The Tax Resistance of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker

Here’s a Washington Post News Service dispatch about the tax resistance of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement that I found in a newspaper from :

The Bowery

Poverty worker bring pressured for back taxes

by Colman McCarthy

 — Grubby and dingy as ever, the Bowery is said to be kindlier in the summertime on its used-up and trapped people who endure some of the country’s severest poverty.

Cold weather can kill the sidewalks in alcoholic daze [sic.]. But summer nights let them live to another morning. Not that that’s much, but at least the guillotine of misery does not fall so harshly; hard days are pain enough without hard weather.

Dorothy Day has worked among the Bowery’s forgotten and lonely most of her 74 years, kicking poverty in the teeth not with safe programs and committees but by living among the poor and personally dispensing food, clothing, and shelter; these are the basic gifts in the corporal work of mercy and rescue.

Refuses to pay

, however, promises more strain for Miss Day, not less. The Internal Revenue Service has sent her a letter claiming $296,359 in back taxes and penalties. A second IRS action involves taxes on a bequest left to her by a deceased spinster; Miss Day’s Catholic worker group is “political,” said the IRS, not charitable, and therefore not exempt from taxes.

The dispute has significance because Dorothy Day has no personal wealth or money of her own. All that she earns or is given by others goes directly to the Bowery destitute; her operation, St. Joseph’s House, 36 East 1st St. New York is one charity where there is no handsome rake-off at the top for administrators, per diems, office rent, speaker bureaus, or other dams that often block the flow of money to the poor.

There is no question that Miss Day has not been paying her taxes in the last few years. She has never paid them. The IRS allows tax exemptions for charitable organizations, but Miss Day said that “our refusal to apply for exemption status in our practice of the works of mercy is part of our protest against war and the present social ‘order’ which brings on wars today.” To pay taxes, the Catholic worker believes, is to become a part, directly or indirectly, of the government’s philosophy that wars and military force can solve human problems.

A pacifist and personalist (be what you want the other person to be), Miss Day is unlike many in the peace movement, first, because she has opposed all our wars, and second, because she has never wasted a syllable in denouncing or moralizing about the politicians or generals who believe in military force.

“The Catholic worker movement,” she says, “believes that tyranny and injustice must be fought by spiritual weapons, by nonviolence, and by noncooperation. It is not only that we must follow our conscience in opposing the government in war. We believe also that the government has no right to legislate as to who can or who are to perform the works of mercy. Only accredited agencies have the status of tax-exempt institutions… as personalists, as an unincorporated group, we will not apply for this ‘privilege.’ ”

The IRS and Miss Day were to have met in court in  — on the bequest case — but the trial has been postponed. A number of citizens have been protesting and arguing her case to the IRS.

John Cogley, a fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Santa Barbara, Calif., and who once worked on the soup line at St. Joseph’s House, said: “For 50 years, Dorothy Day has served the poor, living in the slums, eating tasteless food, wearing cast-off clothes, shivering in the winter, sweltering in the summer.


“There is something ridiculous about the richest government in the world, after all these years, demanding that Miss Day turn over money given to her to meet the simplest needs of the nation’s destitute. I am not a tax lawyer but I have millionaire friends who tell me that they pay no income tax. Like the wealthy governor of my state, Ronald Reagan, they have managed somehow to avoid the tax and to do so quite legally. Surely there must be a loop-hole to cover the case of that rarest of Americans, a person who lives in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount. If there isn’t, perhaps we should invent one.”

Dorothy Day is not unique in refusing to give money to the government, but her noncooperation may be singular when it works the other way: refusing money from the government. In the city of New York sent her a check for $3,579.29. The sum represented interest on what the city paid the Catholic worker for property bought by right of eminent domain for a subway. In a letter beautiful in its clarity, Miss Day said no thanks and sent the check back.

“We are returning the interest on the money we have recently received because… we do not believe in the profit system, and so we cannot take profit or interest on our money. People who take a materialistic view of human service wish to make a profit but we are trying to do our duty by our service without wages to our brothers. Please be assured that we are not judging individuals, but are trying to make a judgment on the system under which we live and with which we admit that we ourselves compromise daily in many small ways, but which we try and wish to withdraw from as much as possible.”

Different view

Although the IRS may see Miss Day’s work as “political” and not charitable, other officials have a different view. Her group is registered with the department of social services of New York state. “Since we sent out an appeal once or twice a year,” said Miss Day, “we have to file with Albany, pay a small fee, and give an account of monies received… we always complied with the state regulation because it was local — regional. We knew such a requirement was to protect the public from fraudulent appeals, and we felt our lives were open books, our work was obvious. And of course our pacifism has always been obvious, a great ideal of nonviolence to be worked toward.”

The other evening, the dining room of the first street house was filled with the broke and broken of the Bowery. Bread, soup, and stew were being served to impoverished old men in tatters, to women silent in their pain, and to a few small children already well aware something is wrong in the world. The poor, stooped over their plates, had long ago lost interest in the IRS and governments. Yet, in a country of great wealth, the IRS still cares about them. If the tax officials insist that Miss Day is involved in politics and thus must pay taxes, then even harder summers and winters are coming for the forgotten people of the Bowery.

By the time this article hit the press, though, the conflict between the IRS and Catholic Worker was pretty much over. On , an IRS district director wrote to the Catholic Worker telling the group that the agency no longer expected them to file returns or to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars the agency had said they owed. Dorothy Day stared down the IRS.