Archbishop Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day (1897-1980) are like photographic negatives—mirror images in some respects; and still quite diametrically opposite! Both are heroes of progressive Catholics (the National Catholic Reporter recently mused: “We sometimes ponder who has gotten the most coverage from NCR over the years, Dorothy Day or Oscar Romero. Probably about even”), but the popular hagiography often glosses over their differences. (See also, Marie Dennis, A Retreat With Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day: Walking With the Poor, Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1997.) Their contrasts make Romero’s and Day’s commitment to social justice the more astonishing, and bolster and confirm their stands because they are reached through such opposite trajectories.
Both ended up becoming icons of Catholic social justice and held similar views, but they reached these positions through widely diverging paths. It can be said that Dorothy Day found Catholicism through social justice and that Oscar Romero found social justice through Catholicism. That Day was a rebel who got religion; and, Romero, a believer who stood up to the status quo. Both paths have been described as going through a “conversion,” but from different angles. In Day’s case, her “conversion” was “from a life akin to that of the pre-converted Augustine of Hippo:” she started out as a non-believer; she cavorted with “communists, socialists, and anarchists;” she even had an abortion. (Cardinal John J. O'Connor, “Dorothy Day’s Sainthood Cause Begins,” March 16, 2000.) Archbishop Romero’s trajectory was a study in the hermeneutics of obedience: he went from “operating out of a model of assistance and incipient promotion of human flourishing” to making a “qualitative leap with regard to social commitment,” because he felt that was what the Church wanted him to do. (Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodriguez Maradiaga, “Monsignor Romero: A Bishop for the Third Millennium”—Compare Cardinal O’Connor’s statement about Day: “her life is a model for all in the third millennium, but especially for women who have had or are considering abortions...”)
Dorothy Day grew up as an activist. (C. K. Robertson, A Dangerous Dozen: Twelve Christians Who Threatened the Status Quo But Taught Us to Live Like Jesus, Woodstock: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2011.) As a young person, Day lived in the Bohemian Lower East Side of New York, where she worked on the staffs of socialist publications after dropping out of school. Day was living in a common law marriage and was “[m]ade pregnant by a man who insisted she have an abortion, who then abandoned her anyway.” (O’Connor, “On the Idea of Sainthood and Dorothy Day.”) Having grown up with ambivalent religious instruction, Day saw herself as an agnostic, but she was drawn to Roman Catholicism, finally being baptized at age 30. After formally joining the Church, Day “proved a stout defender of human life,” and she “chided those who wanted to join her in her works of social justice, but who, in her judgment, didn't take the Church seriously enough, and didn't bother about getting to Mass.” (O’Connor, id., supra.)
Romero, on the other hand, was always the consummate churchman. “Monsignor Romero chose as the theme of his episcopate Sentire cum Ecclesia.” (Rodriguez, supra.) Romero chose this motto early in his career “specifically” because it denoted “unconditional adherence to the [Church] hierarchy.” (Romero, “Aggiornamento,” San Miguel diocesan paper, January 15, 1965.) As late as the 1970’s, Romero made an impression for “his profound piety, his simplicity, and his humility.” (Rodriguez.) Being in this modest man’s presence, one would have “no idea that [one] was in the presence of someone who would eventually become the most famous Salvadoran” and “perhaps the most beloved martyr of the twentieth century.” (Id.) According to Romero’s closest collaborators, Romero’s evolution, “was not a conversion in the usual sense of the term, of turning from the wrong path onto the correct path,” but, “it was, rather, the constant seeking of the will of God that led him to face bravely the structural sin that was crushing the little ones of his dear country.” (Id.) His process was “the natural evolution of those who live in a permanent state of conversion in total openness to God and neighbor.” (Id.)
In the end, both Day and Romero end up in about the same place—orthodox (Romero was, and Day became) but unconventional (Day was, and Romero became). “[R]adical though she was,” Day’s “respect for and commitment and obedience to Church teaching were unswerving.” (O’Connor, “On the Idea...”) This combination of faith and activism can lead nonbelievers and believers who cannot grasp the fervor in this mix to question its fidelity to the Church. “It has also been noted that Dorothy Day often seemed friendly to political groups hostile to the Church,” but “she was neither a member of such political groupings nor did she approve of their tactics” or beliefs contrary to Church teaching, even if she shared with them “a common respect for the poor and a desire for economic equity.” (O’Connor, “Sainthood Cause,” supra.) Of course, the same things can be said and, in fact, have been said about Romero (and are the ongoing subject of discussion in this blog).
Similarly, both Day and Romero take up and defend the cause of the poor. The juxtaposition of Romero as an “advocate” and Day as an “activist” (Robertson, supra.) is true in part, but it can lead us to overlook the fact that Day was persuasive in her outspokenness in defense of the poor and therefore was an advocate, too; and that Romero promoted particular projects to benefit the poor, which can be considered “activism” on his part. Romero promoted his Archdiocese’s Legal Aid Office, recruiting law students and lawyers to fact check the content of his homilies regarding human rights and to provide assistance in dire cases that no one else would take or that authorities denied having knowledge about. (One of these law student volunteers—Florentín Melendez—now sits on the Salvadoran Supreme Court.) Romero supported the Mothers of the Disappeared. He boycotted all government functions in protest of political repression. He counseled conscientious politicians, criticized unscrupulous ones and lobbied on pending or proposed legislation. In short, Romero was not all talk. As for Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement also was an author: “Her books and books about her and her Movement continue to be reprinted due to demand. The University of Marquette which holds her papers, letters, notes, etc., reports frequent visitors and researches.” (O’Connor, “Sainthood Cause,” supra.)
The contrast in Archbishop Romero’s and Dorothy Day’s personalities can even be seen in their attitudes toward their own sainthood. Discussing threats against his life two weeks before his assassination, Archbishop Romero said that “martyrdom is a grace of God that I do not think I deserve”—adding that he would accept it, if it came, and offered it for the good of his people. (Rodriguez, supra.) Day was more curt on the subject: “Don't call me a saint,” she famously said: “I don't want to be dismissed so easily.” (Day and Romero both died in 1980.)
Cardinal O’Connor’s words about Day can be applied to both her and Romero:
There are some who believe that [she] was indeed a living saint, that the cause of canonization need not therefore be processed ... But why does the Church canonize saints? In part so that their person, their works, their lives will become that much better known and that they will encourage others to follow in their footsteps. And, of course, that the Church may say formally and officially—‘This is sanctity, this is the road to eternal life, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, to love every human person made in the image and likeness of God.’(“On the Idea...”)