View from the choir

I am a Catholic layperson and Secular Franciscan with a sense of humor. After years in the back pew watching, I have moved into the choir. It's nice to see faces instead of the backs of heads. But I still maintain God has a sense of humor - and that we are created in God's image.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Catholic (?) Worker: Obedience to Church Authority

Writer Michael Harrington tells the following story about Dorothy Day:

I arrived at the Worker shortly after Cardinal Spellman had sent (future Cardinal John) McIntyre down to read the riot act. What was apparently bugging Spellman was that the paper was called the Catholic Worker. What he was angling for, and didn't get, was for [Dorothy] to drop the word "Catholic." He believed [the name] was an attempt to indicate that this was a Catholic position, and he didn't want anybody else speaking for the church. This was the famous occasion when McIntyre said to her, "What would you do if the cardinal told you to shut down the Catholic Worker?"

She said, "If our dear, sweet cardinal, who is the vicar of Christ in New York City, told me to shut down the Catholic Worker, I would close it down immediately." She was dead serious. That's what drove me crazy. Dorothy really did go around referring to Spellman as "our dear, sweet cardinal" and "the vicar of Christ."

I also remember the story (recounted in William Miller's Dorothy Day) of her throwing out a group of Catholic Workers for living in a way that was at "variance with traditional morality, " and coming under attack for doing so. (page 484)

Miller writes on page 485, "The drink of gall that was being forced on her now in her old age in increasing amounts was the disposition of the young people around her at the Worker to single out the Church as one of the main anachronisms from past times that inhibited the free flow of their new universe toward its golden destiny. The Catholic Worker was, before it could make even one small tentative step into the world of affairs, Catholic. It was not a sign to be worn, turned this way and that to reflect whatever glancing beam of position or opinion that came from the roilings of time."

Day understood that the Worker was at its core Catholic, and that obedience to legitimate authority on moral and governance issues was part of being Catholic. If you could not live by that, then you can still do good work and still serve the social causes to which you are committed, but not under a sign proclaiming yourself "Catholic."

St. Joseph's House of Hospitality in Rochester, N.Y., one of the oldest Worker houses in the nation, abandoned that respect for authority a while back. That's one of the reasons I stopped supporting the house financially - even though one summer decades ago I had even been a "staff" member there. I send the money elsewhere (like Bethany House, a Rochester Catholic Worker House that assists women and children and remains true to the Church).

The work St. Joe's does to feed, clothe, and shelter the poor, to fight against unjust war and economic policies, to defend of the rights of various ethnic groups is all admirable and well within Catholic tradition. But they should not call themselves part of the Catholic Worker movement any more as long as they continue to support and promote individuals who are in defiance of Church authority.

I suspect if Day - whom I believe should some day be recognized officially as a saint (though she demurred at the mention of such a thing!) - were still alive she would have had a firm talk with the St. Joe's staff.


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