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Dorothy Day and Catholic Social Teaching

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William Haracz

Professor Fisher


12 March 2017

Dorothy Day and Catholic Social Teaching

Dorothy Day, a passionate Catholic social activist, lived through a period of tremendous social, political, and economic revolution. Economic change spawned by the Second Industrial Revolution radically altered the relation between labor and capital, geopolitical instability plunged the world into a series of deadly conflicts, and new social realities changed the relationship between the state and the people. Dorothy Day was born inside this cultural crucible shaping her as an individual. Day’s commitment to social justice arose because of all the injustices she experienced on a daily basis. Through her travels and her good works, Dorothy encountered all those who had been excluded from a suppose age of progress what Day refers to as ‘the illusion of progress.' Although she always maintained an active conscience and a sense of faith, Day struggled to find out what she believed. To quote Dorothy,” I believed, but I did not know what I believed. (Day 20)” As Dorothy Day aged she thought that Socialism would serve as the best outlet for achieving social justice. Day began to associate herself with radical political organization and publications such as the Call and the Masses. It seems that for a significant portion of her early life, Dorothy drifted in and out of different jobs and movements never finding the real purpose of her life in any of them. Eventually, Dorothy would come to find solace in Catholicism. The teachings and traditions of Catholicism and more specifically Catholic social teaching would shape Day’s understanding of the world and what reforms were needed to improve the lives of the masses. To understand the impact that Catholic social teaching had on Dorothy, one must analyze Rerum Novarum, a document read by Dorothy Day, which serves as the foundational text for the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

Rerum Novarum, literally Latin for “of revolutionary change,” is considered the foundational papal social encyclical. The document was written by Pope Leo XIII to address the changing power relations between labor and capital do to economic concentration in the hands of a few spawned by the second industrial revolution. The economies of the western world were highly unequal, and working people faced dehumanizing exploitation during the time in which Pope Leo issued Rerum Novarum (Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum vitae 1-2). The Papacy shined a light on three principles in Rerum Novarum including the dignity of the person, the common good, and the right to private property.  

The dignity of the individual is a theme consistently stressed in this social encyclical. Pope Leo XIII writes in Rerum Novarum, “It is the soul which is made in the image and likeness of God (Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum vitae 40). Man being crafted in God’s image is crucial to understanding Catholic social teaching. Since every one of God’s people is made in his image, then all social institution must be designed to support and uplift God’s most holy creation. In other words, the economy is there to serve God’s people not the other way around. In Rerum Novarum Pope Leo elaborates on what constitutes an economic system that respects human dignity, he states, “according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood. (Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum vitae 20) ” This quote highlights two aspects, Pope Leo, repeatedly stress in this document.  First, work is more than a means to earn a living, but rather a mechanism to live an honorable and dignified life. Second, a person’s work should be remunerative and afford them the ability to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. Later in the document, Pope Leo is more explicit stating, “wages ought not to be insufficient.” To prevent employers from denying the human dignity of workers, Pope Leo calls for new union organization to balance the power employers have over employees (Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum vitae 45).

The teachings of Rerum Novarum regarding human dignity and its connection to the economy are demonstrated in the words and actions of Dorothy Day herself. Day was an arduous supporter for the union movement and understood the importance of unions to the long term welfare to working people. Dorothy states:

“In the labor movement every strike is considered a failure, a loss of wages and manpower, … and yet in the long history of labor, certainly there has been a slow and steady bettering of conditions (Day 217)”

The fight for economic justice is a long-term struggle in the eyes of Dorothy Day, and unions play a vital role in raising the standard of living for the masses over time. However, like Pope Leo XIII, Dorothy Day understood that economic security goes beyond a need for material items; it is a building block of living a humane and dignified life. Dorothy states, “They [workers] are stripped then, not only of all earthly goods but of spiritual goods, their sense of human dignity. (Day 215)” Destitution eats at the very humanity of God’s creation.

The second main theme stressed in Rerum Novarum is the common good. Pope Leo XIII states that both individual citizens and the state ought to contribute to the common good (Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum vitae 50-53). Human beings by nature are social animals and form societies to accomplish what one man cannot do alone. Catholics understand that civil society exists for the common good and is concerned with the interest of the body politic. In the Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day informs her readers that she was informed of the ‘Thomistic doctrine of the common good’ by Peter Maurin (Day 169-170). Interestingly, it is the Aquinas’ doctrine of the common good that influenced much of Rerum Novarum and Catholic social teaching more broadly. To summarize Dorothy Day, the doctrine of the common good tells us to ignore differences to stress the similarities that exist between all of civil society (Day 170). Pope Leo XIII uses precisely the exact language to claim that there need not be a ‘class war’ if we direct societies efforts to the common good and live as good Christians (Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum vitae 21). Through religious faith all will be tied together and the bounties of happiness will be widely shared. The common good creates the communities in which all people inhabit and it is community that makes life worth living. To quote Dorothy Day, “community-that was the social answer to the long loneliness. (Day 224)”



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