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Pope Francis Embraced the Most Subversive Voices in Modern American Catholicism


Pope Francis Embraced the Most Subversive Voices in Modern American Catholicism

Mike Scahill

I am not now nor have I ever been a journalist. I am however a practicing Catholic who has closely followed the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States. I must say I was stunned when my wife called me at work to tell me that the pope had referenced Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton in his remarks to Congress. The response was swift and immediate. Within seconds, Google searches numbered in the thousands. Who are these people? It did not take long for the spin to begin.


Thanks to Mr. Scahill for sharing his experiences with the Catholic Worker and Dorothy Day. Along with the Berrigans, Day and Merton are four of the most selfless dedicated souls in American social history. Sadly, hardly a Catholic I know, know of them.

Merton quotes:

"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time."

"Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone - we find it with another."

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”


Glad to know there is precedent to other seers noting the magnitude of Mars rules inside of the U.S.A:

"During the height of the Vietnam War, of which Merton was an early opponent, he wrote:

"The real focus of American violence is not in esoteric groups but in the very culture itself, its mass media, its extreme individualism and competitiveness, its inflated myths of virility and toughness, and its overwhelming preoccupation with the power of nuclear, chemical, bacteriological, and psychological overkill. If we live in what is essentially a culture of overkill, how can we be surprised at finding violence in it? Can we get to the root of the trouble? In my opinion, the best way to do it would have been the classic way of religious humanism and non-violence exemplified by Gandhi. That way seems now to have been closed. I do not find the future reassuring."


I watched Pope Francis live on the last day of his visit (CNN and CSPAN coverage) and was deeply touched. I was reared in the Catholic church until I was 12 when I refused to go to school (parochial) and/or church. The guilt and hypocrisy were too much although I missed the pageantry of the high holy day masses. (No amount of urging/threats/taking away privileges by my parents could change my decision.) I admire this Pope's candor and advocacy of the poor and the environment but his secret meeting with Kim Davis cast a pall over all the good he had done throughout the rest of his visit. Whoever set up that meeting should be ashamed and chastised by the Pope and School of Cardinals for the subterfuge involved. Wonder what Francis thought when he set eyes on Davis and then after she opened her mouth to speak...?

Mr. Scahill's tribute was enjoyable reading.


On the critical issue of poverty, and specifically on the issue of US poverty, dare I say that Pope Francis makes Democrats and liberals sound like corporate right-wingers in comparison?

Thank you for listening, and you may now resume your pep rally for the middle class alone.


If it was a secret meeting (with Kim Davis), I assume no one knows what was discussed. Pretty hard to make any judgements about it, then, isn't it? It can be wise to try to communicate with those who clearly hold views that are very different from your own. If nothing else, it at least expands your understanding of people in general, and that's certainly a core element of the pope's job.

I agree with everything I've heard Pope Francis specifically say about US poverty and our treatment of our own poor -- and the Catholic Church itself used to legitimately advocate for our poor and our former poverty relief programs. Jesus was pretty clear about our responsibilities to actually aid the poor, the elderly and the disabled. This doesn't a sell in post-Clinton America, however, and the Catholic Church must be financially practical. Urging modern Americans to stand up for the poor doesn't bring in the donations, as our liberal media figured out years ago. (Note: Here I must add that I'm Russian Orthodox, not Catholic, and my opinion here is based largely on media and on comments via a range of discussion boards.)


I first heard about Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day when I read James Douglass "JFK & The Unspeakable. Why he died and Why it Matters". Douglass confirmed that both JFK and RFK spent a long evening with Dorothy Day sometime in the 1950s. Merton also wrote long letters to one of JFK's sisters-in-law thus keeping the channels open. This fantastic book by Douglass was published by Orbis Books whose CEO is also a Catholic Socialist convert: he is Robert Ellsberg, son of Daniel (The Pentagon Papers). Everything is connected.
Douglass makes the case very strongly that JFK knew that he risked his own assassination by the CIA because he chose the road of Dialogue and Peace rather than war and confrontation. There was almost mutiny in the JCS after the successful defusion of the Bay of Pigs crisis rather than rejoicing that the world had stepped back from the abyss of mutually assured destruction. In RFK's "Thirteen Days", RFK recalled how JFK (referencing Lincoln) remarked that "Tonite would be a good nite to go to the theater". Bobby replied: "If you're going, I'm going with you." How prescient a remark in light of his own assassination in 1968 by the same dark forces of the Unspeakable. Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends (a.k.a. the rest of Humanity).


Whoops! Not Bay of Pigs!!! Cuban Missile Crisis.


I suspect the knowing of them comes from politics, not religion.

The RCC has never really been anything but another oppressive institution run by and for the support of psychopaths, with its Dorothy Days being grains of hopeful and hopeless diamond in a never-ending river of shite.

