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. John


    July 7, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  2. HotAirAce

    It's their cult – they can make the rules as they want, provided they are not counter to any civil laws, and I wouldn't expect a conflict.

    July 7, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  3. Hawk

    If priests who abused children and priest/bishops/etc that covered it up can retain their rank and not face being defrocked, I see no reason why a woman who had an abortion could not become a saint. Heck, after that – there really should be no sin that bars someone from sainthood.

    July 7, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
  4. StewartIII

    NewsBusters| CNN Contributor: Catholics Don't Think Abortion is 'Much of a Sin'

    July 7, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  5. vinobianco

    Does it say, or imply, anywhere in the bible that abortion is wrong? And if it does, do you think it would still be considered wrong in today's context? Probably, but let's all remember that the bible was written in a very different context over 2000 years ago – it's not very logical to apply all the values sited in to modern time.

    July 7, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Convert007

      Er, um....Thou shalt not kill? Seems pretty clear to me that that was in the bible and is applicable to the 21st century, don't you think?

      July 7, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • vinobianco

      Of course! But hopefully we don't need the bible to tell us that. Sure some values are timeless but certainly not all.

      July 7, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • iRoll

      Actually the Bible goes back some 6,000 years or so give or take, if you include the OT, but whether you look at the OT or NT, maybe not abortions per se, but there sure was a lot of baby-killing going on in those days....

      July 7, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • Observer

      The Bible never mentioned the word "abortion", however it did say that if you killed a fetus, the penalty is to pay a fine to the parents.

      July 7, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • Stevie7

      @Convert007 – that commandment should have come with an asterik given the amount and various types of murder sanctioned in the bible.

      Also, its only murder if one is alive in the first place. The bible is silent on the issue of when the supposed soul enters the body.

      July 7, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  6. me

    The whole idea of making anyone a saint is nonsense. She was just a human like the rest of us–not some kind of spiritual being.

    July 7, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • fda

      3 miracles must be observed to become a saint.

      July 7, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  7. Republicans Are The American Taliban

    The modern day Catholic church doesn't seem to be about forgiveness, charity, or goodness. That's why they support the Republican agenda.

    July 7, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • Mike

      That is a very destructive statement to make. You must know nothing about Catholic Charities and the work done through the church. This is not about politics, its about a woman, who sinned early in life and had a rebirth and although I do not support the Catholic Church in all of its "traditional idolatry", she was a gifted woman, who is already a Saint!!

      July 7, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • fda

      i think its the republicans who follow the Vaticans Agenda. Why are you Americans always so arrogant to think the world revolves around you?

      July 7, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • John

      Mike, Catholics don't believe in idolatry. Moses said not to worship images, and then proceeded to have them build a golden ark with winged angels on top. Catholics don't worship anyone but God; we use statues to honor humans that exemplify what it means to love God. And for those of you who are tempted to bring up Mary we don't pray to Mary we pray through Mary... and Mary IS the ark of the new covenant

      July 7, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  8. Rinsewind

    Speaking as a Catholic, albeit a quite liberal one, the repentant sinner going on to achieve great goodness is certainly not foreign to the Church. There are a number of saints who fall into this category. The Catholic Worker movement worked tirelessly for the poor, led by Ms. Day. There is no reason why she should be precluded from becoming a saint should she satisfy all the other requirements. If you don't accept the idea of sainthood, that's fine with me. But I doubt there will be much push-back from believers like me.

    July 7, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • Rinsewind

      I should add that many (though certainly not all) Catholics believe that the ossified Church hierarchy and the abuse of children by priests represent all that is wrong about Catholicism. Ms. Day and the Catholic Worker movement represent what is right.

      July 7, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • Silly

      I would prefer there be a true recanting of her abortion, the interview attributed in this article simply says she didn't want to push others into sin – that to me says she still felt her abortion and therefore other abortions would be okay. Very murky ground for a very morally troubled church. I'm what my friend calls a cradle catholic, born & bred, I've since had a hard time with many items in my life and how the church chose to handle them. With children, I take an extremely dim view of the cover up involved with all the abuse and an even dimmer view of saying gays are immoral if they want to profess a loving, stable, long term relationship when half the marriages condoned by the church fail for lack of moral fiber.

      July 7, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Rinsewind

      @Silly– I see her response as more of an unwillingness to overtly judge others who are faced with the same difficult choice she was, rather than a failure to condemn abortion itself. I do take your point, however, and see how it can be interpreted in that way. I certainly agree with your stance disagreeing with the Church's condemnation of gay men and women who are in stable, loving relationships.

