Dorothy Day is, perhaps, one of the most controversial and fascinating figures in American Catholicism. Called everything from a communist to a “great American” (the latter by Pope Francis), the writer and activist abandoned her bohemian literary lifestyle and in 1933 co-founded the Catholic Worker newspaper and movement—a movement that continues to advocate for the poor. Day was also a woman and a mother, and it is this woman-behind-the-saint that her youngest granddaughter focuses on in her book, Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty (Scribner, Jan.).
This book is as much a story of your mother and your mother’s relationship with Dorothy as it is a biography of Dorothy. Why did you choose to write the book this way?
There is no way I could have written a book about my grandmother without including my mother. Not only are they inextricably linked in my mind, but this is also one aspect of Dorothy’s life that I am able to provide that other biographers cannot—a portrait of her as a mother, which, after all, was the initial catalyst that put her on the path of conversion.
How did your understanding of Dorothy change as you researched and wrote the book?
When my mother died it became clear to me that if I did not write this story, an essential element of Dorothy’s life—the story of her daughter and their relationship—would forever be, if not lost, then severely limited. I knew this was going to be personally difficult, because I was still grieving the loss of my mother and there was much about the relationship between Dorothy and my mother that I didn’t understand and struggled with. As I researched, I found myself falling in love with the two of them, their difficult relationship, their inexplicable choices, and their lives. With this deepening sense of love came greater understanding, not only of them as individuals but of their impact on me.
Did you worry about including what some might call sins, such as her abortion?
For me, there was never any point in writing a standard hagiography. That wouldn’t represent the complex and paradoxical grandmother I knew. Often people who didn’t know Dorothy would oversimplify her and her life, irritating my mother to no end. Separating Dorothy from her sins or her shortcomings does her, and us all, a disservice. These are essential elements of her life that helped make her who she was. Her formidable strengths came out of her failures and weaknesses.
Does writing about Dorothy as a mother complicate our understanding of her or of sainthood in general?
After years of listening to academics, theologians, clergy, and biographers speak of Dorothy, I have come to believe that one of the greatest impediments to understanding her is this desire to define her in ways that make us feel more at ease with her—to make her less complicated and less complex, whether in order to revile or to praise her. If perfection were a requirement of sainthood, there would be no saints, and the same goes for motherhood. Our understanding of sainthood needs to be challenged.
What do you think the impact of your grandmother’s canonization would be on the Catholic world?
It would certainly break the stereotype of traditional saints, and be controversial for many, not so much for her bohemian youth but for her radical views and activist life. Getting arrested, for example, is not normally considered saint-like behavior. Also, while Dorothy considered herself an obedient daughter of the Church in regards to Church teachings, she was not above chastising the Church on the behavior of its clergy. This distinction is sometimes difficult for people to understand, even though it is a trait to be found in many saints. However, for those who are inspired by her and try to follow her example, I think her canonization would be a tremendously hopeful gesture. She would be a saint for our time, a laywoman, and a mother in whom many, Catholic or not, could find paradoxically both comfort and provocation for change.