Was Dorothy Day a Libertarian?

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Dorothy Day
founded the Catholic Workers in 1933, a movement based on radical
activism through the Catholic Works of Mercy, and was committed
to serving the poor, outcast, and downtrodden for the majority of
her life (1897–1980). The Catholic Workers opened up Houses of Hospitality,
established farming communes and published a monthly paper, The
Catholic Worker. The movement became highly visible during the
Great Depression when hundreds of people could be seen standing
in breadlines outside their House of Hospitality in Manhattan. The
Workers lived in poverty, solicited donations from readers, handed
out papers on the street corner, and begged. Committed to living
in strict accordance with the teachings of Jesus, they were often
derided and denounced as anarchic beatniks, sentimental pacifists,
ungrateful parasites, publicity-hungry psychotics, deluded professional
liberals, carpetbaggers, romantics, collaborators, subversives,
equivocators, appeasers, straddlers, loafers, draft-dodgers, traitors,
hypocrites, and communists. They were never called libertarians
as far as I know, but I have to wonder: If she were alive today,
would this be what Day would call herself?

Dorothy Day
and her mentor, Peter Maurin, founded the movement, because they
believed that the Catholic Church had developed an unhealthy alignment
with the State, and was spending too much time accumulating property
and wealth, not enough time helping the common man. As a result,
the Catholic Workers developed a fiercely independent, anti-institution
mentality. They believed that charity should be performed as a personal
sacrifice, so they resisted doing anything that would commercialize
or complicate their mission. Paul Elie explains in his book The
Life You Save May Be Your Own
: as circulation of their paper
increased, their ideas spread and more houses opened up, they refused
on principle to take out loans, collect interest on real estate,
amass capital, or incorporate. They never sold advertisements in
The Catholic Worker, even after circulation had climbed
to 70,000, and they refused at the behest of government officials
to register as a religious group or a charitable organization. In
fact, Day went out of her way to clarify that the Houses of Hospitality
were not "multiple dwellings, rest homes, convalescent
homes, shelters, asylums or convents."

"This
isn't a business," said Day. "This is a movement."

"We are
not an organization," Maurin said. "We are an organism."

Like most principles,
Day's were adhered to at a cost. By refusing to conform to certain
state "guidelines," by refusing to coalesce into some
kind of official, classifiable entity, the Catholic Workers not
only cut themselves off from opportunities for state funding, but
often found themselves embroiled in squabbles with the government,
which Day liked to refer to as "Holy Mother State."

"More
and more," Day wrote in her autobiography, The
Long Loneliness
, "[Catholic institutions] were taking
money from the state, and in taking from the state, they had to
render to the state. They came under the head of Community Chest
and discriminatory charity, centralizing and departmentalizing,
involving themselves with bureaus, building, red tape, legislation,
at the expense of human values."

The point cannot
be ignored: To do something for others through government inevitably
introduces a host of inimical elements — coercion, corruption, bureaucracy,
waste, personal agendas, the corrosive effect of money, the consolidation
of power, i.e. politics — which pervert the spirit in which
the action is being done, skew the intended outcome, and often bring
about unforeseen, long-term consequences. In his book, A
Harsh and Dreadful Love
, William Miller writes that the
Catholic Workers were "not opposed to organization, but wanted
radical decentralization and delegation to smaller bodies and groups
what could be done far more humanely and responsibly through mutual
aid as well as charity."

Dorothy Day
and Peter Maurin did not call themselves libertarians (the term
didn't become commonplace until the 70s); on the contrary, they
called themselves socialists. But they believed in a socialism that
was anti-collectivist: They named it economic volunteerism, or Christian
communism. Someone once told Peter Maurin that he spoke like an
anarchist, and he responded, "Sure I'm an anarchist. All thinking
people are anarchists, but I prefer the name personalist."

It is difficult
to define, in terms of a political system, what the Catholic Worker
movement stood for, because their philosophy of personalism, which
lies at the heart of their ideas, is inherently antithetical to
the objectivism, centralization and institutionalism that characterize
the activities of the State. Personalism is the view that the human
person is the basic unit of society, and that all forms of social
organization — family, nation, church, state — are sound only insofar
as they uphold the dignity of every person and prompt every person
into direct encounters with others.

Peter Maurin
wrote: "We must have a sense of responsibility to take care
of our own, and our neighbor, at a personal sacrifice. That is the
first principle. It is not the function of the state to enter into
these realms… Charity is personal. Charity is love."

In his book
Introduction
to Christianity
, Pope Benedict explains that being a Christian
means, essentially, undergoing a transformation: from being "for"
oneself to being "for" one another. I have often heard
people say that it is for this reason that libertarianism, with
its emphasis on individual liberty and limited government, is simply
not compatible with Christianity. It seems there are growing numbers
of Americans, many of them Christians, who believe that people are
"for one another" only insofar as they are "for"
certain kinds of government action. Fail to extol the pet projects
of Holy Mother State (whether national healthcare or war) at a critical
juncture, and people will often say: "You call yourself a Christian?
What about sacrifice!" It's a familiar refrain these days.

