Voluntary poverty and pacifism are ways to resist or protest a culture invested in death. For Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, the practice of poverty was a “spiritual weapon” used to bring about peace. Poverty expressed one’s sense of radical dependence upon God and reflected a literal reading of Jesus’ teachings in the gospel of Matthew: “Therefore do not worry, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31).
Thomas Merton, well-known Trappist monk, poet, spiritual social activist and popular religious author, held great respect for Day and the Catholic Worker movement. He described Day’s understanding of poverty in this way in a letter to the editor who had sent proofs of her book Loaves and Fishes to him for review: “Poverty for Dorothy Day is more than a sociological problem; it is also a religious mystery.” Day herself characterized the paradoxical nature of poverty with these words: “I condemn poverty and I advocate it; poverty is simple and complex at once; it is a social phenomenon and a personal matter.”1 However, she did not falsely romanticize about poverty.
Day was well aware that when people in poverty asked for bread, they were too often handed stone. They were “betrayed by their teachers and their political leaders” and “robbed of their skills and made tenders of the machine.”² She abhorred economic systems and structures that force people into poverty and denounced the practice of denying how one’s own actions led to the impoverishment of others because both refuse to honor the full worth and dignity of human beings. Those living without access to basic necessities such as healthy food, clean water, sanitation, housing, education, and life-sustaining work experience chronic instability and oftentimes social exclusion.
At the same time, intentionally and voluntarily renouncing material wealth is liberating. Voluntary poverty or “holy poverty” turns one’s attention away from accumulating material things and toward a focus on putting on Christ. Resources of both time and talent are freed to be shared with others. Day observed, “It is only if we love poverty that we are going to have the means to help others. If we love poverty we will be free to give up a job, to speak when we feel it would be wrong to be silent.”³ The practice of voluntarily renouncing one’s worldly goods fosters an environment in which people can share and eliminates the social distance that material wealth creates between human beings.
Voluntarily choosing poverty was an act of solidarity; a form of peaceful, active, non-violent resistance to the social and economic inequality, racism, sexism, and consumerism that characterized U.S. society in the early twentieth century. Practicing poverty also eliminates the distance created between people in society due to social class. In an article on “Poverty and Pacifism” Day said that voluntary poverty “means non-participation in those comforts and luxuries which have been manufactured by the exploitation of others … while our brothers [and sisters] suffer from lack of necessities, we will refuse to enjoy comforts.”⁴
In the Catholic Worker “houses of hospitality,” voluntary poverty works to equalize power. There is no power difference between the served and the servers. Day had the view that the Catholic Worker movement was not the same as philanthropy or “charity” which reifies social class distinctions. Catholic Workers sought to escape the condescending tone of “charity” by sinking into poverty themselves and continuing to give out of their own poverty. Recall that everyone was responsible for every task—from editing the paper to cleaning the toilets.
Resisting Economic Violence
The reexamination of money, jobs, and labor logically flowed for Day from one’s commitment to voluntary poverty. Money should never be seen as a commodity to be traded, but rather as a means of exchange. For Day, one should pray for the grace to give up jobs that do not serve the common good. She encouraged her readers to examine their consciences as to how their work provided for food, shelter, clothing, and care for a larger community. Examples she offered of work that did not advance the works of mercy included jobs in advertising, insurance, and banking. Recognizing how controversial Day’s statement may seem in the contemporary context, it is important to more fully develop her argument concerning these forms of work.
Day believed that advertising unnecessarily elevates people’s desires. At the turn of the twentieth century, retailing and advertising were innovations intended to increase the consumption of products that were mass-produced. The mass production of goods emphasized speedy and efficient production at the expense of worker well-being and placed in peril the rights of workers and their safety in the factories. Ads for products such as Coca Cola emerged as early as the 1890s. Products became associated with well-being and even a sense of belonging to community as the advertising industry grew and marketing techniques developed. Ads were created to foster the belief that what fulfills one’s needs and desires is having more access to goods and services, bigger and better homes, and finding security in the accumulation of wealth. She used the theological concept of “concupiscence” to describe the guilt of advertisers who were deliberately stimulating people’s desires for things that they did not necessarily need or really want. Concupiscence is a theological concept identified with Augustine who defined it as the sinful tendency to try to fulfill one’s desires with material possessions. Day was among other religious social activists of her era who considered illusory the contemporary pursuit of that which was “more,” “bigger” and “better.” Accumulating worldly goods to satisfy one’s needs and desires contributed to a social anxiety that made individuals focus more on the accumulation of things than the needs of the larger community. Day also argued that insurance companies and banks exploited people in poverty and others. “Banks and insurance companies have taken over land, built up farms, ranches, plantations, of 30,000, 100,000 acres, and have dispossessed the poor. Loan and finance companies have defrauded [those in poverty].”⁵
Rejecting the Notion that War Could be “Just”
Another form of violence, the violence of war, was such a familiar theme during Day’s lifetime that she once observed that “[t]oday the whole world is in the midst of revolution.” Some lists composed by historians of the major wars in the twentieth century cite over forty-five wars that involved nearly every region around the globe. Despite the widespread use of force as a means to settle conflicts Day advocated nonviolent strategies as the only means for settling personal, national, or international disputes. Day critically assessed just war tradition and inspired many other Christians, across denominational lines, to resist war. She urged Christians to adopt “a seeming impossibility—a training to the use of nonviolent means of opposing injustice, servitude and a deprivation of the means of hold fast to the faith.”⁶
Earlier we encountered Augustine as the theologian and bishop responsible for the beginnings of just war theory. Another theologian, Thomas Aquinas, developed the principles of just war. The usage of the word “just” in the case of just war theory is something of a misnomer. The just war theory is not based upon the idea there is justice in war itself, but rather establishes certain moral conditions that should be met before a nation declares war against another nation. The conditions that need to be met include, among other things, defending the rights of the weak, reasonable hope for success, consideration of the proportionality of force used, adequate discrimination of the impact of war on innocent civilians, and the understanding that war should only be used as a last resort.
