Several of the nation’s top Catholic bishops, including the archbishops of Washington and New York, piled criticism Tuesday on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about her televised remarks Sunday on abortion and the Catholic Church.
The crux of the dispute: the meditations of a fourth-century saint on whether abortion always constitutes homicide.
Mrs. Pelosi’s contention that it does not brought down the wrath of the 433-member U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on her head. On Tuesday morning, they chided the California Democrat on Tuesday morning for “misrepresenting” the Catholic Church’s views on abortion when she told NBC’s “Meet the Press” two days earlier that “over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition” of when life begins.
When reminded by anchor Tom Brokaw that church doctrine states human life begins at conception, the speaker replied the church had only arrived at that conclusion in the past 50 years.
Classifying herself as “an ardent, practicing Catholic,” she added that St. Augustine guessed around the year 400 the fetus received a soul at three months’ gestation but, “We don’t know. The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.”
Six bishops have since taken it on themselves to give her history and doctrine lessons.
The USCCB statement, signed by Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop William E. Lori, chairman of the bishops Committee on Doctrine, said Augustine’s guesswork was irrelevant because “the Churchs moral teaching never justified or permitted abortion at any stage of development.” “Direct abortion,” they said, quoting the church’s catechism, “is gravely contrary to the moral law.”
Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of New York, said Tuesday afternoon he was “shocked” by Mrs. Pelosi’s remarks.
“What the Speaker had to say about theologians and their positions regarding abortion was not only misinformed; it was also, and especially, utterly incredible in this day and age,” said his statement posted on the archdiocesan websiteWeb site.
“We are blessed in the 21st century with crystal-clear photographs and action films of the living realities within their pregnant mothers,” he continued. “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.
“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” and people who think to the contrary “should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name.”
Mrs. Pelosi’s office released a statement Tuesday afternoon repeating her stance.
“Her views on when life begins were informed by the views of Saint Augustine, who said: ‘the law does not provide that the act [abortion] pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation,’” the statement said, quoting the saint’s exposition on Exodus 21:22 in the Old Testament.”While Catholic teaching is clear that life begins at conception,” the statement added, “many Catholics do not ascribe to that view.”
Several of the bishops have acknowledged Mrs. Pelosi’s point that the church didn’t always teach that abortion was homicide and that canon law sometimes specified different penalties for abortion and murder.
But they reiterated that this was based on the poor science of premodern times and that in any event none of the Church Fathers who denied that abortion was homicide ever doubted that it remained a grave offense against both the potential life and against God, the author of life.
In an interview Tuesday, Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said such views mean the speaker “is failing to live up to her Catholic faith.”
“It does not make sense to go back and defend things that were done centuries ago out of the wisdom of the people who lived then,” he said.
He added that St. Augustine’s thoughts on when a soul enters the body in utero “grew out of the lack of the scientific data we have today that clearly shows an embryo is human.”
“If you let an embryo come to term, it will be a human, not something else,” he said. He released a statement Monday night restating the catechism and reminding Mrs. Pelosi that she was no expert on Catholic doctrine. The archbishop has written two church catechisms over a 30-year period.
“It’s my role as a bishop to teach the faith,” he said in the interview. “It is not the role of someone in public office.” When he read Mrs. Pelosi’s remarks Monday, “what struck me was this was an attempt to begin to interpret the Catholic faith and to teach people, and that’s the role of bishops,” he said.
This was the first high-profile political stand the archbishop has taken since his installation two years ago. During his previous 18 years as bishop of Pittsburgh, he spoke out three times: in 1988, against a bill that would force religious groups to hire homosexuals (it later passed in an amended form); in 2000, for gun control; and in 2005, against the death penalty.
On Monday afternoon, Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and his auxiliary, Bishop James D. Conley, allowed that Mrs. Pelosi has “many professional skills,” but adding, “Regrettably, knowledge of Catholic history and teaching does not seem to be one of them.”
Their letter, addressed specifically to northern Colorado Catholics, but aimed at several thousand Democrats in town for their presidential convention, used terms such as “grievously evil” to describe abortion.
“The early church closely associated abortion with infanticide,” they wrote. “From the beginning, the believing Christian community held that abortion was always, gravely wrong.”
They added, “A proper understanding of the ‘separation of church and state’ does not imply a separation of faith from political life. But, of course, it’s always important to know what our faith actually teaches.”