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Who was Dorothy Day?

Pope Francis’s praise for the pacifist founder of the Catholic Worker Movement was among the most quietly radical lines of his speech.
Dorothy Day, head of Catholic Worker, inside the worker office at 175 Christie St. (Photo by Judd Mehlman/NY Daily News/Getty)
Dorothy Day, head of Catholic Worker, inside the worker office at 175 Christie St. 

In his address to Congress Thursday, Pope Francis lauded perhaps the two greatest Americans in history, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Then he mentioned another less familiar name: Dorothy Day.

“Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints,” the pontiff said.

Francis’ praise for Day was among the most quietly radical lines of an often progressive speech. Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement, was a consistent voice not just for helping the poor on an individual level, but for the structural economic reforms that she believed were necessary to create a fairer system. By holding up Day as an example, Francis was indirectly continuing his criticism of modern capitalism that has angered many American conservatives.

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Born in Brooklyn in 1897, Day was an outspoken left-wing activist from her youth, getting arrested as a suffragette in 1917, and writing for socialist newspapers during the 1920s. She converted to Catholicism in 1927, and, during the depths of the Great Depression, founded the Catholic Worker movement, which continues to provide services to the poor today.

In her autobiography, Day was candid about the movement’s long-term goals:

[O]urs was a long-range program, looking for ownership by the workers of the means of production, the abolition of the assembly line, decentralized factories, the restoration of crafts and ownership of property. This meant, of course, an accent on the agrarian and rural aspects of our economy and a changing emphasis from the city to the land.

That skepticism about modernity jibes with Francis’ views. “There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history,” he wrote in his encyclical letter on the environment released in June.

Day’s movement was also uncompromisingly pacifist. She fiercely opposed the U.S. entry into World War II, and participated in a slew of anti-war protests throughout her life.

Day, who had an abortion in her youth, became staunchly opposed to the practice later, calling abortion and birth control “genocide.”

Indeed, since her death in 1980, she has won praise not only from liberal Catholics but also from more conservative figures in the church. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, who was among the leaders of a rightward shift of U.S. bishops, has energetically supported a campaign to have Day canonized. Dolan told a meeting of bishops in 2012 that Day represents “what’s best in Catholic life, that ability we have to be ‘both-and’ not ‘either-or.’ ”

“For quite a while, the church at the grass roots in the United States has been fairly badly splintered to a kind of peace-and-justice crowd on the left and pro-life crowd on the right,” John Allen Jr., senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, told the New York Times at the time. “And Day is one of those few figures who has traction in both those groups.”