In his speech before Congress on Thursday, during the second day of his first-ever trip to the United States, Pope Francis began by calling out four inspiring Americans. Contrary to what lots of people on Twitter thought, none of those people was Hollywood icon Doris Day.
But they weren't that far off. Early in his address, the pontiff said, "I would like to mention four…Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton." The woman named Day that he did mention, though she never won an Academy Award, is a pretty amazing and perhaps unlikely woman to get a papal shout-out. Dorothy Day, born in 1897, was an American writer and a liberal Catholic activist. She helped establish the Catholic Workers Movement and believed fiercely that the redistribution of wealth could solve some of society's greatest woes. She called herself a socialist but eschewed the Communist Party, especially when it attacked her religious zeal. The Catholic Church refers to her with the official title Servant of God, which effectively means she's shortlisted for sainthood. But she wasn't always an almost-saint. As a religious and political leader, Day may have been inimitable, but her life was marked by mishaps, imperfections, and what the Catholic Church would undoubtedly call sin. Dorothy Day had extra- and premarital affairs. She married twice. Around 1920, she had an abortion. She was not wed at the time, so she fled to Europe to find herself. Today, the pope mentioned her anyway.
Dorothy Day had extra- and pre-marital affairs. She married twice. She had an abortion. Today, the Pope mentioned her anyway.
Forgiveness for sins is a central part of Catholic teaching. Day converted to Catholicism in 1927. But given the number of women the pontiff could have chosen — nuns and pious ladies who never deviated much from the path — it's hard to believe his choice of Day isn't sending a message. "The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding," the pope said, "these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self-sacrifice — some at the cost of their lives — to build a better future." For all their many differences and limitations is maybe the key idea behind Pope Francis' appeal to many. People are complex, they make mistakes, and though the church hasn't changed its definition of sin, Francis' papacy has advocated a new era of flexibility and forgiveness — for us and for women like Dorothy Day.