The Great Depression: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement

Dorothy Day

Lessons of the 20th Century Series

Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper. . . . But there was another question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? . . . Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?

Dorothy Day

In this series on the 20th Century, I have been trying to show how this eventful era has forced Christians to face some hard questions. In answering those questions, we have had to learn some hard truths and expand our understanding of the faith.

This dynamic came up again during the Great Depression in the person of Dorothy Day (1897-1980). In her response to the great questions of the day, we see a profound challenge to the church at large: “Whom is the church for?” In one sense, it seems like there is an obvious answer to this question: the church is for everyone. Ideally, that would be true.

The Church in the Halls of Power

In reality, since the time of Constantine (272-377 AD), this hasn’t been the case. While there have been some important exceptions, church leadership has largely associated itself with the rich and powerful in society.

Especially in Europe, Bishops and Kings have traditionally worked closely together. In the French Revolution, the Catholic church stood with the collapsing monarchy against populism and democracy. In Russia, at the brink of the Communist Revolution, the church was closely allied with the Tsarist regime as the protector of Holy Orthodoxy. Here, too, it was opposed to worker’s rights.

The Great Depression: A Time of Worldwide Turbulence

For those of us born long after these events, it is hard to appreciate the turbulence of the world in which Dorothy Day lived and began her work in 1932. It is important to understand this world, and how it shaped her answer to the question: ‘Whom is the church for?’

Dorothy Day didn’t answer the question in a systematic theology textbook. She worked out the answers in a world that seemed to have failed. World War I had devastated much of Europe and had destroyed millions of lives. The Spanish Flu had killed millions more. Within two decades, the Great Depression hit with a vengeance, destroying wealth and agriculture. Millions found themselves in poverty and out of work. This drove labour unrest, agitated in part by the rise of worldwide communism following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. Different churches responded to these events in a variety of ways. I want to focus here on Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day: An Unlikely Saint

Day can seem like an unlikely candidate for sainthood. She had a passion for peace and justice, but it didn’t start in the church. From an early age, she was a journalist and activist, working on the staffs of several socialist publications. In 1917, she celebrated the Russian revolution’s toppling of the Tsarist regime, but her anarchist sympathies kept her from loving the authoritarian Bolshevik government.

Throughout the early 1920’s, she lived a bohemian lifestyle. All the while, she continued her journalism, covering everything from striking iron workers to interviewing Leon Trotsky. Then in 1925, she found herself to be pregnant during an affair with the English botanist, Foster Batterham. This surprised her because she had thought herself unable to conceive following an earlier abortion, which she later called “the great tragedy” of her life.

Rethinking Religion

Becoming pregnant was a great joy for Dorothy Day. Out of this joy, she started rethinking religious faith. She had always assumed that religion was just what Marx called ‘the opiate of the masses.’ Religion was supposed to be a crutch for suffering people to give them hope. But here she found herself praying, not because she was unhappy, but because she was so happy. She later explained it like this: “The final object of this love and gratitude was God. No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.” She came back to faith and had her daughter baptized. Batterham left, having no desire to be a father.

A New Vision

Coming to faith didn’t change Day’s convictions about peace and justice. She was as passionate as ever. Everywhere she looked, she saw the sufferings and injustices that the masses of humanity were enduring. What changed was her vision. When her leftist friends struggled to understand her new interest in faith, she told them that Jesus was promising the new society of justice they were looking for. Faith just gave her the next step.

Peter Maurin, Co-Conspirator

In 1932, she met Peter Maurin. He was an odd fellow. Day later described him as “a genius, a saint, an agitator, a writer, a lecturer, a poor man and a shabby tramp, all at once.” During the Great Depression, he had lived with a parish priest. He did odd jobs, all the while devouring the priest’s library. He read everything from Aquinas to St. Francis to the papal letter on Labour, Rerum Novarum.

