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A canonical look at Dorothy Day’s causa

January 4, 2013

The causa of Servant of God, Dorothy Day (1897-1980) occasions many questions for ecclesiastical leadership, some of them canonical.  I can suggest three: Day’s abortion, her alleged status as a Communist, and her apparent conflicts with New York’s Cardinal Spellman over the title of her newspaper, The Catholic Worker.

Abortion. Day’s abortion is not a canonical objection to her elevation, as the killing occurred nearly a decade before her 1927 conversion to Catholicism (from Episcopalianism), that is, before Day was bound by 1917 CIC 2350 with its penalty of excommunication. Thus, Day’s repentance for the deed (which she clearly expressed many times) and Confession of the sin (likely offered in her first Confession, celebrated the day after her reception into the Church) would have adequately addressed this tragedy as far as canon law is concerned.

Communism. Day’s status as a Communist is unclear, but by late 1949 she was clearly describing herself as an “ex-Communist”. The date is significant, in that the directives from the Holy Office (now, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) against Communist party membership by Catholics and certain degrees of cooperation therewith, are dated to 1949-1950.  In other words, Day seems to have left the Party (assuming she ever “belonged” to it) just as the ambiguities in canon law, by which such membership could be tolerated despite 1917 CIC 2335, were being addressed. See gen., Richard Murphy (American priest, 1925-1994), The Canonico-Juridical Status of a Communist, Canon Law Studies No. 400, (Catholic University of America, 1959) 186 pp. Day’s still earlier “cooperation” with the Party (chiefly, it seems, by way of employment) would have been susceptible to the usual moral criteria for assessing one’s cooperation with evil, which criteria, it seems, Day sought and took seriously.

The Catholic Worker. It appears that Day was in conflict with Francis Cdl. Spellman over her use of the word “Catholic” in the title of her newspaper, The Catholic Worker. Spellman, it seems, made the correct argument that Day’s use of the word “Catholic” in the paper implied ecclesiastical endorsement of the views of her paper, or at least, suggested the strong consistency of her views with Catholic Church teaching. Day refused to remove the word “Catholic” from the paper.

Had the conflict arisen today, Canons 216, 227, and 300 of the Johanno-Pauline Code would have made Spellman’s case an easy one, and Days’ refusal to remove the word would have reflected canonical recalcitrance on her part. But none of those canons was part of Pio-Benedictine law, and so, Day was left with some canonical “wiggle room”. A deeper inquiry into this matter should be part of Day’s process, but the issue seems more to call for an assessment of the Servant’s prudence and docility, rather than of her compliance with canon law.

Update 6 Jan 2013: This post now available in French, here.

Update 7 Jan 2013: The brief post above occasioned some interesting responses from some folks. A couple of observations seem warranted: (1) I have not been asked for, nor did I offer, an opinion on the merits of Day’s process itself. I can’t imagine that my views on that bigger question are worth more or less than most anyone else’s but, even if they were, I did not express them. (2) The views I did express touched only the points I addressed. Funny how often people conclude something else. In any event, there are, I am sure, a number of other issues—some of them canonical—that Day’s process would surface and which would require careful assessment by qualified persons with access to all the facts. (3) Some people dispute at least some of the facts upon which I based my views above. I am, of course, open to more accurate facts as indicated to the right for all my posts in D&A 3. Contra factum non valet argumentum, and all that. But I would caution those with better factual information against concluding that such facts dictate a given canonical conclusion. History and law are distinct disciplines. At least, lawyers think so.

That said, I find the whole issue fascinating, and will continue to follow it, time permitting.


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