      July 7, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
  9. Lizzy10

    Many saints had questionable lives prior to conversion, check out Saul/ St Paul. Repentance and forgiveness are two of the basic tenents of Catholicism, thank God.

    July 7, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • Silly

      Repentance is the key – did she and if so where is the proof?

      July 7, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • Convert007

      @Silly, I guess only God has the proof.

      July 7, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  10. Allie

    I have very mixed feelings about abortion. And I'm very Protestant, so i won't comment on the process of beatification, etc.

    From a very general theological standpoint, however, i would argue that many religious denominations teach that God can use even the most flawed or imperfect; a modern example of this theme can be found in Flannery O'Connor's short story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," in which grace flows from God through a deeply flawed character and effects the redemption of a criminal. Further, many denominations teach that grace is not a reward for goodness but, rather a gift that makes one change one's whole life. Holding an early undesired trait or deed against someone who has changed profoundly doesn't square with the forgiveness and regeneration I was taught were the cornerstones of my faith. The there's the notion of human goodness being so small next to divine goodness that we all look pretty terrible. Who am I to say that someone imperfect is less deserving of grace than I? Am I perfect? (most emphatically not) Who am I to say that the divine cannot choose someone with whom I disagree or who did something I find unacceptable?

    July 7, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • Mike

      There is no room for "mixed feelings". Abortion is murder, period!! case closed. To believe otherwise is simply the ways of non-believer. Anyone, including the POTUS, who says they are Christian and then support abortion has sinned in the eyes of fellow christians and Jesus Christ. And only Christians can judge other Christians!!

      July 7, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Rinsewind

      @Mike– Only Christians can judge other Christians? Really? Even more incredible since I'm willing to bet that your definition of who is a Christian is exceedingly narrow. Glad you've got a direct line to God, but those long-distance charges must be expensive.

      July 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • anne

      @mike I believe you meant to say that God is the one who judges and that He judges everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation. I believe that He gave very strong warnings against us judging one another.

      Saints are just regular people stumbling along in life making the same mistakes, and sometimes a few more, that everyone makes. At some point in their life they give their hearts and their lives to God in a complete way. The Catholic Church recognizes them so that the rest of us have the opportunity to learn about them in the hope of enriching our lives.

      July 7, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • Stevie7

      "Abortion is murder, period!! case closed. To believe otherwise is simply the ways of non-believer"

      Many millions of Christians would disagree with you, and would probably disagree that you're the final arbiter of who gets to be in the Christian club.

      July 7, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  11. Jeff

    Eventually the Catholics will find some priests who didn't bugger the alter boys on three occasions and they will be shoe ins for sainthood!

    July 7, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • JiminNM

      The Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church just excommunicated two Popes, calling them out formally for their atrocious behavior. You can find the video on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sfsajNRQvQ).

      July 7, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      So that's what happened to Aretha Franklin's hat. I thought she told Muammar Gaddafi to give it back to HER

      July 8, 2011 at 5:50 am |
  12. BOXEU

    There were other saints who lead a promiscuous lives in the past and there will be saints that lead them in the present and future. Sinners make the best saints. Several come to mind, St Mary of Egypt, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Paul, St. Olga, St. Thomas (a Becket). See SAINTS BEHAVING BADLY: THE CUTTHROATS, CROOKS, TROLLOPS, CON MEN AND DEVIL-WORSHIPPERS WHO BECAME SAINTS, BY THOMAS CRAUGHWELL, DOUBLEDAY, 2006, 190 PAGES.

    July 7, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  13. Rick101

    Abortion is murder, condoning abortions is the same as condoning murder.

    July 7, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
    • Olaf Big

      My friend, there is a minor difference. Abortion is legal and hopefully will stay that way, while a murder might land you in a chair of the most uncomfortable kind.

      July 7, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • James

      I agree, abortion is murder and it appals me that every year in England around 50,000 fetuses are murdered. That's a whole city of human beings.

      On the other hand, the Catholic church believes in forgiveness. St Columba of Iona (later called the Dove of the Church) was exiled from Ireland for murdering someone, but his work founding monasteries and his good behaviour caused him to be declared a saint after his death.

      July 7, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • Observer

      If abortion is murder, then all miscarriages be investigated as possible homicides. Yes or no?

      July 7, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Mike

      There is a fine line there Observer.....there are spontaneous "abortions" where the fetus is rejected, but then there are many self inflicted abortions....most women suffer enough when they look at that "aborted fetus".

      July 7, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • Observer


      If abortion is murder then all deaths of fetuses must be investigated as possible homicides.

