My Take: Catholics will accept a saint who had an abortion
Dorothy Day in New York circa 1969, addressing an anti-Vietnam War demonstration.
July 7th, 2011
01:43 PM ET

My Take: Catholics will accept a saint who had an abortion

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Can Catholics abide a saint who had an abortion?

Dorothy Day, who died in 1980, was an anarchist, a pacifist, and the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, a movement devoted to helping the poor and the homeless. Described by historian David O’Brien as “the most influential, interesting, and significant figure” in U.S. Catholic history, Day is currently being considered for canonization in the Catholic Church.

Before her conversion to Catholicism in 1927, however, Day lived what the late Cardinal O’Connor of the Archdiocese of New York has referred to as "a life akin to that of the pre-converted Augustine of Hippo." That bohemian life included common-law marriage and an abortion.

Some may feel that Day’s promiscuity precludes her cause for sainthood. But in his February 2000 letter to the Vatican in support of Day’s canonization, O’Connor contended “that her abortion should not preclude her cause, but intensifies it.” She is a model, he continued, “for women who have had or are considering abortions” because she “regretted” that action “every day of her life.”

Earlier this month, Father James Martin, the Jesuit priest, author, and go-to-guy on Roman Catholicism for Stephen Colbert (Colbert once called him “The Colbert Report chaplain”), reported on “A New Conversation” about Dorothy Day and abortion.

This private conversation with Catholic Worker member Daniel Marshall occurred in 1977 at a farm in Tivoli, New York. According to Marshall:

I seized the opportunity to ask Dorothy to write in the paper about abortion as possibly the central moral issue of our time.  She paused and gently answered, "I don't like to push young people into their sins" . . .

Then Dorothy said, "You know, I had an abortion.  The doctor was fat, dirty and furtive.  He left hastily after it was accomplished, leaving me bleeding.  The daughter of the landlords assisted me and never said a word of it.  He was Emma Goldman's lover; that's why I have never had any use for Emma."

I hung on every word that she said, not only because she was Dorothy, but because, although I had heard a rumor that she had an abortion, I was aware that few people knew of it from her.

I understood from Dorothy that she was asking me to comprehend what the consequences would be of a public statement from her on abortion and also that the public consequences might be a distraction from the issue and the cause.  What she thought of abortion was clear as a bell from what she said.

But what she thought of abortion is not “clear as a bell” from this interview. What is clear is her disgust over her procedure, and over the “fat, dirty and furtive” doctor who performed it.

Elsewhere, however, Day did make clear her opposition to abortion on pacifist grounds.

For example, in a 1974 interview, she turned a question about genocide into a discussion about birth control and abortion. “We do believe that there is not only the genocide of war, the genocide that took place in the extermination of Jews, but the whole program—I’m speaking now as a Catholic—of birth control and abortion, is another form of genocide.”

Some day, Day may be accepted into the communion of saints as a modern Augustine whose depths of youthful sin make her adult piety even more spectacular. But she could also be rejected as a figure who could well lead some Catholics to justify premarital sex and abortion on the grounds that “Dorothy Day did it.”

On a 2007 “Colbert Report” appearance, Father Martin was asked whether Mother Teresa’s feelings of being abandoned by God had earned her a one-way ticket to "the Lake of Fire." Revelations that Mother Teresa had said she had not felt the presence of God for half a century had raised questions in some circles about just how saintly she really was. Can you be a saint if God feels as distant from you as He does from an atheist–if your experience of God is an experience of lonely "darkness"?

Yes, Martin said, adding that in this case Mother Teresa could serve as a model for Catholics going through a dark night of the soul.

Day's case raises a parallel question. Can you be a saint if you have committed the original sin of contemporary Catholicism?

My money says yes.

Partly that is because of the Christian teaching of forgiveness. But mostly it is because of the tendency of Catholics to diverge from the official party line on questions such as homosexuality, birth control and abortion.

According to a June survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, most American Catholics (54%) think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. More than two-thirds of them (68%) believe you can be a good Catholic even if you disagree with your church’s opposition to abortion. And when it comes to the question of whether abortion is a sin, white American Catholics are evenly divided.

Of course, rank-and-file Catholics do not decide who is declared a saint. But they decide who will be revered as one. And in this case, I believe, they will forgive Day's sin in part because, in their heart of hearts, many of them don't consider it all that much of a sin in the first place.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Abortion • Catholic Church

soundoff (582 Responses)
  1. ctd

    Prothero is usually better than this. He has Catholic doctrine, Dorothy Day, and much else all wrong.

    August 16, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  2. Dea2

    Many inspirational people in all denominations of Christianity were not exactly people to look up to before their conversion or epiphanies. St Paul, once vehemently anti-Christian, became one of the pillars of our faith. Others had similar experiences. When someone answers the call to their faith, all that came before is forgiven. Cleansed. Wiped clean, and if need be, retribution is rendered to fix it. That's what Jesus would do, and what He expects His followers to do.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  3. Kryg

    Prothero, the author, is using Dorothy Day for the pro-abortion agenda. What a malicious design. Surveys which often times are unreliable are used by very liberal sectors for their agenda. But then when the gay marriage was the issue, New York liberals did not ask for a referendum to find out NY majority's thinking.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  4. Kryg

    "I believe, they will forgive Day's sin in part because, in their heart of hearts, many of them don't consider it all that much of a sin in the first place" is a wrong analysis. Most Catholic will revere Dorothy Day because she repented and gave herself to a good cause of helping workers. She is a model of a repentant sinner who dedicated herself later for God and his people.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  5. WhatWhatWhat?

    Christinsanity is the first to make a rule about some silly c r a p that has nothing to do with them, and then the first to bend the rules when it fits their purpose.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  6. OnLooker

    Christianity is a redemptive religion. Jesus called not the righteous, but the wicked. His reference to St. Augustine is enough evidence to prove that she could potentially be canonized.

    July 26, 2011 at 12:08 am |
  7. Michael

    One of the articles problems, is the "most American Catholics (54%) think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. More than two-thirds of them (68%) believe you can be a good Catholic even if you disagree with your church’s opposition to abortion" fallacy.
    Labeling oneself Catholic but disagreeing with Catholic teaching is akin to labeling yourself Vegetarian and eating steak every night

    July 25, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  8. Jeff Schwehm

    Wow!!! This article is pretty bad and the author displays some gross misunderstandings of what Catholic believe.

    July 25, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • JJM

      And, he gets paid while being spectacularly ignorant.

      July 25, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  9. Mike F.

    What a spectacularly ignorant article.

    Catholic blogger Mark Shea has a more worthwhile article, here:



    July 25, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  10. Paul Johns

    Who is this idiot writer? Where he get his cracked-brained ideas about Catholicism? Ever heard of St. Augustine? The Communist News Network needs to get a clue and hire someone to write about religion who knows (even a small amount) about what he writes??

    July 25, 2011 at 8:19 am |
  11. James

    This article is such garbage. I highly doubt Dorthy Days potential canonization has anything to do with Catholics who dissent from essential teachings of The Church. All Steven Prothero does here is show his complete ignorance of Catholics and Catholic teachings.

    July 25, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • Miki Tracy

      I wholeheartedly agree with James.

      For a "religion scholar," Mr. Prothero certainly does possess a crappy understanding of Catholic teaching. Ever heard of Mary Magdalene??? It is wastebasket social commentary like yours, Sir, that makes me cringe every time I meet up with a Jehovah's Witness, because nine times out of ten, they got their "understanding" of Catholic Faith and Morals from reading tripe like this....*NOT* helpful.

      Dorothy Day is my spiritual mother. She is a saint, and will be recognised as one by the Church because of her heroic virtue, you idiot, not because of pro-abort, pro-choice CHINOs.

      July 25, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  12. just_me45212

    What is a saint? Throughout old and new testament KJV a saint is one who is obedient to God's word. To revere/exalt a person is some form of idolization. Remember, those who are exalted will be brought low–only He will be exalted in His day.

    It is for God to decide who is righteous in His eyes. We are not to make idols out of man.

    Isaiah 2:11,12,17.22 The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day.

    12For the day of the LORD of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low:

    17And the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low: and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day.

    22Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of ?

    July 24, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
    • Giancaro

      Hey Just Me, This is not a place for commentary on whether or not you agree with the Catholic Church declaring someone to be a saint or not. This is a place where we show dismay about yet another person who doesn't understand Catholic Teachings. Oh wait. By your comment neither do you!!!!

      July 25, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  13. John C

    Yet another awful article by Stephen Prothero.

    July 20, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  14. dilberth

    What if the Virgin Mary would have had an abortion? Would she still be eligible for sainthood?

    July 20, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  15. Doug

    As a conservative Catholic, ordained Deacon, and virulent pro-lifer, I can absolutely support ANY reformed sinner. This is a central tenent of our faith. Saints are supposed to lead lives that we can not only aspire to, but relate to. The Church does not and should not shun abortion victims; mother or child.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  16. Judy

    Most of the saints were not very nice people at one point of another in their life. But remember God is a forgiving God and can change the most corrupt of hearts at his will

    July 18, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  17. Gravy

    but now we have to find some miracles she performed. Anyone seen her do a really good card trick or change a tire?

    July 16, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Miki Tracy

      No. But she has gotten our mortgage at Gilbert House mysteriously taken care of more times than I can count.

      July 25, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  18. Rose

    If you really believe Hitler could be a saint you are truly nuts. Honestly. And the church (for all its pr nightmares and awful decisions) wouldn't have gone there either. Guess you are a troll.

    July 15, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  19. joe

    I don't know why you used the entire article to mostly argue that abortion is not so bad. Catholics could make hitler a saint if he had repented and led a very different life after the holocoust. Not to say that killing millions of people isn't a big sin. That's not the point at all. The fact that they sainted someone who killed millions of people would only serve to demonstrate that catholics really do believe in repentance, forgiveness, and the grace of god

    July 15, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  20. joe

    "And in this case, I believe, they will forgive Day's sin in part because, in their heart of hearts, many of them don't consider it all that much of a sin in the first place."

    There are always people who call themselves catholic who are simply not catholics. To be catholic you must defer to the judgement of the church. People who believe that abortion is not that much of a sin are not catholic.

    July 15, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • John Gillis

      What kind of Catholic isn't shocked and horrified by the sin of abortion? Certainly not a Dorothy Day, who, despite some of her crack-brained political views, was 100% orthodox in belief, practice and obedience.

      July 15, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • Dea2

      The Church teaches forgiveness and calls upon her people to bring sinners back into the fold and help them reconcile with the Community. If the desire to reconcile is true, the sin is forgiven. That's what Jesus would do.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
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