a contributor to Inside the Vatican and First Things, among many other publications, writes often about religion, history and politics. He has published an 80,000-word annotated bibliography on Pope Pius XII, which appears in the anthology, The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII (Lexington Books), available in hardcover, paperback, and in Kindle format.
1. The Vatican formally opened Dorothy Day’s Cause for Canonization in 2000, and she now has the title, “Servant of God.” For updates on the progress of her Cause, see the website of the Dorothy Day Guild: www.dorothydayguild.org
2. Published by Simon and Schuster in 2020 in hardcover.
4. See, “The Catholic Worker, Communism and the Communist Party,” by Tom Cornell, American Catholic Studies, Spring 2014, pp. 87-101.
5. Interview with Jim Forest, via Skype, June 8, 2020.
7. As cited in, “A Saint who had an Abortion? – Details Revealed in Newly Released Conversation,” by Kathleen Gilbert, LifeSite News, July 20, 2011; and “Misunderstanding Day,” by David Mills, First Things online, July 25, 2011.
8. Telephone interview with Tom Cornell, June 16, 2020.
9. For an excellent overall history of this period, which rebuts charges that Pius XI and Pius XII were passive in the face of fascism and Nazism, see Sacred Causes by Michael Burleigh (HarperCollins, 2007); and for more documentation on both popes, especially Pius XII, see, The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII, edited by Joseph Bottum and David Dalin (Lexington Books, 2004).
10. See, “Jews Mourn Loss of Champion of Human Rights, Foe of Racialism,” February 12, 1939, Jewish Telegraphic Agency; “Peace and the Papacy,” Time magazine, August 16, 1943; and Essays on AntiSemitism, edited by Koppel S. Pinson (New York Conference on Jewish Relations, 1946), p. 6.
11. As she states in the aforementioned documentary, Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story.
12. As she states in Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story.
13. In an interview with me, via e-mail, June 14, 2020.
14. In an interview with me, via e-mail, June 7, 2020.
15. See, “Still a Sign of Contradiction,” by Michael Baxter, in Commonweal magazine, online, April 30, 2020.