A couple years
ago, Christian environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote an article for
Harper's called "The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful
Nation Gets Jesus Wrong," in which he discussed the extent
of our country's negligence in "caring for the least of us."
The crux of his argument came down to tax cuts and government programs:
we don't pay enough; our government doesn't do enough. The refrain
popped up again in Michael Moore's film Sicko,
when he diagnosed the problem with our country as: "We are
a country of me instead of we." In his book God Is Not a
Republican or a Democrat, Reverend Jim Wallis advocates a "moral
values audit" of the federal budget, his theory being that
if most Americans consider themselves Christians (which they do),
and if faith is evidenced by external actions, as well as internal
beliefs about God (which, most of us agree, it is), then a look
at our country's spending will illuminate our collective action,
and thus, our spiritual disrepair. A moral audit of the budget,
he claims, proves that we are not sufficiently feeding the poor,
sheltering the homeless, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked,
or doing any of the things that Jesus said would separate the righteous
from the damned.

Should we really
be looking at the federal budget as a spiritual gauge? That Americans,
especially Christian Americans, should identify so radically with
their government is an idea I personally object to; and I do not
believe it is an idea Dorothy Day would have ever propagated.

Day believed
that institutions were destroying society, and that by forfeiting
our personal responsibilities to the government, we not only fail
to love one another in the way God commands us, but we grant the
State power to decide how our duties to one another will be carried
out. From what I gather, it wasn't so much the inefficiency, bureaucracy
or waste she had a problem with: It was the Power, with a capital
"P."

Government
is the only institution in society that can use coercion to achieve
its ends. Day lived through two World Wars, during a time when the
use of unprecedented amounts of force was becoming an acceptable
way to combat evil in the world. She maintained that the true mind
of the Church is peace, grounding her convictions in the Gospels
and the papal encyclicals.

Day's intransigent
pacifism provoked criticism from inside and outside the Church.
As the majority of the country marched in step to the federal government's
war cries (including many Catholics who, being largely an immigrant
population, wanted to be seen as patriotic), the Workers repeatedly
spoke out against the imperialist crusades of "idolatrous nationalism,"
opposing conscription and urging people to be conscientious objectors
from World War II through the war in Vietnam. Often, when Holy Mother
State tried to stir up the passions of her children, Workers resisted
the frenzy, the fever. Workers did not participate in air-raid drills
in New York City, as required by the Civil Defense Act. They would
inform the police of their intent to resist and spend the ten minutes
sitting on park benches. The only point, said Day, was to instill
fear, as it would be impossible in the end to take cover from an
atomic bomb.

Thomas Merton
once wrote that the job of the Christian is "to try to give
an example of sanity, independence and human integrity against all
establishments and all mass movements and all current fashions which
are merely mindless and hysterical." My knowledge of the Catholic
Workers is by no means exhaustive, yet what I do know about Dorothy
Day makes me wonder if today's Christians don't lack her sanity,
independence, and integrity. Are we too eager, whether we're Christians
of the Right or Christians of the Left, to believe that government
(or at least our government, or at least our government when it's
being run by "the right people") is benign? Are we so
desperate for Security or Change that we're willing to open the
floodgates of power, blindly trusting that it will be used for good?

I don't think
Christians need to develop what Reverend Jim Wallis calls "a
new political morality"; Christians need to recover an old
political realism. We live in a fallen world. The poor will always
be with us. Washington is a cesspool of unrestrained greed, hubris,
and corruption. Our political leaders are bought and paid for. These
realities do not give us an excuse to throw up our hands in resignation,
not at all, but it does mean that there will never be a shortage
of people with vested interests who are eager to propose solutions
for things, and I would argue that it is the duty of the Christian
to question those solutions vigorously, approaching anything political
in particular with a healthy dose of skepticism. This is the Christian
virtue of prudence: using practical reasoning to discern our true
good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving
it. As Christians, we are not allowed to separate the means from
the ends.

Coercion
is the essence of every political solution. This is the basic tenet
of libertarianism, along with the belief that coercion should be
minimized in society as much as humanly possible. This seemed to
be something Dorothy Day understood: "Those dreaded words,"
she once wrote, "pacifism and anarchism, when you get down
to it, mean that we try always to love rather than coerce, to be
what we want the other fellow to be, to be the least, to have no
authority over others, to begin with that microcosm man, or rather,
with ourselves." How did Dorothy Day know if the Catholic Workers
were staying true to their philosophy of personalism? If they "could
still cite no satisfying statistics of progress having been made,
of a growth of organizational efficiency, of having established
an economically sound basis for its structure, or of having had
large and victorious confrontations with the forces of evil in the
object world."

The fundamental
Christian value is love, and the political world always has, always
will revolve around money and power. Day repeated the following
statement in many of her speeches: "Love in action is a harsh
and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. Love in dreams is
greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight
of all. Men will even give over their lives if only the ordeal does
not last long but is soon over, with all looking and applauding
as though on the stage. But active love is labor and fortitude,
and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science."

Christians
must approach the glittery promises of politicians with the prudent
political realism Americans increasingly lack. The most important
Christian value is love. We must recognize the difference between
love in action and love in dreams.

January
30, 2009

Ellen
Finnigan [send her mail]
graduated from the University of Montana in May with an M.F.A. in
Creative Writing. She currently teaches writing online to Catholic
homeschooled kids and was the organizer of the Missoula for Ron
Paul meet-up group.

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