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A Teachable Moment on the Congresswoman and the Catechism
BY PAUL KENGOR
Perhaps it’s old hat. Maybe we’re dead to it now, inured from continued shock — chastened, numb.
In a recent interview that received surprisingly little attention even from Catholics, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a Catholic, talked to Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift. Pelosi was asked about her “brushes with the [Catholic Church] hierarchy.”
Madam Speaker knew what that meant: abortion.
“I have some concerns about the Church’s position respecting a woman’s right to choose,” she shared, as if endeavoring to correct the Church’s errors — but not without a heavy heart: “I practically mourn this difference of opinion.”
This difference of opinion was most lamentable, added the lifelong Catholic — who attended Catholic private school, Catholic colleges (Trinity College in Washington, D.C.), and Mass in the San Francisco (St. Vincent de Paul Church) and Washington dioceses — for a couple of reasons. First, because she was “raised to believe … what I profess,” and, second, because, “we are all endowed with a free will.” Indeed, insisted Pelosi, “women should have that opportunity to exercise their free will.”
It is the second part of Pelosi’s “because” that concerns me here. It is consistent with what she has stated for years, including in previous interviews with Clift.
In a 2006 interview with Clift, Pelosi regretted that her family is “very pro-life” and would “like it if I were not so vocally pro-choice.” But, she proclaimed, “To me it isn’t even a question. God has given us a free will.”
Since then, Pelosi has had several colorful, high-profile brushes with the Church hierarchy, ranging from publicly expressed differences with no less than the Holy Father himself — articulated during Pope Benedict’s visit to America in April 2008 — to her parting of ways with no less than St. Augustine, which she elucidated for the entire nation in a jaw-dropping interview with Tom Brokaw on “Meet the Press” in August 2008. These “differences” landed her a remarkable private audience with the Pope at the Vatican last year, one that produced further divergent opinions — by Pelosi and by the Pope’s spokesman.
Yet the most fundamental split is between not the congresswoman and any Church official, but between the congresswoman and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and specifically on this matter of abortion and free will.
Worse, this split, hatched by an almost unbelievably flawed understanding of Church teaching, has, like a plague, spread among Pelosi’s colleagues, disproportionately infecting fellow Democrats, who appear uniquely susceptible.
This Pelosian line of reasoning — let’s call it the Pelosi Doctrine — has found a sudden surge and renewed virulence in the Northeast especially.
One recent manifestation was the contamination of yet another Kennedy: Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy — forcing Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin to administer emergency remedial education to this strayed member of the flock.
So, what of this? Does the Pelosi Doctrine have any basis in Catholic teaching?
Of course not. And it is vital to begin the process of inoculation.
The Catechism is unequivocal on abortion. In fact, “abortion” is literally the first word in the glossary of the Catechism — where it is deemed “gravely contrary to the moral law” and a “crime against human life.” Glossary aside, the core of the text, easily located via the index, addresses abortion at length (Nos. 2270-2274).
When Speaker Pelosi publicly misinterpreted this black-and-white explication, her Church swiftly corrected her by citing these sections of the Catechism. When she told Brokaw that she, as “an ardent, practicing Catholic,” who had “studied” the issue of “when life begins” for a “long time,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops simply pointed to the Catechism (No. 2271): “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.”
The Catechism couldn’t be more absolute on abortion. But most relevant to the issue here — the Pelosi Doctrine — is the Catechism’s teaching on free will and the morality of human acts (Nos. 1730-1756). As an “ardent” Catholic and “longtime” student of the faith, the congresswoman should take a few minutes to read these sections. As I understand she is extraordinarily busy as speaker of the House, I will highlight a few brief passages:
“There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to ‘the slavery of sin’” (No. 1733).
“The exercise of freedom does not imply a right to say or do everything” (No. 1740).
Such fundamental teaching builds on a pyramid of sacred Scripture, Tradition and the magisterium. To employ one’s freedom as opportunities for wrong — for the flesh, for evil, for illicit things — is strictly prohibited (see Galatians 5:14).
The Church agrees (quoting St. Irenaeus) that man “is created with free will and is master over his acts” (No. 1730). It would be a fatal mistake, however, to thereby conclude — as the congresswoman does but the Catechism does not — that such freedom allows one to deliberately contravene God’s law and Church teaching. Freedom should never be used in willful service of advancing evil, especially something the Church has clearly declared an evil for centuries.
In fact, Pelosi needs to understand that her mistaken position places her in dangerous terrain. It is precisely because God has blessed her and her fellow humanity with freedom that she is thus “a moral subject” (Catechism, No. 1749) and thus attains a heightened personal responsibility. She will be held accountable for her free-will choices.
All of this leaves the Church with a familiar problem: the desperate need for bishops, priests, nuns, laity and, above all, catechists, to do their jobs and do them right. We should seize Pelosi’s incessant public error as a window of opportunity, as a chance to gently but forcefully explain the Church’s timeless, beautiful position in favor of life.
From the pulpit, to the office, to the kitchen table, to the classroom, let’s look to the Pelosi Doctrine as a teachable moment to shed the light of truth.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College.
His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius)
and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial).