Dorothy Day and the Consistent Life Ethic: Rejecting Conventional Political Paradigms
by Rob Arner
As anyone who has embraced the consistent life ethic (CLE) will tell you, the sense of isolation, of not fitting in can be paralyzing. This is all the more true when it comes to the traditional American political spectrum, with its the left-right/conservative-progressive dichotomy. CLE political positions, linked as they are by the underlying conviction that all human beings possess inherent dignity and worth, are at odds with the standard narratives of left and right and lead to a sense of alienation from both.
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, knew this sense of isolation better than most.
Day and the Poor
As a radical left-wing journalist in her young adulthood, Day developed a social conscience that led her to side consistently with the workers, the poor, and other marginalized people:
[W]hat I read made me particularly class-conscious. I used to turn from the park with all its beauty and peacefulness and walk down to North Avenue and over West through slum districts, and watch the slatternly women and the unkempt children and ponder over the poverty of the homes as contrasted with the wealth along the shore drive. I wanted even then to play my part. I wanted to write such books that thousands upon thousands of readers would be convinced of the injustice of things as they were. I wanted to do something toward making a “new earth wherein justice dwelleth.”
Union Square to Rome, 37
Or as she would put it in a diary entry from 1945, Day “became converted to the poor, to a love for and desire to be always with the poor and suffering— the workers of the world.” This progressive social conscience led her for a time in her youth to identify with a variety of anarchist, socialist, and communist organizations who shared her social vision for a more just society.
Day and Abortion
But as an adult convert to Catholicism, she came to marry this progressivism with a deeply-rooted traditionalist Christian faith that reinforced in her the conviction that every human life is priceless and irreplaceable. Her conversion experience prompted her to reflect on some of the earlier tragedies and mistakes of her life, especially the painful experience of having an abortion in an ultimately futile attempt to maintain her relationship with the baby’s philandering father. In 1973, shortly after Roe v. Wade was decided, Day reflected on the pain abortion had caused for many women, as well as for herself:
Suddenly the thought came into my mind of abortion and even then though our entire [Protestant] pop has been taught that it was not “taking life”—“Life only began at 4 ½ months.” Legal restrictions alone made women guilt ridden. Does the changing of laws— the Supreme Court decision—do away with this instinctive feeling of guilt? My own longing for a child.
Diary entry dated April 13, 1973
Most deeply disturbing for Day was the way that many of her collaborators in the 1960s anti-war movement didn’t share her reverence for human life, lamenting how “those in this peace crowd do not hesitate to have abortions” (November 12, 1962 letter to Thomas Merton). She elaborated in another letter: “Here we are as pacifists seemingly on the side of life, and so many in the peace movement denying life” (March 3, 1967 letter to Jim Forest).
Rejecting Left and Right
Thus, Day and the Catholic Worker don’t fit neatly into the usual left/right dichotomy. Like socialist radicals, she made the cause of the poor and workers central to her vision of a just world. But like conservative traditionalists, she was deeply grieved by the prevalence of abortion in society. As this icon of Day communicates,
she combined traditionally “conservative” methods and emphases, such as charity, the works of mercy, and an emphasis on personal responsibility to address social needs, with traditionally “liberal/progressive” methods of social change, such as protest and nonviolent civil disobedience.
As a Catholic Worker from Philadelphia once explained to me, the Catholic Worker isn’t a “liberal” or “conservative” organization, but rather a radical one. While conservatives are generally happy with “the system” with only minor tweaks, and “liberals” would focus on making structural changes within the system in order to make it work, a radical organization such as the Catholic Worker is convinced that the system doesn’t work and is so fundamentally flawed and corrupted by sin that it can’t.
For Dorothy Day, the philosophy that best expressed these seemingly divergent convictions in a coherent and intellectually satisfying manner was “personalism,” a philosophy imported from French Catholicism by her mentor and Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin. At its root, personalism stresses three things:
(1) The invaluable worth and dignity of the individual person;
(2) The fundamentally social nature of the person (that is, persons are always “persons-in-community”); and
(3) the moral imperative of personal responsibility, which stressed persons, rather than institutions or ideologies or rulers, as primary moral agents and the essential subjects of history.
Personalism means that persons, rather than ideas, agendas, or any other abstraction, are what ultimately matter. All other issues are subordinated to the needs of the person standing before you. Personalism for Day was also an authentic third way between the twin dangers of liberal capitalist individualism and person-negating communist collectivism. Both, she felt, in different ways, devalue the person or make the person’s importance subordinate to some greater cause or conflict.
This synthesis of the individual and the social was so novel in American society that it aroused great suspicion from both the right and the left. Robert Ellsberg observes that personalism was so outside the American experience that “readers from both the left and the right often found it difficult to locate the movement along the conventional political spectrum… To many seasoned observers, the very idiosyncrasy of these positions suggested a smokescreen, designed to obscure the true intentions of its proponents.” Indeed the FBI maintained a surveillance file on Day for her entire career as a Catholic Worker, and her resolute pacifism lost the Catholic Worker newspaper over a third of its subscriber base during World War II.
Day came to understand that adopting a personalist outlook on life meant losing a lot of friends who didn’t share her same core values. As she wrote in a 1943 letter to a fellow Catholic Worker, “Personalism isolates you in this mad world!” But it also offered her a radically open view toward others, which, for her as a Christian, meant seeing Jesus equally in all people.
Reflecting on an upcoming trip to Cuba, which was fresh off Fidel Castro’s communist revolutionary takeover, she wrote: “I go to see Christ in my brother the Cuban, and that means Christ in the revolution[ary], [and] Christ in the counter-revolutionary. But to both sides, being violently partisan, such an attitude will be considered reasonable by neither” (Diary entry, September 2, 1962). Nevertheless, she clung to the belief that personalism offered the best – indeed the only – just and humane way to create “a new social order wherein justice dwelleth, which is neither capitalist nor communist nor totalitarian in any way” (February 7, 1969 letter to Karl Meyer).
Personalism and the CLE
Because of her personalism, Day was an early adopter of what came to be the consistent life ethic. The infinite value of the person, Day believed, meant that something eternal and irreplaceable was lost when a person is killed through neglect or belligerence, and she took a solid stand for her entire life against all killing of human persons. As Daniel Berrigan put it in the foreword to Day’s memoir The Long Loneliness, “What held me in thrall was an absolutely stunning consistency. No to all killing. Invasions, incursions, excusing causes, call of the blood, summons to the bloody flag, casuistic body counts, just wars, necessary wars, religious wars, needful wars, holy wars— into the fury of the murderous crosswinds went her simple word: no.”
Day herself would connect the issues in a way that is now so familiar to those of us who embrace the CLE. “We are aghast at the continuing and spreading warfare in the world— the waste of human life, and at home too with abortion used to save the resulting consequences of our acts from suffering, from the cross we impose upon them” (1971 letter to Daniel and Philip Berrigan).
Dorothy Day’s long career as a Catholic Worker stands as a testament to the possibilities that can open up when we reject the boxes forced upon us by the prevailing society. The CLE is a personalist outlook, one which embraces the inestimable value of each and every human life and stands in ready defense against any threat that would destroy it or force it to exist in poverty and degradation. It combines the best of the progressive social vision of justice and equity for all people with what is good from the conservative esteem for and defense of every life, “from womb to tomb.” Only such visions that can bridge the divides and make common cause toward a better world can ever come close to achieving Day’s goal of creating “a new society from within the shell of the old.”
For similar posts, see:
For more of our posts from Rob Arner, see: