For Dorothy Day and most of her co-workers in the Catholic Worker movement, waging war was an anathema and alien to all the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. It was also at odds with the example of the early Christians for whom martyrdom was preferable to an armed resistance which might violate the spirit of Christ.

The spirit which The Catholic Worker adhered to was that shown by St. Boniface and recounted by Tom Holland in his book, Dominion, his masterful account of Christianity’s permeation of our culture and civilization over two millennia. Boniface, the British missionary who converted the peoples of northern Germany in the 7th and 8th century, had assembled a few hundred recent converts on the shores of Fresia for what promised to be a day of joy, their Confirmation in the Faith. Holland tells the story.

“As dawn broke, the camp on the banks of the river Boorne was already stirring. Boniface, its leader, was almost eighty, but as tireless as he had ever been.” Then on the horizon, a flotilla of boats appeared out of the morning mists.  “The first boats arrived as sunlight was starting to pierce the early morning cloud. A mass of men, after clambering onto dry land, walked up from the river and approached the camp. Then, abruptly, the glint of swords. A charge. Screams. Boniface came out of his tent. Already it was too late. The pirates were in the camp. Desperately, Boniface’s attendants fought back. Not the old man himself, though. Christ, when he was arrested, had ordered Peter to put up his sword. Boniface, following his Lord’s example, commanded his followers to lay down their weapons. A tall man, he gathered his fellow priests around him, and urged them to be thankful for the hour of their release. Felled by a pirate’s sword, he was cut to pieces.”

This spirit of Christianity has had to coexist down through the centuries in a painful paradox with more fiery responses to Christ’s call to evangelize the peoples of the world and to preserve the faith in those places where it has taken root. The spirit of St. Francis coexisted with the spirit of the Crusaders of the late middle ages. The paradox continues right into our own time and the witness of Dorothy Day exists side by side with the witness of those who have given their lives in the Middle East to rescue the peoples of those lands who were so recently enslaved by the forces of the so-called Islamic State. Dorothy knew that this paradox was not easily resolved. “It is a matter of grief to me,” she wrote, “that most of those who are  Catholic Workers are not pacifists, but I can see too how good it is that we always have this attitude represented among us. We are not living in an ivory tower.”

The young people with her in the 40s and through to the 70s – many of them liable to be drafted into the military at any time – talked the issue over constantly. “Can there be a just war? Can the conditions laid down by St. Thomas ever be fulfilled? What about the morality of the use of the atom bomb? What does God want me to do? And What am I capable of doing? Can I stand out against State and Church?” She wondered and they wondered, “Is it pride, presumption, to think I have the spiritual capacity to use spiritual weapons in the face of the most gigantic tyranny the world has ever seen? Am I capable of enduring suffering, facing martyrdom? And alone? Again, the long loneliness to be faced.”