What Would Dorothy Do?

June 2, 2014 at 5:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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When I started blogging, back in 2009, the young publicist at Columbia University Press who got me started told me that blogging means having a conversation with other bloggers. From his point of view, what you’re reading may not be a blog at all, just a writer’s webpage, since I rarely respond to another blogpost.

But that  may be changing. A while back I subscribed to a blog on the massive religion website Patheos The Deacon’s Bench, by journalist and Roman Catholic permanent deacon Greg Kendra. Often the deacon’s posts are primarily quotations from and links to other posts about Catholic happenings. But Kendra usually makes pretty clear his opinions about said happenings, sometimes in just a few words.

Deacon Greg, as he calls himself, is clearly a good man, and a competent journalist. But I am considerably to his left on most issues, so it’s not unusual for me to find myself talking back to him as I read his posts, or do the dishes, or walk around Brooklyn. On May 29, for example, Deacon Greg posted an article “Catholic Worker Hosts ‘Women Priest.’ What Would Dorothy Day Think?”, including a long quote from the Columbia Missourian about Roman Catholic WomanPriest (RCWP) Janice Sevre-Duszynska celebrating the Eucharist at St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Columbia, Missouri.

Now Deacon Greg makes it pretty clear what he thinks about Catholic women’s ordination, posting, for example, links to various bishop’s announcements of the excommunication of recently ordained RCWPs, or about an RCWP deacon repenting and renouncing her ordination. I wasn’t surprised, then, that he followed the news about the RCWP Catholic Worker liturgy with a long 1966 quote from Dorothy Day about her unflinching obedience to the Catholic Church. Yet Deacon Greg knows very well that when Cardinal Spellman, in 1951, ordered Day to take the word “Catholic” out of the title of the newspaper she had founded and  in which she had criticized the cardinal for breaking the cemetery workers’ strike, Day respectfully declined.

There were, of course, no ordinations of women during Day’s lifetime,  so we don’t really know how Day would have reacted to them. She was certainly an orthodox, even rigid, Catholic on sexual matters. Yet she also had little time for clericalism; a friend who worked on the The Catholic Worker while Day was alive tells of Day once getting really angry because there were three articles by priests in the previous issue. Not for nothing was Day one of the most influential Catholics in the history of the American church.

It’s also the case that Day’s legacy is vastly more complex than her journalistic statement of obedience suggests. The Catholic Worker is not only Catholic, but anarchist. Dorothy Day may have pledged obedience to the Catholic Church, but Catholic Workers didn’t always obey her, or each other.  On more than one occasion the level of conflict at a Catholic Worker farm was so extreme that Day was forced to sell it and start another farm a few years later. Some years ago, the daughter of a dear Catholic friend of mine, now deceased, left the church and married a Jewish Buddhist. One of her daughters recently spent several meaningful years at a Catholic Worker house in Chicago. And for more than a decade, my friend Karen Lenz edited EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, even as she “led” the Philadelphia Catholic Worker (if anybody can really be said to lead a Worker house).

What Deacon Kendra and a lot of other institutional Catholics don’t get is that the orderly Catholic/non-Catholic, form/matter world of the neo-Thomist revival no longer exists (if it ever did). As the postmodernists taught us, there isn’t just an inside and an outside anymore ; there are multiple complex phenomena that hover at or beyond the margins of supposed discrete spaces, making contemporary conversation enormously complicated. Because of this, my colleague Julie Byrne will soon publish an ethnography of an independent Catholic church, to be titled “The Other Catholics,” and Roman Catholic WomenPriest liturgies are often more pious and orthodox than the Masses at my parish church here in the Diocese of Brooklyn. This is also why, from time to time, I intend to write back to Deacon Greg, to complicate the supposedly neat Catholic categories he takes for granted.



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  1. This question (WWDD) comes up periodically.

    With regard to women’s ordination, Richard McSorley, SJ, told the oral historian Rosalie Riegle of a conversation with DD “about a year before she died” in which she said:

    I don’t think that it will go on [the same way] forever. We will have women
    priests. Probably the first step will be married priests. And then when women
    are closer to the altar by being associated with priests, married to them,
    then the culture will be ready for women priests.

    (Troester, Rosalie Riegle. Voices from the Catholic Worker. Philadelphia:
    Temple University Press, 1993, pp. 523-524.)

    I also recall a magazine article from the early ‘70s in which DD was quoted as expressing openness to the possibility.

    Deacon Greg responded that these comments came before Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which Dorothy would “most likely” have adhered to as “an obedient daughter of the Church.”


    • Phil, thanks so much for this clarification. Speculation about what DD would have done after OS is probably not a good use of time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Marian, I love your last paragraph here and saved it, possibly to quote in the last chapter of said book. The comparison with the neo-Thomist revival outlook really helped me see more of what’s going on … there is definitely “mourning” for the loss of a black-and-white world, too, right? Thank you, as ever.


    • Julie, I love the idea of being quoted in your book. And yes, lots of us are mourning the loss of a binarized world, even a lot of ostensible progressives.


  3. What I love about being Catholic is that we are catholic – embracing everything, not so black and white as some other religions. Although my friend Arthur Wendel says Catholics in heaven will be surprised to see who is also there! My mom always said, use your brain, God gave it to you. Thanks as always for a great article! Keep on blogging, whatever it ‘should’ be called.


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