Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Can a sinner become a saint? Yes. Why do you ask?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 07, 2011

Can someone who is a sinner become a saint?

That, essentially, is the question that Stephen Prothero asks in a CNN blog post today.

The question is remarkable--not because it is difficult, but because the answer is so obvious. No one who has even a passing acquaintance with Christian thought should ask such a question. Prothero, a Professor of Religion at Boston University, has more than a passing acquaintance with the subject. So one suspects that he has something up his sleeve. And sure enough…

But wait. Let’s take these questions one at a time. First, can a sinner become a saint? Yes. We are all sinners. Yet we all have the opportunity to become saints. Aside from the Virgin Mary, there is no saint who was not a sinner.

So it’s easy to answer Prothero’s rhetorical query. Now let’s get to the more interesting question: Why did he ask it?

Here I should confess that at the top of this column I only paraphrased Prothero’s question, leaving out one crucial factor. Let me quote his words exactly, from the opening line of his post:

Can Catholics abide a saint who had an abortion?

Aha! So the question is not about sin in general, but about one particular sin. A sin that just happens to be the focus of a political battle in which the Catholic Church confronts a secular culture.

The answer to Prothero’s question remains equally obvious. Abortion is a grave sin, but even grave sins can be forgiven. St. Augustine was a famous philander; now we honor him as a great saint. St. Paul led a persecution of the early Church; now we refer to him as The Apostle. There are no limits to God’s mercy, nor heights to which Christ cannot raise those whose soiled robes have been washed in his blood.

The subject of Prothero’s post is Dorothy Day, a woman whose life was constantly marked by controversy. Prior to her conversion she was promiscuous; after she became a Catholic she was a fiery pacifist and advocate for the poor who frequently clashed with the American hierarchy. Yet as many witnesses will attest, Dorothy Day was a woman of profound faith, enormous dedication, and absolute commitment to the truths of the Catholic faith.

She never won popularity contests. Dorothy Day was the sort of live-wire Christian witness who invariably manages to “comfort the afflicted—and afflict the comfortable.” My own strong suspicion is that she was, and will eventually be recognized as, a great saint of the Church. Indeed a cause for her beatification is underway. The ostensible reason for Prothero’s column is to wonder aloud whether that cause will eventually be approved.

Because of her abortion. Prior to her conversion, Day procured an illegal abortion. She regretted it, repented of it, described it as a sordid affair. In her later years she condemned legal abortion as a form of genocide. So Prothero asks:

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

Do you see what’s wrong with that question? Let me pose it again, this time adding my own emphasis to the key words:

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

No, Professor Prothero. Abortion is not the “original sin” of contemporary Catholicism. The original sin of contemporary Catholicism is…Original Sin.

Anyone who understands the fundamental teachings of Christianity—and is not driven off course by the ideology—should see the point. Because of Original Sin we are all in the same condition: sinners in need of redemption. Through Christ’s sacrifice, redemption is attainable. So we sinners, however grave our faults, can become saints.

With his supercilious description of abortion as the “original sin of contemporary Catholicism,” Prothero succeeds only in drawing our attention to the fact that abortion is one of the questions on which Catholic teaching is most thoroughly at odds with secular ideology. Having set up that opposition, he goes on to say that he thinks Dorothy Day will indeed be recognized as a saint. Yet once again, his thought process is revealing:

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.

Wrong again, Professor.

Notice how quickly Prothero steps over the great truths of redemption and forgiveness--the very core of Christian faith--to concentrate on the latest poll results. By suggesting that the shifting opinions of the Catholic majority will eventually allow for the canonization of Dorothy Day, he introduces two different red herrings. First, he implies that the sin of her youth, which she later repented, now blocks her cause. It does not. Second, he implies that a change in popular opinion will eventually produce a shift in Church teaching—both on abortion and on Dorothy Day’s cause. It will not.

Saints are not chosen by majority vote among all those who describe themselves as Catholics. If Dorothy Day is canonized, it will be because of a solemn pronouncement of the Church: an act of the same teaching magisterium that condemns—and always will condemn--homosexual acts, contraception, and abortion. (By the way, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Dorothy Day would have agreed with that statement. If Stephen Prothero is looking for a heroine to vindicate the cause of theological dissent, he has chosen the wrong champion. Any serious examination of Day’s life will drive home that message.)

More to the point, if Dorothy Day is canonized (or beatified), it will be only after a miracle has been attributed to her intercession. Thus her canonization will have been ratified by the Almighty. Ultimately there is only one vote that matters on the question of canonization, and that decisive vote is cast by the One who has made it possible for great sinners to become great saints.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: schndj2254 - Jul. 12, 2011 3:41 PM ET USA

    The closing line of Prothero's piece is telling...Day will be accepted as a saint by Catholic faithful as most do not consider abortion all that much of a sin...anyway. Sooo, sin is essentially in the eye of the beholder(s) and after all, Prothero's Jesus was described by Benedict XVI... "The popular Jesus makes no demands and never challenges people. He accepts everyone and everything under all circumstances". Prothero's Jesus is a phantom, a dream, not a real figure. Everyone's a saint!

  • Posted by: bnewman - Jul. 09, 2011 10:07 PM ET USA

    I applaud the careful unpacking of key elements of Professor Prothero's argument. The deceitfulness exposed is breathtaking: a deliberate distortion of traditional Catholic teaching to make cheap shots and to simulataneosly misrepresent and demean the canonisation if it should eventually occur as a political evnent.

  • Posted by: Defender - Jul. 07, 2011 9:23 PM ET USA

    A professor of religion at BU? Why doesn't this surpise anyone? Proves all sorts of things, doesn't it?

  • Posted by: jjen009 - Jul. 07, 2011 7:27 PM ET USA

    Can you be a saint if you have committed the original sin of contemporary Catholicism?
    And, indeed:
    Can you be a saint if you have committed the original sin of contemporary Catholicism?
    This is the first I heard there was a special religion called contemporary Catholicism! jj