Being a Dorothy Day Catholic

[ 17 ] July 23, AD 2012 |

“The greatest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.”

“I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

“Don’t worry about being effective. Just concentrate on being faithful to the truth.”

“What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”

“We believe that Social Security legislation, now billed as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity. It is an acceptance of the idea of force and compulsion.”

“Thank God that He has permitted us to live among the present problems. It is no longer permitted to anyone to be mediocre. It is you yourselves who must do the works of mercy.”

All of the words above are attributed to Servant of God Dorothy Day.

The other day I received a Facebook message from a friend from church, who happened to attend a major Catholic media conference in town a few weeks ago. He mentioned that my blog came up in conversation, myself being described as a “Dorothy Day Catholic”. I nearly spit out my coffee when I read that. Mostly I was shocked that anyone would compare me with such an amazing woman of God as Dorothy Day, not when my hard and selfish heart so often keeps me from living out the truths she daily embraced.

I wasn’t flattered. I was taken aback. I kept reading. He then went on to say that he meant “Dorothy Day Catholic” in the sense that I, like Ms. Day, embrace all of the Church’s social teachings. I couldn’t balk at that, as I do, in fact embrace all of the Church’s social teachings, a position the formation of which has cost me dearly. God had to break me open and drive home some hard truths for me to see the wisdom of all the teachings of our Church when it comes to morals and social life. Perhaps more importantly, I had to let Him teach me.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by my friend’s characterization of me and my writing, as I do try to represent the truth of all Church social teachings in my writing. I am equally opposed to abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, war (both nuclear and otherwise), human trafficking, and unjust conditions for workers and immigrants. I know that some issues are more important than others, but none are unimportant or can justly be ignored.

What seems shocking to me is just how few Catholics I’ve encountered who share this view. What seems shocking to me is that anyone wouldn’t want to be a “Dorothy Day Catholic”. This servant of God devoted her life to prayer, attending Mass daily, saying the rosary daily, and frequently spending time before the Blessed Sacrament. She devoted her life to doing the works of mercy, the very things which Our Lord himself says will determine if we are sheep or goats before Him. Who among us would not want to imitate her example?

As I thought about this message, I kept going back to my time working for the Archdiocese of Chicago in the Office for Peace and Justice. It’s sort of an interesting story how I came to work for the office. I was completing my MA in Social Justice from Loyola University Chicago and required an internship to finish my degree. My initial interest was the Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese. Since abortion is, to my mind, the social justice issue of the day, I saw it as a perfect fit for my internship. However, upon reading over my resume during my interview, a few questions came up about just how “pro-life” I was. You see, in addition to being a counselor at a crisis pregnancy center at the time and being strongly against abortion, there was the question of my anti-death penalty work in college and of my other “social justice” activities. The subtle message I received was that, because abortion wasn’t the only social issue important to me, I wasn’t pro-life enough. It made me sick.

Then I found the Office for Peace and Justice, and was so impressed with the then director of the office. Here was someone, who like me, was “on board” with all of the Church’s social teachings. Here was someone who had embraced openness to life (with baby number 7 now on the way), was opposed to abortion and euthanasia, and who, with his wife, had run a Catholic Worker farm. It felt like seeing a unicorn; the mythical Catholic who believes in all of the Church’s social teachings. They do exist!

Once my initial sense of elation wore off, I settled into the daily life of working for the Church. One part of my work was to liaison with the Respect Life Office about various programs which we (tried) to partner together for. It was heartbreaking work to be straddling one of the major fractures in the Body of Christ. To feel as though I were one of a few tendons holding a broken bone together. It was heartbreaking to see people who profess the same Lord, and who receive that same Lord each week in the Eucharist to have such mistrust for the ministry and work of their brothers and sisters in Christ. People who are working to achieve the same ends, social justice and respect for human life at all stages, who can’t even talk with one another. It broke my heart then, and it still breaks now.

The truth of the matter is, there should never have been two offices. Pro-life issues ARE social justice issues, and social justice issues ARE pro-life issues. To say this is not to say that they all hold the same moral weight, but it is to say that none may justly be ignored. No one is exempt from being knowledgeable about, and caring about, the full range of Catholic Social Teachings. For some reason, this seems to be a claim which is dangerous to some, and unintelligible to a few. I often hear the phrase “prudential judgement” bandied about to explain why someone has rejected one of the Social Teachings of the Church. Basically what they mean is that because assent to a particular teaching has not been stated as being a requirement of the faith, a Catholic does not have to embrace it in order to remain in good standing. This principle does not apply to the teachings on abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and same-sex marriage, which are called non-negotiable.