When Maurin met Day, he outlined his vision. He felt that it wasn’t enough to denounce injustice. Instead, one must also announce a new social order and try to live it out. His vision had three parts. First, to create a newspaper to tell the story of this new vision. Second, to create Houses of Hospitality in which the poor could obtain shelter, food and clothing. And third, to create rural cooperatives. In this vision, Day discovered what she was made for. Where Maurin never had the ability to put his ideas into reality, Day found her calling.

Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement

She moved quickly. The first issue of the Catholic Worker was published on May 1, 1933. It has been in continuous publication ever since. The newspaper focused on what it meant to imitate Christ in the midst of the Great Depression. For Day, dealing with labour issues was central. Her biggest competitor was the Communist Daily Worker. Day opposed the Daily Worker’s promotion of class warfare, Marxism, atheism, and abolition of private property. She envisioned a publication about ‘work and men and the problems of poverty and destitution and man’s relationship to his brothers and to God.’ The newspaper was hugely popular and influential, running a subscription of over 100,000 early on.

Houses of Hospitality: Meeting Christ in the Poor

Day wasn’t just a journalist. The hopelessness of the unemployed millions shook her profoundly, and she felt the need to spend the rest of her life serving them. This was the role of the Houses of Hospitality, places where volunteers committed to live and work alongside the poor as well as to serve them. People would stop in for meals and encouragement by the hundreds.

“As far as Dorothy could tell, (Christ) demanded the readiness to wash vegetables, cut bread, and clean up after hundreds of noisy, often ungrateful guests, day after day, year after year.” 1

For Day, this work was all about Jesus Christ. She cultivated the unique ability to see Jesus everywhere: “Wherever she turned, Dorothy saw Christ up on his cross. One of her rules of life was to seek the face of Christ in the poor. She found him there, and in so many other places. Christ was the person in line for soup and bread; Christ was the drunk woman having the same conversation over and over again; Christ was the enemy combatant; Christ was the priest she disagreed with; Christ was the young person begging for spiritual direction; Christ was in every reader she wrote for.”1

The Fight for Justice

Day never stopped agitating for justice. She continued to support unions and the rights of workers. She showed up on picket lines and wrote about them in her paper. In California, she stared down the police. People called her a communist. She was jailed, shot at, and ridiculed. The FBI continually investigated her.

Her lowest point came from her commitment to pacifism. She denounced the U.S. entry into the Second World War, which caused her to lose thousands of subscriptions. None of it disturbed her. She always felt that she was just walking the way of the cross. Day kept her focus on Christ until the day she died in 1980.

Solidarity with the Poor

Through it all, she only owned a creaking bed, a writing desk, an overflowing bookshelf, a teapot, and a radio. She followed the tradition of the many Christians who lived in poverty out of love for the Gospel.

What made Day different was that she represented a new kind of holiness. It wasn’t just about prayer and sacrifice, though she was very faithful in church attendance and daily prayer. It also wasn’t just about serving the poor, though she did this daily for decades. The newness in her expression of faith in Christ came from her commitment to live in solidarity with the impoverished masses and to struggle with them in the path of justice.

Hers was a very political Christianity. I began this reflection with Dorothy Day’s guiding question, ‘Whom is the church for?’ Her life embodies her answer: above all things, the church should stand in solidarity with the poor, because one finds Jesus there. As her master said, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink… whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25: 35-40)

Christ of the Breadlines (1950) by Fritz Eichenberg, a close friend of Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day’s Lasting Influence

Day’s witness has forced several generations of Christians to ask hard questions about the church’s relationship with the politically influential. We will return to this question in the reflection on Oscar Romero. Day’s story has had such an impact on the church because her holiness is so obvious, her vision so clear, and her commitment is so compelling. Many people, even in her lifetime, saw her as a living saint. She had no patience with this. Her reply was always, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

1 From the introduction to The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus by Dorothy Day (Plough Publishing House, 2017). This is a compilation of quotes from her various writings.

Can I Be a Modern Person and Still Be Faithful to the Gospel?

Being faithful to the Gospel doesn't have to mean giving up takeout pizza...

I hope so! I want to be faithful to the Gospel. I love God tremendously, but I also love indoor plumbing… and pizza delivery and electricity and central heating and the grocery store down the block! Actually, the question goes a lot deeper that. All these things I love are conveniences that, of course, I am prepared to give up if God calls me to it.

Being a modern person is about subscribing to a worldview that challenges what we thought we knew about the Bible. In previous articles, we looked at how this worldview came about. You can read about faith and science here, and biblical criticism here. It is also important to ask if Christians SHOULD engage in these questions. The modern world puts some fundamental challenges in front of us. Does rejecting these challenges make us more faithful to the Gospel?

Searching for Truth and Being Faithful to the Gospel

My less flippant answer is that I think we as Christians need to be modern as well as committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When we pit the Gospel against the questions of the modern world, we lose the fact that we are TRUTH seekers.

Insofar as possible, I want to know the TRUTH of things.  I know there are many Christians who feel that it is our first commitment to defend the Bible and the faith against the encroachment of Biblical criticism, new discoveries about cosmology, evolution, insights into racism, and so on. But this surely the wrong attitude to start with.

Freeing Ourselves to Search for Truth

A defensive posture renders us unable to learn and search for truth. Stephen Covey once said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” It takes humility actually to listen to new ideas in order to understand them. This is not to say that every new idea is worth following. But before we pass judgement on them, we first need to understand. We will never understand if we are defensive first.

For me, I want to know truth. I hate the idea of defending what I only WANT to be true. If the book of Isaiah was not written by a single individual, I want to know the truth of it. I want to know if evolution is true and what that means for my faith. If the walls of Jericho didn’t actually fall down, I want to know that. I don’t want to hide from the challenging truth that Christianity has had a long legacy of racism. I refuse to defend what I just want to be true.

There have been tremendous discoveries in the last one hundred years in physics, psychology, political science, medicine, archaeology, and many other fields. As I wrote in an earlier article, liberal theology doesn’t mean throwing away the truths of the Gospel. It means that we admit that modern claims about science and many other fields are generally true, and that we need to have a serious and honest conversation about this new knowledge and how it affects the way in which we read the Bible. Again, the impetus is to be a truth seeker FIRST. Two things need to be said:

1) Being a modern person doesn’t mean that we are uncritical of the modern world.

In fact, the Gospel helps us to see clearly where the problems are. There is much in the modern world that is problematic. Here are just a few examples:

A young boy chips away at the Berlin Wall (BBC/Getty)
  • The modern world values celebrity far too highly, to the point of throwing our economies and our understanding of human dignity out of balance. We pay our entertainers and sports heroes scandalous amounts of money while we allow our school systems to go broke.
  • It is blasphemous that our modern world tolerates the existence of weapons capable of rendering God’s creation unlivable, and that the use of them is considered a live option.
  • Our high standard of living in the West is based on tremendous waste. This is sown back into the earth, reaping the destruction of species, habitats and entire ecosystems.  
  • One that really stands out to me is the fact that the modern world has no eschatological hope. When I was a younger man, I remember watching the Berlin Wall fall and the Communist world collapse. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared to an excited world that we had finally reached the ‘end of history.’ He didn’t meant that there would be no more history, but that out of the upheaval of centuries, the liberal democracies had finally won the day. Our society could look forward to a future of ever-increasing material prosperity and social stability. This is the great secular, modern hope.

A Discerning Faith

In 2020, we see that this hope was illusory. The world economy hasn’t been stable but is still marked by wild fluctuations. Communism may be gone, but different kinds of dangerous nationalism have arisen. We have learned the painful lesson that not every group has bought into the Western secular way of life and is prepared to use terrorist tactics to disrupt and destroy. We are also in the midst of a pandemic, a reminder that nature doesn’t play nice and that we don’t have all the tools to fix our problems.

All of this is to say that, as Christians, we need to point constantly to the fact that salvation must come from outside human history. We need God to bring about the reconciliation of all things. Humanity is not going to accomplish it. To say that we can be modern people as well as people of faith doesn’t mean buying into modernism hook, line and sinker. We need to use our discernment.

