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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. Nick

    After reading many comments, I have to wonder: how many commenters on here are Roman Catholic or have experience with the Roman Catholic faith? Many comments I've seen seem to include many Protestant views (such as the fixation on Revelations and that sins are swept away when you accept Jesus as your personal saviour).

    In the Roman Catholic faith, you follow Jesus, but it's not called accepting him as your personal saviour. You don't have to testify before you're truely in, you just go to some classes and go through some rituals. Also, the Roman Catholic faith has seven sacrements instead of the two normally accepted by most Protestant faiths. One of these scaraments is the sacrament of Reconsiliation (confession). It is through this sacrament that sins are forgiven. Dorthy Day was a devout Roman Catholic and participated in Reconsiliation many times, so yes, her sins (including her abortion) were forgiven in the eyes of God and, luckily in her case, many other Roman Catholics.

    Unfortunately, there are many many other women that have not been treated as kindly, even if they have received the sacrament of reconsiliation. They have been ostracized, riticlued, and even excommunicated in some instances. These women had an abortion for one reason or another, several because they could not provide for the child, several because they were scared and couldn't see what they could do, some to protect their own lives, etc. "Good Christians" look down on these women because they cannot help others (some can barely help themselves). It's sad to see how often "Good Christians" will look down upon those in need that have 'sinned" rather than helping them. Remember, as Jesus said "you do unto me as you do unto the least of you."

    July 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Spiffy

      I have been a member of the Catholic Church up till last year. I have gone to church every Sunday, holy day or whatever. I even alter served. I have one to Catholic school my entire life and as a result have taken religious courses my entire life. Yet after all this learning about Catholicism, God and Jesus I have become an atheist and doubt that any Jesus ever existed.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Spiffy

      Btw I am 16.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • Nick

      I was baptised and confirmed in the Roman Catholic church at the Easter Vigil 2006. I have since switched to the Episcopal church, but I have a lot of the knowledge I gained from the church fresh in my mind. There is a lot I like, but there is a lot with which I disagree. I do think, though, that you have to have some knowledge of the Roman Catholic church and its process for sainthood to fully understand and be able to properly comment on this article.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • JT

      Congratulations Spiffy on shedding your indoctrination at such a young age.

      July 7, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • Godzilla

      Good job, Spiffy! I am jealous. It took me much longer to escape the acid-trip of religion.

      July 8, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  2. Manny

    Wow! Is this what CNN and journalism has come down to, quoting the Colbert Report? I thought the Colbert Report was a comedy show and not serious journalism. But I guess when it comes to CNN, journalism is comedy.

    Being a saint does not mean somebody lived a perfect life, but that regardless of their shortcomings they still lived a life in service to our Lord Jesus Christ. If Dorothy Day repented for her sin of abortion and then lived a life of service to Christ, then she could be candidate for sainthood. We all sin, and forgiveness is there for the asking. Saints are role models that show that Christ’s forgiveness can change lives.

    Regarding Mother Teresa’s feeling of being abandoned by God, that is something she actually prayed for and received from God. Wanting to be closer to Jesus, Mother Teresa longed to share in his suffering. She received Christ’s feeling of abandonment while on the cross which is recorded in Matthew 27:46. The fact that she could accomplish what she did while feeling abandoned by God is a testament to her faith, trust and love for Jesus.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Godzilla

      I just had to laugh at your stupid post. LOL You are really messed up in the head. Come to Tokyo and I will step on you.

      July 8, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  3. Jim in Georgia

    There is such a wide spectrum of openions expressed in these comments... And such hate. I suspect that we will never heal the wounds and smothout our differances. Too bad for our society. 😦

    July 7, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • Spiffy

      I know right. Differing opinions are horrible! We should all just conform to whatever makes us feel good.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  4. Carolyn

    I would. Dorothy Day was a good woman.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  5. Patty Bonds

    I don't know where you got your figures, but I don't know one Catholic who is not completely anti-abortion. A Catholic is one who believes that everything the Church teaches is revealed by God. Saying you're Catholic does not qualifty you as a Catholic. I would suggest polling Catholics as they leave Mass. The ones home on the couch aren't Catholics.They would be the imposters that voted folks like Pelosi and Kennedy into office.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Stevie7

      "A Catholic is one who believes that everything the Church teaches is revealed by God"

      I think you will find, then, that a miniscule portion of people who identifiy themselves as Catholic fit into your definition of Catholic. Especially among American Catholics, many disagree with major teachings of the church. And that's for those that actually know of and understand church teaching. I'm guessing that there are a fair amount of catholics in the pews on Sundays who fully acknowledge the principles of evolution and believe the Genesis story was just that – a story, and that there wasn't actually a real person named Adam and a real person named Eve from whom we all descend. Are you excluding those people, too?

      July 7, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • Chris R

      I'm catholic. I go to church regularly. I don't agree with the Pope on everything – you aren't required to as a Catholic except on ex cathedra matters of dogma – which are rare. I also support a woman's right to choose. I personally wouldn't have an abortion or encourage anyone to get one but what someone else does with their body is not my primary concern. Sorry to burst your catholic stereotype.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  6. Weezer1107

    An abortion should not preclude Dorothy Day's canonization. On the contrary, it would be a testament to the power of God's love and mercy to transform the lives of those open to it. Dorothy Day's post-conversion life typifies the heroic virtue that characterizes a saint. That is the measuring stick. Saints are not perfect people nor "nearly perfect" people. As Cardinal O'Connor remarked, Dorothy Day mirrors St. Augustine whose early life was very "unsaintlike, " including mistresses and fathering a child outside of marriage. Even St. Paul, in his days as Saul, murdered many Christians.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  7. ShaneB

    If the requirement is that no Saint ever sinned there would be no Saints.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • Weezer1107

      Well said! The greatest sinners perhaps became the greatest saints!

      July 7, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Spiffy

      Yeah like Hitler! Oh wait...

      July 7, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  8. Patrick in North Carolina

    The "Catholics" who were surveyed & support abortion are not actually Catholic at all perhaps only in name. It is a mortal sin to take the life of an innocent baby, however is forgiven by God. Enough of this "cafeteria style" Catholicism of picking and choosing to follow only certain teachings of the Church. The politicians who support or vote for abortion should just leave the church altogether and are excommunicating themselves for supporting abortion. I believe that Dorothy Day is a good candidate to be considered for sainthood, and you don't have to perform miracles while still alive in order to be considered for sainthood. I agree with "CHC" ...the saints are the sinners who keep on trying. Abortion should be made illegal in the USA and all the world. It is not "our bodies" that we can do whatever we want with. Our bodies have been given to us as a gift from God, just as the life of a child is a gift, not to be thrown away after being torn from the womb and aborted.... systematically killed,and thrown in a dumpster in this modern holocaust. There are plenty of couples who cannot have children and would gladly adopt these "unwanted" babies.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Spiffy

      Stop trying to force your beliefs on the rest of us. Abortion is not killing a baby it is killing an unfeeling, unemotional, and unintelligent group of cells.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  9. Spiffy

    Catholics can do whatever they want. If they want to forgive this woman of what they so actively oppose go ahead. As an atheist I will just continue to think your beliefs are detrimental to society.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Spirit rules

      Aaah Spiffy, harsh words. I would rather back up someone who believes in something than nothing at all. Bottom line you got nothing.

      July 8, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  10. BIKEKING

    NUN OR NOT.................SHE PURPOSELY "KILLED" ANOTHER HUMAN BEING...............AN ACCIDENT IS FORGIVEABLE.....

    July 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Observer

      She killed a fetus. A fetus lives in water like a fish, has never seen light nor breathed air. A fetus, in time, will become a full human being. A human being can live by itself.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Weezer1107

      She wasn't a "nun."

      July 7, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  11. June

    Dorothy Day's promiscuity and/or abortion would never preclude her from being proclaimed a saint. Let's not forget St. Augustine who lived a less than saintly life before turning himself around and lived to write about it in his confessions! Go Dorothy!

    July 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Weezer1107

      Amen!

      July 7, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  12. RSH

    Humans cannot say who is a saint or not. The catholic church is not God, why do they think they can control people with fear and lies. It is one of the biggest corporations in the world. TAX THEM!

    July 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  13. Jacob Y

    Should abortion preclude sainthood? Only if you truly practice forgiveness.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  14. Bluemoondrop

    Birth control is a form of genocide? Ideas like this will lead to massive human suffering. I'm no fan of abortion, but let’s get real about population concerns.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  15. Origen

    I guess Augustine is being booted out?

    July 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Spirit rules

      Sad thing that gender still plays such a role in society. Women's pain and struggles still outweighs mens.

      July 8, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  16. JW

    This is clearly a matter for a church to decide amongst itself, with their choice of including public input or not. No ned to fire people up about this. Spiritual matters should be left to the church as much as possible, and if a person doesn't like what the church says, well, they are free to seek spiritual enlightenment elsewhere or start their own church.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  17. Mark

    I'm an agnostic, but I know that Dorothy Day was one of the greatest souls America & the Catholic church has ever seen. She's been an inspiration to me.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  18. minidictum

    Why not? The Catholic Church can close it's eyes to pedophile priests and protect them, no reason to hesitate in this case involving a female who clearly violated one of the basic canons of the faith.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  19. Convert007

    So, there is not possibility of the dead returning to life? Tell that to an ER doc! And faith is for the lunatics! Tell that to any little old lady who has ever flown across the Atlantic for the first time!

    July 7, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Spiffy

      The dead in the religious sense will not return to life. Faith is for lunatics and others alike. Muslim terrorists have faith but so did Ataturk.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  20. illuminati

    A saint is a nearly perfect person who tries to emulate Jesus.
    Jesus would certainly not approve of abortions.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Observer

      Why? What did Jesus or the Bible say about abortions. Maybe Jesus could accept them in certain situations.
      You have no proof, just an OPINION.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Convert007

      No...a saint is one through whom God has acted!

      July 7, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      Might want to read the Bible again, or for the first time if you haven't already. A saint is one who believes that Jesus is Christ and wants to be as Christ-like as possible. It is the true Christian. Catholics have taken the name saint and put it only to specific people they feel should get it. But if you read the Bible, it says that all who believe in Jesus are saints.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      Jesus would not approve of abortions, but He does still love the person. If they choose to come to Him after the abortion, He does not deny them. He loves all and wishes none should perish. This lady in the article had the abortion before she became a Christian. How was she to know that God does not like the killing of innocent babies. After becoming a Christian, she knew this very well. But that does not mean that Jesus doesn't love her because of that one incident. Jesus forgives all sin. Sin you perform yesterday, today, or tomorrow. Knowing Jesus helps you to take control of your life so you don't sin and don't feel the need to sin.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • REALLY?WOW

      OBSERVER The proof that Jesus and the Bible say abortion is wrong? Umm, they're called the Ten Commandments, Thou Shalt Not Kill is one of them.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Chris R

      You don't know much about the history of Saints do you. Tell you what, go read about the life of Saint Paul before the vision on the road to Damascus. Read about Mary Magdalene – the most beloved of Jesus' followers. Read about St. Augustine and his libertine ways prior to receiving grace. Your views of what makes a person a saint is poorly thought out and juvenile.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • Observer

      REALLY?WOW

      The Bible is full of commands from God to kill women. Not once does God give a rip if they are pregnant or not.
      Actions speak louder than words and the Bible NEVER mentions abortions.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Spirit rules

      I agree Jesus wouldn't be gun-ho about abortion, but I think He could understand why women choose to have them. Dorothy had her abortion way before her mission. Your reaction is typical of most people in society. One can do 100,000 good and great things, but when they screw up so many are ready to mock and flog them. Not one ordained saint was without sin. Some flaws we are aware of others we are not. Did she love Jesus and serve Him well?

      July 8, 2011 at 8:22 am |
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