Dr. Terrence Wright, an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Pre-Theology Program at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, has studied and written about phenomenology, personalism, the relationship between philosophy and literature, and the work of Edith Stein and Emmanuel Mounier. His book Dorothy Day: An Introduction to Her Life and Thought (Ignatius Press, 2018), as the subtitle indicates, is written for a popular readership, especially those who do not know much about the life and thought of Day.
Dr. Larry Chapp, in his recent CWR review of Wright’s book, stated:
I have long thought that there are two major voids in the literature on Dorothy Day—voids that need no new information in order to be filled, but which do require a different emphasis and perspective. Fortunately, the recent book by Terrence Wright fills in those voids admirably.
The first void, Chapp writes, “has to do with Day’s Catholic faith,” especially Day’s “deep obedience to the teaching magisterium of the Church front and center.” The second void is accessibility of style; Chapp says Wright’s book “is wonderfully written in a style of prose that should be easily accessible to any moderately educated person.”
Dr. Wright corresponded recently with CWR’s editor Carl E. Olson about his book, why he wrote it, and what he thinks Day is both significant and controversial.
CWR: How and when did you first become interested in the life and thought of Dorothy Day? And how did that lead to writing this book?
Dr. Terrence Wright: I first encountered Dorothy Day’s writings while I was in college. I was completely unaware of the Church’s teachings on social issues and one of my professors recommended that I start reading the Catholic Worker newspaper. Since the campus ministry office gave them out for free, I started reading it.
Later when I started teaching at a Catholic college, Day’s writings became a key part a seminar I had with first year students. This really led me to study her life and writings in much more detail including the centrality of her Catholic faith to all she did. I continued this interest when I started teaching at the seminary in Denver and Day often figures into my classes.
This work led me to see the need for a good introductory book to Day’s life and thought which focused on the importance of Day’s faith in her social action.
CWR: What were some key aspects of Day’s conversion to Catholicism?
Wright: Even though Day was raised in a family that had no interest in religion, she herself felt drawn to God from an early age. Even in her “rebellious” time in her twenties when she intentionally tried to turn her back on God, that call never went away. Finally, the birth of her daughter Tamar and her desire for Tamar to have the moral foundation she had lacked led her to have her daughter baptized into the Church, and her own baptism soon followed.
CWR: You discuss Day’s conversion from Marxism and how she eventually came to see that religion is not an opiate and a crutch for the downtrodden. You point out that Day noticed that it was when she was doing well and feeling fine and at peace with herself that she most felt the need to pray and to have a relationship with God. Could you elaborate a bit more on Day’s point—that prayer is more needed the more well off you are? That the felt need for prayer on an emotional level is greater when one is at peace then when one isn’t?
Wright: Day was attracted by the Marxist ideas she encountered when she was a university student and later when she worked for socialist newspapers. And thus, she was afraid that her desire for God might in fact be a desire for this “crutch.” Interestingly she credits in part her relationship with Forster Batterham, an atheist and Tamar’s father, who helped reveal to her the beauty of the natural world. She found great peace and pleasure in this experience of nature and her natural response was to pray in thanksgiving to the creator of this beauty. She never lost this sense of the importance of the prayers of thanksgiving. The inscription on Day’s gravestone is Deo Gratias.
CWR: Prior to her conversion Day had a relationship with journalist Lionel Moise and had an abortion. What affect did that have on her? How did Day eventually view the sexual revolution? And what connection did she make between sexual sins and social injustice?
Wright: This was probably the darkest time in her life. Not only did Moise force her to have an abortion but then he immediately abandoned her. In her despair Day, attempted suicide. It also left her with the fear that she might not be able to have children — this is why the experience of the pregnancy and birth of her daughter several years later was such a concrete experience of God’s mercy for her.
When Day entered the Church, one of the things that she came to see was the truth of the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. When she entered the Church, she ended her relationship with Tamar’s father, a man she loved very much, because he refused to marry her. During the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Day was an open critic of the abandonment of sexual morality, including the acceptance of sex outside of marriage, contraception and abortion. Just as she saw that those who exploited others economically were in violation of God’s law, she also saw the sexual exploitation of others as a violation of this same law and a failure to respect the dignity of all persons.
