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Catholic Re-Visions

Moscow Mary: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Surveillance Ecosystem

This essay reflects on intra-Catholic antagonisms and state-sponsored surveillance throughout the McCarthy era as a tool for considering the hazards of allowing the state to define categories and respectable means of political dissent.

There is also reported information to the effect that Dorothy Day is a Russian who came to the United States and visited Chicago, Illinois, in the spring of 1939, where she attempted to interest people in Communist activities, also doing the same work in the Harlem section of New York City. … Information has been received to the effect that Dorothy Day is presently editor and publisher of the “Catholic Worker,” 115 Mott Street, New York City, and that in July-August, 1940, an article appeared opposing the compulsory military training bill.

An official of the Catholic Church advised in 1941 that the “Catholic Worker” had no official connection with or sanction of the Catholic church and that the Church had not been interviewed with regard to permission to use the name “Catholic Worker” for a news publication.

There have recently been received several complaints from various individuals criticizing the unpatriotic tendencies expressed in the “Catholic Worker” and alleging it to be of a seditious nature.

Very truly yours,

John Edgar Hoover


J. Edgar Hoover to Wendell Berge (26 January 1943), Dorothy Day FBI Files (1205532-0-62-HQ-61208).

By the time J. Edgar Hoover penned this memo to Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge on January 26, 1943, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker had already been under FBI observation for at least three years. As early as December of 1940, Day had been identified as a Russian agent, dispatched to the United States the previous year in the interest of seducing Americans with insurrectionist Communist propaganda. Within four months, Hoover had marked Day for “custodial detention” in the event of a national emergency, as part of a program accompanying a broad expansion of FBI powers and resources (from a budget of $8.7 million to $14.7 million between ’40 and ’41; ability to wiretap, commit break-ins, employ confidential informants, and compile hearsay testimony) (14).  Among the suspicious activities chronicled in the Catholic Worker movement’s dossier were its commitment to voluntary poverty, the operation of a “Catholic flophouse and commune” in SoHo, and “stirring up the negro question” – but what really caught Hoover’s attention was the Worker’s vocal opposition to US militarism, the draft in particular. As one of the emergent Catholic Left’s most prominent antiwar mouthpieces, Day penned numerous essays lambasting the war machine in the pages of The Catholic Worker newspaper, including a 1940 pledge to oppose the Selective Training and Service Act, which Franklin Delano Roosevelt had signed into law that September.  

In the early years of World War II, the tail-end of the Worker’s first decade of existence, the FBI puzzled extensively over exactly what manner of organization the Catholic Worker actually was. Was Dorothy Day a Soviet spy working a deep cover assignment to foment unrest among unsuspecting American Catholics? Were the Catholic Worker’s constellation of hospitality houses all part of a long con to destabilize the reliably jingoistic mid-century Church? The Catholic Worker newspaper, the community’s primary propaganda organ, published seemingly “anti-American” essays and op-eds “giving praise, in a way, to the Jap people.” With all its malintent, this period of searching within the FBI highlighted the Catholic Worker’s peculiar synthesis of political commitments. From the time of Day’s conversion, she became strange to friend and foe alike – neither fish nor fowl. Her radical comrades were alarmed that she would voluntarily join the world’s most hierarchical denomination of Christianity, while she found everyday Church life orders of magnitude less compelling than her romantic imagination had anticipated. In the Catholic Worker, Day carved out her own place of belonging, and soon found she could build a community around her fusion of supernaturalism and uncompromising politics. 

The self-appointed civilian informants that reported on Day seemed to be always and everywhere themselves committed Catholics, concerned about the Catholic Worker as a kind of Cold War “enemy within.” To a person they were at pains to make it known that they were bona fide “papist patriots” (to borrow a turn of phrase from Maura Jane Farrelly), and their almost comically earnest letters address Hoover with real – if imaginary – intimacy. Informants in the early 40s complained that the Catholic Worker seemed to be conspiring with suspicious French Canadians, were sympathetic to Japan, and were generally “doing Hitler’s work for him here.”[1] In 1948, the Georgie Porgie cereal company in Council Bluffs, Iowa penned a note, alerting Hoover to the “communistic propaganda” being spread in the pages of the Worker. As often happened, Georgie Porgie included a copy of the offending newspaper, and assured the FBI director that it would assuredly take action to cancel its subscription.[2] In an interview with a New York office special agent, Dorothy Day was described as a “violent Pacifist” by a former seminarian, while a local monsignor confessed that he did “not feel that she is smart enough to prevent the Communist Party from using her publication as a front for their activities.”[3] A Holy Cross undergrad even wrote Hoover to solicit help with a term paper on Day, asking for his expert opinion on Day’s status as a Communist.[4] Hoover (or at least his ghostwriter) responded that he could neither confirm nor deny the claim. One dour vigilante judged Day to be both seditious and apostate:“I place my country first and I believe that here is a nest of people that are using the Church as window dressing to carry on a thing that is quite sinister. … Personally I don’t like it a bit.”[5]