The majority of Christian churches have adopted just war as their official position (Roman Catholic and Protestant mainline churches among them), excluding of course the historic peace churches (Mennonite, Church of the Brethren and Quakers). Many churches in the United States still display both the Christian flag and the U.S. flag at the front of their sanctuaries. Christians in this sense have found ways to accommodate their beliefs to fit the needs of their nations.
Day maintained her pacifist position to resist death, destruction, violence and war as a pattern and established norm for daily life. She read the biblical witness, particularly the gospels, differently; one should “put away the sword” and “love your enemies” even when other countries rattled their sabers. She consistently emphasized in her writing the connection between war and the U.S. economy. During World War II unemployment dropped because monies and labor were being invested in things such as patrolling and fortifying borders, the production of bombers, new technologies, military equipment, vehicles, and munitions, and in training soldiers to be effective killers. However, total U.S. indebtedness as a result of the war reached $200 billion or about 122% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. Such a tremendous investment in war set a pattern and course for the future of the nation’s economy. The U.S. economy was dependent upon the war “industry” to sustain its own growth.
Although she maintained fierce allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church, a just war church, she insisted that from its inception The Catholic Worker take a clear stance for total pacifism. Principles informing the Catholic Workers’ pacifist position were clearly stated in an article on “Pacifism” published in the May 1936 edition of the paper. Day wrote:
We oppose class war and class hatred, even while we stand opposed to injustice and greed. Our fight is not “with flesh and blood but principalities and powers.”
We oppose also imperialist war.
We oppose, moreover, preparedness for war, a preparedness which is going on now on an unprecedented scale and which will undoubtedly lead to war …
Why not prepare for peace?⁷
Taking such a hard and clear stance would mean sacrificing some of the paper’s popularity and alienating herself from the Catholic Workers who felt that they needed to join the war effort when the U.S. declared war on Germany and Japan.
1. By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, ed. Robert Ellsberg (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 109.
2. “More About Holy Poverty. Which is Voluntary Poverty.” The Catholic Worker (February 1945): 1, 2. Accessed online at http://dorothyday.catholicworker.org/articles/150.html.
4. Day, “Poverty and Pacifism,” The Catholic Worker (December 1944): 1. Accessed online at http://www.catholicworker.org/dodyday/reprint2.cfm?TextID=223.
5. See On Pilgrimage, May. 1948, 75 – 92. The Catholic Worker Movement. http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/Reprint2.cfm?TextID=480.
6. “Our Stand,” The Catholic Worker (June 1940): 1, 4. Accessed online: http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/daytext.cfm?TextID=360&SearchTerm=war
7. “Pacifism.” The Catholic Worker (May 1936); 8. The Catholic Worker Movement. Accessed online at http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/Reprint2.cfm?TextID=215
From Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians.
© 2014 Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press. All rights reserved.
By Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty
Illustrations by Ron Hill
This article is excerpted from Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians by Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, chair of Bellarmine’s Theology Department. Dr. Hinson-Hasty’s latest book is the first volume devoted to the life and work of a female theologian in Westminster John Knox’s Armchair Theologians’ Series. Dorothy Day co-founded the Catholic Worker movement during the Great Depression. She wrote six books during her lifetime and approximately 1,500 articles, essays and reviews in The Catholic Worker paper as well as other papers and journals such as The Call, The Masses, The Commonweal, and America. Her books, articles and activism confronted head-on issues of wealth inequality, poverty, racism, war and violence. “Dorothy Day remains one of the most significant theologians for our time,” said Dr. Hinson-Hasty. “My book, which is intended for a popular audience, examines the theology that fueled Day’s ethic of peace, situates her in a larger tradition of social mysticism and honors the spirit of the Catholic Worker movement. It also includes stories about Day’s trip to Louisville and to both Ursuline and Bellarmine colleges.” For a timeline of Dorothy Day’s life, please visit dorothyday.catholicworker.org. What follows is taken from Chapter Five on “Living by an Ethic of Peace in a Culture Invested in War and Death.”