Dorothy Day and the price of pacifism


I have always found pacifism an attractive option. It is radical and simple. But I have never been persuaded that the Scriptures or the practice of the early Church command it. Still there is more behind pacifism than intellectual conviction.

The reflections of Dorothy Day, an enduring influence on United States Catholicism, suggest what that more might be. In her life, with its mixture of intellectual enquiry, hospitality to the poorest of people and protest against injustice, pacifism had a central place. She used many arguments to justify it. But her emphasis on it remained constant and costly.

Pacifism did cost. The Catholic Worker, the newspaper which Dorothy Day founded, grew quickly to 100,000 copies. But when it refused to endorse Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War it lost two-thirds of its readers. Catholics saw that war as a battle against the atheist Communists who had murdered priests and nuns. When the United States later entered the war against Japan and Germany, the Catholic Worker took a pacifist stance. Many of those in their houses of hospitality resigned in protest. As a result a third of the houses closed. This was just one of many occasions on which Dorothy Day had to address the resistance to pacifism among her supporters.

Pacifism was also personally costly. It often took her to gaol. She regularly refused to participate in New York City’s annual civil defence drill. She objected that the purposes of the drill were to support increased military expenditure and to suggest New York could survive a nuclear attack. So in 1955 when the sirens sounded, she and others sat on the Town Hall steps. They declaimed, 'In the name of Jesus, who is God, who is Love, we will not obey this order to pretend, to evacuate, to hide. We will not be drilled into fear. We do not have faith in God if we depend upon the atom bomb.' They were duly jailed.

Her pacifism was initially shaped by Peter Maurin, the major intellectual influence on the nascent movement. Maurin’s pacifism was of a piece with his radical Gospel — he also believed that all Christians should live very simply and should welcome the homeless into their houses. The Gospel was to be taken dead seriously in all aspects of life.

For Dorothy Day, too, pacifism had less to do with reasons than with a seamlessly radical way of living. Although in defending her pacifist stance she used arguments from Just War theory and from Jesus’ life, finally her commitment to it was more deeply grounded in experience. She found it an indispensable support for the Catholic Worker way of life.

When she commends the commitment to pacifism, she usually places it within Peter Maurin’s program. She does not defend it in isolation. She found that the radical hospitality to the poor embodied in their houses, the non-revolutionary commitment to justice maintained in the face of the communist alternatives, and the intellectual commitment to radical conversation could be held together only with an equally radical commitment to pacifism.

Maurin first proposed that all Christians should offer hospitality in their homes. The Catholic Worker houses began when people off the streets took the newspaper at its word. They came to stay. Of those taken in some were mentally ill. They often differed sharply in their views, and were accustomed to express disagreement physically. This challenged a community that encouraged a style of honest conversation in which the value of each participant was recognised.

The life of the Catholic Worker houses required an adamantine ethic of radical non-violence, of domestic pacifism. The public commitment to political pacifism in turn strengthened the ground rules of the houses. The two fed into each other.

The commitment of the Catholic Worker communities to social justice, too, demanded a radical base. Dorothy Day described her pain when, after her conversion to the Catholic Church, she watched demonstrations against injustice. A committed activist, he felt unable to join them because they were communist-led and so inconsistent with her new faith.

Peter Maurin enabled her to articulate a radical form of Christian faith that was radically engaged in issues of justice. But it needed a radical symbol of commitment that differentiated it from revolutionary movements. Pacifism provided a symbol.

Ultimately pacifism is not supported only by intellectual arguments. Its appeal comes from its place in a radical way of life lived with integrity.

Andrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.




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Existing comments

I don't expect to become a convinced pacifist before I die, but there are a few things tending to push me in that direction. (a) Many Catholics use an argument against legalising abortion, which, if applied to war, would compel us all to be pacifists, and (b) I think we should give more weight to the psychological damage to combatants which seems inseparable from war.

Jim Jones | 25 October 2007  

I moved very close to being a complete pacifist when studying dispute resolution. I have doubts the principle of a just war exists when those involved no longer see each other face to face as they kill each other. Obviously there will always be times when the oppressed must be defended but the price paid in human suffering is usually too great.

Margaret McDonald | 26 October 2007  

I am a priest; I don't have a family; I am not confronted with violence. So it's hard to know the depth of my conviction. But my reading of the Gospel is that Jesus actively opposed oppression and injustice, yet chose to do so non-violently. "Love your enemies" is radical. I don't love consistently; I struggle to love. But I believe that Jesus did call his followers to non-violence, and told them to be prepared to pay the cost.

John McKinnon | 26 October 2007  

Thanks Andy for this article.
In light of the jailing of a Franciscan and a Jesuit in the US for their non-violent action against torture, it's a timely and much needed piece (and demonstrates a much needed peace!)

(More information at

Beth Doherty | 26 October 2007  

I have never considered Dorothy Day as a pacifist rather as someone engaged in nonviolent action. Pacifism in today's society seems to suggest inaction. Dorothy Day was the embodiment of radical peace in the footsteps of Jesus the radical peacemaker of the gospel. We are all called to be peacemakers using active nonviolence as our tool

Angela McDonagh | 27 October 2007  

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