A new biography puts a spotlight on the fearless, often controversial, always outspoken Catholic journalist and activist Dorothy Day.
In Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, John Loughery and Blyth Randolph depict a champion for the poor and homeless who used her voice to take radical positions that challenged Americans to examine their conscience — and often got her into trouble.
Together with Peter Maurin, she launched the Catholic Worker movement in 1933. It began as a newspaper, the Catholic Worker, and quickly expanded to become a chain of “houses of hospitality,” residences providing food and shelter to the homeless.
But it was Day’s public voice — her daily columns, her advocacy, and, importantly, her speeches — that propelled the movement for nonviolence, justice, and social welfare. Inspired by the Gospels, in particular the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew, Chapter 25, she spoke out on behalf of workers’ rights, child labor, the homeless and the hungry.
She always claimed to be a reluctant and nervous speaker. Once, when invited by Cardinal Krol, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, to deliver a speech at a large conference, she responded that she was “terrified at the prospect of such crowds.”
Still, she spoke. Throughout her adult life she delivered hundreds of speeches, many extemporaneous.
Following the the Biblical call to be peacemakers, she opposed US intervention in any war. In a speech on December 8, 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war, she urged public disobedience and non-cooperation with the war effort in a speech to the Liberal-Socialist Alliance in New York City.
War is hunger, this, blindness, death. I call upon you to resist it. You young men should refuse to take up arms. Young women tear down the patriotic posters. And all of you — young and old — put away your flags.
On November 6, 1965, in New York City’s Union Square, Day denounced the Vietnam War. Again, controversially, she justified the illegal burning of draft cards and a pacifist stance against warfare as a Christian moral obligation.
And the word of God is the new commandment he gave us — to love our enemies, to overcome evil with good, to love others as he loved us — that is, to lay down our lives for our brothers throughout the world, not to take the lives of men, women, and children, young and old, by bombs and napalm and all the other instruments of war.
The American Voices website has audio recordings of more than a dozen speeches and talks by Dorothy Day.
Listen to a few. Her moral vision, unwavering voice, commitment to public engagement, and profound empathy for the poor are impressive.
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