Misunderstanding Dorothy Day Misunderstands Mercy

Kathryn Jean Lopez has written a thoughtful and terrific piece addressing Stephen Prothero’s puzzling or deliberately provocative notion that Dorothy Day’s abortion could interfere with her cause for sainthood.

Prothero wrote: “Can Catholics abide a saint who had an abortion?”

Possibly reconsidering the question as a bit aggressive, he rephrased it: “Can you be a saint if you have committed the original sin of contemporary Catholicism?”

Lopez writes:

It’s probably fair to say that Day is more readily embraced by those who are active in liberal, rather than conservative politics. But when looked at through a political lens, she presents challenges to all—and especially to those who don’t want to acknowledge that this woman who could be considered a hero of left-leaning Catholics also came to believe that abortion was a grave evil.

I can’t help but think that with his question Prothero was acknowledging this unholy divide. It is a question born out of a caricature, one that presumes anyone opposed to abortion would be outraged by the possibility that the Church would officially elevate one who had committed such a grave sin to the ranks of the canonized. For her promiscuity alone, Prothero seems to expect that a heckler would stand alongside the crowds on Day’s canonization day screaming “Jezebel!”

Perhaps someone would. Who am I kidding? Of course someone would. We are quite the varied mix of sinners, after all. And while we may be made in His image, to forgive truly is divine. Thank God for His mercy because life here at times would seem rather merciless if the dispensing were left to us alone.

I wish I could disagree with Lopez and say, “No! No Catholic would ever do such a thing!” But she is probably right. On the issue of abortion and sexuality I’ve encountered a few over-the-top “more Catholics than the pope” types; I daresay there may be a voice or two raised in accusation and heedless of mercy.

She writes further:

But that anyone would take the time to write such a piece as Prothero’s, positing Day’s abortion as a saintly deal-killer, is a loud and alarming siren alerting us to widespread pain in our midst. There is great suffering surrounding abortion. It not only kills a life but leads souls straight to despair.

As committed prolifers, we must speak to this, and help lead the wounded to the solace of God’s mercy. As firmly as we must stand against legal abortion in our country, so too are we called to support women and men who, having made not-so-great choices, find themselves facing the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy—or the heartache of having procured an abortion.
[. . .]
I don’t know if Dorothy Day will be canonized. But to suggest that the nature of her sins might keep her out of the Communion of Saints is only to divide and hurt souls who should be uplifted by the example of the trajectory of her life.

It’s a long piece and I do suggest you read the whole thing.

I do think Lopez is on to something, there — that this question was asked at all by Prothero, for whatever reason, suggests that something is lacking in our outreach and communication on this issue. His question supposes Catholics do not understand concepts of contrition and the infinite nature of God’s mercy. In fairness, I cannot ascribe hostility to Prothero’s question, but I also can’t help noticing that it does seem like it could be taken as such — as though Prothero is trying to call out Catholics for hypocrisy, if they do understand the nature of forgiveness, but also if they do not.

Dorothy Day sincerely regretted her abortion and asked for forgiveness in the sacrament of confession. As a Benedictine Oblate, Day prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, daily. In fact, by the end of her life she was known to travel with only two things — her breviary and a jar of instant coffee. In reading the hours, she would frequently have come across Isaiah 38:17: “…you have saved me from the pit of destruction, when you cast behind your back, all of my sins.”

I have no idea whether or not Dorothy Day will ever be raised to the Canon of Saints. She once said “don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily,” so I doubt she’s up in heaven thinking about the question at all. But it seems pretty clear to me that her sincerely repented-of abortion would be the last thing to hold back her cause.

And I think 99.9% of Catholics would agree with that.

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  • Midori

    Canonization to sainthood requires evidence of two miracles to have been performed after death — and I am not familiar with any miracles associated with Dorothy Day? Are there any that have been reported? Just wondering.

    [I understand her cause is very much in the preliminary stages - admin]

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    If Mary of Egypt could become a saint, then anyone can! Many great saints were great sinners, before their conversions, and Dorothy Day did confess her sin, and repent.

    To be honest, I’m more disturbed by her adherence to socialism, a philosophy that killed countless numbers during the 20th Century.

  • http://seasonsofgrace.net Kathy Schiffer

    Prothero has heard of St. Augustine, right?

    And that other guy–the killer, not of unborn babies, but of fully grown Christians–St. Paul?

  • daisy

    If anything dooms her cause it will be some of more fanatical fans.

  • NY Mom

    I am PRAYING for people to be elevated to sainthood who were post-abortive…who practiced homosexuality…who were drug abusers…..and who all, by the majestic grace and mercy of Almighty God, repented and were reformed to the point of great holiness.

    These are exactly the type of role models the Church needs now. A patron saint for those struggling with same-sex attraction? Lord, call them forth! A patron for those dragging the awful burden of a past abortion behind them? Lord, allow it. What better testimony to God’s love, the power of the sacraments, and the infinite beauties of redemption could there be?

  • The FatMan

    I don’t know if Dorothy Day should be canonized, but Prothero’s wondering whether Day’s abortion should disqualify her, only shows his extreme ignorance of Catholicism and Saints.
    The FatMan

  • Fellow Fallen Female Sinner

    Yeah so? Mary Magdalene was up there with the heavy hitters and last time I looked she was still a saint. I even venerated her relic out here on the left coast. She probably had to do birth control with herbs and potions in the ancient times like other women did. Even puttanesca sauce was thought to be an abortifacient at one time, so…women had their pregnancy remedies that is for sure–heck licorice root causes miscarriages. So if she was a prostitute, it is possible that she would have had an apothecary helping her out too. That or she has hundreds of kids running around to this day.

