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

Stephen Prothero, a regular contributor to's Belief Blog, bizarrely read the hearts of American Catholics, based on a recent poll which found that the majority of them believe abortion should stay legal. Prothero, writing in a Thursday item about 20th century leftist Catholic activist Dorothy Day and her self-admitted abortion, concluded that U.S. Catholics "will forgive Day's sin...because, in their heart of hearts, many of them don't consider it all that much of a sin in the first place."

The blogger, who, according to his bio line, is a "Boston University religion scholar and author of 'God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World,'" began his op-ed, "My Take: Catholics will accept a saint who had an abortion," with a question that he answered with his claim about American Catholics: "Can Catholics abide a saint who had an abortion?" After noting Day's life as an "anarchist, a pacifist, and the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, a movement devoted to helping the poor and the homeless" and her open cause for canonization in the Catholic Church, Prothero described the activist's personal experience with abortion:

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."

...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."

The "religion scholar" then exposed his misunderstanding of Catholic theology on sainthood: "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.'" Actually, the canonization process isn't about being "accepted" into the communion of saints, as only God can do that. What that process is actually about is determining, through a careful examination of the person's life and investigating any possible miracles attributed to his or her intercession, that God has indeed given that person their eternal reward in heaven.

Near the end of his piece, Prothero applied the example of Dorothy Day's life to the contemporary debates over the controversial issues of abortion, contraception, and homosexual behavior. This is where he went off the rails:

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 blogger's poll numbers don't tell the whole story. A March 12, 2010 Gallup poll concluded that "support for making abortion broadly illegal growing fastest among young adults." A Marist poll released a month earlier, which was conducted in conjunction with the Knight of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, found that "66% of Catholic Millenials [those 18-29] say abortion is morally wrong." So the future of the Church in the U.S. have largely aligned themselves with what the universal Catholic Church teaches.

Also, it is true that certain saints, such as the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and St. Anthony of Padua, are much more renowned and popular than other lesser known saints, such as St. John Fisher, a contemporary of St. Thomas More who was also executed by King Henry VIII. But Prothero's conclusion that the Catholic laity will decide "who will be revered " as a saint implies that some kind of democratic process is involved, when the reality is much more organic than that.

Finally, it doesn't matter whether many Catholics think abortion isn't "much of a sin in the first place." It doesn't change the Church's teaching on the issue, which has been consistent since the very beginning. The Didache, a document which dates from the late first or early 2nd century, expounds on the Ten Commandments in stating that "you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten." It is up to Catholics, if they are faithful, to live according to that teaching.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan was a news analyst at Media Research Center