She was, at root, devoted to the church. “She adored priests and believed in obedience” to the Roman Catholic Church, Heath says, “even as she was constantly wrangling with priests and bishops.”
She was also deeply skeptical of bureaucracy and increasing dependence on the state, which she sardonically referred to as “the Holy Mother State.” She opposed certain types of government welfare, including Social Security, and was skeptical of the New Deal. But whereas parts of the contemporary right balk at government programs because they oppose tax increases or have adopted a kind of bootstraps individualism, Day would reject acquisitive populist capitalism as immoral.
She was committed to personalism and subsidiarity, the beliefs that social problems must be dealt with at the most grass-roots, local level possible, with real human relationships always in view. She called on the church and society to love their neighbors — to pay attention to the human beings around them, especially the poor. At times, she voiced the conservative cry of “personal responsibility,” but not in the way many now understand that idea. She believed in the need for structural change to address systemic injustice. But she also thought we should never view poverty or the rights of workers as simply issues for the government to solve.
Instead, she wanted middle- and upper-class Americans to take personal responsibility for creating a world where the dignity of every human being is affirmed and embraced. She cast a vision in her 1963 book “Loaves and Fishes,” “It seems to me that in the future the family — the ideal family — will always try to care for one more. If every family that professed to follow Scriptural teaching, whether Jew, Protestant, or Catholic, were to do this, there would be no need for huge institutions, houses of dead storage where human beings waste away in loneliness and despair.”
In her lifetime, Day was called a Communist. She was called naïve. She was called a threat to the church. She was none of these things. She was a Christian who took the teachings of Jesus seriously and wanted Christians to live out this ethic in their daily lives. She ultimately saw dehumanization in any form as the enemy, which led her to notice deep connections between stances that are sometimes set at odds. She saw dehumanization at work in industrialists’ abuse of laborers; also in systems that produced abortion; also in militarization and war.
Day did not offer a comprehensive social program to solve all of society’s ills. Instead, she had a vision of self-sacrificial faithfulness, loving our neighbor, and trusting the mystery of God with the results. Toward the end of our call, Heath told me that through her life and copious writing, Day makes this point: “I don’t have the answers to solve everything. Be faithful today.” My life looks very different than Day’s did, but her witness continues to prod me out of the deep ruts in today’s political and ideological discourse. Her daily, radical faithfulness dares me to imagine a world made new.
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