he life and work of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, defy easy categorization. She thought and wrote deeply about the social order, but is best remembered as an activist. She was a dedicated revolutionary, but earned the widest opprobrium for her pacifism. She was a prayerful, even shy Benedictine oblate, but powerful clerics were afraid to cross her. She was both a theological conservative and a radical Christian anarchist. She was an intellectual, a journalist and a friend of many leading lights in the literary circles of her time, but she chose a life of poverty in solidarity with the poor. She was and is widely regarded as a woman of the Left, and yet she refused to pay taxes and railed against the outsourcing of compassion to what she derisively termed “Holy Mother State.” She was a world-wise product of her times – a single, unwed mother and career woman who in her early years could drink Eugene O’Neill under the table, a prodigious accomplishment if ever there was one – and yet today she is on her way to being recognized as St. Dorothy by the Catholic Church.
None of the things Day was are contradictions. Though she is routinely (and for very different reasons) appropriated by both “conservatives” and “liberals,” she had a different model in mind entirely, one that smashes the sterile axis of Left and Right. In his biography of Day, Paul Elie wrote that “Dorothy Day is a person who inspires imitation, who makes others want to live the way she did … She, however saw her own life as an imitation of Christ …” Dorothy Day’s legacy is confounding because she took seriously the admonition of St. James: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” We should all be so misunderstood.