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. Patrick

    Who friggin cares what Catholics will accept? Conservative child molesters living under the giuse of men of god should have no say in what is and isn't acceptable. No religion is the new religion. We are all content these days w/ simple common courtesy and human compassion. It doesn't have to carry the name of some religion. Let's all just be good hearted people. I don't care what religion you belong to, as long as you have a good heart. My only problem w/ religion is that it promotes exclusivity and quells independent though unless your independent thoughts are following along the guidelines of how to make that particular religion even more exclusive. Most religions are about circling the wagons and not letting people w/ different ideas into your life. If not that, they're about taking advantage of simple minded people who don't have the ability to think independently. Religion is for the weak. I am my own religion.

    July 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Convert007

      Sorry, Pat, don't give a rat's right hip what you think! Feel better now?

      July 7, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • JC

      very well said, Patrick. I always think it's funny when people like 'convert' can't respond to a logical, sensical statement

      July 7, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Kate

      I was thinking the same thing JC. Lazy thinking is most unfortunate.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  2. teepee

    catholics keep making up rules as they go along...God probably doesn't have anything to do with this kind of nonsense...saints as mentioned in the bible are followers of Christ...not someone who won the vote...

    July 7, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • William Demuth

      God is a lie perpetuated by idiots.

      July 7, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • Convert007

      Or are idtiots pepetuated by God for the entertainment of the rest of us?

      July 7, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • JC

      amen!! it's sad how many people have missed the point of their own religion.

      July 7, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Convert007

      Only God knows who the true idiots are!

      July 7, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  3. Luch

    "Can you be a saint if you have committed the original sin of contemporary Catholicism?" – wow Mr. Prothero what a comment...I am trying to read between the lines I guess this is another dig by a progressive liberal modern Catholic at TRUE Catholic teaching about the centrality of the right to life beginning from conception (full stop!) ...but to the matter at hand of course she can be considered a saint IF she repented of her sin of abortion, lived her life to heroic degree of Christian values and miracles (cures that will be investigated by medical doctors and proven to have NO basis on normal medical procedures, not the Benny Hinh kind) are by created Alimighty God through her intercession after her death...that is how a person is elevated to Sainthood in the Holy Roman Catholic Church...I pray that her cause may advance and that she maybe a beacon for the millions of mothers around the world who were talked into an abortion and are now suffereing its real consequences – depression, drug abuse, family break down,(all things that our modern enlightened culture is sweeping under the rug). and that inspired by her example they may seek God's forgiveness through our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ – I ask all people of goodwill to google project Rachel

    July 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • IDecidedthereisaGod

      Thank you for putting forth a clear and concise perspective on how the process of becoming a Catholic saint works. Let's keep in our prayers those who are ignorant and malicious towards what we truly believe in.

      July 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Abortion is Christian birth control, some what akin to a Roach Motel

      I think it needs to be covered by Medicare, and Medicaid, and should be available in all grade schools.

      July 7, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Luch

      Mr. Demuth after reading some of your posts, a disgusting one in particular..I can only say you need some serious help...I will pray for you!

      July 7, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • William Demuth



      We don't need your stinking prayers !

      July 7, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Benedict XVI

      Your ideas are intriguing to me William, and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter

      July 22, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  4. bh

    If I were religious I would not be comfortable with the concept of sainthood. How can human beings be arrogant enough to proclaim that someone is in heaven?

    July 7, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • JC

      yes! arrogance is definitely the word here.

      July 7, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  5. Matt

    @Reality – you're missing the point. The controversy here is whether a person who had an abortion should be sainted. My take – I don't care what the catholic church does. Sainthood matters only to those who recognize saints. To catholics, I suppose it's an honor, but it's done posthumously so it serves because no one can reap the benefits of being a "living saint". IMHO, it's an archaic and pointless tradition.

    July 7, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  6. LouAz

    If there is any money to be made from her sainthood, then she is in ! All this saint stuff is just so much BS.

