"Our hearts are restless until they rest in you."-St. Augustine
The Catholic Church is facing a major scandal. This one involves the destructive disregard for innocent, unborn human life by Catholic public officials in America. No matter what your political persuasion, from favoring big government to small government, from liberal to libertarian, everyone agrees that the core function of government is to protect its citizens.
That responsibility is tossed out the window when it comes to “pro-choice” politicians who refuse to extend that most basic right of life to the least of our brothers. For Catholic politicians, in particular, preserving that right ought to be a defining element of their public work.
But for a large number of them, it flatly is not. And the degree to which they refuse to meet that mission in defiance of the longtime teachings of the Catholic Church has become a scandal. The scandal has been worsened by the backflips that these Catholic politicians utter in defense of their position, leaving both Catholics and non-Catholics bewildered.
A case in point is U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a congresswoman who is the highest-ranking Catholic public official in America, and an adamant supporter and promoter of legalized abortion, embryonic research, and a myriad of anti-life issues.
In April, Rep. Pelosi raised eyebrows when she received Communion during Pope Benedict’s Mass in Washington, D.C. She casually conceded that she and her Pope have a disagreement over abortion. “The Church sees it [abortion] another way, and I respect that,” she granted. She explained that not only is she not conflicted on the abortion issue but, rather, is quite at peace: “I have a sort of serenity about the issue.”
That was nothing compared to the exchange that Speaker Pelosi had with Tom Brokaw on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Aug. 24. Brokaw noted that when Barack Obama, the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, was asked when human life begins, he responded that such a question was “above my pay grade.” Brokaw said to Pelosi: “Help me out here, Madame Speaker. When does life begin? What would you tell him?”
Pelosi answered: “I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, 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 definition. St. Augustine said ‘at three months.’ We don’t know. The point is that it shouldn’t have an impact on a woman’s right to choose.”
It is difficult to respond to this with Christian charity. Pelosi’s words are fully incorrect, dangerously misleading and an outrage. The likes of Cardinal Edward Egan in New York, who has dealt properly with pro-abortion Catholic politicians in his diocese, such as Republican Rudy Giuliani, responded with extraordinarily strong yet appropriate language, correcting and instructing Speaker Pelosi in an open way. He called her statement “utterly incredible.”
Cardinal Egan was far from alone. A short list of those joining him in correcting Pelosi were Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, and Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. The bishops’ conference issued a formal statement quoting the Catechism: “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable” (No. 2271).
In short, there is no disagreement in the Church on this issue. There may be misunderstanding among some in the pews, which Pelosi has only encouraged, but not among the teachings of the Church.
What was equally troubling was Pelosi invoking Augustine. At best, the debate that she referred to was not whether the early Church fathers considered abortion wrong, or when life began, but, in all likelihood, whether she realizes it or not, the debate over “ensoulment” — i.e., when the life in the womb acquires an immortal soul. Even though they lacked the technology that today gives us a window into the cell, the Church fathers still preached that abortion — at any stage of development — was gravely contrary to the moral law.
St. Augustine was no exception. Speaker Pelosi’s incorporation of Augustine was, to put it mildly, completely misplaced, and no doubt had the effect of misleading a lot of people on what Augustine and his Church have always taught.
And yet, ironically, Augustine managed to jump into this debate. In a rather stunning coincidence that seems Providential, Church officials were responding to Pelosi’s citation of Augustine at the exact time the Church honors him and his mother, Monica. And it is there that Speaker Pelosi can find some helpful insights.
Wednesday, Aug. 27, was St. Monica’s feast day. Monica, of course, prayed her wayward son to the faith and to truth. In turn, Augustine arrived at truth himself, and then stood against the currents of his time by courageously instructing the flock, correcting the errors that prevailed throughout the culture and Church of his day. As Pope Benedict XVI has written of Augustine, “He was born in an age of crisis and transition that was only too like our own.”
No doubt, the abortion debate, on which the Catholic speaker of the house could not be more misled, is one such crisis of our own. Ironically, the Psalm reading on Augustine’s feast day, Aug. 28, was No. 139, which includes this passage: “For it was you who created my being, knit me together in my mother’s womb. I thank you for the wonder of my being, for the wonders of all your creation. ... Your eyes could see my embryo” (Psalm 139: 13-14, 16).
Augustine wrote entire books on the theme of repentance. His most famous work is his autobiography, Confessions. Oddly enough, it is here where Pelosi finds herself in hot water, as she refuses to concede that her support of legalized abortion merits her repentance and a change of heart before presenting herself to receive the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
Perhaps she can read the words of Augustine, taken from what he had learned from his mother. Here was the Magnificat meditation for Aug. 27, coming on the heels of Pelosi’s remarks on “Meet the Press.” Augustine wrote: “We block the wiles of the ancient and obstinate enemy with prayers to God and with stern rebukes; you must stand up to him with your earnest prayers and contrition of heart, in order to be snatched from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his glory. This is now your task, and this your toil. … Empty out all his poisons from your hearts by calling on the name of the Savior. ... [T]urn back, be converted and be sorry, and come back to your Lord. He is prepared, as you come back sorry, to hand out to you the bread of joy, provided you do not make excuses. … You will feed on his flesh, you will be given his blood to drink.”
In looking to Augustine, Speaker Pelosi was indeed looking to the right source. She just needs to look deeper. There, she will find what her restless heart needs.
Paul Kengor, author of The Judge: William P. Clark (Ignatius Press, 2007), is a professor at Grove City College
in Grove City, Pennsylvania.