Analysis: Dolan and Day Make an Unlikely Pair

The conservative cardinal is advocating for a hero of the Catholic left

By Gabe Pressman
|  Monday, Dec 3, 2012  |  Updated 4:14 PM EDT
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Analysis: Dolan and Day Make an Unlikely Pair

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Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, addresses an anti-Vietnam demonstration in Union Square.

It would seem that Cardinal Timothy Dolan would be an unlikely advocate for the late Dorothy Day.

That might have been true in the past. But today Cardinal Dolan is a strong supporter of Day. Indeed, he is leading a movement to proclaim her a saint.

Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has zealously urged that Dorothy Day, a heroine of the Catholic left, be canonized. Dolan, known for his strong conservative values and opposition to abortion, has become, according to The New York Times, the “unlikely champion” of Day.

It’s an example of how, as history unfolds, attitudes change dramatically. The radicals of yesterday may be embraced by the conservatives of today. Certainly, that seems to be what’s happened in the case of this passionate defender of human rights.

Dorothy Day, in the 20th century, protested war and supported social reform. She won fame as an advocate for the poor. She was deeply involved with radical causes and worked as a journalist for socialist and communist publications, in New York, Chicago and New Orleans. In her personal life, she had an abortion after a love affair with a journalist. Later she married an anarchist, who was opposed to government and religion After the birth of her daughter, Tamar, she embraced Catholicism.

Day devoted much of her life to fighting for the poor and the homeless. She founded a newspaper called the Catholic Worker to publicize Catholic teachings. From her home in Staten Island, she worked tirelessly to bring hope to thousands of struggling people.

Mary Brosnahan of New York’s Coalition for the Homeless told me: “Dorothy Day was an inspiration to many, with her radical message of seeing Jesus in each soul and promising to help.”

Times reporter Sharon Otterman reached out to Day’s granddaughter, Martha Hennessy, who volunteers for a Catholic Worker refuge for the poor. Ms. Hennessy bristled at what she sees as the bishops’ increasing focus on her grandmother’s abortion.

“I wish,” she said, “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.”

Dorothy Day, a true New York heroine, shrugged off past efforts to make her a saint. As her biographer Jim Forest recalls, her brusque comment to someone who suggested that she deserved sainthood was: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” 

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