Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Straying from the Path

I was reading a little bit last night about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.

I always feel myself at a bit of a disadvantage dealing with some of the more edgy proponents of Church social teaching, in that in many cases I think their political and economic (though not their spiritual) ideas are faulty. So while I think that the Catholic Worker movement has done a lot of good in promoting the kind of radical support for the poor that saints like Saint Francis also performed, I also think that their pacifism and many of their economic ideas are incorrect, and perhaps misguided.

What I came around to is that there are many activities which can lead to great holiness, which, if made the center of one's spirituality can lead one astray. The perfect example is the way in which (within a generation of St. Francis' death) his poverty-centered spirituality gave birth not only to the thriving Franciscan orders which have helped the Church down to this current day, but also the various heretical groups known as the Fraticelli. Francis himself, and countless followers, did great things for God through their vows of poverty. But for those followers who came to believe that total poverty was the only means of holiness, the same spirituality became the path to heresy.

Similarly, someone who is a sworn non-combatant (even in an eminently just war) can do great things for God. But it seems that many people easily move from their own self sacrifice in assuming a life of poverty, or non combatant status to asserting that property ownership or just war are in fact wrong, taking their own spirituality and making it an overarching norm for all Christian salvation.

The temptation exists on the 'traditionalist' side as well, where those who rightly love the Tridentine Rite set that good up as the only good and condemn all other forms of worship as corrupt.

The key, I suppose, is to remember at all times through careful reflection and submission to the Church the difference between ones own spirituality (however acceptable to the Church) and elements of the magisterium to which all the faithful much in good conscience hold. No easy task, but Christ did not only call us to do the easy things.


Todd said...

Taking a deeper peek at pacifism might be worthwhile. I find that many "good" Catholics have a seriously flawed notion of what pacifism actually entails. It certainly would not be an "easy task." I'd also be cautious about assuming Dorothy's perspective of communism, pacifism, etc. still hold true for her followers and sympathizers today. The communist ideal of limiting or denying private property is much in evidence in monastic traditions. Voluntary poverty, voluntary community, voluntary pacifism: these are all virtues when directed at the greater goals.

I suppose I tend to distrust submission as an absolute value. Dorothy Day was not without an affinity to that, but it wasn't aloowed to supercede higher virtues, such as faith, love, or charity.

Darwin said...

Very well put. Poverty, obedience/submission and pacifism can all be very valuable self-mortifications (and paths to holiness) when followed within the context of the higher virtues and Catholic doctrine. The trouble seems to be when these practices are turned into absolutes (as the Fraticelli took poverty to be an absolute good).

You're probably also right that "pacifism" is a broad spectrum. I have several friends who assert that any form of violence (even in classic personal self defense) is an inherent and unmitigated evil. But while there are pacifists who take that stand, it does not necessarily do to paint pacifism as a whole (certainly the better variety) as holding similarly.

Maureen said...

Hi there! Interesting post!

Dorothy Day herself got irritated with people who wanted to help her out with the poor, but would not go to mass, or obey other teachings of the Church. So, she would probably feel your pain. *g*

I haven't read anything that gave me the impression that she thought non-Pacifists were not Catholic, though (so far, anyway...although I am sure she was bound and determined to win everyone over to her point of view) She really made an effort to root her beliefs, whether she was talking about distributism, pacifism or anarchism, in the teachings of the Bible and the Church Fathers. Of course, her writings are not infallible. At the same time, Cardinal O'Connor, in talking about her cause for canonization, said they had not found any of her writings to go against Church teaching.

Rich Leonardi wrote an interesting article in which he stated that Catholics could differ in opinion on such matters as the death penalty and just war. However, Catholics cannot have differing opinions on the Church's teachings on abortion and euthanasia. So while many conservative Catholics may wince at her writings on pacifism, they would probably take comfort in knowing she wrote that birth control and abortion were "genocide."

I think someone like Dorothy Day can be misunderstood because she was such an idealist, and I also think that someone who has no interest in religion at all could find her very appealing, thinking she was just a very dedicated social worker. But, she did all she did out of a love for Christ. There is always the danger that someone can take part of what she said and ignore the rest and make a false gospel out of it. At the same time, people do that with the Bible every day. St. Thomas More, himself, (because of his work, "Utopia") was "adopted" by the Communists. There was even a area of the Kremlin dedicated to him. So, I think it is possible for anyone to take a good thing or a good witness to Christ and distort it.

My husband, who is *not* a pacifist and is a soldier, is a big fan of Dorothy Day. Although he says he doesn't agree with/get her ideas on pacifism, he thinks she has a lot to offer someone who wants to follow Christ. I don't see her as left-wing as much as I just see her as being sold-out.

Thanks for the post. This really got me thinking!

Maureen Martin

Maureen said...

BTW, Dorothy Day railed against communism and capatilism. She and Chesterton were both distributists. In fact, I am pretty sure his writing is what turned her on to it.

Maureen again.

Darwin said...


Good info there. Honestly, I don't know as much about Day as I should. (Which I was I was reading about her...)

Just to clarify, I didn't mean to suggest that Dorothy Day herself made the mistake of absolute-izing her spirituality. In that sense, it seems to me she's much in the company of St. Francis (not bad company to be in) in that she herself seems to have balanced out her beliefs with the Church's, but her followers have not all been as successful.

Maureen said...


Oh, OK! Well, good, I didn't want you to give up on her too soon. *g* If you are interested, my husband said the absolute best thing she ever wrote was "The Long Loneliness," her autobiography. Cardinal O'Connor said he liked her book on St. Therese best (never read that one, but want to.)

Again, I really enjoyed your post. It was very thought-provoking.

God bless, Maureen