The case of St. Dorothy says more about the sad state of political discourse than it does about Catholic ‘strategy’

Dorothy Day in 1969. ()
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Terry Golway

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If you're not a Roman Catholic, or even if you are but you're retired from practice, the recent rush of news stories about Dorothy Day's candidacy for sainthood might have you a bit confused.

And it's hardly a wonder. If the process were easily explained, well, it wouldn't be very Catholic, would it? (To get a sense of this, ask a Catholic—or ask yourself—precisely how transubstantiation works.)

Here's the complicated bit about possible Saint Dorothy. Her cause is being championed by the Cardinal-Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, who is viewed as a spokesman for the American hierarchy's right wing. This is no small assignment—sort of like being a fact-checker for "Fox and Friends." There aren't enough hours in a day.

Dorothy Day, on the other hand, was pretty skeptical of the whole capitalist project, and spent most of her adult life working with the poor. This sort of activity is not always associated with those who believe in the sanctity of the unfettered marketplace. Day was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, an enterprise that adhered to the unfashionable idea that the poor were entitled to the same sort of dignity and respect generally accorded to plutocrats and corporate raiders. More, in fact. Much, much more.

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So here, then, is a media-friendly conundrum: Why is conservative Timothy Dolan pressing the sainthood case for liberal Dorothy Day? It's a question that was framed nicely in a recent New York Times piece, which in turn has inspired thought-provoking posts by William Doino on the website First Things and Mollie Wilson O'Reilly on dotCommonweal along with a terrific NPR interview with Stephen Colbert's favorite Jesuit, Father Jim Martin.

The apparent incongruity of a conservative Catholic supporting the canonization of a liberal Catholic tells us more about today's polarized political discourse than it does about the machinations of the Catholic Church. We look at Timothy Dolan and we see Mitch McConnell. We look at Dorothy Day and we see Henry Wallace. And it's hard for us to imagine McConnell uttering a good word about the sainted progressive Wallace, who was F.D.R.'s vice president for a single term and then ran for president in 1948 with the support of people who thought the New Deal was a namby-pamby sell-out to corporate interests.

Here's the problem: American Catholicism defies the simplicity of labels, notwithstanding the media's willingness to treat the Catholic League's Bill Donohue as a church spokesman. Cardinal Dolan is an enthusiastic upholder of Church teachings on abortion and same-sex marriage, and those teachings are utterly compatible with the Republican Party platform of 2012. (They did have one, didn't they?)

But when it comes to issues like immigration, wages for low-paid workers, the rights of organized labor, and even the war on terror, the Catholic Church—and Cardinal Dolan—could hardly be described as conservative. In fact, the church frequently outflanks the current Democratic president on the left by a wide margin.

And in that sense, Cardinal Dolan is no different from the man who actually proposed Dorothy Day for sainthood—the late Cardinal John O'Connor.

That's right—the push for Saint Dorothy didn't begin with Dolan, although you'd never know it from most of the reporting. It was O'Connor, another prelate superficially described as conservative, who advocated Dorothy Day and who made her cause a personal crusade from the very beginning of his tenure in 1984.

When he announced that the Vatican had agreed to begin the canonization process in 2000, O'Connor said that it “has long been my contention that Dorothy Day is a saint—not a gingerbread saint or a holy card saint, but a modern day devoted daughter of the Church, a daughter who shunned personal aggrandizement and wished that her work, and the work of those who labored at her side on behalf of the poor, might be the hallmark of her life rather than her own self.”

O'Connor, who was a career Navy chaplain before coming to New York, cited Day's pacifism as further evidence of her saintworthy qualities. “She rejected all military force; she rejected aid to force in any way in a most-idealistic manner. So much were her politics based on an ideology of nonviolence that they may be said to be apolitical,” he wrote.

Strong words there from Rear Admiral John O'Connor (ret). Frankly, if Dolan's advocacy of Dorothy Day seems odd, O'Connor's critical role in the canonization process was even more incongruous. And yet few questioned O'Connor's motives, and fewer still sought to explain his actions as part of a broader Catholic political strategy.

In fact, as Father Martin told NPR's Scott Simon, there is no contradiction between Dolan's advocacy of Day's canonization and Day's positions on social justice. Day, Father Martin noted, “was very strong about opposition to (the) sort of things that kept people poor as a result of the capitalist system. This is all part of Catholic teaching. If you're going to criticize Dorothy Day for those positions, you can criticize Pope Benedict, too, who talked about income distribution.”

For the record, conservative Cardinal Timothy Dolan publicly disagreed with President George W. Bush on capital punishment and the invasion of Iraq. Nobody thought this was particularly noteworthy. But advocating for Dorothy Day? What's that all about?

One thing's for sure: It's not about politics. At least not the sort of politics with which we are so depressingly familiar.

Terry Golway is the director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy in Union, N.J.