Friends Don't Let Sociologists Do Theology

Stephen Prothero writes a spectacularly wrong headed piece for CNN in which he asks and answers the musical question, “Can Catholics abide a saint who had an abortion?”

He is speaking here of Servant of God Dorothy Day, who had an abortion as a young woman and went on to become one of the most profoundly converted Catholic converts of the 20th century. The assumption that lies at the back of the piece is spelled out by Prothero in terms that are alive to the yakkery of the Culture Wars, but stone deaf to Catholic teaching and theology:

Can you be a saint if you have committed the original sin of contemporary Catholicism?

He answers, Yes. But his answer is a travesty of Catholic thought:

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.

This, being translated, means “Day will be accepted as a saint by those Catholics who don’t think abortion is a big deal, while those who do regard it as a sin will have to choke it down as best they may.”  In other words, by Prothero’s lights, the real reason Day will be accepted as a saint is because of Catholics who excuse abortion, not because of Catholics who forgive it. Indeed, the subtext is that Catholics who regard abortion as a monstrous crime—people such as, oh, Dorothy Day—can’t “abide” the thought of welcoming saints with gravely sinful pasts.

One wonders where Prothero has been all these years. Has he never heard of the enormous popularity of the cult of Mary Magdalene, popularly regarded as a reformed prostitute? Has he never heard of the celebrated baptism of Norma McCorvey (aka “Roe” of Roe v. Wade) by Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life? Does he know nothing of the huge welcomes and celebrations given such figures as Abby Johnson or Carol Everett, former “abortion providers” who repented and have become lionesses of the pro-life movement? Has he never heard of the various post-abortive ministries run by gung ho pro-lifers who spend all their time rejoicing over the one sheep who returns more than the ninety and nine who were not lost? I cannot think of a single group of people more likely to celebrate a post-abortive saint than orthodox Catholic pro-lifers.

But the reason they will do so is that, like Dorothy Day, they recognize the reality of both sin and forgiveness. They believe that Jesus came to forgive sin and rejoice of this, while those indifferent to sin see very little point to celebrating Dorothy Day—or anybody else—as a saint since we’re all good and the whole forgiveness of sin thing is a guilt trip. When everybody is automatically a saint and there are no sins to forgive (that’s judgemental doncha know) there’s no particular reason to elevate a Dorothy Day or anybody else. In fact, it’s “elitist” and makes people feel “judged” and “unequal.”

Bottom line: A culture that perpetually excuses sin is a culture that cannot, when push comes to shove, forgive it. Paradoxically, a culture that bites the bullet of acknowledging the reality of sin is a culture that carries within it the possibility of accepting forgiveness for sin. Dorothy Day had the moxie to acknowledge the sin of her abortion. Because of that, she was able to receive the grace of forgiveness for it. She was and remains a sign of contradiction and hope to the dictatorship of relativism. “Abide” her as a saint? I will applaud the day the Church raises her to the altar and thank the God who forgive her that sin as he has forgiven billions of other sins.