Dorothy Day on the Precarity of Love and Voluntary Poverty

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Blogmasters note: Linked blow is an article I wrote which appeared in the Fall, 2015 edition of Communio: International Catholic Review. I re-release it here today in response to several emails asking me to discuss Dorothy Day a bit more. So rather than write an entirely new blog post on the topic I decided just to reprint this article which I think gets to the heart of some of her most important ideas. There were footnotes in the original but I have eliminated them because they were causing formatting issues in the WordPress format. For the full text with footnotes you can go to the Communio site and access the original article in PDF form. My next post will be on David Bentley Hart’s book on universal salvation so stay tuned!

Dr. Larry Chapp

Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933 along with Peter Maurin, was praised by Pope Francis in his recent address before the Congress of the United States.  In particular, he noted her singular devotion to the poor and passionate advocacy for social justice.  And indeed, this was a central focus of her mission – – a mission which continues on today in the many Catholic Worker houses of hospitality and Catholic Worker farms.  Nevertheless, if we were to leave our analysis of her legacy at that simple affirmation we run the risk of missing the genuinely Catholic theological moment that informed her thinking and actions, and reducing her to just one more philanthropic voice calling for aid to the poor.  In fact, it is not in the slightest an exaggeration to say that, absent such a theological analysis, her actions on behalf of the poor cannot be understood even in their most rudimentary construal.  For before all else there is one salient fact about the life of Dorothy Day that must not be ignored:  Dorothy Day was a radical Catholic in the original meaning of the word “radical”, i.e. she was a Catholic who took the internal theo-logic of the faith to its roots and attempted to put it into action in prophetic ways.  Thus, any attempt to bleach her life of its moorings in her deeply held Catholic faith is superficial at best, and mendacious at worst.  

            Furthermore, assuming that her charism was genuine, and that the movement she founded is thus worth saving and promoting, it is important that her life and thinking be “narrated” properly so that her vision can be appropriated in a manner that can guide the Catholic Worker movement into the future.  And allow me to be blunt here: the modern Catholic Worker movement is in a bit of a crisis with many Catholic Worker houses espousing largely secular/Leftist political orientations with little attention paid to explicitly Catholic theological concerns.  Indeed, my own involvement in the movement as the owner and operator of a small Catholic Worker farm has only increased my concern.  The memory of Dorothy Day is certainly revered and honored within the movement, but a certain narration of her life has emerged where the radical edges of her Catholicism are muted.  This is not universally true to be sure, and there are promising new rays of light here and there.  But my observations, I think, are valid as a broad generalization.  And on the other side of the aisle there are more traditional Catholics who, though admiring her devotion to the poor, seek to domesticate her by ignoring her trenchant theological critiques of capitalism, American exceptionalism, militarism, and religious legalism. Therefore, if the movement is to survive and indeed flourish as a specifically Catholic enterprise that reflects Dorothy Day’s full vision, there is a great need for a robust and unblinkered retrieval of her theological commitments.

            Thus, in what follows I offer some all too brief observations on her writings concerning the poor as well as the meaning and value of poverty.  I will allow Dorothy to speak plainly in her own words and will add my own thoughts in a manner which, it is hoped, will merely highlight and foreground her central ideas. I will arrange her thoughts topically for the sake of clarity, bearing in mind that such classifications are a bit arbitrary.  All quotes will be drawn from her regular column in the New York Catholic Worker newspaper, a paper she first printed and sold for a penny on May 1, 1933, and which continues to this day to be printed and distributed at that same price.  In what follows I make no claim to originality or to completeness.  These are merely rudimentary thoughts on her thoughts.

1. Precarity and Voluntary Poverty

            “It is hard to write about poverty.  We live in a slum neighborhood that is becoming ever more crowded… (and) It is hard to write about poverty when a visitor tells you how he and his family all lived in a basement room and did sweatshop work to make ends meet…” (“Poverty and Precarity”, The Catholic Worker, May, 1952, 2, 6.  Hencforth cited as TCW)

            One of the first things that strikes you when you read Day’s comments on poverty is that her attitude is not simply “poverty is evil and must be eliminated”.  Her theological anthropology is such that she views our spiritual condition as sinful beggars before the divine mercy as our most appropriate posture.  In some measure we must all strive to lead lives of poverty so that nothing stands between the divine gift and us.  It is a straightforward idea drawn from the dominical admonition that you “cannot serve both God and mammon”.  And as such it differs little from the wisdom of the classical saints who all emphasized the same.  Thus, the problem of the “poor” is more complex than a simple matter of lacking money.  We will address that in more detail later.  For now, however, we must note that Day did struggle with the fact that it is very difficult to counsel poverty, both internal and external, to people who literally have nothing and suffer greatly from their inability to care properly for their families.  But she is at pains, nevertheless, to point out that it is not the goal of human life to become wealthy or even comfortable, on a material level, and that all human beings should strive to adopt a form of voluntary poverty that frees them from the slavery to “things”.  It is a slavery, both internal and external, that blinds us to God and to neighbor and is part of a fabric of lies contained in the logic of worldliness.  Thus, any attempt to create a “political program” oriented toward making everyone wealthy and affluent will inevitably degenerate into a tyranny of material necessity and the economics of mendacity that it requires.

            “‘True poverty is rare,’ a saintly priest writes to us from Martinique. ‘Nowadays (religious) communities are good, I am sure, but they are mistaken about poverty.  They accept, admit on principle, poverty, but everything must be good and strong, buildings must be fireproof, Precarity is rejected everywhere, and precarity is an essential element of poverty.  That has been forgotten.  Here we want precarity in everything except the Church.” (TCW, May, 1952, 2, 6.)

