NEW YORK — Dorothy Day was once considered by the FBI as a “dangerous American,” but the Catholic Church may one day soon declare her to be a saint.
In his new documentary film, Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story, filmmaker Martin Doblmeier takes a new look at why the 20th century social activist and author was one of the most polarizing public figures in her lifetime to now but is now considered a hero to Catholics on both the left and the right.
The film includes new interviews with the likes of Hollywood star Martin Sheen, Day’s family members, Senator Tim Kaine, and dozens of others who were personally shaped by her ministry.
Doblmeier spoke with Crux about why he believes Day was “one of the most outspoken Catholic conscience for America in the 20th century,” how her activism was shaped by her own experience as a journalist, and who he believes are the Dorothy Day’s of our time.
Crux: Plenty of ink has already been spilt on Dorothy Day. What made you decide to make her the subject of a new documentary?
Doblmeier: Without question, Dorothy Day was one of the most courageous and inspiring women of the 20th century. I first came to know about her in the mid-1970’s when I was a young writer at the Catholic newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island and we often reported stories about Day in our newspaper. I admired her then and my admiration has only grown over the years.
During the process of making the film I have thought often about the courage it took for a young woman to open houses of hospitality for the poor during the Great Depression — how many desperate people would show up at the door everyday. How can you not admire her inner strength and personal conviction?
Over these last many weeks leading up to the start of the broadcast of the film I have been traveling the country doing public screening events. What has been gratifying is to hear people say how much “we need Dorothy Day’s voice today.” The way she lived the Beatitudes without compromise, the way she rose to become the greatest champion for the poor of her day, and how she welcomed the stranger in her midst makes her a model of faithful living that we rarely see today. She embodied the prophetic life and lived it radically.
You’re a journalist yourself. How did Day’s own experience at a journalist shape and inform her activism?
One of reasons I am personally drawn to Dorothy Day is because she was a journalist. In journalism school we were always encouraged to remain detached from our subjects so we could keep some hope of objectivity. But Dorothy Day approached her journalistic talents as a way to champion the cause of the disenfranchised. Over a half century the newspaper she founded, The Catholic Worker, always spoke truth to power. She was unflinching in her demands for justice and fairness in the name of the powerless.
Day never once voted in a U.S. election but she believed Catholics should be deeply involved in political life. Why did she refrain from extending this activism to the ballot box?
In the process of making the film one of the great surprises was to learn throughout her life Dorothy Day never voted. That was even after she joined the suffragette movement and was even jailed and beaten for participating in public marches.
But while she never voted, throughout her long life she was always politically active. When I asked family members how Day lived with that contradiction no one could offer a viable explanation. Dorothy Day was clearly the most outspoken Catholic conscience for America in the 20th century yet she did it without participating at the ballot box. She did think of herself as an anarchist, so I can only assume that while you castigate the power structures you can’t at the same time support them with your vote.
You chronicle the fact that early on no members of the U.S. hierarchy wanted to associate with her and some actively tried to silence her, but by the time she died, bishops were in attendance at her funeral and now Cardinal Timothy Dolan is leading the effort for her canonization. When did this shift and why?
Dorothy Day was a controversial figure in her day and today remains a thorn in the side of many. I have already received emails from people upset with me for doing a film on someone with known communist sympathies. I can only imagine how much pressure she felt during her own times, particularly during World War II when so many turned away from the Worker Movement because of its pacifist position.
Saints are much easier to recognize and celebrate through an historical lens than when they are right in our midst. Those who challenge us and break us out of our comfort zones, don’t make life easy for themselves or those around them. But looking back, we often recognize how courageous they really were.
I think that while the hierarchy was often reluctant to stand beside Day and the Catholic Worker a few generations ago, Dorothy Day herself has stood the test of time. I think the Church leadership is now squarely on her side, recognizing her prophetic voice. I think there is universal support for her canonization. Imagine, a former communist sympathizer, mother of a child born out of wedlock, who was arrested eight times and spent much of her life the FBI watch list as a “dangerous American” being named a saint. That is a leap of faith.
Day wasn’t an immigrant herself but she had a deep passion for welcoming migrants. What’s responsible for this aspect of her ministry?
Dorothy Day was brilliant in her simplicity and didn’t tend to overthink situations. The description that comes up again and again is that she was “instinctive” in her response to the needs around her. If she saw a hungry person, she fed them. She simply did what she felt God was calling her to do.
And when she looked into the eyes of the many immigrants who flooded into the Catholic Worker houses, especially during the Great Depression, she saw in their eyes the face of God. It was that simple. And then instinctively responding to their basic needs becomes not only social work but an expression of faith.
What did you learn about her in the process of making this documentary that surprised you?
Surprises usually come in two forms: good ones and bad. One of the good surprises was in re-reading much of Dorothy’s written work and I was reminded what a potent writer she was. Whether it was for her books or countless articles — she was always clear, succinct and forceful — the hallmarks of good journalism.
But another surprise for me was to learn that not only did she refuse to vote but she refused to pay federal taxes. Dorothy Day was fearful her federal tax monies would go to supporting America’s military machine and she would have none of it. Not only did she refuse to pay taxes but she was publicly defiant about it.
As someone who struggles every year to pay my own taxes, I take issue with that form of resistance. Dorothy Day’s great mentor, Peter Maurin, often talked about building a new world “within the shell of the old.” But someone has to pay to support that outer shell.
When you survey the American religious landscape today, who are the Dorothy Day’s of our own time?
Two years ago I did a film on the great public theologian of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr. When I did public screenings with that film I always asked the audience “who are the Reinhold Niebuhrs of our day.” Very few names surfaced. The same may be true with Dorothy Day — there may never be another quite like her.
But I do admire the work of Sister Norma Pimentel at the U.S.-Mexico border who is doing something very much in the spirit of Dorothy Day — meeting the immediate needs of the disenfranchised. And Sister Simone Campbell of Network reflects that political savvy and courage to speak truth to power that Dorothy Day expressed so well. Hopefully the film will help surface new Dorothy Day’s already in our midst and even inspire a new generation of service in the spirit of her legacy.
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.