2) Being a modern person doesn’t mean that we must reject biblical truth.

We still proclaim the Gospel: that God cares about the world and doesn’t just want to watch as we inflict pain and misery on ourselves. We continuously proclaim that God wants to offer salvation and bring his kingdom of justice, mercy and peace. Along with centuries of Christians, we hold that God has acted in history, and that he has been most fully revealed in the teaching, life, death and resurrection of this amazing God/Man Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ, God calls all people to turn to him, receive forgiveness and new life, and join with him in this great project of reconciliation. This is good news!!

It does mean that the final word about our interpretation and understanding of the biblical witness has not yet been said. As Puritan John Robinson (1576-1625) put it, “The Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.” That we have more to learn about God and how to be faithful to the Gospel is the biggest assumption of this whole Lessons of the 20th Century series.

Learning New Ways to be Faithful to the Gospel

I do not need to be defensive because I believe that the truths generated by the challenges of the 20th century have actually given us deeper insights into the good news of what God is doing in Jesus.

Photo: Clay Banks (Unsplash)

I think we see more clearly now the role of peace in the world; the need for equal relations between men and women in the church and in life; the seriousness of the stain of racism; the need for humility in end-time proclamations; how charity to the poor is not enough in itself; why nationalism is opposed to the Gospel; how important it is for Christian churches to work together; why civil rights are a Gospel issue; the importance of the contemplative life; the need to understand our Jewish foundation; a far greater appreciation of the vastness and intricacy of God’s creation; and on and on and on.

We are discovering that the Gospel is deeper and more exciting than previous generations have known. This is not because we are wiser or smarter, but because we stand on their shoulders. In the same way, future generations will stand on our shoulders and be able to see still further.  There is always more to learn. This assumption is the foundation on which we at the Hope Canteen are exploring the magnificent Kingdom of God.

Pentecostalism: The Holy Spirit and the Modern World

The Pentecostal movement emphasizes the power of the Holy Spirit

When we look at the world in the 21st century and ask, “What is the fastest growing and most dynamic group of Christians in the world?” The answer is simple: the Pentecostal churches. There are a half billion Pentecostals around the world, and their number is second only to the Roman Catholics.

According to Christian History magazine, Pentecostal churches are growing at a rate of 13 million worshippers a year. The largest church in the world is a Pentecostal church in South Korea, where, before Covid, they would have a weekly worship attendance of 240,000. Areas such as Latin America and Asia, which were Roman Catholic strongholds, are rapidly turning Pentecostal. As this series of reflections is about 20th century events and movements that deeply affected our understanding of the Christian faith, we must include Pentecostalism. In fact, The Dictionary of Christianity in America wrote that Pentecostalism is perhaps “the single-most-significant development in twentieth-century Christianity.”

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WWI and the Fall of Christian Empire, Part 2: Karl Barth

Every day in every way things are getting better and better.

Popular saying before World War I

World War I marked the beginning of a new era. In Europe and North America before the war, there was a general feeling of optimism about the future of humanity. Because of the success of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and the hope of the various revolutions of the 19th century, people anticipated the eventual creation of a just society on earth.

The ferocity of the Great War chastened that optimism. Many people were surprised at how strong the call of nationalism was on the human psyche. The Western Liberal project had to rethink the question of human nature and society. The same introspection had to happen within the Liberal theological project begun by Friedrich Schleiermacher as well. The person who threw the bombshell into Schleiermacher’s project was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). (Note: Barth is pronounced as if it had no ‘h.’ It rhymes with ‘part.’)

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World War I and the Fall of Christian Empire, Part I

Soldiers at a church in France, World War I

Nobody can come to grips with the drama of history unless he recognizes that most of the evil done in this world is done by people who do it for good purposes.

Krister Stendahl (1921-2008)

In a world gone pagan, what is a Christian to do? For the world is gone pagan. Members of the body of Christ are tearing one another, and His body is bleeding as it once bled on Calvary, but this time the wounds are dealt by His friends. It is as though Peter were driving home the nails, and John were piercing the side.