            Here we are introduced to a term central to Day’s vision of voluntary poverty: Precarity.  Derived from the word “precarious”, precarity signifies an attitude of inward trust in God that is the very soul of true poverty.  One can lack money but still possess a grasping and scheming mentality, riddled with jealous and anxiety.  Thus, true poverty manifests as a resolute rejection of the scheming and anxious soul, seeking to divest itself of all that creates within us a false sense of security through worldly acquisition.  This might place us in a precarious situation where some kind of disaster is always threatening and which can weigh heavily on the soul as a constant fear.  But this is where the soul that has attained true poverty is most free and joyful, trusting that whatever the Lord sends our way will be for our benefit.  

            I am reminded of a conversation I had with my wife, Carrie, just yesterday, where she pointed out that the biggest chunk of our monthly household budget goes to that strange modern reality called “insurance”. And even though our farm makes no money, and we live on a very meager income, we continue to cling to these modern life rings, vesting an unfounded hope in them.  Thus, as Day points out, true poverty, imbued with a spirit of precarity, is very rare:

            “We hold on to our books, our tools, such as typewriters, our clothes, and instead of rejoicing when they are taken from us we lament.  We protest at people taking time or privacy.  We are holding on to these goods. … No it is not simple, this business of poverty”. (TCW, May, 1952, 2, 6.)

            So we see that for Day poverty, viewed as both the divestment of possessions and an internal attitude of precarity/trust in God, is a spiritual good and a blessing.  And this is an attitude that one also views in most of the founders of the great religious orders.  But even here we see that such poverty is hard to sustain as these very same religious orders eventually become corporately wealthy with real estate and other possessions and investments.  And as soon as that happens the constitutive role of precarity in constructing true religious poverty evaporates.

            “Over and over again in the history of the Church the saints have emphasized poverty.  Every community which has been started, has begun in poverty and in incredible hardships … And the result has always been that the orders thrived, the foundations grew, property was extended till holdings and buildings were accumulated and although there was still individual poverty, there was corporate wealth.  It is hard to keep poor.” (TCW, May, 1952, 2, 6.)

            Once again, it reminds me of a conversation I had with a very wealthy and devout Catholic woman.  She said she wanted to be more like St. Francis of Assisi.  I asked her if that meant she was giving all of her possessions away.  She looked at me quizzically and said immediately “of course not, but I am developing an inner attitude of detachment from them.”  Sadly, religious orders and the Church as a whole can also fall into this spiritual delusion.  For Day, true poverty is only possible with precarity, and true precarity is only possible through actual divestment of possessions in a radical manner.  On this point there can be no compromise. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Mt. 6:21)  

            Theologically, therefore, it must be pointed out that for Dorothy Day, in order for the Catholic to live out the beatitudes and the mandate given to us by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, we cannot live lives of material comfort.  The universal call to holiness does not allow us the excuse that evangelical poverty is merely a “counsel” and not a commandment.  Here we see Day in her most radical and prophetic element.  Here we see why she makes many Christians uncomfortable.  And perhaps she is wrong to blur the distinction between a commandment and a counsel.  But perhaps too she is more correct than we care to admit. For just as with “Just War theory”, so too with the counsel/commandment distinction, we all too often use it, not as a proper theological tool for making judgments, but rather as an instrument of selfishness and self deception. And despite our differing states of life, some states are superior to others, which implies that the universal call to holiness does ultimately take the form of the evangelical counsels if it is to be truly the way of perfection.

2. Voluntary Poverty and the Family

            “We must engage the social order so that a man may raise his family.  And it is necessary that there be among us in the Catholic Worker movement those suffering families, to exemplify, to share in the poverty of the family today.  … So our Catholic Worker families are living in poverty and suffering, in the practice of their faith, not in a dream or an illusion.” (“Poverty is the Face of Christ”, TCW, December, 1952, 3, 6.)

            Dorothy Day was no romantic dreamer.  She understood first hand the suffering inflicted on families by the grinding poverty of the modern industrial world.  And as she points out in the same essay it is ok for such families to accept aid from the government.  But, she is quick to point out, if one takes from Caesar then one must render unto Caesar.  And so she espoused a distributist economics where ownership of land frees the “proletariat” from the powerlessness of the factory job and the city.  Thus did she share the vision of Peter Maurin of a “bottom up” solution to poverty through the formation of communities of agrarian living where families could flourish.  “But wait”, one might ask, “is this not an example of a romantic dream?”  But that would be to accept the inevitability and immutability of our current economic arrangement of oppression and “job slavery”.  It would be to essentialize economic slavery as a constitutive feature of the human condition.  Thus, there is a difference between trying to imagine a different and more liberating arrangement and a romantic fantasy.  Dorothy Day was a radical and a revolutionary and like all such prophets, she understood that all revolutions begin with an idea, with a reimagnining of human community.  Small beginnings, from the grassroots, are also the only way to insure that such revolutions do not morph into their own form of tyranny.  