The reason for the difference is that the teachings pertaining to issues like immigration, poverty, just wage/working conditions, war, etc. fall under the realm of general guiding principles, rather than specific proscriptions. In theory this means that someone has thoroughly researched the issue, read nearly everything the Church has said on the issue, and has prayerfully considered the issue, asking the Holy Spirit to help them think with the Church regarding this teaching. If however, after attempting to embrace the teaching they still, in their conscience, cannot agree, they exercise their “prudential judgement” to reject it. In practice, what it often means is that people who don’t like feeling uncomfortable in their political ideology of choice reject social teachings, if they were even familiar with them in the first place, without due consideration for the view put forth by what they believe is the Body of Christ on Earth. Sadly, in many cases, people use this as an excuse to remain ignorant of teachings which may make them uncomfortable or challenge their lifestyle. I know that was certainly the case for me.

I have to challenge everyone to become familiar with the social teachings of the Church, if you are not already. They are a beautiful, cogent, and wonderfully articulated approach to creating societies that strive to be the Kingdom of God on Earth, in as much as this is possible before the end of time. How can you be against a teaching you have never earnestly considered? Yes, some issues are non-negotiable and some are not. This does not give one a free pass to ignore the Church as long as they assent to the “required” teachings. The Church, in her wisdom has invited us to learn the teachings and prayerfully approach them, being willing to give our Mother the respect she deserves.

So, how does one educate themselves on the social teachings?

Read, read, read. Read the original documents if possible, as not all commentaries are “on board” when it comes to some teachings. Papal encyclicals are a rich source of social teachings of the Church. A good one to start with is Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on Catholic Social Teaching.

Pray, pray, pray. Prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to help you think with the Church on whatever issue it is you are struggling with. This is a powerful prayer. If you open yourself even a little to the prompting of the Spirit, He will knock your socks off.

When you have researched and prayed, when you have sincerely tried to think with the Church on her social teachings, then, and only then, is one free to disagree in good conscience with one of the “prudential judgement” teachings. After all, if you sincerely believe the Church is your Mother, why would you want to disagree with Her about something unless you were absolutely certain she was wrong? Doesn’t your Mother, the Church, deserve the respect of trying your hardest to agree with her before rejecting teachings which much prayer and thought have gone into?

I can write about all of this because it is an integral part of the painful journey of conversion that God led me though. From a contraception using, Planned Parenthood supporting, “progressive” Catholic, to an NFP practicing, Crisis Pregnancy Center supporting, “Dorothy Day” Catholic. The Holy Spirit blew my heart wide open, because I was humble enough to admit that maybe, just possibly, I did not know more than 2,000 years of consistent teaching from the Church. All it took was that small concession, and a grudging acceptance that perhaps I should be more familiar with what it was I was rejecting, which the Spirit used to show me that even though there are things I can disagree with the Church about, I trust Her enough to not want to.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]Sarah Babbs is a married mother of an 18 month old girl, writing from Indiana where she moved for love after growing up on the east coast. Sarah and her husband, a lawyer, lead marriage prep classes for their parish in addition to daydreaming about having chickens and becoming lunatic farmers. During stolen moments when the baby’s napping and the laundry is multiplying itself, Sarah writes about new motherhood, Catholic social thought, and ponders the meaning of being a woman “made in the image of God”. Her website is Fumbling Toward Grace.[/author_info] [/author]

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About the Author ()

Sarah Babbs is a married mother of a toddler girl, writing from Indiana where she moved for love after growing up on the east coast. Sarah and her husband, a lawyer, lead marriage prep classes for their parish in addition to daydreaming about becoming lunatic farmers. During stolen moments when the toddler sleeps and the laundry multiplies itself, Sarah writes about motherhood, Catholic social thought, and ponders the meaning of being a woman "made in the image of God". Her website is Fumbling Toward Grace.
  • Lianna

    It pains me, too, that there is a divide between “peace and justice” and “pro-life.” What?? Social justice begins in the womb and continues after birth. EVERY life issue is connected.
    Christ commanded us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. There is so much hurt, so much need and emptiness in this world. Why are so many abandoning that call?

  • Brother Rolf

    Because we are probably in the Last Days.

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  • David

    I will not pesume to speak for otherse but my experience with those who are the strongest voices for social justice at La Salle University in Philadelphia was not positive. More often than not, they did not articulate a cogent or even catholic connectivity between the prayerful and active aspects of their faith.

    In the intervening twenty years, I have found that social causes, other than abortion, have been “hijacked” by relativism and and the political left. For example, many ostensibly catholic groups downplay that association in order to “reach a broader audience” or to avoid offending. We don’t pray before or during our active ministry.