William Temple (1881-1944)

In this series, we are tracking hard-won truths about the Gospel that the church has learned through the course of the 20th Century. In the next two articles, we will be looking at the Mainline Churches’ central learning after the end of the First World War: how easily the Christian faith can be corrupted by nationalistic fervor.

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Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel

The Social Gospel articulated in Hell's Kitchen

This article is part of a series exploring how the church responded to significant insights, movements, and events in the 20th Century, and how these have shaped where we are today.

“The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart. . . . But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order.”

Walter Rauschenbusch

Most of our churches in the 21st century have some kind of outreach ministry to help people in need. We believe that it is central to our Gospel proclamation. In the Anglican Church of Canada, in our baptism, we promise both ‘to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves’ AND ‘to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.’ These are no longer controversial statements. Why is that? Part of the reason is the ministry of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), the founder of the Social Gospel Movement.

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Harry Emerson Fosdick and the Fundamentalist Controversy

The Fundamentalist Controversy and how we understand truth

By 1925, Modernism had fundamentally changed the world. It changed our thinking, our politics, our everyday life. In this series, I am trying to show how it has also changed our faith. This is more than just historical interest. These events are the reason we think and approach faith the way we do today. Today, we’re looking at the fundamentalist controversy and how it continues to influence conversations within the church.

This change didn’t happen easily. As we saw in the reflection on the Roman Catholic Church, there was a strong backlash. This backlash happened in the North American Protestant church as well. Today, I want to look at one figure at the heart of these controversies in the early 20th century: Harry Emerson Fosdick, a New York City pastor who sought to answer the fundamentalist controversy. In the next one, we will turn to a man who influenced Fosdick: Walter Rauschenbusch, the founder of the Social Gospel Movement.

Harry Emerson Fosdick

Whenever such a [new] situation has arisen, there has been only one way out—the new knowledge and the old faith had to be blended in a new combination

Harry Emerson Fosdick

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) is best remembered for a famous sermon that got him thrown out of his church. Even so, this sermon moved John D. Rockefeller so much that he had thousands of copies published and built a new church for Fosdick to preach in.

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The Protestant Reaction to Modernism, Part 1: Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Beginning of Liberal Theology

At the 'heart' of liberal Protestant theology

Is it possible to disagree with someone and still appreciate their work and the project they engaged in? I believe that it is, and this is the spirit in which I write the next two reflections. In this reflection, I will be looking at the pioneer of liberal Protestant theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher. Next time, I will examine the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy, looking specifically at Henry Emerson Fosdick and Walter Rauschenbusch.

I don’t agree with any of these figures. I believe that their answers were limited and perhaps naïve. (Of course, I write that in full knowledge that many people will read my own reflections as limited and perhaps naïve.) However, I think their project was extremely important at a time when Christian faith could have faltered, being abandoned altogether or retreating into an anti-modernist fundamentalism.

They chose a third way. As Stanley Grentz put it: “While agreeing that theology could not simply return to pre-Enlightenment dogmatic orthodoxy, they refused to accept post-Enlightenment skeptical rationalism as the only alternative. For this new breed of intellectuals the only way forward in the aftermath of the Enlightenment lay in incorporating its basic thrust and engaging in a search for new ways to understand the Christian faith.” In other words, they were trying to articulate a vibrant Christian faith in serious conversation with Modernism. This is my own project in this series of articles. It is important to know about these thinkers because they set the agenda for all subsequent mainline Protestant engagement with Modernity. In many ways, we are still answering the questions they raised.

Moving Faith from the Head to the Heart

Have you ever felt that faith was so much more than creeds and doctrines and dogmas? That faith was more a matter of the heart than the head? Have you ever felt that you were deeply connected to God and the world in ways you couldn’t explain? Have you ever thought that maybe you don’t need all of the clergy and church stuff, and that you could just go out into the woods and commune with God? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have probably been influenced by a theologian you may never have heard of before: Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Continue reading “The Protestant Reaction to Modernism, Part 1: Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Beginning of Liberal Theology”