            And so she imagines a common life where married men with families have available jobs and a form of labor that is enlivening and filled with dignity.  She further asserts that the Catholic Worker movement must therefore be a place where such “space” is created for families who seek to live the evangelical counsels while still having the basic material needs of life.  “’A man needs a certain amount of goods to lead a good life,’ St. Thomas wrote”.  And indeed they do and she does not espouse a form of life that is characterized by familial destitution.  Nevertheless, the evangelical counsels are for everyone, not just the spiritual elites in monasteries, and Christian families have a moral responsibility to lead a life of utter simplicity, in solidarity with their suffering neighbors.  This does, of course, involve precarity, which is not, therefore, just for individuals or religious orders, but for families as well.  She writes:  “But ours is happiness, ours is joy, for Christ comes to us each day, not only at Christmas, but each time we look into the face of our brother who is poor”.  And that is an admonition for families as well.  She concludes:  “When a man got married, then it was up to him to be on his own, support his own wife and children, and go on performing the works of mercy, according to his ability, with a Christ room in the house, the meal set out for the needy guest, the clothes passed on.”

            Finally, work must involve, to the extent that is possible for families, a disengagement from the current form of militaristic government.  When we work at wage earning jobs in our current industrial system taxes on the fruits of labor support the military industrial complex.  Therefore, to the extent it is possible, we must all seek to minimize such support.  It is essential therefore to find an alternative to the tyranny of the machine, which can serve as an answer “to the depression which will come about once we stop this mad race for armaments, once men begin to lay down their arms and refuse to kill, once young men refuse to be inducted, once older men refuse to build up their prosperity on the blood of their brothers.”

3. Voluntary Poverty and Vulnerability

            “Over and over again we are given the chance to reexamine our position – – are we ready to relinquish what we have, not just to the poor to share with them what we have but to the poor who rise in revolution to take what they have been deprived of for so long? Are we ready too, to have the drunken poor, the insane poor and what more horrible deprivation than this, to have one’s interior senses, the memory, the understanding and the will, impoverished to the extent that one is no longer rational – – are we ready to be robbed in this way?  Do we really welcome poverty as liberating?”  (“On Pilgrimage”, TCW, February, 1964, 1, 2, 6.)

            Anyone who has had serious dealings with the poor will doubtless be able to tell story after story that can be loosely labeled under the rubric “stories of the ungrateful and scheming poor”.  Poverty that is not voluntarily embraced and is, rather, something unwanted (caused by the vagaries of personal failure and/or social injustice), can create tremendous resentment and not a little dishonesty.  The poor will often steal from each other and from their benefactors.  They will lie and fabricate intricate tales of woe, in order to solicit yet another free meal, or a new winter coat, or some other item that can be sold on the streets.  I recall from my days of working in a soup kitchen in my youth developing an unhealthy admiration for the sheer ingenuity of such fabrications.  Until one day when I gave a man $20, thinking that his story of anguish was true, only to have him pin me against a wall and demand more, which I dutifully handed over.  Thus does one realize as well that working with the poor renders one vulnerable, not just to lies and manipulation, but to physical assault as well. There is nothing romantic about involuntary poverty and its chief consequence seems to be a robust descent into vice, both moral and intellectual. 

            Dorothy Day was also well aware of this fact of involuntary poverty, which only underscored for her that for those who choose poverty out of solidarity with the poor there will always be an element of vulnerability that is inevitable and which also must be embraced as part of the sufferings of that state of life.  Voluntary poverty, embraced out of service to the poor, perfects us precisely in divesting us.  And it divests us not just of our material possessions, but also of our “personal rights vis-à-vis those ‘others’ who would take advantage of us”.  How often have you had acquaintances tell you, when confronted by a beggar on the street, “don’t give him a dime, he will just use it for booze”?  And probably, more often than not, they will be right.  Or, to give another example, my wife spins wool from our sheep here on the farm, and she then knits winter caps to give to the homeless in New York.  But she was recently told by someone who works with the poor on those streets that she should not do that anymore since the recipients will often just sell the hats, or worse, throw them away or lose them in a day.  And stories like this – – stories of the poor taking advantage of benefaction for the sake of vice, or merely displaying the ingratitude and carelessness of the jaded soul – – can be multiplied endlessly.

            But for Dorothy Day none of that matters, and if only for the sake of one person who will benefit from our alms, we should be willing to “waste” our time, energy, and resources, on the scoundrels.  Because the central psychological and moral dynamic of being taking advantage of is not that we feel an injustice has been committed and we are merely expressing a certain righteous anger “for the good of the sinners and their conversion of heart”, but rather, that we feel we have been “duped”, and we feel like “fools” and we are angry because something “that is mine” has been taken from me.  But as Dorothy Day says in the quote above, we must be willing to call nothing “mine”, not even my very rationality and memory and will.  In death, ALL is divested except the inward core of a person as God sees that person.  And that is most likely why God imposes our current manner of dying on us because, as sinners, the essence of all our sin is grasping acquisition.  But before God there is no grasping, and before God we are all poor beggars seeking to take advantage of the divine profligacy. 

            The divine profligacy is an essential theological component of our own acceptance of vulnerability.  For no one was ever more vulnerable than our Lord during his passion.  God opens himself to the wounds of our sin and  holds nothing back in his identification with us.  Christ descends into Hell to retrieve what is lost.  And what is lost?  All of us are lost.  All of us are in need of the wild and profligate love of God.  “Wide is the gate to Hell and many there are that take it”.  How often do we quote this statement from our Lord as a self-justifying condemnation of those “others” who are going to Hell?  And yet, in reality, there is only one person whose possible inhabiting of Hell ought to bother my mind:  me.  

