The name Dorothy Day conjures up a series of contradictory images that both inspire and confound those who want to follow after her. Named as “Servant of God” by the Catholic Church in 2012, she was famous for her critiques of Catholic hierarchy for their positions on war. Valorized for her ministry to the poor of New York City, Day saw mass charity initiatives such as the New Deal as not doing the poor any favours. Renowned for her lifelong appreciation for anarchism, she was deeply traditionalist in her theology and in her obedience to her bishop.
But it is the one contradiction that she did not speak of that might be of greatest resonance today: Day, the sexual traditionalist, who had an abortion.
During her life, Day wrote two autobiographies, From Union Square to Rome and The Long Loneliness, both instructive about the relationship of nature to grace, and of the real-time struggles of beginning a ministry with the poor of the Bowery district. In her essays and newsletters, she makes constant reference to her own life, transparently writing of what she is reading and with whom she is meeting. Her life, lived in the community of the Catholic Worker House, was by and large an open book.
But part of the prehistory, made widely known only after her death, was that she had an abortion as a young woman. Prior to her conversion, Day had lived a “bohemian lifestyle,” which involved friendships with lots of well-known writers and Communists of the day, including Eugene O’Neill. In a difficult-to-find novel titled The Eleventh Virgin, one of Day’s earliest published works, she tells the story of a thinly veiled version of herself who has an abortion en route to moving away from that life.
Day occasionally disclosed her story in private conversation, as she did in a 1973 letter, published in All the Way to Heaven, a collection of Day’s letters. In her comments to “Cathie,” a pregnant woman, she expresses deep sympathy for the agony of the world, which women such as Cathie are bearing. This was a darkness that Day knew well:
I myself have been through much of what you have been through. Twice, I tried to take my life, and the dear Lord pulled me through that darkness—I was rescued from that darkness. My sickness was physical too, since I have an abortion with bad after-effects, and in a way my sickness of mind was a penance I had to endure.
But unlike poverty or war, this topic was not one of the mainstays of her writing or advocacy. In later newsletters and journals, Day wrote infrequently about abortion as a public issue during the 1950s and 1960s; by the time of Roe v. Wade in 1973, Day was already not making many public appearances owing to poor health. But abortion was, for Day, of a piece with many of her more well-known concerns. In an article from 1959, which feels like it could have been written today, she writes:
For Day, abortion is symptomatic of other cultural failures. Abortion, used as a form of population control of the poor and marginalized, a form of neo-eugenics, is given to Japan in place of other substantive forms of aid. With the United States’ defeat of Japan in the previous generation with the atomic bomb, abortion comes in to continue that legacy of death as the only thing that a decimated culture could understand: the elimination of extra mouths to feed.
Against the backdrop of the coming legal storm over abortion, Day’s framing here of abortion’s roots and how to address it as a Christian seems almost entirely alien to us. Absent in her writings is the constitutionality of abortion, nor is there anything about potential legal remedies. And neither is Day’s approach that of John Paul II, who tied abortion to other issues of life and death such as euthanasia and capital punishment, part of the “seamless garment.” Day’s approach was relatively straightforward: abortion happens because, as a culture, we no longer have the love of neighbour necessary to cultivate a culture of life. And so we give stones instead of bread, snakes instead of fish.
Part of the absence of legal remedies in Day’s approach to abortion can be attributed to the fact that when Day had her own abortion, it was illegal already: no additional law would have been needed. But far more likely here was that Day was generally loath to resort to legality as the way to end any major social ill. When Day was founding the Catholic Worker Movement with Peter Maurin, one of the consistent emphases was the “little way of love” and “building a new world in the shell of the old”: the way forward for re-humanizing the world was not first through law and legislation but through attention.
Day’s anarchism comes under scrutiny if we presume, with the magisterial traditions, that church order must be accompanied by the sword of the state, the civic sphere maintaining order through force matching the church’s order. But this is, for Day, to ask the wrong question. If the gospel was one that emphasized the re-humanizing of the world, the healing of the natural world by the supernatural grace of God, then this could not be accomplished by reintroducing divisions within the world that Christ came to efface.
