Dorothy Day: Previously Unpublished 1933 Essay ‘Our Brothers, The Jews’ Published for First Time

Dorothy Day, 1925
Dorothy Day, 1925

Fr. Charles Gallagher has discovered a previously unpublished essay by Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day, which lay in a correspondence file in the Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection at Marquette University. I’m stunned!

Dorothy Day was a lay Catholic woman with radical politics, a deeply rooted faith, and a phenomenal amount of courage. She co-founded the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin in the 1930s.

The manuscript titled Our Brothers, The Jews was written in autumn 1933. It is published for the first time in the November 2009 issue of America magazine.

Five years before Adolph Hitler became “The Fuhrer,” when he was still chancellor of a coalition government and head of the Nazi party with the Nazis holding a third of the seats in the Reichstag, Dorothy Day called to account Catholics who supported and fostered Hitler’s hate-based political agenda in the U.S.

Her point of view was very unpopular at the time. So unpopular in fact that she had a hard time getting her essay published anywhere. (America magazine rejected it when she submitted it to them in 1933.) But race-baiting and Jew-hating was on the rise in the U.S. and Catholic speakers in Brooklyn, near where the Catholic Worker was based, were drawing cheering crowds when they excoriated Jews.

“She keenly foresaw the dynamic that five years later would lead to the rise of Brooklyn’s powerful Christian Front movement and its quasi-terrorist anti-Semitic plot, which was scuppered only by a spectacular set of arrests in early 1940 by J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Day’s warning about how Catholics ought to deal with Hitler rested on two of the main pillars of her faith—scriptural reflection and concern for social justice. Her deep beliefs rested on an apostolic zeal that held out the possibility for all men and women to be fully integrated into the mystical body of Christ,” the editor’s note concludes.

Here’s an excerpt from Day’s essay:

For Catholics—or for anyone—to stand up in the public squares and center their hatred against Jews is to sidestep the issue before the public today. It is easier to fight the Jew than it is to fight for social justice—that is what it comes down to. One can be sure of applause. One can find a bright glow of superiority very warming on a cold night. If those same men were to fight for Catholic principles of social justice they would be shied away from by Catholics as radicals; they would be heckled by Communists as authors of confusion; they would be hurt by the uncomprehending indifference of the mass of people.

God made us all. We are all members or potential members of the mystical body of Christ. We don’t want to extirpate people; we want to go after ideas. As St. Paul said, “we are not fighting flesh and blood but principalities and powers.”

Read the whole essay here.

The discovery of this Day manuscript is astonishing–for its historical resonance and insight into social activism. Day’s examination of hate politics from the perspective of her deeply rooted Catholicism provides us with clues for today. It forces the question: How do we bring scriptural reflection and the concerns of social justice to bear on the Tea-Partyers, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, and others who use hate as a political strategy to gain power?

I was particularly touched by the comments of one contemporary reader of Day’s article who wrote, “I am an 80 -year- old Jew who lived thru the 30s in New York, and my hard heart is melted at seeing for the first time that we had such a beloved advocate. Is that what makes a saint?”

Indeed, Dorothy Day is on the path to official canonization in the Catholic Church (read my article on that here), but papal process is not what makes her a saint. Her prophetic stance rooted in faith and the response of an 80-year-old Jewish woman are.

Letters and Writings from Prison

jagerstatterorbisFranz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings from Prison, edited and translated by Austrian theologian Erna Putz, has just been released by Orbis Books. This collection of writings by the Catholic Nazi resister Jagerstatter represents the first time his writings have been translated into English.

Jagerstatter was executed in 1943 for refusing to serve in the Nazi army. Before taking this stand he had consulted both his pastor and his local bishop, who instructed him to do his duty and to obey the law–an instruction that violated his conscience.

For many years Jagerstatter’s solitary witness was honored by the Catholic peace movement – his story saved from oblivion by Gordon Zahn who wrote about it in In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jagerstatter.

Now, with his beatification in 2007  (read my column On Becoming a Christian about Jagerstatter’s beatification), his example has been embraced by the universal church. He stands as one of the great martyrs of our time.

An introduction by Jim Forest, founder of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, sets these writings in the context of Franz’s life and times, and draws out their meaning for today. Here’s an excerpt from Jim’s introduction:

Franz Jägerstätter was one of the least likely persons to question the justifications for war being announced daily by those in charge or to say to no to the demands of his government. What did he know? And, for that matter, who would care about his perceptions? He was only a farmer. He had never been to a university or theological school. His formal education had occurred entirely in a one-room schoolhouse. Though active in his parish, which he served as sexton, he was not a person whose name would ring a bell for his bishop. No priest or bishop or theologian, no matter how critical of Nazi doctrine, was announcing it was a sin to obey the commands of the Hitler regime when it came to war. So far as he knew none of his fellow Catholics in Austria, even those who openly disagreed with Nazi ideology, had failed to report for military duty when the notice came.

How could so unimportant a person dare to have such important convictions? How could a humble Catholic farmer imagine he had a clearer conscience than those who led the Church in his homeland? And, in any event, didn’t his responsibility to his wife and children have priority over his views about war and government?

Read Jim’s full introduction here.