            In contrast to this parsimonious eschatological census taking, Dorothy Day points out that Christ taught us to forgive endlessly, which at the bare minimum means setting aside my pinched and parched soul’s concern with being “taken advantage of”.  This fear, the fear that I am being a “sucker” if I “follow God’s rules” while every one of those other sinners gets a free pass, is a profound failure of faith, insofar as it is a faith that is blind to the fact that everything about my existence is a pure gift from God. We say that so often it seems trite and cliché.  We repeat it piously even as we connive to make sure that my comfort comes first.  But the truth is quite other: I am indeed “owed” precisely nothing.  And nothing means nothing. Thus, the vulnerability of voluntary poverty in service to the poor is also then a gift.  Because in being so taken advantage of, I am now, in some small measure, imitating the Christ, who descended into the ultimate vulnerability.  Dorothy Day concludes her reflection on such vulnerability:  “’Let nothing disturb thee, nothing affright thee,’ St. Theresa said, ‘all things are passing. God alone never changes.’ … Every day we have evidence of His warm loving care for us.  Since He has given us His Son – – will He not give us also every good thing? All else that we need?  We are rich indeed.”

4.  Poverty and Destitution

            “We may … clarify this notion of the destitute and the poor. The poor have some hope.  They have not been so long in this condition that they see no way out. … The destitute, on the other hand, have nothing – – physically, intellectually, or spiritually.  You never see them reading a book or a newspaper as they wait on the breadline, or listening to music, or playing with an alley cat as they sit on a curb in the sun, or laughing, or telling stories.” (“Poverty and Destitution”, TCW, April, 1966, 5, 8.)

            I began these brief reflections by focusing on the positive assessment that Dorothy Day gave to voluntary poverty, which she views as both a spiritual necessity in order to move closer to God, and a moral necessity as we seek ways to aid our neighbor and to build a better form of communal living.  But there is also a negative form of poverty, a poverty that crushes all hope and dehumanizes vast numbers of powerless people.  This negative poverty Dorothy Day refers to as “destitution”. 

            Destitution in this sense is first and foremost characterized by a loss of hope in any sort of a better future.  And once this hope is lost the spirit is robbed of all motivation to seek a better life.  A kind of suffocating cynicism infiltrates the soul and is often accompanied by drug abuse and other forms of self destructive behavior.  The destitute person is also, therefore, often prone to acts of violence and vandalism as they act out their hopeless cynicism.  Thus, as Day makes clear, the chief result of destitution is a poverty of spirit that is far worse than any poverty of possessions.  In this same essay she recounts numerous stories of people who are poor who come to the New York Catholic Worker house and maintain an attitude of cheerfulness and hope, despite their poverty.  This contrasts with the destitute whose inner hopelessness manifests as a joyless nihilism.

            And just as it is true that one can be rich in spirit even if one is poor in material possessions, likewise one can be destitute even if one has all of the basic material comforts of life.  The modern world of industrial capitalism, with its hegemonic commodification of every social and personal good, is, therefore, a powerful force for dehumanization as it destroys the very notion of “value”, robbing the soul of an authentic experience of transcendence, of the true, the good, and the beautiful.  All around us is the ugliness of a pragmatic utility, the illusion of well being through affluence, and the barbaric assault on human life itself.  Thus it is no exaggeration that modern capitalist economies, though, arguably, creating vast pockets of material comfort and even largesse, are, in reality, economies of destitution.  It is therefore no exaggeration to say that for Dorothy Day, there are vast pockets of destitution in the modern world – – both the outward destitution of a destructive form of grinding poverty, and the inward destitution of the modern soul, immersed in the banal ugliness and deadly barbarism of modern life.

            Therefore, Dorothy Day was adamant that the houses of hospitality and the worker farms should be places where the poor can nurture their souls as much as their bodies.  Yes, the hungry must first be fed and the naked clothed, but the poor too need truth, goodness, and beauty.  They too need holiness and a relation to God.  As she states:  “The poor can live in such places (crowded tenements) and have some measure of comfort, but the destitute are dogged on every side by ill health, unemployment, accident and hunger”.  And why is this?  Because their lives have been so robbed of hope that they no longer thirst for the good, no longer quest after the higher levels of human well being, and very often no longer quest for God.  In such cases, the Catholic Worker must quest after them, bringing the mercy and love of the crucified Lord, even if it is often met with disdain and rejection.


            As I type these words I am looking out the window of my farmhouse and gazing at my chickens, which are milling about the yard.  And I am filled with a certain hostility toward them at the moment since they have collectively decided, apparently, to stop laying eggs for a while.  I do not know if chickens are capable of such corporate deliberation, but I have seen some evidence of it.  Or so I think.  And it makes me resent them for the amount of money I spend on their feed.  Freeloaders.  

            But of course this is irrational.  It is also ungrateful since the telos of a chicken is certainly not to lay eggs for me.  To be sure, they lay eggs, but they do so to please God and to praise His name as they live out who and what they are.  And so hostility toward them for simply being what they are as God made them is simply stupid.  And I mean stupid in the theological sense as in treating something as an instrument of my consumptive pleasure rather than as an epiphanic eruption of sacramental beauty.  Of course, nobody talks or thinks like this as they experience such things (ok, I do), but it is what is going on.  It is the reality.  

            For Dorothy Day, voluntary poverty is the only true path to sanctity because it alone teaches us to see in all things the beauty and glory of God in their essence, and not to view things as possible tools for my well being, even if it is allowed to me so to use them.  True and holy poverty allows us to be indifferent before the world  in the sense of not viewing things first and foremost through the prism of my self interest.  It teaches us rather to view things, even, and perhaps especially, very simple things, in their essential beauty as manifestations of the profligacy of God’s gift of existence.  There is nothing that “belongs to me”.  There is nothing that is ultimately “mine” in an atomized and individualistic sense.  The spirit of grasping acquisition is the spirit of the machine, of control, of violence, of domination, of ugliness.  It is the instrumentalizing spirit of modernity where all is monetized and put into the service of consumptive excess.  And such excess is then justified on economic grounds, which further legitimates the tools of war, now deemed necessary in order to protect what is justifiably “mine” and “ours”.  And war is the ultimate symptom of the destitution of our spirit.  

            The involuntary poverty of the poor and the destitute cry out to us in their misery, but also in their ingratitude and in their scheming manipulations and lies.  Because we too are filled with scheming and lies, just for different purposes.  Furthermore, our corporate solidarity as human beings in Christ means that indifference to such people is not allowed to me.  For as our Lord teaches, indifference to the poor and oppressed, is indifference to Him.  And if there is one teaching of our Lord that could be said to be central to the thought of Dorothy Day it is this one.  To see my brother and sister in distress is to see the face of Christ.  

Dorothy Day, pray for us


  1. This is excellent. For me, personally, it is indicting because I am never comfortable with the idea that possessing much is ok as long as one is detached from them. At the same time, I am not ready to give up ALL of my material goods, even is I want to keep them just to enjoy them with the ones I love most. As for how I treat the poor, I have decided that to look at them, smile at them and talk to them is much more than just hand them some change or even some food. It is always greatly appreciated. Anyways, I enjoy your writing and always learn much from it.

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  2. I hate to seem a nitpicker, but doesn’t the idea that more precarity = better logically lead to the idea that the maximum possible vulnerability is best, that doing anything to take care of oneself is bad, and that the holiest thing to do would be to starve to death even with an abundance of food staring you plain in the face? I don’t see how this doesn’t lead to the conclusion that it’s better to dying of malnutrition in one of Stalin’s famines than to be adequately fed and clothed.

    “But the truth is quite other: I am indeed “owed” precisely nothing. And nothing means nothing.”

    That strikes me as a very terrible thing to think. For if it is true that nothing is owed, then there is nothing morally wrong with, say, me gunning you down because I felt like it. I owe you nothing, including moral treatment. A mother owes her baby nothing, not even refraining from tossing it out the window into the dumpster if she finds it too loud. And of course the poor have no moral claim on society or any individual to do anything to alleviate their misery, or even not to make them fight to death for their personal entertainment. If nothing is owed to anyone by simple virtue of the nature of their being, anything goes.

    And finally, this statement:

    “True and holy poverty allows us to be indifferent before the world in the sense of not viewing things first and foremost through the prism of my self interest. It teaches us rather to view things, even, and perhaps especially, very simple things, in their essential beauty as manifestations of the profligacy of God’s gift of existence.”

    This is an odd sentiment, considering that such a view of things is itself in our self-interest (it will make our lives better) under this frame of reference, else why would one want it? Also, if you were indifferent to the world, the economic arrangements of it would not be matter of concern for you, yes?


    1. “But the truth is quite other: I am indeed “owed” precisely nothing. And nothing means nothing.” I assumed this meant “owed nothing by God”. If I have a child, then I owe him something, and when I was a child, my parents owed me their care, and there is a whole network of mutual owing in human communities. I paused over the sentence when I read it, and read on assuming “God”.

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      1. I disagree with that as well. If God exists and creates out of nothing, he does indeed owe it both to himself and to his creation to create only that which will be good. He cannot do otherwise without willing (and thus being) evil.

        Then of course there is the specifically Christian concept that all men are neighbors, that all men must love one another as themselves, and that God became man and perfectly fulfills his own requirement. If that is indeed so, then God owes it to every man, including me in particular, to love him as he loves himself.


  3. “But for Dorothy Day none of that matters, and if only for the sake of one person who will benefit from our alms, we should be willing to “waste” our time, energy, and resources, on the scoundrels.”

    Sorry I didn’t mention this earlier, but in what possible way is for example supporting a man in a drug habit that is ruining his life any meaningful benefit to him? Helping someone drink himself to death doesn’t seem terribly helpful, if anything it seems callous. If you help one man and help kill a dozen more, something’s wrong with your methods of helping.

    “And yet, in reality, there is only one person whose possible inhabiting of Hell ought to bother my mind: me.”

    It seems to me that if you really do love your neighbor as yourself, any concerns you have about yourself should be equally applicable to him. And also that any concerns you have about him should be equally applicable to you.


