Was Dorothy Day a Libertarian?

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