America magazine, a publication of the Jesuits, a Catholic religious Order, recently — July 23, 2019 — published an article by Dean Dettloff, America’s Toronto, Ontario, correspondent and a junior member of the Institute for Christian Studies. The article, “The Catholic Case for Communism,” is a graphic illustration of the problems associated with people projecting their own opinions on to individuals or groups they admire, whether the admired individuals or groups ever expressed sympathy with them, or even if they were opposed to them.
By twisting the sense of what Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, said, Dettloff was able to put a very sympathetic interpretation on something with which Day had very little (if any) sympathy — the abolition of private property. In this, Dettloff was greatly assisted by widespread misunderstanding of certain fundamental principles of natural law, modernist interpretations of Catholic doctrine and social teaching, and the unfortunate fact that some of Day’s followers have let their enthusiasm (in the Ronald Knox sense) run away with them, and they have attributed to her an infallibility she was far from claiming.
As Day was the first to admit, she made mistakes. She also sometimes said things in ways that left them open to misinterpretation, which is what Dettloff capitalized on. Nor does this impugn her standing with God or the Catholic Church. Where Dettloff tried to measure the Catholic Church and its teachings by the standard of his interpretation of Dorothy Day, Dorothy Day was rather clear that she measured herself and others (mostly herself) by her understanding of the Catholic Church and its teachings.
Was Day’s interpretation always correct? Since she herself made no claim to infallibility, it would be ludicrous to impute it to her. Nor is it essential that she be right all the time — or even any of the time, strictly speaking. God does not judge that way.
Unfortunately, human beings do, and that is why it is essential that errors such as Dettloff’s be corrected whenever they occur. This is all the more critical in that there are people who support Day’s “cause” for canonization, or official recognition as a saint by the Catholic Church, meaning she is in Heaven. If people get the wrong “message” from Day, her “cause” could very easily come grinding to a halt, perhaps permanently.
Purely by coincidence, last week we noted three examples of how this could happen. In Distributism and Dissent, and Dissent and Distributism, we gave our opinion as to why the “cause” of the English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was not opened: some of Chesterton’s modern followers have put interpretations on his words and actions that — however closely Chesterton himself adhered to Catholic teachings — are greatly at variance with Catholic doctrine. We also noted the case of St. Robert Bellarmine, whose canonization was delayed for three hundred years before Pope Pius XI corrected some errors Bellarmine made, and that of Blessed Joachim of Flora, who will probably never be canonized — not because his writings were heretical (although they were), but because people used Joachim’s thought as the springboard to invent a new religion under the name of Christianity.
|Abbott Joachim of Flora|
As we pointed out, this says nothing about Chesterton, but a great deal about his followers. By turning Chesterton into a front man for socialism, modernism, and the New Age, they have (in this writer’s opinion) all but ensured that Chesterton’s “cause” will go nowhere. If the followers of Dorothy Day want to prevent the sabotage of her “cause,” then they must honestly address and correct any errors she made (and not turn them into Holy Writ, which would have appalled her), be obedient to the teachings of the Catholic Church and not necessarily to their own opinion, but above all, correct errors such as those made by Dettloff.
That is why on Thursday we will present the response of Mr. Geoffrey Gneuhs to Mr. Dettloff’s article instead of trying to do it ourselves. After all, as far as most people are concerned, our opinion is no better than that of Dettloff — not as good, in fact, because what we say is far from popular and a great many people do not want to hear it, while Dettloff is making a good thing of playing to the gallery.
Geoff’s opinion of Dorothy Day, however, is based on personal acquaintance with her. He was chaplain to Dorothy Day and the New York Catholic Worker, and he gave the homily at her funeral in December 1980. He serves on the board of the Dorothy Day Guild, the organization dedicated to advancing her “cause” for canonization. Where our opinion of Dorothy Day is based on some familiarity with her writings and Catholic teaching, Geoff’s is based on that plus solid experience and fact. We speak as a student. Geoff speaks with authority as a teacher.
We should also point out that Geoff is a founding member of the Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ), and he is a strong supporter of the Just Third Way. He sees no conflict between the principles of the Catholic Worker Movement and the Just Third Way. As for differences about how to apply those principles, much of the discussion at CESJ meetings is how to develop sound applications. As long as the principles are adhered to, differences in application amount to very little in the long run.
On Thursday, then, we will publish Geoff’s letter on some of Dettloff’s errors (there were far too many to cover them all). In the meantime, you might want to visit the website of the Dorothy Day Guild and that of the Center for Economic and Social Justice to see where Geoff is coming from.#30#