Pope Francis goes to Washington (and brings Dorothy Day)

It’s always a terrible thing to come back to Mott Street. To come back in a driving rain, to men crouched in stairs, huddled in doorways, without overcoats because they sold them perhaps the week before when it was warm, to satisfy hunger and thirst, who knows. Those without love would say, ‘It serves them right, drinking up their clothes.’ God help us if we got just what we deserved.”[i]

– Dorothy Day

Let us remember the Golden Rule.

– Pope Francis to the American Congress

When the innovative and influential musician and thinker John Cage was a 14-year-old student at Los Angeles High School, he won the Southern California Oratorical Contest of 1926 with a speech that has a striking resonance for our own time.

After a critique of American capitalism and “its crazed congregation of Gold-Worshippers,” the young Cage envisioned a “great pause” in American affairs, a “moment of complete intermission, of undisturbed calm” in which they might really listen – to their own collective conscience as well as the neglected voices of others: “Then we should be capable of answering the question, ‘What ought we to do?’ for we should be hushed and silent, and we should have the opportunity to learn what other people think.”[ii]

Cage’s inherently religious proposal came to mind this morning as I watched Pope Francis speak to Congress. Compared to the noisy strife that currently dominates our legislative chambers, the papal talk felt like a hush of calm in which we might better hear both our consciences and one another. And in that “great pause,” we heard many themes which go largely unheard in our public life, from the common good to stopping the arms trade.

I was particularly struck by Francis’ choice of Dorothy Day as one of his four American exemplars. Everyone knows Lincoln and King, and many have at least heard of Thomas Merton. But Day, the feisty co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, is hardly a household name in America. Her deep commitment to social justice, non-violence and pacifism, her association with anarchists, communists, and intellectuals of the left, her outspoken advocacy for working people and the poor in the face of a rigged and predatory system, and her uncompromising commitment to gospel values would make her suspect even today. She was all about the imitation of Christ, and well aware of the consequences. She was jailed, shot at, and periodically investigated by the F.B.I. And though she was a devout Catholic in both theology and spiritual practice, she made some within the hierarchy very uneasy.

Although she has been called “the most influential, interesting, and significant figure in American Catholicism,”[iii] her own bishop kept his distance. After her death in 1980, he deflected requests to put forward her “cause” in the official process of saint-making. Nevertheless, the idea found other advocates. In 1983, the Claretian Fathers of Chicago announced a campaign to pursue her canonization as “a saint for our times.” Day herself would have protested. Refusing the domestication that comes with spiritual celebrity, she once said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be so easily dismissed.”

One of her granddaughters, Maggie Hennessy, sent a cease and desist message to the Claretians: “Take all your monies and energies that are being put into her canonization and give it to the poor. That is how you would show your love and respect to her.”[iv] And the Jesuit activist Dan Berrigan, who did his own share of jail time for Jesus, wrote a similar plea:

Abandon all thought of this expensive, overly juridicial process … Dorothy is a people’s saint, she was careful and proud of her dignity as layperson. Her poverty of spirit, a great gift to our age, would forbid the expensive puffing of baroque sainthood. Today her spirit haunts us in the violated faces of the homeless of New York. Can you imagine her portrait, all gussied up, unfurled from above the high altar of St. Peter’s? I say, let them go on canonizing canons and such. We have here a saint whose soul ought not be stolen from her people – the wretched of the earth.[v]

Day was a fitting addition to what television commentator Chris Matthews called the Pope’s “spiritual Mt. Rushmore.” And Francis’ address to Congress was masterful in its creation of an alternative space, an interval where so many critical issues, hopelessly deadlocked within the combative rigidity of American politics, could be thoughtfully reconsidered in terms of shared and agreeable ends: the common good, human flourishing, love of neighbor and welcome for the stranger.

And in this extraordinary rhetorical space, he even managed to lift up the much-maligned vocation of the politician:

Politics, he said, is “an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.”

Process theology describes a non-violent God who neither commands nor compels, a God who persuades and lures. Similarly, Pope Francis today was luring both leaders and public into a new kind of discourse, where the heartlessness, selfishness and folly so rampant in our public life seem – suddenly, laughably – quite out of place:

When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible … rejecting a mindset of hostility.

We must not be taken aback by [the refugees’] numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories.

It is time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a “culture of care” and “an integrated approach to combatting poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”[vi]

This was Francis’ “I have a dream” speech, and the public, the media and the politicians are all enjoying the high in its aftermath. Will it have any lasting effect? In the short term, there may be a few votes that go better than expected, but I don’t expect the House to hold hands and sing “Give Peace a Chance” anytime soon. Even if we were to renounce the toxic speech of recent years, democracy is rarely a love fest of common consensus, but rather what Chantal Mouffe calls an “agonistic pluralism.” Noting the constructive role of antagonism in public life, she argues that “a healthy democratic process calls for a vibrant clash of political positions and an open conflict of interests.”[vii] And yet, I do like the fact that Congress gave its biggest standing ovation today to the Golden Rule.

As for the long term, who knows? Conversion and formation are mostly undramatic processes, like corn growing in the night. Substantive change takes time. But the fact that Congress, and the country, paused to listen to such a sermon, to consider our common life in terms of transcendent values, does not seem insignificant. John Cage would have approved.

Personally, one of the probable outcomes that gives me the most pleasure is that many people are now going to Google “Dorothy Day,” and God only knows where that might lead.

[i] Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 179

[ii] Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: The Penguin Group, 2012), 26

[iii] Unattributed quote in Robert Ellsburg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), 519

[iv] Kenneth L. Woodward, Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1990), 32

[v] ibid., 35

[vi] Phrases in quotation marks taken from the encyclical, Laudato Si’

[vii] Mouffe is a Belgian political theorist quoted in Kevin Roberts, Into the Image: Culture and Politics in the Field of Vision (London & New York: Routledge, 1996), 102

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