    July 7, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Well she could definetly make more in sainthood than she could in the adult entertainment industry.

      July 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  7. Correct Cynic

    Religion is purposeless, unless you are a religious leader who stands to prosper from the obedience of your followers. God, if He exists at all, will not subscribe to any of our primitive, awkward, silly religions. If He is, then He is, and that's that. All the Sainthood mumbo-jumbo, and Mohammed this, and David that, it's all crap. If ANY of it were true, there wouldn't be so many different belief systems. The fact is, most of the major religions in existence today agree on two major factors: That there is one true God, and that people who don't believe in That God are doomed. But they can't agree on which God it is. Simple math says that they must then ALL be wrong.

    July 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Convert007

      I am in full agreement about God, therefore, according to your arguement, He exists!

      July 7, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  8. BL

    The whole concept of "saint" is so incredibly infantile. The Church approval process is sort of like getting a driver's license at the DMV, except you need less paperwork.

    July 7, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • William Demuth

      So is it any less infantile than zombie saviors returning from the dead so we might feast on his flesh to be saved from an eternal evil of our own creation?

      July 7, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • teepee

      Sooo...Willy has jokes today...again...where's the funny part?

      July 7, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  9. Zoe

    When we become Chirstians God forgives out sins.

    July 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Yeah Yeah, but I heard if we become Muslim, Allah forgives our MOVING VIOLATIONS and takes five points off our licenses!

      July 7, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • teepee

      William...where is the funny part?

      July 7, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Someone seems cranky today!

      July 7, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  10. jeff

    I think that in these difficult times, it is not easy for people to distinguish the difference between good and bad when its comes to such moral issues as gay rights, abortion, euthanasia, etc.
    I consider myself very lucky because I practice Falun Gong which allows me to know the difference between right and wrong.
    It is a free practice with tens of millions of adherents Worldwide. Thank you.

    July 7, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  11. IDecidedthereisaGod

    I am disenheartened when CNN posts any kind of article with the Catholic Church somehow mentioned or featured in the artcile because of all of the Catholic bashning and hatred that turns up in the comments section. Someone should really look into whether CNN can have religious bias charges made against them...or at least the authors of such articles for inciting bigotry....not all Catholics are child molesters nor are all Catholic priests Child molesters, etc....And all of you mean nasty ill-informed ignorant commenters should really take a long hard look at your own way of living, practicing religion or not, before you critisize anyone else's religion. Shame on you all. And I am being polite.

    July 7, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • LouAz

      "all of us mean nasty ill-informed ignorant commenters" . . . have looked at our way of living . . . and decided that . . . WE are holier than you . . . so stick it !

      July 7, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Of course! Silence the people.

      My God is gonna come back and kill ALL of you for having such WICKED individual thoughts.

      July 7, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • BobR

      Yes, and when I just posted something that correctly explains Catholic doctrine, it is held back for "awaiting moderation:". Yet all the Catholic-bashing goes right through and gets posted immediately. What's up with that?

      July 7, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • teepee

      William...you sound like an immature white boy with pimples...and no girl friends...

      July 7, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Wrong again. Maybe 40 years and five kids ago!

      July 7, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Matt

      Straw man argument there, IDecidedthereisaGod. Of course there are trolls, but a lot of people here seem to be saying that the catholic church is irrelevant, and not that catholics are child molesters or however you wish to demonize religious dissenters. Also, I did not know you could "charge" someone with "religious bias"! What does that even mean? Who would preside over such a thing?

      July 7, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • Stan


      Replace "CNN" with any other website and "Catholic Church" with any other group – you've just described the Internet.

      July 22, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  12. Ellen

    In my opinion abortion is an act of violence against an innocent child. When a woman and her husband/ lover conspire with a doctor to end the life of this child, they are all guilty of the sin of infanticide. This is what heathens did when they sacrificed their babies to false gods. In other words the baby's life was given to appease some imagined demand from that god. Christ would never approve of this violent sin. However, we have all sinned and can only be redeemed by the Blood of Christ. That is how sins are blotted out if there is repentance, and conversion on the part of the sinner. Yes, Dorothy Day was forgiven!

    July 7, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • bh

      Had Mary aborted Jesus then this question is moot.

      July 7, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  13. JC

    are there not a million more important things in the world than who gets to be a saint? why in the world does it matter? didnt realize that christianity was so obsessed with personal status. what nonsense....this article shouldn't be in a secular, independent newspaper

    July 7, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Philip

      It is an editorial, in the Belief section, get it. They can talk about whatever they want to, you just don't have to read it, right?

      July 7, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Because Saints mean BIG BUCKS.

      Watch at home many Latinos shall be saints soon. They are the newest targey market for the Ponzi scheme that is Christianity.

      They pitch the saints to the slow minded, under educated or ignorant, as a way to rip them off.

      July 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • MarylandBill

      Being declared a saint is not a question of status. I am sure that all the saints, canonized or not, are not at all concerned about their status in this world. What makes sainthood important is that it provides models for Catholics to emulate in life. If Dorthy Day is canonized it means that the Catholic Church has effectively endorsed the Catholic Worker movement.

      Also, I would point out that if Christianity is right (something which I believe), then people becoming saints is among the most important things there is. Ultimately, all that matters is how many people become saints (recognized or not).

      July 7, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • bh

      Why, exactly, should CNN not report on an issue because it concerns religion?

      July 7, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • scieng

      Apparently being secular means that you ignore most of what anyone else believes in, or uses for social morals, or the beliefs that gave us laws against doing wrong. What people believe is important.

      July 7, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  14. Amanda

    Wish the church would update their views. They are the bible out of context. "Be fruitful and multiply" was meant for the time when the world was under-populated. Now we are severley over-populated, so we need to slow down.
    We are also responsible for caring for the earth, and we can't do that if we are stripping it of resources due to over-crowding. We are not doing anyone any favors here – we are creating more problems! Over-population is the cause of the world's worst problems: poverty, starvation, war, etc.

    July 7, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • W247

      so stop having s-ex. That would be a great way to prevent over-crowding.

      July 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • William Demuth

      I though the whole be fruitfull thing was just what the priest used as a rational man on boy buggery?

      July 7, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • kls817

      Agreed, I'm catholic but birth control is needed in today's world.
      I no longer give to "feed the hungry" groups. If you do that, they will just have more starving children.
      We need to promote womens rights in the third world. That will prevent women from needing to have more children to support them in their old age. And birth control is part of the solution as well.

      July 7, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  15. Cedar Rapids

    birth control is genocide? lol

    July 7, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Perhaps in a world where fact is fiction and TV reality.

      July 7, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  16. Reality

    Going beyond Ms. Day and into the arena of the abortion and STD epidemics:

    o The numbers, the calculations and two "bottom liners":

    "Facts on Co-ntraceptive Use


    January 2008


    • 62 million U.S. women (and men?) are in their childbearing years (15–44).[1]
    • 43 million women (and men) of reproductive age, or 7 in 10, are se-xually active and do not want to become pregnant, but could become pregnant if they or their partners fail to use a contraceptive method.[2]
    • The typical U.S. woman (man?) wants only 2 children. To achieve this goal, she (he?) must use contraceptives for roughly 3 decades.[3]

    • Virtually all women (98%) aged 15–44 who have ever had inte-rcourse have used at least one contraceptive method.[2](and men?)
    • Overall, 62% of the 62 million women aged 15–44 are currently using one.[2] (and men)
    • 31% of the 62 million women (and men?) do not need a method because they are infertile; are pregnant, postpartum or trying to become pregnant; have never had inter-course; or are not s-exually active.[2]
    • Thus, only 7% of women aged 15–44 are at risk of unwanted pregnancy but are not using contraceptives.[2] (and men?)
    • Among the 42 million fertile, s-exually active women who do not want to become pregnant, 89% are practicing contraception.[2] (and men?)

    • 64% of reproductive-age women who practice contraception use reversible methods, such as oral contraceptives or condoms. The remaining women rely on female or male sterilization.[2]

    Percentage of women (men?) experiencing an unplanned pregnancy (a few examples)
    Method ....... Typical
    Pill (combined) 8.7
    Tubal sterilization 0.7
    Male condom 17.4
    Vas-ectomy 0.2
    Periodic abstinence 25.3
    Calendar 9.0
    Ovulation Method 3.0
    Sympto-thermal 2.0
    Post-ovulation 1.0
    No method 85.0"
    (Abstinence) 0
    (Mas-turbation) 0

    More facts about co-ntraceptives from

    Con-traceptive method use among U.S. women who practice con-traception, 2002
    Method ..... No. of users (in 000s) ...... % of users

    Pill 11,661 30.6
    Male condom 6,841 18.0

    The pill fails to protect women 8.7% during the first year of use (from the same reference previously shown).
    0.087 (failure rate)
    x 62 million (# child bearing women)
    x 0.62 ( % of these women using contraception )
    x 0.306 ( % of these using the pill) =
    1,020,000 unplanned pregnancies during the first year of pill use.

    For male condoms (failure rate of 17.4 and 18% use level):

    1,200,000 unplanned pregnancies during the first year of male condom use.

    The Guttmacher Insti-tute (same reference) notes also that the perfect use of the pill should result in a 0.3% failure rate
    (35,000 unplanned pregnancies) and for the male condom, a 2% failure rate (138,000 unplanned pregnancies).

    o Bottom Line #1: The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and S-TDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.

    Bottom line #2-
    Currently, a perfect birth control/STD barrier system does not exist. Time to develop one! In the meantime, mono-ma-sturbation or mutual ma-sturbation are highly recommended for hete-rose-xuals who need a contraceptive. Abstinence is another best-solution but obviously the se-x drive typically vitiates this option although being biological would it not be able to develop a drug to temporarily eliminate said drive?

    July 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  17. CWG

    What 's funny (after reading her biography) is that she would NOT be accepted by today's Democrats nor by today's CNN staff.

    July 7, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Convert007

      Ah, yes, relgions in their own universe.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  18. Chris

    IT is, but the entire christian faith was at one point controlled by them. So naturall if you beleive in the bible

    July 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  19. Joe

    Does ANYONE realize that God/Jesus/whomever you choose is NOT classifying people into groups like "saints" or "sinners"?
    This is a human classification of other humans.
    So it doesn't make a damn bit of difference to God WHAT we call someone like this.
    It only matters how a person SERVES the planet.
    They don't even have to be religious.
    They certainly don't have to be Catholic.

    July 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Chris

      The entire faith is based around beleiving that though....if you dont follow the dogma behind it, then why follow any of it or even beleive in the existance of a god? Cant you be happy going about your life ?

      July 7, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • kls817

      That's not quite correct. The book of Revelations clearly distinguishes between people of extraordinary faith (roughly 144,000 people) who will receive an additional 1000 year reign.
      Of course the Catholic church cannot know exactly who these people are. The cannonization process just attempts to find some of these and these people are to be seen as role models. And of course only Catholic people are chosen by the Catholic church. Obviously there are many people from other denominations that are saints as well but just not cannonized.

      July 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Convert007

      I'm thinking that the planet will probably get by...it has its own cult following. People on the other hand need all the help that they can get!

      July 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  20. Reality

    No doubt Ms. Day was a good person but there "ain't" no such thing as "sainthood" other than the RCC gathering more money for trips to the "holy" city, T-shirts, blessed rosaries, photos, vessels of blood, and bones and maybe in the near future the DNA of a "saint" so we can clone her or him.

    Simply add "sainthood" to the list of Catholic/Jesus frauds and lunacy:

    To wit:

    Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospels being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd/insane side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    July 7, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • La

      Theologians do not usually conclude the NT to be fiction.

      July 7, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
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