  4. You’re a brave man, Larry Chapp. This topic really divides, even more than chapel veils, yoga pants, and Archbishop Vigano. It has a way of making us all feel uncomfortable, and that’s no fun, because we want THEM to feel uncomfortable, not us.
    Thoughts in response: I have been dirt poor (one weekly pay packet away from the streets) and fabulously rich (six figure salary) at different times in my life, more than once. I know I can live on very little, and this in itself is liberating.
    But I have also worked in a homeless drop-in centre, and I know exactly what you’re talking about with the waste, the violence, and the sense that sometimes you’re aiding in a person’s descent into hell instead of pulling them out of it.
    Religious life: I supported a budding religious movement locally who took a providentialist approach, and I don’t regret a cent of what I gave in money or time or goods, even though the experiment failed after some years. I know that I got the reward for giving generously, and I didn’t cause the failure!
    But yes, absolutely – the massive accumulated wealth is inevitably corrosive. In good communities, they stay poor by ploughing their money into maintaining the fabric of increasingly old buildings, which have to meet increasingly complicated and expensive building and safety codes.
    Sadly I also spent some time in a long-established religious community where the excess wealth – which was considerable – went to the Superior’s head, and she used it to fund Potemkin Village new foundations in far-off countries, plus pay her legal expenses in an interminable and pointless series of legal disputes with ‘corrupt Modernists’ in Rome. She did a lot of business class travel, and at short notice, which is always the most expensive way to fly. There was always money for her madcap schemes, and a sharp lawyer (who’s since been found guilty of professional malpractice with another client) managed to soak literally hundreds of thousands of pounds out of the congregation on her behalf. Meanwhile the actual wealth of the congregation – the sisters – slowly left, one by one, dropping out from exhaustion and scandal.
    It’s like the Peter’s Pence scandal – some of this money was given to my community in good faith by people who were poor themselves. This made me feel very guilty. We were always having fundraising campaigns for various things, when really we had the money to cover them some of the time. Poor people gave us money so that we could eat and be clothed and live a life of prayer and self-sacrifice for the good of the world. Instead, much of that money was used to buy salve for the Superior’s chronically wounded vanity.
    I am someone who is trying to live the evangelical counsels in the world with private vows. I think I’m rich, although my lifestyle is very simple. Compared to most people who live on this planet, I AM rich.
    I try to be as detached as I can from my stuff. I don’t own a lot of stuff; I’ve recently learned about minimalism but I’ve actually been living it for years. But minimalism can turn into greed as well – the ‘right’ and ‘quality’ items that you can own in smaller numbers, instead of a house full of cheap clutter.
    Where I live, we have enough shelter and services for homeless people to use, but many choose not to use them for various reasons. This is where I struggle to give money. But if you can’t bring yourself to give money, for fear it will be used on drugs, there are other things you can do that push you beyond self-interested giving:
    * Give prepaid bus travel cards, food, and coffee to individuals if you’re just passing
    * Some localities have food vouchers or overnight accommodation vouchers that you can also give in passing
    * Clothes – buy and donate NEW clothing to shelters, clothing that you would wear, or better
    * Personal hygiene – buy and donate NEW products that you would typically use, or better
    * Remember period dignity! There are women homeless too, so donate feminine hygiene products
    * At functions with corporate catering, ask to take leftovers to a local homeless shelter – there’s one in my city that will take donations gladly; you just ring up first and let them know you’re coming in with the stuff.
    All of these will COST you something more than just money – they’ll cost time, convenience, and sometimes embarrassment if you’re a guy and you feel awkward around tampons. But it is still better to give than to receive.
    Thank you as always for your thought-provoking writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Coles and Woolworths (Australia’s main supermarket chains) sell in bulk cards that cannot be redeemed for cigarettes or alcohol, but are good for all the rest of their products.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What I’ve been looking for in Catholicism is an answer to atomizing and degenerating modernity. I appreciate you for introducing Dorothy Day into that effort. There are many legitimate things to reflect on in this article, and it almost seems to make the radicalism of the Gospel, which often seems so distant in my memory, seem refreshed.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Larry, I’m new to your blog–so I don’t want to be rude–and I’m in sympathy with many of your ideas but I’ve got to admit that Day’s theology really rubs me against the grain at a fundamental level.

    “She further asserts that the Catholic Worker movement must therefore be a place where such “space” is created for families who seek to live the evangelical counsels while still having the basic material needs of life. ”

    There is an incompatibility of ideas going on over here: on one hand there is the virtue of precarity, on the other, thereality of of carnal needs The two ideas are in opposition. When we put a virtue in opposition to human needs and human fulfillment–re your quote from Aquinas–we’re going to have a serious problem. What she’s proposing, if you reflect on it, is a system that is guaranteed to make people unhappy who sincerely believe. If you aim for spiritual perfection your gonna be dirt poor and struggling against your carnal nature, on the other other hand if you satisfy your carnal nature your blocking your path to spiritual perfection. The reason why so many people aren’t “precarious” is because it’s probably impossible.

    But in reading your post, I thought to myself that I’ve heard all this before in the thoughts of Tolstoy. And I think that the best critic of all of this was Chesterton, in Orthodoxy. I think that Chesterton was right in recognising this type of thing as being a Christianity akin to Buddhism. I, in fact, would call it Christian Buddhism. Day’s comments on the problems of material possession strongly resemble the the idea that “freedom from attachment” will lead to Nirvana. Chesterton thought that this line of thinking was the antithesis of Christianity. I also think that this line of thinking, which is strong with the Augustinian strain of Christianity, has profoundly weakened the faith.

    At it’s core is a the problem of love and creation: Let me explain using a silly example:

    Day wants us to get rid of our possessions in the same way an insecure wife wants to rid herself of all competitors so that her husbands attraction is all directed at her. She has a hostility towards the “goodness” of the other women. The love Chesterton speaks of , is the love that recognises that other women are beautiful but it really doesn’t matter, because the love his spouse is the most important thing of all.

    One love affirms the goodness of creation, the other deprecates it.

    The Manichaeism is strong here.

    Oh and another thing.

    Nevertheless, the evangelical counsels are for everyone, not just the spiritual elites in monasteries, and Christian families have a moral responsibility to lead a life of utter simplicity, in solidarity with their suffering neighbors.

    This attitude has totally crippled the Church’s ability to deal with modernity.

