In late August, Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The show’s host asked her a question about the beginning of human life. Describing herself as an “ardent, prac ticing Catholic,” she replied that “this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the Church have not been able to make that defi nition.”
The answer prompted a strong rebuttal from a host of US bishops. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and Auxiliary Bishop James D. Conley of Denver issued an ad mirable statement confronting the mis leading nature of her comment.
“Ardent, practicing Catholics will quickly learn from the historical record that from apostolic times the Christian tradition overwhelmingly held that abortion was grievously evil,” they wrote.
“In the absence of modern medical knowledge, some of the early fathers held that abortion was homicide; others that it was tantamount to homicide; and various scholars theorized about when and how the unborn child might be animated or ‘ensouled.’ But none diminished the unique evil of abortion as an attack on life itself and the early Church closely associated abortion with infan ticide. In short, from the beginning, the believing Christian community held that abortion was always gravely wrong.”
Pelosi’s reference to disagreements among Church theologians on the question of the beginning of human life was misleading on another level: she made it seem that this historical dispute explained her position on abortion, even as she told the interviewer that the question was irrelevant in determining a right to abortion: “St. Augustine said [human life begins] at three months. We don’t know. The point is that that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.”
New York Cardinal Edward Egan noted the oddness of a modern politician showing such respect for pretech nologi cal guesses and speculation. Photo graphs of fetuses demonstrate that they are “living realities within their pregnant mothers,” he wrote, calling Pelosi’s comment “utterly in credible in this day and age.”
“No one with the slightest measure of integrity or honor could fail to know what these marvelous beings manifestly, clearly, and obviously are, as they smile and wave into the world outside the womb,” he wrote. “In simplest terms, they are human beings with an inalienable right to live, a right that the speaker of the House of Representatives is bound to defend at all costs for the most basic of ethical reasons. They are not parts of their mothers, and what they are depends not at all upon the opinions of theologians of any kind.”
The bishops’ forceful response to Pelosi’s comment generated the usual grumbles from secularists, as if the Church was interfering unduly in politics rather than simply protecting her own teaching.
In recent decades, many pro-abortion Catholic politicians have asserted a right to defi ne their stances without “pressure” from the Church while at the same time seeking to advance changes in Church teaching or even banish Church teaching from the public square. They can speak for the Church, this attitude goes, but the Church can’t speak for them.
It is good to see bishops pushing back against this arrogance and defending the Church’s freedoms vigorously. The Pelosi flap occasioned a display of zeal and clarity that dispelled the confusion her remarks, had they gone unchallenged, would have spread among the faithful.
The controversy gave bishops an op – portunity to draw the attention of all Catholics back to authoritative teaching. As Cardinal Justin Rigali and Bishop William Lori, chairmen of the US bishops’ pro-life and doctrine committees, wrote, the Church has since the first century “af fi rmed the moral evil of every abortion.” This is not a debatable or provisional position but a truth contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
With comic expediency, Nancy Pelosi rejects the authority of this changeless position but treats as authoritative the shaky, scientific speculation of theologians, which enjoys no such magisterial protection. Notice also the conclusion to her answer on “Meet the Press,” which made her attempt to present herself as a student of Catholic history and teaching even less credible.
She concluded by endorsing another practice the Church has never accepted— contraception—as the solution to abortion: “God has given us, each of us, a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And we want abortions to be safe, rare, and reduce the number of abortions. That’s why we have this fight in Congress over contraception. . . . If you want to reduce the number of abortions, and we all do, we must—it would behoove you to support family planning and, and contraception. . . .”
Against such multi-layered error, the bishops’ blast was wholly justifi ed and represents a laudable new boldness. The bishops’ witness to Church teaching is vital not only in protecting Catholics from scandal but also in advancing the common good, which is anchored in moral truth.
Should the clarity and unity of that witness grow, the next generation of Catholic politicians in America is likely to look much different from this era’s—an era of bewildering confusion in which “ardent, practicing” Catholic politicians turned up on Sunday talk shows, not to oppose distortions of Church teaching, but to deepen them.
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