Writing in 1954, she explains her anarchism this way:
Day’s anarchism, in other words, was a Catholic one: it is not so much that she objected to a moral law as she objected to the use of law as an extension of economic ambition or as a substitute for virtue. For Day, laws, when they are not supporting unjust economic and political ends, dull our moral sensibilities by equating the life of virtue with legal acquiescence. She was wholly in favour of order but argued that “we must work to make that kind of an order in which ‘it is easier for man to be good.’” Such order, however, was rooted not so much in law as in the slow pursuit of virtue, in subsidiary communities in which all persons found meaningful work, meaningful community, and a call toward being responsible for their own lives.
Day’s anarchism was not one that believed in no law but one that looked for a way of social organization rooted in “personalism.” The philosophy, championed by Maurin and Jacques Maritain among others, emphasized communities exercising self-care rather than turning to the state or other institutions for mass charity. In taking responsibility for one another, persons are formed in virtue, for we can take care of another best only when we attend to their particulars. Categories of class, for example, were too rough and ready to categorize people, both in their needs and in their vices. And so, turning to law to organize our social lives, while expedient, was, for Day, ultimately unjust: it failed to see the person before them, and to address that person as one in need of the healing grace of God in particular ways.
This approach, we might say, is one thing when addressing the needs of the poor, but is there no place for legislative solutions to broader moral questions? Day’s framing of abortion was of a piece with her other concerns: the way forward for society could not be a shortcut but had to be grown from the ground up. And so Day’s consistent approach to abortion can be summed up in this way: if you want a law to be undone, make it meaningless to have it. Rather than try to legislate it out of existence, cultivate a world in which abortion is unthinkable because of the love we share with one another, and—when pregnancies happen unwanted—make it possible for children to be received into loving communities.
It is here that we add another piece to this puzzle of Day’s advocacy of personalism over law, of community virtue over enforcement: the way out of vice (laws against abortion in this case) must be ordered toward the enabling of good. To forbid a thing without making it possible to take up a different way was, for Day, akin to the Pharisees commanding a great deal without lifting a finger to aid its accomplishment. “Pro-life” policies (i.e., the ones designed to reduce abortion), for Day, must be coupled with not just pro-natalist ones (i.e., policies to increase births) but also pro-culture-of-life policies: the cultivation of communities that dedicate themselves to the good of their members and bear the difficulties of life together.
It’s very possible to read Day’s entire ministry as a response to the conditions under which she had her own abortion: making sexual choices as an autonomous being, with few options other than her own survival on the table. Her work among the poor, her well-known desire for strong communities rooted in the common good and sharing goods in common, her opposition to bureaucratized charity and her affirmation of communal sacrifice and virtue—all of these things can be read backward into her experience of being a pregnant young woman without social support and without a community to help raise a child. In a world where autonomous beings are made to fend for themselves, abortion becomes a rational solution to the question of survival.
There are many things about the difficulty of this road that Day doesn’t name—the disparity of the burdens on women in pregnancy, the lack of ways to keep men in the mix, the toll that pregnancy and birth take on a woman’s body—but many of these things Day took to be the cost of living. Suffering is a part of human life, and a non-negotiable for the Christian life, and suffering was thus something to be shared, not shouldered alone. When Day became pregnant a second time, with her common-law husband Forster, she had the baby and raised Tamar in the Catholic Worker house. It was, by all accounts, not an ideal setting, and one which meant that, in the words of Day’s granddaughter Kate Hennessy, Tamar was raised by Dorothy the saint instead of Dorothy the mother.
When we begin with the question, What kinds of people are we meant to be? we may very well find that legislative solutions cause us to forgo certain avenues leading away from a life of virtue but do not assist us toward it.
The difficulties, then, of piloting this alternate path—neither abortion nor adoption nor single parenting—was not without its costs and not without suffering. And those looking for a legislative solution to abortion will likely be dissatisfied: Day’s concern was always to begin with the goal of virtue and work backward. When we begin with the question, What kinds of people are we meant to be? we may very well find that legislative solutions cause us to forgo certain avenues leading away from a life of virtue but do not assist us toward it. And this inseparable pair of community order and virtue was, for Day, always the concern for how we think about the rules of a community. It is the case that abortions, when made illegal, are fewer in number; for Day, though, this is simply a world in which it is easier for us to avoid evil, not necessarily one in which it is easier to be good.