    Dorothy Day may have her place in Christianity but she will not save it. The Christian champion of Modernity will not be an ascetic saint but George Baily.


    1. Hi Slumlord, if you can easily tell me where in Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” he addresses this issue, please do, because I would like to read what he writes. But if it is onerous, no problem – I can search the text myself.


    2. Our Christian champion will be a suicidal small town usurer who receives a mystical vision at the 11th hour? Something is off in that analysis.

      “Day wants us to get rid of our possessions in the same way an insecure wife wants to rid herself of all competitors so that her husbands attraction is all directed at her.”

      Substitute “Christ” for “Day” and “the rich young man” for “us” and tell me if this analogy still makes sense to you.


      1. Our Christian champion will be a suicidal small town usurer who receives a mystical vision at the 11th hour? Something is off in that analysis.

        Then you need to think more deeply.

        The big story of Catholicism in the last three hundred years has been its relationship to modernity. The bottom line is that it hasn’t been able to engage it successfully, with modernity running rings around it. There are several reasons for this but the primary problems are that the Church has misunderstood its “enemy” and internal weaknesses–particularly Christian asceticism/manicheanism— have prevented it from mounting an effective response. I’ll keep this brief because it is a combox reply.

        The Church sees its problem as being primarily theological/philosophical, but the Church has failed to recognise that its greatest “enemy” has been technological. Technological innovation has profoundly transformed society and industrialised it, and as a result a great middle class had formed which effectively governed and managed the new industrial society. Technology, not philosophy, effectively shifted cultural control to the middle class. Catholicism was never able to infiltrate into that middle class in any meaningful way, and thereby capture it, because of historical AND theological reasons. This IS the problem of modernity.

        Protestantism, on the other hand was able to, and while Protestantism maintained some semblance of sanity, the West was safely “Christian”. The de-Christianisation of Protestantism IS the story of the West’s moral collapse. Catholicism has merely been on the sidelines.

        The question is why wasn’t Catholicism able to capture the middle class. Primarily because of its understanding of holiness and the role of the laity. Catholic conceptions of holiness are centered on ascetism and a “rejection of the world”. MOAR prayer, more fasting, more poverty, etc were markers of Catholic holiness. Furthermore, Catholic “clericalism” viewed the laity as the lowest rung on the holiness scale. Catholic kids wanting to serve God became clergy/monks/nuns and withdrew from the world, their success being measured on where they stood on the clerical scale. While the Protestant conception was different. Protestant holiness was based upon righteousness and living by the commandments, and the laity were called to be holy in their own way while being in the world. So Protestantism was able to produce an army of Doctors, Lawyers, Judges, Politicians, Engineers etc who were able to engage the secular world more effectively. The problem is that as a result of this state of affairs, as Protestantism secularised so did society.

        Catholic solutions to the problem of modernity have been crippled by a lack of understanding of what it means to be “holy in a lay way”. So any catholic “solution” tends to emphasise the spiritual/ascetic life/clerical, retreating from the world, especially in agrarian pre-industrial lifestyles. Take a look at what Protestant Cadbury did for its workers at Bournville vs the “precariousness” that D Day advocates. Both groups saw the “dignity of the working poor” but their solutions were different. D Day while not taking on holy orders may just as well have, as the lifestyle she advocated barely distinguishes her from a nun. The Cadbury’s remained Christian businessmen. Even the French worker-priest movement of the 40’s recognised that we had to engage modernity and not run away to farms. The Church shut it down, yet another own goal.

        That’s why a theology that enables a George Bailey is necessary for Catholicism. Catholicism has been pushing in the opposite direction.

        Oh, and as for Christ’s instruction to the rich young man you need to need read Matthew 19 again, with what the Pope would call “more discernment.”

        There are three points to take away:

        1) You can get into heaven by following the commandments. i.e. it’s good enough for God.
        2) If you want to be “perfect” and earn bonus points, leave everything and serve Christ.
        3) Even rich people can get into heaven–albeit with some difficulty.

        There’s no universal call to poverty there.


  7. Hi Michael,

    One of the sections in Orthodoxy is in the chapters titled The Suicide of Thought and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

    “It is just here that Buddhism is on the side of modern pantheism and immanence. And it is just here that Christianity is on the side of humanity and liberty and love. Love desires personality; therefore love desires division. It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces, because they are living pieces. It is her instinct to say “little children love one another” rather than to tell one large person to love himself. This is the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and Christianity; that for the Buddhist or Theosophist personality is the fall of man, for the Christian it is the purpose of God, the whole point of his cosmic idea.”

    But the real “guts” of the argument can be found in his book on Thomas Aquinas, in the Chapter titled, A Meditation on the Manichees.

    Also this great quote comes from the essay, Tolstoy and the cult of Simplicity.

    It is difficult in every case to reconcile Tolstoy the great artist with Tolstoy the almost venomous reformer. It is difficult to believe that a man who draws in such noble outlines the dignity of the daily life of humanity regards as evil that divine act of procreation by which that dignity is renewed from age to age. It is difficult to believe that a man who has painted with so frightful an honesty the heartrending emptiness of the life of the poor can really grudge them every one of their pitiful pleasures, from courtship to tobacco.

    For Chesterton, the elimination of desire was consistent with elimination of personality. Chesterton felt that milder variations of Manicheanism were present in the Jansenist and Augustinian strains of Christianity, and that Buddhism was yet a more explicit variation. In all these lines of thought, the notion persisted that the created world was somehow evil and that “detachment” from it was a path to spiritual perfection.

