Dorothy Day and Obamacare

Servant of God Dorothy Day is a fascinating woman, and a saint for the modern world.  Prior to her conversion, she was an outspoken Communist sympathizer who’d had two common-law marriages and an abortion.  Yet after the birth of her daughter, she began to take Catholicism seriously, and was Baptized and received into the Church in 1927.  Her conversion to Catholicism produced a marked change.  She remained, as before, committed to aiding the plight of the poor, and devoted a large portion of her life to this effect.  She also remained an unabashed foe of captialism and its excesses, supporting Distributivism instead.  But while her old views were being transformed by her conversion, they were joined by a rejection of the use of violent means to achieve social justice, a rejection of Marxism, and an outspoken support of the Church’s sexual ethic.  She was, without exception, pro-life, pro-marriage and pro-poor.

Like many of the saints, Dorothy was able to transcend the party politics of the day, with an ear towards the eternal.  As a practical matter, this meant that she found herself criticizing many of those who would present themselves as her allies.  On the one hand, Dorothy, once hailed by Abbie Hoffman as “the first hippie” was not shy about criticizing the “free love” ethos of the late 1960s.  But neither was she shy about criticizing the human rights abuses of Franco in Spain, even during an era in which many conservative Catholics supported him (either as the lesser of two evils or even as a defender of the Church, which he wasn’t).

Her refusal to simply tow the party line for one side or the other earned her many enemies, as it still does today (the most famous recent example being Glenn Beck’s attacks on her for supposedly being a Marxist: Christianity Today responds to that here).  But this refusal, born of her ability to move beyond the politics of the day to eternal truths, made her a prophetic voice like so many saints before her.  I was struck by this passage from a 1945 editorial she wrote for Catholic Worker, the newspaper she co-founded.  By way of context, the Social Securit Act was passed ten years earlier, in 1935:

We believe that social security legislation, now balled as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity. It is an acceptance of the Idea of force and compulsion. It is an acceptance of Cain’s statement, on the part of the employer. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Since the employer can never be trusted to give a family wage, nor take care of the worker as he takes care of his machine when it is idle, the state must enter in and compel help on his part. Of course, economists say that business cannot afford to act on Christian principles. It Is impractical, uneconomic. But it is generally coming to be accepted that such a degree of centralization as ours is impractical, and that there must be decentralization. In other words, business has made a mess of things, and the state has had to enter in to rescue the worker from starvation.

Of course, Pope Pius XI said that, when such a crisis came about, in unemployment, fire, flood, earthquake, etc., the state had to enter in and help.

But we in our generation have more and more come to consider the state as bountiful Uncle Sam. “Uncle Sam will take care of it all. The race question, the labor question, the unemployment question.” We will all be registered and tabulated and employed or put on a dole, and shunted from clinic to birth control clinic. “What right have people who have no work to have a baby?” How many poor Catholic mothers heard that during those grim years before the war!

Her clear-sighted vision is at once a stinging denunciation of both Democrats’ push for state-supported birth control and abortions, as well as Republicans’ demonization of poor women with lots of children, decades before words like “Obamacare” or “Welfare Queen” had ever been uttered.  In hewing to a Christian model that we should care for the poor, she made enemies of those who thought that the state should care for the poor, instead, and those who thought that the poor should just take care of themselves. 

She saw then that business and government are not the enemies that both laissez-faire capitalism and communism assumed them to be, that Big Business is all too happy to let the State take care of the broken worker.  She also foresaw that as Americans relied more and more on government for “charity,” it would cause them to lose their own autonomy, and decrease the responsibility citizens felt for those around them, and for the problems of the day.  And she foresaw that a government entrusted with making sure you can eat is a government in control of your life, and that this government is going to make demands about the number of children you can have. 

The question is raised, repeatedly: what would Dorothy Day have thought of last year’s healthcare legislation?  It’s answered well here, but I think she provides all the clues we need in the excerpt above.  She would have obviously recognized the need for healthcare coverage, to take care of the ill.  She would have been furious with major insurance companies, and all those who produce an excessive profit off of the sick and the dying.  But while she would have agreed with the Democrats on the problem, there’s no serious question that she would have rejected their solution.  She would have seen Obamacare as another attempt to shirk our Christian duties, to put the state in the shoes of the godly, and she would have railed against the strings attached: the federal funding for birth control and abortion. Her conclusion, it’s safe to say, would have been that like Social Security, it was a “great defeat for Christianity.”


  1. Of course, if one “agree[s] with the Democrats on the problem,” but doesn’t like the solution, it is not as if there were an unlimited range of choices offered. The American political process, for which we are collectively morally responsible and in which a disheartening number of our fellow citizens (and fellow Catholics) refuse to participate in, offered three choices: (a) The Democrats’ legislation that ultimately passed, (b) the Republican proposal which basically further de-regulated the health insurance industry; or (c) nothing.

    If inaction produced (c), why was that moral result?

  2. Because (c) is only “nothing” if you start with the assumption that salvation must come through the State, an assumption which, given the State’s track record, is at least questionable.

    Dorothy Day’s entire life is testament that when we stop putting our trust in princes (Psalm 146:3), and starting providing for the needs of others out of our abundance (2 Cor. 8:14) and even out of our poverty (Mark 12:44), amazing things can happen.

    Just compare the track records of the US and EU on foreign aid. The EU gives much more state aid than the US (we give next to nothing). But this comes at a sharp cost: individuals give next to nothing in foreign aid in the EU, and give immensely more in the US. So our total giving is much higher than theirs, even though (and really, because) our government gives very little. We have a political system in which one party says don’t give, and the other says that the state should give with your money. Neither of those are Christian solutions.

    There are numerous ways for individuals to effect change without waiting for the State in the areas of caring for the sick, giving to the poor, etc. Like Dorothy Day suggested, there is a place for the state as a last resort. But when we cease to think of the State as the last resort, and start thinking of them as the only resort, and the appropriate actor, we’ve failed as Christians, and we’ve failed as a people who enjoy liberty and autonomy.

  3. None of (a), (b) or (c) are individual actions and the selection among them does not preclude the moral responsibility of individuals, despite the EU behavior you cite. (And I seem to recall Ireland bucked that trend, at least historically.)

    The question is what among the options available for COLLECTIVE action was the moral choice. Collective INaction, of course, is arguably the moral choice. And, of course you’re arguing that point.

    However, direct aid (which is your analogy) is something that can efficiently be provided individually or collectively, while insurance is by its nature a collective activity only (as for that matter is regulation/deregulation. Doing nothing in this context really does mean doing nothing, not simply getting our of the way so that individuals of their own accord can do something.

  4. Michael,

    Sorry for the delay in responding. Private action is possible with insurance, and the primary negotiators with insurance carriers are corporations providing employee healthcare. Dorothy Day would certainly demand, in keeping with her criticisms in the post above, that companies bargain on behalf of their employees. Unlike with a faceless State monolith, this is still an interpersonal relationship. Beyond that, my guess is that she’d encourage those involved in the medical profession – doctors, etc., – to simply act as healers rather than economic units. The whole argument about insurance and state involvement is rendered largely irrelevant if individuals would just step up with time, talent, and treasure to care the sick.

    But given that one of her major fears was that state involvement would lead to birth control and abortion, I’m quite sure she would have opposed Obamacare, since these risks are so very real in this context. Given the choice to do evil (provide b.c./abortions at taxpayer expense) so that good (insurance coverage, I guess?) could come about, is there any question that she’d reject that impulse?

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