During his much-awaited speech to Congress on Thursday, Pope Francis included a message of praise for “daughter of this land” Dorothy Day, a radical writer and social justice activist who uplifted the dignity of the poor and was repeatedly jailed for protesting wars, racism, and the denial of women’s suffrage.
“In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement,” the Pope declared. “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.”
Francis praised Day as one of four commendable “representatives of the American people”—placing her alongside Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thomas Merton for her commitment to “social justice and the rights of persons.”
The statements quickly grabbed headlines, reflecting Day’s status as a beloved figure among many left-leaning Americans. The remarks also caused Google searches of Dorothy’ Day’s name to spike over 1,700 times the historic average.
But some say the Pope’s statements fell short of honoring Day’s true legacy.
“What the pope said really didn’t communicate Dorothy Day’s radicalness and her prophetic witness against war making,” Kathy Boylan of the Catholic Worker house in Washington, D.C. said in a statement released Thursday. “She refused to pay federal income tax. She was the first to condemn the bombing of Hiroshima. She helped with the burning of draft cards.”
“Now they want to rewrite the story, to make her less radical,” Boylan continued. “She’d say: ‘our problems stem from our acceptance of this stinking, rotten system’ and ‘those unused buildings owned by the church are crimes calling out for vengeance.'”
Born in Brooklyn in 1897, Day fell in with the early 20th century scene of bohemian artists and intellectuals in New York’s Greenwich Village, writing for radical publications The Call and The Masses.
Day went on to co-found The Catholic Worker, which is still in print today. Soon after, she and Peter Maurin established “hospitality houses” aimed at providing communal food and shelter to the poor. “Today 236 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless,” the organization’s website states.
“If your brother is hungry, you feed him,” Day declared in a 1971 interview. “You don’t meet him at the door and say, ‘Go be thou filled,’ or ‘Wait for a few weeks, and you’ll get a welfare check.’ You sit him down and feed him. And so that’s how the soup kitchen started.”
Day was arrested numerous times for staging acts of civil disobedience demanding women’s suffrage and protesting fascism, racism, anti-semitism, nuclear weapons, both World Wars, and the war in Vietnam. This included her arrest in 1973 for participating in a United Farm Workers picket in California.
An open defender of anarchists and socialists, Day studied Emma Goldman, interviewed Leon Trotsky, and declared: “We are on the side of the [Cuban] revolution.” She also spoke out against the greed of the Catholic Church.
“The biggest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution that has to start with each one of us,” Day wrote in her book Loaves and Fishes, originally published in 1963.
The church has taken steps towards making Day, who died in 1980, a saint, and has already named her a “servant of God.” Day, who was staying next door to a homeless woman in one of the worker movement’s houses when she died, reportedly said during her life that she didn’t want to be “dismissed so easily” by being named a saint.
In considering canonizing Day, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, voiced his strong support. “I am convinced she is a saint for our time,” he said, according to The New York Times. She is, Cardinal Dolan said, “what’s best in Catholic life, that ability we have to be ‘both-and’ not ‘either-or.’”