Don't Make Dorothy Day a SaintRoundup
tags: Catholic Church, Catholicism, labor, Dorothy Day, socialism, Sainthood, Canonization
Garry Wills, a journalist and historian, is the author of numerous books, including Nixon Agonistes (1970), Inventing America (1978), Explaining America: The Federalist (1981), and Lincoln at Gettysburg (1993), which won a Pulitzer Prize that year. His most recent book is What the Qur’an Meant: And Why It Matters (2017). (November 2019)
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, has just sent documents to the Vatican requesting that the left-wing writer and activist Dorothy Day be declared a saint. I hope that does not happen. The late Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan said that canonizing Dorothy Day would be a demotion. She herself said simply it would trivialize her. She is larger than the figures who wind their way through the miniaturizing process of canonization.
She has already passed the first test: a million dollars has been spent turning up all the documents to prove she did not bulk out awkwardly beyond the coloring lines of theological orthodoxy. There used to be an office called the Devil’s Advocate for challenging any assertion of perfect rectitude. Now the same test has been internalized by the promoters of her cause. Oh yes, Cardinal Dolan admits, she kept bad company—Communists, for instance—before her conversion to the Church, but not after. This is a necessary pruning of her life, because the ruling premise is that there cannot be a Communist saint. In fact, I have known many communist (with a small c) saints, who kept the essentials of Marx on the nature of capitalism without the (large C) Communist excesses of Stalin on state power. G. K. Chesterton was one, and so was Studs Terkel, and so was she. But that will never do if she is to pass the doctrinally prettying process of canonization.
Another example of this miniaturizing was the promotion of the nineteenth-century English theologian John Henry Newman toward sainthood, which Pope Francis passed in 2019. Those who advanced Cardinal Newman’s cause thought they could “saint him up” by separating his body from the scandalous grave he shared, by his own firm order, with his beloved Ambrose St. John, and moving him to a future shrine at his Birmingham Oratory, moving him back to his own side of the bed, as it were. Exhuming him would have the extra advantage of supplying first-class relics from his body or clothes. But the grave raiders were thwarted when they found that their bodies had totally rotted away through their wooden caskets in damp ground.
That canonization effort was motivated by a premise similar to the one on Dorothy Day’s part. The major impediment to her canonization is that there cannot be a Communist saint, according to a decree issued in 1949 and approved by Pope Pius XII. For Newman, the premise was that there cannot be a gay saint—though, once again, I have known and admired many gay Catholic saints, both inside and outside seminaries and convents.
Even after one gets past the recorded or invented doctrinal soundness of a candidate, there is still the matter of collecting three miracles purportedly worked by her mediation. For this step, one must not only believe in miracles, but also in the possibility of tracing any miracles to the saint-to-be’s intercession. The right combination of a self-identified prayerful person, a recordable miracle, and an identifiable enactor must be secured.