VATICAN — Pope Benedict XVI had a clear message to one of the most powerful Catholics in the United States government: defend and protect human life from conception to death.

It was an extraordinary exchange — followed by an extraordinary public announcement — at the Vatican Feb. 18. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, in the midst of a six-day visit to Italy, had a 15-minute meeting with Benedict.

“His Holiness took the opportunity to speak of the requirements of the natural moral law and the Church’s consistent teaching on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death, which enjoin all Catholics, and especially legislators, jurists and those responsible for the common good of society, to work in cooperation with all men and women of good will in creating a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development,” said a Holy See Press Office statement issued immediately following the meeting.

The San Francisco legislator’s view of the encounter was different: “In our conversation, I had the opportunity to praise the Church’s leadership in fighting poverty, hunger and global warming, as well as the Holy Father’s dedication to religious freedom and his upcoming trip and message to Israel,” said Pelosi in a statement. “I was proud to show His Holiness a photograph of my family’s papal visit in the 1950s, as well as a recent picture of our children and grandchildren.”

That led papal biographer George Weigel to exclaim: “Were Benedict XVI and Nancy Pelosi in the same meeting, or even in the same city?”

But did Pope Benedict manage to help Pelosi see more clearly? According to Brendan Daly, a spokesman for the speaker, she’s not changing her mind on abortion.

“She has said, as it says in the Democratic Party platform, she wants to reduced the number of abortions,” Daly told the Register, “but she will remain pro-choice.”

Journalist John Allen described the Vatican’s public statement as “unusual,” suggesting that “the Pope wanted to make a point.”
“Not only was it unusual to issue a statement after a meeting with an official who’s not a head of state, routine Vatican declarations after diplomatic meetings also generally sum up the range of issues discussed rather than concentrating on a particular point,” Allen wrote in the National Catholic Reporter.

“In that sense, the statement can only be read as a rejection of Pelosi’s statement last summer, and, in general, of her argument that it’s acceptable for Catholics in public life to take a pro-choice position,” Allen wrote.

“Whatever the source of her confusion, Pelosi has now been informed, and by a world-class intellectual who happens to be the universal pastor of the Catholic Church, that she is, in fact, confused, and that both her spiritual life and her public service are in jeopardy because of that,” added Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, commenting on the two different descriptions of the meeting.

Clearing Up Confusion

Weigel referred to televised comments and statements released through Pelosi’s office last August. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” moderator Tom Brokaw asked Pelosi when life begins. She responded, “We don’t know. The point is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.”

“I don’t think anybody can tell you when life begins, human life begins,” Pelosi said. “As I say, the Catholic Church for centuries has been discussing this.”

Two days later, Pelosi’s office released a statement saying, “While Catholic teaching is clear that life begins at conception, many Catholics do not ascribe to that view.”
Several Catholic bishops reacted to that, using the opportunity to correct Pelosi’s errors.

“Her recent remarks are opposed to Church teaching,” San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer wrote in a column Sept. 5. “In The Catechism of the Catholic Church, we find this statement: ‘Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. Since the first century, the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, willed either as an ends or a means, is grossly contrary to the moral law’ (Nos. 2270-71).”

Archbishop Niederauer also sent a personal letter inviting her to meet with him. That meeting finally occurred Feb. 8.

Neither Pelosi nor Archbishop Niederauer released any public statement following their private meeting.

Maurice Healy, communications director for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, said that he first learned of the meeting on Feb. 17.

“Her ‘Meet the Press’ statements were really extraordinary,” said Healy. “They were the impetus for the personal meeting. The archbishop felt that she didn’t have an appreciation of Catholic doctrine, and he wanted to address that.”

He said her views have been an “important matter before us since last fall. The archbishop had written his column and sent her a personal letter. In it, we put forward several dates. The archbishop was on a pastoral trip to Asia and returned on Feb. 4. Something changed very quickly,” said Healy, and the meeting took place.

“He didn’t tell me about it, and then began a weeklong retreat this Monday [Feb. 16],” added Healy.

Healy described it as a pastoral meeting and didn’t expect that any public statements would be made about it.

Daly, Pelosi’s spokesman, simply said she and the archbishop “had a productive meeting.” Asked whether the two had reached any agreement on the issues first raised last September, Daly said, “They agreed to have dialogue and that they would meet again.”

Withholding Communion?

At least one group of Catholics is seeking further action from the Church.

James Todd, founder of the Catholic news portal website, has created a “Withholding Communion” online petition soliciting individuals who want to encourage bishops to refuse holy Communion to public officials such as Vice President Joseph Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi who are Catholic yet dissent from the Church’s teaching.

The petition cites Canon 915, which states that Communion should be withheld from those who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin.”

The petition, which can be found online at, currently has more than 5,000 signatories. Todd hopes to gather at least 1 million signers. After signing the petition, a copy is e-mailed not only to the individual’s bishop, but also to Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and to the Holy See.

“We want the bishops to know how hundreds of thousands of Catholics feel,” said Todd. “We recognize that one of the roles of the bishop is to dialogue with Catholics in public life, to explain the Church’s teaching, and prevail upon them to change or be silent. At some point, continuing dissent becomes scandal and further action needs to be taken.”

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, however, said he felt the silence about the Feb. 8 meeting with Archbishop Niederauer “tells us that the bishops are divided about how to handle these kinds of questions.”

“They don’t want to set up a forum for the secular press to question how many ordinaries accept a [refusing Communion]-style approach. Each bishop doesn’t want to step on the toes of his fellow bishop,” said Donohue.

He said he was pleased with how the Vatican handled the meeting between the Holy Father and Pelosi and the speed with which it responded.

“I was very impressed,” said Donohue. “I was concerned that they would be very slow to respond, yet the Pope took the occasion to admonish her as a Catholic public official and that the Church expects her to express fidelity to the magisterium on the life issues.”

Tim Drake is based

in St. Joseph, Minnesota.