A Gathering Voices Post by TheThoughtfulChristian.com Team
Dorothy Day and other Catholic workers saw voluntary poverty as a “spiritual weapon” in the quest for peace. Voluntary poverty and pacifism are ways to resist or protest a culture invested in death. The choice to live on the margins, for them, was a powerful one. They found that it required a person to depend radically on God, and that helped them better understand the message of Jesus: “Therefore do not worry, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31).
Thomas Merton, well-known Trappist monk, poet, spiritual social activist, and popular religious author greatly respected Day and the Catholic Worker movement. He described Dorothy Day’s understanding of poverty in this way in a letter to the editor who had sent proofs of Loaves and Fishes for him to review: “Poverty for Dorothy Day is more than a sociological problem; it is also a religious mystery.” Day herself characterized the paradoxical nature of poverty with these words: “I condemn poverty and I advocate it; poverty is simple and complex at once; it is a social phenomenon and a personal matter.” To be clear, however, let us remember that Day was never sentimental about poverty; she never romanticized it.
Day was well aware that when people in poverty asked for bread, they were too often handed stone. They were “betrayed by their teachers and their political leaders” and “robbed of their skills and made tenders of the machine.” She abhorred economic systems and structures that force people into poverty. She denounced the “head in the sand” approach of those who deny that their actions contribute to the poverty of others and deny those persons’ full worth and human dignity. Day knew that living without access to basic necessities such as healthy food, clean water, sanitation, housing, education, and life-sustaining work leads to chronic instability and oftentimes social exclusion.
Yet Day and her colleagues found voluntarily renouncing material wealth to be liberating. Such voluntary or “holy” poverty turns one’s attention away from accumulating material things and focuses it on Christ. Resources of both time and talent are freed to be shared with others. Day observed, “It is only if we love poverty that we are going to have the means to help others. If we love poverty we will be free to give up a job, to speak when we feel it would be wrong to be silent.” The practice of voluntarily renouncing one’s worldly goods fosters an environment in which people can share and eliminates the social distance that material wealth creates between human beings.
Voluntarily choosing poverty was an act of solidarity; a form of peaceful, active, non-violent resistance to the social and economic inequality, racism, sexism, and consumerism that characterized U.S. society in the early twentieth century. Practicing poverty also breaks down the walls erected between people by social class. In an article on “Poverty and Pacifism” Day said that voluntary poverty “means non-participation in those comforts and luxuries which have been manufactured by the exploitation of others … while our brothers [and sisters] suffer from lack of necessities, we will refuse to enjoy comforts.”
In the Catholic Worker “houses of hospitality,” voluntary poverty works to equalize power. There is no power difference between the served and the servers. Dorothy had the view that the Catholic Worker movement was not the same as philanthropy or “charity” which sets social class distinctions in stone. Catholic Workers sought to escape the condescending tone of “charity” by taking on poverty themselves and continuing to give out of their own poverty. Everyone was responsible for every task–from editing the paper to cleaning the toilets.
Want to learn more about Dorothy Day? Check out these resources: