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. LilySue

    Try to remember that each and every saint was a real person. They faced the realities and challenges every human being faces, You need to look at the sum total of a person's life to determine the impact of that life. Dorothy Day, like other sainthood candidates and selectees, lived fully within her time. The sum total of their lifetime accomplishments and challenges of life, and how they are met, makes each of them who they are, If they had all lived "perfect" lives, they may not have accomplished whatever was necessary to be so honored. Remember that there has been only one "Perfect" person.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  2. Wesley

    Making people saints.....WHAT A CROCK

    July 7, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  3. steve

    Umm . . . if I am not mistaken Paul did a few bad things before Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. I think he still made sainthood on the first ballot.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  4. Curtis Shanks

    you Catholics are messed up !!!! lol

    July 7, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  5. Howie76

    I cannot see where is a problem the current pope followed the Nazi movement. So if she cannot be up for sainthood then he should not be a pope or ever considered a saint.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  6. Andy

    I am anti-abortion but I have to say this. Sin can be forgiven. It is not up to the church who gets to be a saint and who does not. That is in the hands of God.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • WrshipWarior

      Actually the Bible refers to all believers as saints. The church introduced the idea of glorifying certain individuals and referring to them as saints. Amen for God's forgiveness.

      July 7, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • CommonSense

      "It is not up to the church who gets to be a saint and who does not."


      It is ONLY up to the church to decide. They created the requirements and they hand out the certifications. (It's a great and lucrative gig if you can get people to buy into it ... )

      July 7, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  7. RowJimmy

    The Roman Catholic Church holds Mary Magdalene, a fallen women, in high esteem; why would they have a problem with Ms Day? What people don't seem to realize is the church is about redemption. If sainted Ms Day will be recognized for her collective good works rather than the narrow minded perspective offered by the author.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • Mike

      We don't get to heaven on "good works". We are saved by the grace of God. All who have repented and been baptized are "Saints" in the Kingdom of God.

      July 7, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  8. Aezel

    Another pointless discussion and a waste of human time, money, and effort. This debate has about as much intellectual merit as trying to decide if you should add more reindeer to Santa's sleigh team. Reindeer are real, Dorothy Day was real, that is about where reality ends and all the made – up sky people begin on both accounts.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • teachfishtoswim

      Couldn't have said it better myself.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • CommonSense

      I vote for more reindeer (that will lead the way to more toys!)

      July 7, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • Mike

      I will pray for you and ask you to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Repent and be baptized.

      July 7, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  9. Squeezebox

    When a person is baptized, all of their sin is taken away. The sacrament of confession, which always preceeds either baptism or conversion, takes away sins as well. Therefore, Dorothy Day was forgiven for her abortion before she was ever received into the Holy Mother Church. The sin is gone, so cannonization is no problem. 🙂

    July 7, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  10. KC

    Just wanted to say that my mum knew Dorothy Day and went to school with Margie Crow from Buffalo, NY who worked with Dorothy Day in NYC.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  11. dr. perry fisher

    I want to place my name for Benedect the Ex-Nazi and paedophile to declare me a saint.What foolishness,the catholic church is a cult

    July 7, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  12. PhuuKuu Upsidedown

    I hope this doesn't sound harsh, but If I were God, I would send fireballs down on top of every person who fights against Him and his people. But then again, I know he wants everyone to believe in him before he comes back.. Ok... I get it. GRACE.. LOVE... MERCY.... I want the God of the Old Testament to show up now...

    July 7, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Mike

      There is no God of the OT. There is only the new covenant of the blood poured out by Jesus found in the NT (Luke 14:20-21).

      July 7, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  13. John


    July 7, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • .....

      Don't bother viewing this garbage, click the report abuse link to get rid of this troll.

      July 7, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  14. Nyarlathotep

    The question is moot: her advocates have to produce TWO bona-fide miracles attributable to her, and those are in pretty short supply these days thanks to the light of science.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  15. foomench

    Historically, many saints have led very unsaintly lives to some point in time, then changed their ways. Do some research–this case is not particularly unique in this regard.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  16. Disappointed

    This was a poorly conceived article. Prothero totally misses the point. Catholics aren't going to revere Day in spite of her abortion because they are wishy-washy and don't care about abortion. They will revere her because after a young life of sin and destructive decisions, she had a major conversion and not only found God but devoted her life to the salvation of others. Prothero isn't the only one, however. CNN and most major news agencies do a really bad job of writing thoughtfully on issues regarding faith, and especially the Catholic Church. Prothero's conclusion that "many of them don't consider it all that much of a sin in the first place" is not only stupid but also shows a complete lack of research or understanding of what sainthood means for Catholics and why Dorothy Day is being considered for that sainthood. He throws around a few weak statistics and calls it hard-hitting journalism. Shame on CNN for allowing such lazy and ignorant writing.

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

      I agree. This idiot doesn't gets the points of the Grace issue. He is totally stuck on his humanistic hedonistic ways.. Let em all burn I say..

      July 7, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • Mike

      Well stated, how can we accept any real journalism from a Communication Service as destructive as The Communist News Network. This writer has no understanding of sin and repentance.

      July 7, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  17. DoOver

    Several "saints" from the founding of the religion onward have committed crimes much more heinous than abortion. If they can be canonized why can't Dorothy Day?

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

      Women controlling their own bodies, including and especially reproduction, isn't any more of crime than men controlling their own bodies, including and especially reproduction.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  18. Sanctioning Abortions

    But stop to think - The greatest statement the Vatican can make to the world is to canonize this woman as a saint despite her abortion. That would, in effect, and without a doubt, sanction abortions throughout the world with the Vatican's blessings!

    July 7, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  19. Bubba Schmo

    According to the Bible we're all Saints ... I've never been able to figure out why the Catholics want to add so many rows of barbed wire around God.

    July 7, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • tensor

      Why? Mo' money, mo' money.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • Truth Squad

      You mean all saved people, ie Christians, are Saints, not all people.

      I think that was your point. No one person is higher or lower than another.

      Peter, so called first Pope, refused to be bowed down to and receive offers from "The common Folk" and was more of a servant than those so-called "common-folK.

      July 7, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  20. adam

    Doesn't the Catholic Cult have enough gods already?

    July 7, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Bemused

      lol, it resembles a pantheon of greater and lesser gods, complete with heroes. These cult members pray to patrons specific to what they beseech, just like the ancient Greeks and Romans...

      July 7, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
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