For example, she was very critical of the hypocrisy among those in the 1960’s peace movement who supported pacifism but also supported abortion as though somehow violence against the unborn were an “acceptable” form of violence.
CWR: As you note, Day’s “program” is not a political one but is spiritual in nature. But is this not also a form of “politics” in a more expansive sense of the word “politics”? And does not the narrower sense of politics (voting, legislation, policies) depend on this broader sense of politics? Could you elaborate more on this notion of politics and how it relates to Day’s anarchism?
Wright: A lot of people have misascribed different political ideologies to Day, claiming that she was a communist or socialist. After her conversion, Day was in fact an anarchist in the sense that she embraced the Church’s teaching of subsidiarity which emphasizes the importance of acting locally. Day’s personalism emphasized the responsibility that we all have for one another.
Far from being a communist, she was very suspect of “Holy Mother the State” relieving us of this personal responsibility for the other. Christ doesn’t call for the state to take care of the poor, He calls us all to this responsibility. So her politics is spiritual in that my membership in the local community and my membership in the mystical body of Christ calls me to take care of the other. And, since we are all body and soul, this care must be on both the material and the spiritual level: thus I am called to perform the spiritual and the corporal acts of mercy.
CWR: Day’s pacifism is probably the most controversial aspect of her teaching. Your book presents her views in the broader context of Catholic teaching on the just war. Does the later Dorothy Day eventually come to reject just war theory entirely? Does she become late in life a total pacifist? And if so, how does Day square this with the demand of charity to protect the weak from the strong?
Wright: For me, Day’s pacifism is without a doubt her most challenging position and my thinking on this has developed since the publication of my book.
First, I always mention that Day saw herself as a peace maker. For her, pacifism does not mean being passive but actively working to make peace and to follow the beatitude, “blessed are the peace makers.” There is some disagreement about whether Day eventually rejects just war theory completely but it is clear that her position on it developed over time. In 1936, for example, she states that she supports just war theory and identifies herself as what some call a “just war pacifist,” i.e. one who accepts the principles of just war theory but who holds that, because modern warfare makes the killing of non-combatants unavoidable and even makes killing them more likely than killing combatants, modern war can never be just. I argue that, as the horrors of the twentieth century mounted up, Day became even more convicted in her pacifism and came to oppose the use of physical force in all instances.
Briefly, the theological justifications for her pacifism are twofold: 1) that since all persons are members or potential members of the mystical body of Christ, violence against any person is violence against Christ; and 2) that the evangelical counsel of obedience requires that one love one’s enemies even when what they do is wrong.
But the question remains, what about the demand to protect the weak from the strong? One might summarize the basic principle of just war theory as the claim that the obligation to protect the weak entails a right to oppose the aggressor who is harming the weak. While rejecting the use of physical force, Day supports opposing the aggressor by using what some call “the weapons of the spirit,” i.e. prayers, penance, the mass, personal purification, as well as civil action, i.e. boycotts, public protest, civil disobedience. Thus, on Day’s view these non-violent means are the only means available to a Christian to ever wage just war against an aggressor.
CWR: There are many Catholics who still view Day with suspicion insisting that she never really renounced Communism or didn’t really understand true Catholicism. What would you say to such critics?
Wright: Yes, I frequently hear these criticisms of Day. I think most of this stems from the fact that people have heard negative things about Day but might not be taking the time to read her own writings, such as From Union Square to Rome or The Long Loneliness. As I mention above, Day’s views are in fact incompatible with Communism because she emphasized subsidiarity and our personal responsibility for the other.
That said, she did not condemn oppressed and exploited people around the world turning to communism when there seemed to be no other hope. I think some people see her pacifism and severe criticism of the “military-industrial complex” as Un-American. Others might think that she was critical of the Church because she was openly critical of the actions of some priests or bishops. But her criticism arose not from a rejection of the Church’s teachings but from what she saw as the failure of the leaders to live up to these teachings.
Finally, I think that because some of the people in the Church who dissent from Church teachings on some issues, for example abortion or sexual morality, often site Day’s authority on social issues, she suffers from guilt by association, i.e. the assumption that Day must also dissent from Church teachings on these issues. If you read her writings, you will see that this not true. If my work on Day has one point to make, it is that she was a very faithful Catholic who loved the Church.
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