She admired, and understood, his Christmas visits to the troops in the far east. Cardinal Spellman had started going during the Korean War. The cardinal archbishop of New York served also as Military Vicar of the Armed Forces, and took the work seriously. The trips seem to have included, at least at first, some hardships and dangers, though it’s hard to know how much to believe the hagiographic coverage, because it was a time when newspapers published feel-good stories about clerics.
It was a Christmas tradition, for a while. The network television news ran happy stories about Catholic bishops and Protestant ministers out with the troops. They inevitably gave the impression not just that the pastors were out with their flock, but that they in some way supported or approved the war. Spellman was, and did, vocally.
“I have often thought it is a brave thing to do, these Christmas visits of Cardinal Spellman to the American troops all over the world, Europe, Korea, Vietnam,” Dorothy Day wrote of his 1966 visit to the troops in Vietnam. But it was another thing for him endorse the war, especially in the absolute way he did, and to ignore the pope’s call for peace. “My country right or wrong,” she reported him saying. He called for “nothing less than total victory” and declared “This is a war for civilization.”
One doesn’t have to agree with Day’s pacifism to find Cardinal Spellman’s language and goals unbecoming his station. It was more American than Catholic, and particularly inapt on Christmas. He tried to rally the troops with military promises, and not simply with the feast’s tidings of great joy, the message he had been ordained to bring them.
Day thought the cardinal’s declaration an embarrassment to the Church. She was right, and his words sound even worse fifty years later. People hold the Church in an “unconscious esteem,” she noted, as shown by how shocked people feel when Catholics don’t live up to their faith. Then she speaks about Spellman, quoting the lines above and saying: “It is heartbreaking to think how often we all dishonor God the Father of us all, by not acting as though we believed that God was Father of all, that all men are brothers. As St. Paul wrote, ‘Because of you, the name of God is dishonored among the Gentiles’.”
Words are as strong and powerful as bombs, as napalm. How much the government counts on those words, pays for those words to exalt our own way of life, to build up fear of the enemy. – Dorothy Day
It was a hard message, even for Day speaking against war. In the previous month’s issue, she’d already praised the cardinal’s actions and lamented his words: “What words are those he spoke — going against even the Pope, calling for victory, total victory? Words are as strong and powerful as bombs, as napalm. How much the government counts on those words, pays for those words to exalt our own way of life, to build up fear of the enemy.” Catholics know, or should know, that “since there is no time with God, we are all one, all one body, Chinese, Russians, Vietnamese, and He has commanded us to love another.”
Then she says what she almost always says whenever she’s spoken prophetically against someone in power, like the cardinal archbishop of New York. She switches from criticizing the cardinal to pointing out what God requires of us in the same situations as we experience them. She meant that “all” in “we all dishonor God.” The cardinal wasn’t the only one who had failed Him and embarrassed the Church.
She asked God to correct our failings: “Deliver us, Lord, from the fear of the enemy. That is one of the lines in the psalms, and we are not asking God to deliver us from enemies but from the fear of them. Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.” Each of us has a lot to do, “working on our own hearts, changing our own attitudes, in our own neighborhoods. … Prayer and fasting, taking up our own cross daily and following Him, doing penance, these are the hard words of the Gospel.”
A Witness for Peace
The one-time Catholic turned socialist Michael Harrington once told William F. Buckley, “When the history of America and Catholicism in the 1950s is written, Francis Cardinal Spellman will be a footnote and Dorothy Day will be a chapter.” Buckley responded, “Very funny, Michael, very funny.”
But Buckley was wrong. Spellman might still figure in a traditional institutional history. But he wouldn’t figure nearly so much as Day in a history of what really went on — as St. Dominic and St. Francis figure much more in histories of their day than any of the popes.
It grows ever harder to talk of love in the face of a scorning world. We have not begun to learn the meaning of love, the strength of it, the joy of it. – Dorothy Day
“Dorothy kept a pacifist witness at a time when there was practically nobody else doing it,” Harrington wrote. And not just a pacifist witness. She witnessed for the imperative priority of peace, reconciliation, unity, brotherhood, when the nationalistic passions natural to man encouraged division and hatred. She witnessed to the necessary skepticism about any state’s war aims. She said what Cardinal Spellman should have, whatever his politics.
Harrington noted that Day was at the lowest point of her influence in the mid-fifties, when she spoke about these things. Decades later, “[T]he bishops of the United States would write a pastoral letter on nuclear weapons and quote Dorothy Day. It turns out that Dorothy Day in 1952 was closer to what became the official position of the hierarchy than Spellman. Spellman is nowhere in there, ‘cause he was simply a cold warrior.”
To Talk of Love
Political issues aside, the birth of Christ requires a lot of us. What Spellman did wrong in his place we can do wrong in ours. “It grows ever harder to talk of love in the face of a scorning world. We have not begun to learn the meaning of love, the strength of it, the joy of it,” Day wrote in her Christmas time reflection, in the December 1950 issue of The Catholic Worker. “We are the little ones, and we can only pray to the saints of our days, the little saints, to disclose to us this hidden world of the Gospel, this Hidden God, this pearl of great price, this kingdom of heaven within us. It is only then can we learn about love and rejoicing, and it is the meaning of life and its reward.”
She continued: “We talk of one world, and our common humanity, and the brotherhood of man, of principles of justice and freedom which befits the dignity of man, but from whence does he derive this dignity but that he is the son of God?”
The one lesson which is reiterated over and over again is that we are one, we pray to be one, we want to love and suffer for each other, so let us pray and do penance in each little way that is offered us through the days, and God will then give us a heart of flesh to take away our heart of stone and with our prayers we can save all those dying each day, knowing that God will wipe away all tears from their eyes.
Lest these words which I write on my knees be scorned, know they are St. John’s words, the apostle of love, who lived to see “charity grow cold” and who never ceased to cry out “my children, love one another.”
It is the only word for Christmas when love came down to the mire, to teach us that love.
David Mills is the Senior Editor, US of the Catholic Herald.
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