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Dorothy Day: The model you want

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Christians who meet beneath the Crucifix can work together and learn from each other, even if they don't always agree.

Two men walk through one of the world’s great museums criticizing the paintings. You know the story. A guard tells them, “You are not judging the paintings. The paintings are judging you.”

I thought about this when reading a young lefty academic and a conservative culture warrior debating on my Facebook page. I’d posted a link to Peter Wolfgang’s “Why Liberal Churches Have to Close.” Peter runs the Family Institute of Connecticut and speaks from the Catholic right. Chase Padusniak politely noted that Peter objected as much to the politics as the theology. Chase, a doctoral student who writes the Jappers and Janglers weblog, speaks from the Catholic left.

Peter equally politely explained that “It is the heterodoxy and bad catechesis that I was calling out, not politics that differ from my own on matters on which there can be a legitimate plurality of opinion.” Then he said the striking thing: “Give me a Catholic who is as radical as Dorothy Day but has her fidelity to the Church and I’m totally cool with it, even if I might disagree.”

Very rare

You have to spend a lot of your day reading Christian culture-warring to know how unusual that is. For Peter, the shared faith is everything. Politics — yeah, okay, whatever.

You might spray paint the side of your house with the A within a circle of Anarchism. You might wear a pin with the fist holding the rose of the European socialist parties. You might put on that tie with the bust of — is it Edmund Burke? Tocqueville? — favored by conservatives. You might carry Ayn Rand novels and dress as you did in junior high to show you’re a libertarian. But if your first identifying symbol is the Crucifix, you’re okay with Peter.

Who is, mind you, politically very conservative. He not only opposes abortion and gay marriage, as you’d expect from a Family Institute guy, he’s very conservative all down the line. He thinks well of the president. He wrote on Facebook last year about attending Mass at his childhood parish after 18 years away. “It’s still groovy,” Peter says.

Drums and guitar, an altar boy in shorts and sneakers, an interior so wreck-ovated in the late 90s that my 9-year-old didn’t believe it was Catholic, and a congregation that stands after receiving communion instead of kneeling. And then I open up the bulletin and read six (!) pages of direct actions St. Bridget is taking on behalf of the poor that blows away any conservative parish I know.

This reminds him of something Bishop Robert Barron said, which he quotes. In seminary people would ask, “Are you a liturgy guy or a social-justice guy?” Barron answers by invoking Dorothy Day.

“She was radically devoted to social change, care for the poor and an end to violence,” he says. “Yet she was converted to a very pious Catholicism rooted in the Eucharist, the Mass, the Rosary, Benediction, retreats and an intense interiority. She brought these two [strands] together in her life, and one fed the other; one returned to the other. That is the model you want.”

Dorothy Day, the model you want

Conservative Peter Wolfgang endorses radical Dorothy Day. He’s totally cool with her, because she combined her politics, which he doesn’t share, with an intense Catholicism, which he does. He cares most about something much deeper than politics.

I suspect that Peter, also Chase, Bishop Barron, and I, see something more in Day than just fidelity to the Church. We see goodness and heroism. We see a desire to take Jesus at His word far greater than we manage. Instructions we treat as metaphors — turn the other cheek, go the second mile, give someone your second coat — she lived out at great cost to herself.

Yet, because we can’t have nice things, some Catholics make fun of Dorothy Day for her politics. They attack her as a crank, a fool, a fanatic, at best a naive and gullible utopian and anti-American. She’s their poster child for absurd liberalism. Her great faith and her heroic life count for nothing with them.

They hoot and holler. Reading them when I have to, though I try to avoid it, I want to say: “You may (in theory) be right and she wrong about politics, but even if you were right, you are not worthy to lace up her boots. You should be embarrassed and ashamed. You are not judging Dorothy Day. Dorothy Day is judging you.”

Contrast their carping with “Give me a Catholic who is as radical as Dorothy Day but has her fidelity to the Church and I’m totally cool with it.” You know when St. Paul told the Christians in Corinth, “Be like me”? Here, be like Peter.

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