    The disconnect between social justice and our faith makes it hard to bring faithful catholics to understand the beauty, power, and necessity of living their faith outside of their homes, schools, and parish community. Add to that the impulse to re-frame Christian tolerance to be some kind of requisite silence about sin and we have a perfect storm of contradiction.

    I appreciate that you were able to find the truth that these things are of a piece, that, as St. Paul teaches us, prayer and action are united in love. Unfortunately, many will never know that peace if Christians don’t re-claim social justice as an active expression of their faith.

  • Marian

    Amen and God bless you!!! There are many facets to this sad divide amongst the believers in the Church, and fault can certainly be found on both sides (I’m glad you shared your experience with the “pro-life only” crowd). You’ve highlighted a very big one (disagreement over the most crucial social justice issues of our times, and whether we can ignore any to the exclusion of the others). Another (and unfortunately I think this affects your suggested remedy) is belief in the role of the Magisterium, and of Church hierarchy (the Pope, the bishops, and priests). There are some “social justice” Catholics who believe the Church hierarchy are just a bunch of old celibate white men who don’t know what they’re talking about, and so they are not very likely to be interested in reading encyclicals and other Church documents. Do you have any thoughts for Catholics in that situation?

  • Sarah Babbs

    Marian, I guess my blunt answer for people who think the magisterium are a bunch of out of touch men would be, get over yourself! Or rather, are you Actually Catholic? I mean, there are plenty of people who embrace some teachings of the Church but reject the authority of the magisterium. They’re called Protestants! No I e has to be Catholic, but I’d you’re going to be, you better do your best to believe what the Church teaches. Hope that’s not too blunt!

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  • Lisa Schmidt

    Terrific post, Sarah. When the death penalty became a hot topic in the MSM about a year ago due to the case in TX, I was shocked to read all the pro death penalty chatter on Twitter … coming from many self-professing faithful, practicing Catholics. It was troubling.

    My husband is in deacon formation and we recently completed a course on Catholic Social Teaching. My paradigm has really been turned upside down. We are focused now on taking steps to “right-size” our lives based on our newfound knowledge.

  • Brother Rolf

    For another view of the death penalty watch the documentary “Hell House” about conditions in the New Mexico penitentiary. The guards are afraid of the prisoners because inside hit men will kill a guard for a pack of cigarettes. The hit men are esteemed and respected in the prison. Because there is no death penalty the hit men have nothing to lose and only gain. The death penalty is to protect the living. Where there is no death penalty there is no protection for the living.
    The infamous traitorous Catholic FBI agent would not give up the Russian agents that were killing American agents unless he was assured the death penalty would not be used.

  • Lianna

    David, I have also seen people into social justice that fail to connect it with faith (and some that fight for social justice actually seem to be anti-Church). More Catholics need to step up to the plate. It should follow naturally, when one is seeking to love the Lord, that one should also seek to love his/her neighbors. “Whatever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto Me.” Matthew 25:40. As it says in the book of James, faith without works is dead.

    There is too much suffering in the world for us to sit back and forget about it. God has graced us with so much. It’s up to each of us to find our Calcutta(s), and where Christ is calling us to use our gifts for the good of others.

  • Christina

    Great post! I definitely try to be a Dorothy Day Catholic, but it’s so discouraging when other faithful Catholics mistrust social teaching in its active ministry, or would rather go with politics than the Church. Also, I’m totally guilty of being suspicious of pro-life ministries for ignoring the peace and justice side of things, or of peace and justice ministries for ignoring the pro-life side of things. It’s a very tough place to be between a bunch of people who care about the Church and other people, but somehow fail to notice that they’re two sides of the same coin.

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  • Pat

    Thank you for your writing.
    On the social justice issues of poverty and living wages– many Americans can be left feeling uncomfortable because we could be doing more about those issues.
    Years ago there was a book that listed the world’s most influential persons. I think that Christ was listed as third or fourth. Someone asked why he wasn’t listed as first and the reply by the author was that his teachings have not been fully adopted. I heard this story as part of a sermon at my United Methodist Church. Another attempt by our pastor to “afflict the comfortable”. It is easy to turn a blind eye to an issue that would make us give up some of our wealth or leisure time.
    Keep writing.

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  • Joseph H. M. Ortiz

    I remember reading several decades ago something Dorothy Day wrote in the Catholic Worker, very simply combining “social justice” and “pro-life”:
    “Make room for children; don’t do away with them.”

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  • Dakota Lipps

    Thank you ever so for you article post.Really looking forward to read more. Really Great.