Pope Francis’ Call for Social Activism Follows in the Footsteps of Other “Radical” Catholics

By Patrick O’Neill

In the wake of Pope Francis’s visit last month, controversy continues to swirl. Some Catholics wish the pope had focused primarily on what they feel is the most important issue for the Catholic church – abortion. Others applaud him for covering a broad variety of global issues. The LGBT community is upset by his private meeting with Kim Davis. Conservatives are frustrated by the choice of a gay man for a lector at the mass at Madison Square Garden.

But in one area, Catholics are united. Ever since Pope Francis mentioned two rarely heard of Catholic leaders along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln to Congress, Catholics have been intrigued by the social activists their own history seemed to forget.


Perhaps it’s because the two leaders – Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day – were branded as troublemakers in their day and misunderstood, as the current pope often is. Merton passionately opposed war, segregation, nuclear arms building and social injustice in general. Day founded the Catholic Worker movement and opened the first Catholic Worker House, a place of refuge for those without hope who lived in Manhattan’s Bowery area. A pacifist arrested often for nonviolent action, she was considered too radical in her pro-worker, anti-government and anti-war views for the church to take seriously. Yet still she published The Catholic Worker newspaper, supporting workers’ rights and civil rights, decrying World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars and spotlighting the difficult lives of the poor. Both Merton and Day had to endure almost constant efforts, primarily from fellow Catholics, to stifle a message considered “radical” – how important love was at a time in history when the world’s focus was on war. “Our problems,” Day insisted, “stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.”

Though Francis mentioned Day’s “social passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed” in his address to Congress, he didn’t mention exactly how revolutionary she was in her day. “She was the first to condemn Hiroshima. She helped with the burning of draft cards,” says Kathy Boylan of the Catholic Worker house in Washington, D.C. Day even stated that “unused buildings owned by the church are crimes calling out for vengeance.” Yet now, Boylan says, “They want to rewrite her story, to make her less radical.”

Confronting Challenges and Challenging Individuals

Pope Francis has what Merton and Day had – a dedication to encouraging people to think in new ways about the teachings of the church in light of today’s burning issues. But what does this mean practically for the average person? According to a study released in June, the Catholic population of the world has increased by 57 percent between 1980 and 2012. In 2012, there were 1.2 billion Catholics. Rallied by the challenging voice of Pope Francis, that means “1.2 billion Catholics [are] now firmly in the camp of those who say climate change is man-made” – not to mention the other challenging, uncomfortable topics on which he speaks widely, including the sanctity of life, the cost of war and the urgent need to assist the poor.

Add to that the Pew Research Center survey released last month – 28 percent of Americans, and 22 percent of non-Catholics, stated they viewed the Catholic Church more positively after the pope’s visit – and clearly a lot of people are paying attention. For the world, in general, the spotlight has been turned on to acknowledge, seek and create change in multiple growing areas of social concern.

But is the pope’s rallying call enough to forge working bonds between disparate groups, including Catholics and non-Catholics, LGBT and “traditional family” supporters? After all, as Dorothy Day claimed, what will endure are “the little works we do.” Pope Francis concurred, in his address to the Joint Session of Congress:

“Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. … Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for common good.”

But exactly how we do so is still to be determined. Perhaps Dorothy Day said it best in her book “Loaves and Fishes,” originally published in 1963: “The biggest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution that has to start with each one of us.”Φ

Patrick O’Neill and his wife, Mary Rider, are cofounders of Garner’s Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House, an intentional pacifist, Christian community that offers hospitality to people in crisis.

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