    If Ms. Day is up for the cause of causes, well, the discussion could help folks who are still outside the sheepfold I’m in to realize that they are welcome in too. Its crazy in here but, I feel safer inside than out. And the retirement benefits last forever.

    And PS, no, I have not had an abortion (I’m just a fellow sinner). I’m waitin’ til marriage even if it never shows up.

  • Obpoet

    Perhaps looking at sins of existing saints would help. St. Cecelia comes to mind. And Peter who denied the Christ. And then there is Moses who committed murder (though not a saint). I do not see evidence of sin as an impediment to sainthood, per se.

  • http://Janehartman.com Jane Hartman

    Wasn’t St. Paul a murderer? Wasn’t Moses a murderer? Wasn’t Matthew a tax collector, known in those days to do nothing but steal? Why would someone who sinned be kept from being a saint when that’s what conversion is about.

  • Kristen

    “Though your sins be as scarlet, yet shall they be white as the snow.” Isaiah 1:18

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    Who exactly is talking about excluding Day from sainthood because she had an abortion before she became religious? I’ve seen this questioned several times now and it’s always in the hypothetical third person with no one of church authority identified. To me it’s become a strawman argument. I don’t believe there is anyone out of stature that would not support her sainthood. I’m a political Conservative and I know Day had strong Liberal sensibilities, but so what. If she was contrite over the abortion and repented (which I’ve heard is the case) and she meets the criteria for sainthood, then by all means she should be a saint. In fact it would be a good thing to show women who have faltered so gravely that repentence is just a change of heart away. Let he without sin cast the first stone.

  • mts1

    Why does the Church canonize a saint? Only the saint’s relation with the Risen Lord can make him or her a saint – the Church does not “make” anyone a saint, but recognizes those it firmly believes has made the cut, and for a purpose. Not for the saint at all, but for the people in the Church Militant who need this or that saint to emulate.

    I totally agree with NY Mom. We need to recognize those who deal with modern social problems in these times who have lived a saintly life to witness to us that there is no sin greater than the saving power of Jesus. And if Day can give hope to women who are contrite of their sin of abortion, it will save their souls not from the sin they’re sorry for and that can be absolved, but the terrible sin of despair of God’s mercy, which I was taught is the sin against the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven.

    And also if they can find someone who had sexual demons (gay or straight) he had to fight to be a good person, then in light of all the bishops complicit in the abuse scandals, the founders of Covenant House and the Legion of Christ being exposed for their sex crimes, and all the scandal today, that would be a badly needed counterweight. All the world has to say about that is you were born that way, so plunge in, and where’s the resistance?

  • Ellen

    I’ve always liked saints who were sinners. I can’t really identify too much with those who were good from the cradle, but give me saints who struggled with sin and I am drawn to them like a moth to a flame.

    I admire Dorothy Day very much, although I am sure she and I would never agree politically. But we could say a rosary together in perfect harmony.

  • Frank Gibbons

    I disagree with the notion that there would be a hue and cry about Dorothy Day having had an abortion. Mr. Prothero, like so many others who write on contemporary spiritual issues, has created a straw man. He needs a conceit, a hook to write an article. Creative and original thinking doesn’t need to employ the kind of projection that Mr. Prothero uses. Why not wait and see what controversy, if any, ensues regarding Dorothy Day’s canonization before commenting on it?

  • Elaine

    Growing up in the Church for me was all about not sinning and I missed the part of the love and forgiveness of God with the harshness of some of the nuns who scared me as a kid and the distance from the priests. Now I find we are welcomed with open arms with all our lousy sins. We have the sacraments to heal us. Amen to the Church for now giving me this message of a loving God and some really fine priests and loving sisters. I like that the Saints were real people with their own sins and turned their life around. Great role models for all of us.

  • Billiamo

    It’s one thing when Joe Schmo airs his ignorance of Catholic moral philosophy; but a “religion scholar from Boston University”?!

    :: recoil ::

  • Maria

    He wasn’t thinking before he went public with his question. If he had, he might have recalled what Christ said, “Whoever among you is without sin, cast the first stone.”

  • Greta

    I would put myself as strong against abortion as anyone, but also work very hard with Project Rachel and have found women there who are easily more worthy of sainthood than myself. They have born the pain of recognition of their great sin and have found a path to reconcilliation with God often with a lifetime committment to getting the word out on what they went through. I have no way of judging Dorthy Day, but if the Church decides to make her a saint based on her reconcilliation with God and His Church, I will be happy for her and think it would send a signal to those who have had abortions that there is a path back from this grave sin.

    Frankly, I have more of an issue with those who vote to keep abortion legal either by voting for political hacks who are known to support this evil or for the politicians who hide behind personally opposed lie. It is this crowd that leads others to suffer the pain of this loss.

  • jedesto

    Have you never heard of Saint Eve? Yes, that one: the Original Sinner!

  • Richard

    The idea that a woman should have an abortion and then through the mercy of God repent and rise through grace to sainthood is a beautiful one. Dorothy Day became a great woman of God and if the Church discerns that she is a saint, I will rejoice. And I consider myself a conservative.

    God is love and Dorothy Day became a beacon of Charity in a dark world. She is or should be an inspiration to all sinners, i.e., everyone. Blessed be God for her shining example.



  • Micha Elyi

    Moses not a saint?

    He’s a saint, Obpoet.