      July 7, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • Convert007

      Slavery was legal too!

      July 7, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • David Johnson


      Abortion is not murder, because a fetus is not an actual human being—it is a potential human being.

      Being Helpful!

      July 7, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      Why exactly is it not second degree manslaughter ?

      July 7, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  14. Olaf Big

    The discussion is about as relevant as the question whether it is easier for a sinner to get to heaven or for a camel to pass through the needle's eye. She is dead and does not care, I don't care, you don't care. Anybody? You old child molester in black robe over there don't get a say...

    July 7, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  15. cmc

    If you think birth control is genocide, you're a freak. How nice that Day was able to live her life without the difficulties children can bring to single women, yet she wanted to deny that to other women. If she had an issue with how the abortion was done, she should have been happy that it was no longer illegal and that other women wouldn't need to be left bleeding on a table. Like many religious people, she's was a hypocrite. I wonder how many 'canonized' men were party to an unwanted pregnancy that resulted in abortion?

    July 7, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  16. Paco the Avenger

    hahahahahahahahahahahaha. That's about all I can say. This whole thing makes me laugh

    July 7, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  17. Darren

    religion is fake any way so who cares ?

    July 7, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • JiminNM

      What if it isn't fake? Are you willing to bet you life?

      July 7, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • Mike

      Darren, I will pray for you and will ask that you ask for redemption and that God give you the grace to live a holy life!! That's why you were created by him.

      July 7, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • JiminJD

      JiminNM, what if your religion is the wrong one? There are thousands+ of religions. Are you willing to bet your life on yours?

      July 7, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • David Johnson


      You said: "Darren, I will pray for you and will ask that you ask for redemption and that God give you the grace to live a holy life!! That's why you were created by him."

      Prayer doesn't work. You might as well tell Darren you will tell Santa he was a good boy all year. No difference.

      If Darren was created by god... then god must have created the baby with no brain. That sort of sucks, huh?

      There is far more evidence that Darren and the rest of us were products of evolution.

      Evolution, with its evidence of transitional fossils, geological column, DNA evidence, vestigial organs etc., is very damning to the biblical Creation Story.

      If god created all the organisms on the planet, then He must have created even the diseases that have caused and are causing so much death and misery for humans and animals. He would have had to fashion the tick and the flea. The mosquito and blood flukes. And worms that bore into a child's eye.

      How could an all good god do such a thing? Why would He spend His time creating gruesome things to cause human suffering? Yet, these horrors exist. And if god didn't create them, who did?

      Evolution explains the diversity of the planet's organisms, including the pathogens and the parasites that have caused so much human death and misery.

      If the Creation Story is a fable, then Adam and Eve did not exist.

      If Adam and Eve did not exist, then there was no original sin.

      If there was no original sin, then it cannot be the reason god allows so much suffering in the world. We can dump the guilt trip.

      If there was no original sin, then there was no need for a redeemer.

      If there was no redeemer, then Christianity is a based on a false premise.

      "If we cannot believe in the First Adam, why believe in the Last [Christ]?" 1 Corinthians15:45

      If the Creation story is a myth, then there is no reason to believe any of the bible.

      If we evolved, there is no soul –> no afterlife –> no need of a heaven or hell.

      LOL, which is why the Evangelicals fight so hard against evolution.

      I think the Christian god is no more likely to exist, than Santa.


      July 7, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  18. Steven James Beto

    I wonder if sainthood is the only or even the best way in which we can honor and remember the good deeds of others. Is there an alternative to religion that we as caring human beings can found our hopes, our aspirations, and our wonderment? Huston Smith said that in the best of all religions lies the distilled wisdom of the human race. Do we need religion anymore?

    July 7, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • Mister Jones


      July 7, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Ben

      The simple solution for you is don't join. The real question is do we need questions posed by people who fel they already have the answers.

      July 7, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  19. buck

    The whole Idea that we as humans get to DECIDE who is or isnt a "saint" is absolutely Ridiculous!! Making someone anyone a saint is just stupid, There is an investigation, and proof of three miriacles by said potential saint. This of course costs MONEY which could be better used on the Saints who are alive. Starving children, sick people people who are in need of basic neccesities. Not deciding if some DEAD PERSON should become a saint. Get Real

    July 7, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  20. frank

    "fat, dirty and furtive"
    Sounds like my ex-wife...

    July 7, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Eddie

      Maybe we were married to the same woman.

      July 7, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Mike

      Wow, says something about your "selection process".

      July 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • Convert007

      Says something about you life's expectations!

      July 7, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.