    I’ve always loved this quote of his on Augustine:

    The evil is always both within
    and without the Church; but in a wilder form outside and a milder
    form inside. So it was, again, in the seventeenth century,
    when there was Calvinism outside and Jansenism inside.
    And so it was in the thirteenth century, when the obvious
    danger outside was in the revolution of the Albigensians;
    but the potential danger inside was in the very traditionalism
    of the Augustinians. For the Augustinians derived only
    from Augustine, and Augustine derived partly from Plato,
    and Plato was right, but not quite right. It is a mathematical
    fact that if a line be not perfectly directed towards a point,
    it will actually go further away from it as it comes nearer to it.
    After a thousand years of extension, the miscalculation
    of Platonism had come very near to Manicheanism.

    It’s one thing to give up things for the love of God, it’s another to give them up out of hatred for things.


    1. Thanks Slumlord, I’ve found the chapters.

      I note the passage in this blogpost: “For Dorothy Day, voluntary poverty is the only true path to sanctity…”. From the various quotations, she does appear to be saying that every Catholic should embrace voluntary poverty – if it is “the only true path” then not to be on it is to not be seeking sanctity. I realise that she or Dr Chapp may be speaking rhetorically.

      Given the other interests of this blog, I ask whether the “ressourcement” theologians also wrote in this vein – did they conclude that “we’ve got to get our whole congregations to embrace voluntary poverty; it’s the only way forward.” Is that message prominent in their work?

      What about Vatican II in its call for the laity to be holy? I see in Lumen Gentium a statement that the laity should “…expend all their energy for the growth of the Church and its continuous sanctification,…”. But in the same document I see another statement: “…elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them vigorously contribute their effort, so that created goods may be perfected by human labor, technical skill and civic culture for the benefit of all men according to the design of the Creator and the light of His Word…” It seems to me that people who live in serious precarity will not be in a position to perfect created goods.

      “When we work at wage earning jobs in our current industrial system taxes on the fruits of labor support the military industrial complex. ” True, but they also support hospitals and roads and schools. In many places they support abortion clinics, and the modern university systems some of which inculcate relativism, atheism, marxism, transgenderism and you-name-it. Good things and bad things, and it is impossible for the average worker to separate them out. I believe it is impossible to legally obtain any income in modern society without the government taking a share. [ In Australia there is no income tax if you earn less than about $20,000/annum, but there is still a goods and services tax, so you will contribute! ]

      I question whether voluntary poverty “…alone teaches us to see in all things the beauty and glory of God…” If you cannot see that today, what will be different when you have become poor?

      One could also have a lengthy discussion on the sentence: “..a tyranny of material necessity and the economics of mendacity that it requires.” Particularly the second part “economics of mendacity”. Of course, the Treasury departments of the western world, staffed by brilliant economists and using computer modelling systems costing millions of dollars, ALL failed in 2007 to predict the financial disaster, and they’re all forecasting a happy future today, but is that mendacity?


      1. @Michael

        I realise that she or Dr Chapp may be speaking rhetorically./i>

        I don’t think she was being rhetorical.

        Given the other interests of this blog, I ask whether the “ressourcement” theologians also wrote in this vein – did they conclude that “we’ve got to get our whole congregations to embrace voluntary poverty; it’s the only way forward.” Is that message prominent in their work?

        I’m just an amateur at this and not professionally trained. But my reading of the subject material did not give me this impression. Their primary concern was trying to correct the errors that had crept into Catholicism particularly via scholasticism.i.e the problem between the relationship between reason and the faith.

        What about Vatican II in its call for the laity to be holy?

        See my comments to Charlie Estridsen. The Church’s problem is that it while it calls the laity to be holy, it understands “holiness” in such a way that it makes it difficult for the laity to be a laity, especially in modernity. The Church needs to incorporate a Protestant understanding of lay holiness in order to be able to achieve this.

        It seems to me that people who live in serious precarity will not be in a position to perfect created goods.

        Correct. But embracing poverty also means the elimination of all the good things of modernity, which are a product of an industrialised society. i.e Anaesthetics, CT machines, antibiotics, clean water, cheap clothing etc. The people who want to return to an agrarian type commune don’t really understand the full implications of what would happen if the world did this. I think one of the reasons why such movements flounder is because God loves humanity. Now I’m not saying that such movements don’t have a place but they’re not to be taken as universal prototypes.

        Good things and bad things, and it is impossible for the average worker to separate them out.
        Yep, and it reflects what I consider an “orthodox” catholic position of deep spirituality which is predicated on the line of thinking that the nature of modern society THE problem. Once again an opt out of modernity due to an inability to engage it.

        .a tyranny of material necessity and the economics of mendacity that it requires

        I think I’ve already written too much on this post but that is a really profoundly disturbing comment at a deep theological level.
        Our incarnational nature– a unity of spirit and flesh–means that there needs to be some recognition of the needs of the flesh. i.e that the need for food,water, shelter, warmth, decent clothing etc are legitimate, and cannot be incompatible with a healthy Christianity. The term “tyranny of material necessity” which I hope I’m not taking out of context, is about a perfect Manichean comment as could be made. It’s the cry of a spirit trying to leave the flesh and de-incarnate itself.

        St Francis was a profound ascetic, yet toward the end of his life he apologised to his body for treating it so badly. We have a duty of Charity to our bodies which would imply that a “precarious” Christianity is unsound. She’s pushing a Christian Buddhism.


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