The way Woytyła shut down the Liberation Theology movement and helped cover up the predator-priest scandal, yet is being canonised, is exemplary of the RCC's real nature. Law, the Boston cardinal-archbishop who was one of the epicenters of the predator scandal, is still living pleasantly in Rome, while Dom Hélder Câmara was sacked by Woytyła for his public advocacy of episcopal simplicity and priestly activism on behalf of the people.

"By their fruits...."


Thanks, Mike, for your writings, feelings and your faith in this wonderful article. For years I lived and worked near the Worker and the Bowery, and participated in the clarification of thought (with sassafras tea! no more!). That day I stayed home and with my wife we sat down to hear the pope's speech. And when Francis started to name the 4 Americans... I started to cry the along with my wife. We could just not believe if it was real...
Thank you Mike for starting a dialogue about the meaning of being a Catholic to-day in America: spiritual and engaged in the reality of our unequal and unjust society.


Thanks, Mike, for sharing your story of your time with Dorothy and the Catholic Worker. Now folks can see where Jeremy came from and why he's such a fearless writer himself. You should do a lot more writing for Common Dreams and other venues!

After Pope Francis' marvelous mention of Dorothy, all of us who know her life in somewhat of a totality have to work hard to counter the spin doctors who want to sterilize her out of reality. I wish I had been able to interview you for my book published by Orbis: Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew her.

Again, thanks!


This was an interesting article. Clearly Mr. Scahill is something of an independent thinker; imagine titling an article in the Catholic Worker "Up From Nonviolence"! It is also impressive that they actually published it, and on the front page.

The author is right that there can be a tendency to "whitewash" saints, but one of his facts about the real Dorothy Day, the fact that she had an abortion before she converted to Catholicism, does not seem particularly telling. Day was very orthodox in her faith, and certainly repented of having done that. Unless I am mistaken, that must have been during the period of her life that she intentionally glossed over in her autobiography, writing that at that time she had not been planning to write such a book, and that she had done things she would not have done had she known she was going to be exposing her life story to the general public. For the most part she was quite candid about herself in The Long Loneliness; the fact that she left that episode out indicates she was ashamed of it.

In any event, had Bush known about the abortion (which he probably did not), do you think it would have made any difference? Should people be forever silenced because they have sinned? If that is the case, I myself ought to be forced to shut up.


The Berrigans really should not be considered as being in the same class as Merton and Day. For the latter two, their commitment to social justice flowed out of their faith. The Berrigans were chiefly rabble-rousers, explicitly trying to polarize society and anger people. It is not a coincidence that the Pope did not mention them in his speech.


Yes, the Berrigans should have just kept their revulsion of the slaughter in 3 million Indochinese - and a draft that involuntarily forced millions of USAns to participate in it, in pious, prayerful silence.


And it should be noted, right after Kim Davis, the Pope spoke with and hugged a gay former student and his partner from Argentina.


There is no question that Dan and Phil Berrigan should be mentioned in the same breath and revered for their courage and witness just as much as Day or Merton. Both men believed in and practiced non-violent opposition and both spent much time in jails and in prison for their principled resistance. Phil operated a Catholic Worker site in Baltimore for many years. I served prison time with him and Dan was my own first post-arrest visitor, when I was arrested for draft resistance. Each was a kind and thoughtful person and spoke strongly but calmly when addressing the moral issues before us. Rabble rousing was the farthest thing from their nature. If anything, Day, whom I also worked with, was more likely to express righteous anger strongly, than either of them.


It is interesting to hear from somebody who knew the people we are talking about personally. I do respect people who are willing to go to prison for their beliefs, and I do not doubt that both Berrigans were thoughtful and kind. It is also true, though, that they explicitly wanted to polarize people. Perhaps you did not personally see it, but they and those around them pushed with a "which side are you on?" kind of attitude. I know a guy who was pushed out because he would not fully declare himself to be in. I am also not sure that hiding out from the law, which at least Dan did for a period, is the same as being willing to go to prison for your views and actions. I am not sure that their activities at the Catonsville draft board, using homemade napalm to burn draft records, is entirely of a piece with non-violence, at least as I understand it. (Gandhi would have done no such thing.) Also, the government found in a letter, either by or to one of them (I cannot recall which), a consideration that bombing steam tunnels in NYC might be an appropriate way to get the message out in an unignorable way. Not non-violence, although, again, I am not sure whether that idea actually originated with a Berrigan, and it was certainly not carried out, in any event. I do not know what Dorothy Day thought of these things, but it seems clear that regardless of how she might have expressed herself with words, she did not engage in these kinds of activities. I would welcome your thoughts on these things. I am not "anti-Berrigan", although I do not admire them to the extent that I do Merton and Day, because I personally find their actions more questionable, less clearly rooted in faith and non-violence. Still, I admire them for their courage and the strength of their convictions.


Thanks for article Mike. One thing you didn't mention was Dorothy's strong commitment to tax resistance, and her understanding and commitment to Christian anarchy. She understood how complicit a voluntary tax payer is in the pursuit of state sponsored violence. We don't hear much about this anymore. Do you remember the "Free Karl Meyer" (Chicago tax resister) movement?