Although the narrative of the long road of white Catholic upward mobility that culminated in JFK’s 1960 presidential election is mythmaking, it may be useful highlighting Dorothy Day’s contrast to the ecosystem of aspirational northeastern Catholic life. College students, ex-seminarians, clergy, and businessmen reported on the Catholic Worker to FBI special agents with last names like Fitzgerald and Malley. A onetime Presbyterian Sunday school teacher, the avowedly Catholic-positive Hoover found common cause with Cold Warrior bishops like the popular Catholic televangelist Fulton J. Sheen, foreshadowing contemporary ecumenical partnerships against reproductive justice. Sheen was a crusader who shared Hoover’s anxieties about the threat of radical contagion spreading within the homeland. The close ties between the FBI and Catholic Church during the Hoover years – at least until things began to unravel during the Vietnam War – have been chronicled as an outgrowth of a reactionary spiritual affinity:

As director, J. Edgar Hoover exercised absolute control over the ideology and values of the bureau, and his worldview was traditional and conservative. He saw crime and subversion as a moral, as opposed to a social, problem, caused by lack of character, and in countless speeches and articles he called for a return to traditional values—discipline, hierarchy, hard work, family, faith, and country. This conservative ideology aligned Hoover and the bureau with like-minded conservative Catholic prelates. During the 1930s and 1940s Hoover established friendly relations with a number of bishops based on shared antimodernist, anticommunist, and patriarchal values. These were mutually beneficial friendships in which the bureau disseminated information and services and the bishops provided intelligence and public support for the FBI.

Johnson and Weitzman, 111. See also Steve Rosswurm, The FBI and the Catholic Church, 1935-1962

One of these magisterial friends that Hoover invested in was, unsurprisingly, New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman. For hawkish Catholics like Spellman, as for Hoover, the war against Communism was a supernatural endeavor, and it engendered inter-denominational cooperation a full two decades before the Second Vatican Council, with the FBI serving as a nexus point. The war against Communism also conscripted patriotic Catholics into policing the boundaries of sedition and heresy as inquisitors defending both the nation and Catholicism’s anticommunist purity.

Of all the Catholic Worker’s persistent scandals, its intransigent pacifism was the most odious to FBI informants. Eight years before Day anathematized Universal Military Training as “preparation for sin” in the bluntly-titled “We Are Un-American: We Are Catholics,” she had helped form the Association of Catholic Conscientious Objectors. The ACCO sponsored alternate service options for draftees – mostly famously Gordon Zahn, who would serve as a consultant for the US Bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace, but was roundly mocked for his pacifist organizing by Baltimore archbishop Michael Curley back in 1945. Paired with Day’s essay in the April 1948 edition of the Worker was an incendiary essay by Pittsburgh priest John J. Hugo titled “The Immorality of Conscription,” which generated a flurry of FBI reports, as informants judged him to be “following the Communist line of thought and… entirely contrary to the policies of the Catholic Church.”[6] This was, in some ways, full circle for Hugo, given that his May 1943 essay “Catholics Can Be Conscientious Objectors” was one of the first to draw the Feds’ attention.

A decade later, when the Catholic Worker was more of a known quantity – entering into a new phase of organizing and of FBI surveillance – Day reflected on the early years, recalling law enforcement investigators’ confusion by the CW’s capacious, equal-opportunity antagonism to diverse forms of earthly power:

It used to shock Catholic policemen and the readers of the diocesan press to see Catholic Workers out on picket lines during strikes. We were the first recognized Catholic group to cover strikes and organizing campaigns in this way. We were the first Catholics to picket the Mexican and German Embassy, to protest the persecution of the church in Mexico and the persecution of Jews and Catholics in Germany. We have picketed the Russian Consulate and have consistently pointed out our fundamental opposition to atheistic communism.

Hennacy and Maurin, 2.

FBI special agents were perturbed by Workers’ apparent disinterest in the Cold War political binary, and case files routinely found Dorothy Day unintelligible as they attempted to map her ideological commitments. Day’s infidelity to the State not only earned her the glib nickname “Moscow Mary,” but also was treated as evidence of theological heresy, as critics theorized that the Catholic Worker was, in fact, an imposter and not Catholic at all. And while Hoover may soon have realized that Day was not, as he’d been originally led to believe, a Russian spy, in the long term she was, in fact, much more dangerous in real life than she had been in the imagination of her informants.

The suspicions that Day was an infiltrator and the Catholic Worker a vessel for atheistic Communist subversion were used as pretext for surveillance and the preparation for Day’s summary detention in case of national emergency. What does this have to do with organizing today? adrienne maree brown teaches us that we find ourselves in an “imagination battle” between visions of what kinds of worlds are possible.[7] Throughout the 2020 uprisings in the US, depictions of protestors as menacing, violent, and threatening inspired a proliferation of white supremacist vigilantism. These depictions escalated the use of force by police, which routinely made false claims about the threat posed by racial justice protesters as a pretext for restricting civil rights (curfews, dispersing public assemblies) and activating their own paramilitary capacities (MRAPs, LRADs, pepper balls/spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades). These recent pale times have fostered strange-bedfellow alliances among The Resistance big tent – which began to fracture almost immediately, in some part due to the gullibility of those who reflexively accepted the State’s criminalization of radical modes of dissent – at least partially out of eagerness to distinguish themselves as the “good protestors,” feel-good rhetoric about solidarity be damned. This story of the mid-century Catholic surveillance ecosystem might offer some reminders for contemporary movement types: that solidarity is sometimes a matter of convenience; that the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend; and that reformists may turn against you when they realize what you have always known: that they are not actually your people.

[1] John D. Cochran to J. Edgar Hoover (12 February 1942), Dorothy Day FBI Files (1205532-0-62-HQ-61208).

[2] The G. P. Corporation to BFI (24 March 1948), Dorothy Day FBI Files (1205532-0-62-HQ-61208).

[3] Notes from an interview with John J. Hartigan; Leon W. Elledge FBI report (17 March 1944), Dorothy Day FBI Files (1205532-0-62-HQ-61208).

[4] Anonymous to J. Edgar Hoover (7 March 1961), Dorothy Day FBI Files (1205532-0-62-HQ-61208).

[5] Anonymous to J. Edgar Hoover (10 December 1942), Dorothy Day FBI Files (1205532-0-62-HQ-61208).

[6] R. C. Suran to J. Edgar Hoover (15 May 1948), Dorothy Day FBI Files (1205532-0-62-HQ-61208). Suran (El Past, TX FBI Special Agent in Charge) had been alerted to Hugo’s essay by Fr. Richard Gaul of the Immaculate Conception parish.

[7] adrienne maree brown, “build as we fight: remarks from the 2019 American Studies Association Meeting (9 November 2019): http://adriennemareebrown.net/tag/emergent-strategy/:

We who believe in freedom must build our muscle of imagination. Because we are living in, and only sometimes surviving, an imagination battle… In the face of this world, this moment, where self-definition outside of oppression can feel impossible, we must strengthen our capacity to live and create and affirm and vision outside the white male straight able-bodied citizen gaze, to structure our visions beyond their limited, often self-worshipping imaginations. … We must counteract by creating an abundance of interior freedom, and weaving collective freedom dreams, dreams that include all of us, dreams we can speak to each other plainly, or poetically… Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of relatively simple interactions. Emergent strategies are informed by complexity, by learning from nature how to be in right relationship with each other and the earth.

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Moscow Mary: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Surveillance Ecosystem

This essay reflects on intra-Catholic antagonisms and state-sponsored surveillance throughout the McCarthy era as a tool for considering the hazards of allowing the state to define categories and respectable means of political dissent.

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