Pope Honors Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, But FBI Sure Doesn’t

CIA Classification Practices Challenged
September 24, 2015
George Friday Workshop
September 28, 2015

After the Pope honored four Americans—Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton many Americans asked the question: who are Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton? Dorothy Day was a longtime American peace and social justice activist. Before her conversion to Catholicism, Day spent time in the New York City’s burgeoning radical political scene working alongside radicals of nearly every stripe—syndicalist, socialists, and anarchists. After her religious awakening, Day, along with Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker Movement, which embraced pacifism, anarchism, and a commitment to nonviolently changing a society based on economic inequality. As part of this mission, Day and the Catholic Worker movement opened houses of hospitality which provided food and shelter to the poor, communal farms, and protested against war and in favor of trade union rights. Day famously joined Caesar Chavez during the struggle for farmworker union rights.

While many admired Day’s work for social justice, she also ruffled feathers not just in the Church hierarchy, but also in the United States government. J. Edgar Hoover despised Day calling her an “erratic and irresponsible person.” Hoover was particularly offended that Day, “maintains a very hostile and belligerent attitude toward the Bureau and makes every effort to castigate the FBI whenever she feels so inclined.” The FBI followed suit by spying on Day for decades, collecting a particularly thick file on her, and recommending Day be detained in the event of national emergency. It is not just Day’s legacy that lives on. The FBI’s legacy of repression continues on, as well. A 2010 Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report on FBI investigations of “domestic advocacy groups” contains an entire chapter revealing FBI investigations of the Catholic Worker movement. These are not investigations from the 1930s or the Hoover era, but from the early 2000s. The report showed that the FBI routinely investigated non-violent civil disobedience committed by Catholic Worker activists as domestic terrorism and even monitored a Catholic Worker rally. It is not just on the federal level that the Catholic Worker movement faces continued repression. The Maryland State Police Department infiltrated anti-war and anti-death penalty groups. Police found no evidence of any criminal activity, yet dozens of non-violent activists ended up in a crime database, their activities labeled: “Terrorism-Anti Govern[ment], and  “Terrorism – Anti-War Protestors” The local Catholic Worker house was amongst those targeted. Catholic Worker activists have most recently incurred the ire of the state in Syracuse, New York.  Syracuse is the site of the Hancock Military Base—where drone attacks are carried out. Peace activists have gravitated to the base to engage in peaceful protest, including non-violent civil disobedience, against US drone policy. The local judiciary, instead of safeguarding the First Amendment, has instead tried to shield the military base. A local judge has issued orders of protection against the activists. Usually orders of protection are for victims of domestic violence, but in this case the activists, mostly devout pacifists, are told to stay away from the base commander Colonel Earl Evans. Colonel Evans has stated that the purpose of the orders is to keep protestors away from the base.

Thomas Merton was a convert to Catholicism and a Trappist Monk who wrote several bestselling books. Merton, who was referred to by Daniel Berrigan as the conscience of the peace movement, was a strong supporter of nonviolent protest, especially civil rights activism. To honor his commitment the “Pittsburgh Center for Peace and Social Justice,” founded in 1972 to foster anti-Vietnam War activism, is named the “Thomas Merton Center.” Much like the Catholic Worker movement, the Thomas Merton Center is of interest to the FBI. In 2002, an FBI agent attended a peace rally held by the Thomas Merton Center and photographed a “woman of Middle East descent.” When asked about this at a Congressional hearing, then FBI-director Robert Mueller testified that the FBI agent attended the rally, because the FBI believed a terrorism suspect would be present. An OIG report (the same one reference above) concluded that this statement was “factually inaccurate and misleading.” Pope Francis told Congress

In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.

What is also true is that whenever social concerns become important, so too does the need to confront state repression. Just as the legacy of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton lives on, so too does the legacy of state repression—which Day experience in her own time and activists in the tradition of Day and Merton continue to face.