WASHINGTON — More than a dozen American bishops and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops all took the same “teaching moment” opportunity in recent weeks.

It started with comments from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Biden. During separate appearances on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Pelosi and Biden misrepresented Church teaching on abortion, say bishops.

In answer to the question “When does life begin?” posed by host Tom Brokaw, Pelosi said Aug. 24, “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,” she continued. “The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.”

Brokaw interrupted, “The Catholic Church at the moment feels very strongly that it [life] begins at the point of conception.”

“I understand,” the Speaker responded, “And this is like maybe 50 years or something like that. So again, over the history of the Church, this is an issue of controversy.”

San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer is Pelosi’s bishop. He said she was “in serious conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church,” and he invited her to discuss Church teaching on abortion, the beginning of human life and the formation of conscience. Pelosi responded affirmatively to the bishop’s request, but no date for the meeting has been set.

Cardinal Edward Egan of New York commented in a statement: “We are blessed in the 21st century with crystal-clear photographs. 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.

“Anyone who dares to defend that they may be legitimately killed because another human being ‘chooses’ to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name.”

On the same day, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a response to Pelosi’s misrepresentation. The response was prepared by Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop William Lori, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine. They cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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).

Biden, who is also a Catholic, made comments Sept. 7 that brought a response from the bishops, as well. He said he accepted Church teaching that life begins at conception but did not believe that he could impose his beliefs in the public policy arena (see sidebar).

“The Senator’s claim that the beginning of human life is a ‘personal and private’ matter of religious faith, one which cannot be ‘imposed’ on others, does not reflect the truth of the matter,” said Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Lori in a new statement following Biden’s remarks. “The Church recognizes that the obligation to protect unborn human life rests on the answer to two questions, neither of which is private or specifically religious.”

The first of these questions is biological: “When does a new human life begin?”

“Today embryology textbooks confirm that a new human life begins at conception,” the two bishops stated. “The Catholic Church does not teach this as a matter of faith; it acknowledges it as a matter of objective fact.”

The Church and science agree.

The second question is moral: “Which living members of the human species should be seen as having fundamental human rights, such as the right not to be killed?”

The Catholic Church’s answer is: Everybody.

“No human being should be treated as lacking human rights, and we have no business dividing humanity into those who are valuable enough to warrant protection and those who are not,” they said.

Pastoral Response

Other bishops and lay people appreciated the record being set straight. The Catholic community does not often see such a large number of bishops issuing rebuttals to erroneous doctrinal public comments made by elected officials.

“Bishop Niederauer has written a long, precise pastoral letter that set out the facts beautifully,” said Bishop Daniel Walsh of nearby Santa Rosa, Calif. “But how will it get out to the people? We don’t get headlines for our teaching, only for our mistakes. Niederauer is not going to be invited to appear on ‘Meet the Press.’”

“Catholics and others are greatly encouraged by the forcefulness and clarity of the bishops’ responses to the gross misrepresentation of Church teachings by these figures,” said Father Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of First Things magazine.

He is not alone in his appreciation of the ecclesiastical response.

“I am stunned by the number and the quality of responses from various bishops,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. He continued, “I am particularly impressed that Cardinal Egan and Archbishop Wuerl have spoken out publicly. They generally do not mix it up in public over these things. Their voices have been extremely important.”

Ruse went on to say, “Faithful Catholics whom I know are keenly appreciative that Pelosi and Biden have chosen to debate theology with the Church and that the teaching Church is responding. This is a learning opportunity for everyone.”

Another observer, Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization that supports female pro-life candidates for public office, said she was “just incredibly proud, as a Catholic, on how the flock is being led by our shepherds.

“In a way that people don’t usually talk in our culture, they are adding philosophical language to the debate. Getting those ideas in the media is crucial to reach more people.”

This controversy has reawakened discussion among bishops regarding the appropriate pastoral response to Catholic politicians who take public stands against Church teaching, all the while courting the “Catholic vote.”

Bishop Walsh explained, “Their bishops have invited Pelosi and Biden to talk. This is appropriate. Although people may want a big response like excommunication, it is not the pastoral way of the Church.”

When a member is in error, the pastoral response is to meet with that person privately.

Pelosi said in a letter to her bishop that she would “welcome the opportunity for our personal conversation and to go beyond our earlier most cordial exchange, about immigration and needs of the poor, to Church teaching on other significant matters.”

Robert Krebs, communications director for the Diocese of Wilmington, Del., said that newly-installed Bishop W. Francis Malooly “expressed an interest to meet [Biden] and the senator was open to that.” In a statement released Sept. 10, Bishop Malooly wrote: “It is my intention to build a supportive and trusting friendship with Senator Biden … I will do my best, with your prayers, to assist him and all public officials … to understand how crucial the sanctity of human life is to a just society.”

On Sept. 10, the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said it plans to discuss the “practical and pastoral implications of these serious matters at the bishops’ November 10-13 general meeting in Baltimore.”

That’s after Election Day, as Father Neuhaus noted, adding: “You wouldn’t really want it to do it before the election because the Church is not a political party. But it does have political responsibilities.”

Laity Response

As Austin Ruse commented, “Catholics in Washington, D.C., are grateful that the hierarchical Church is responding so forcefully. We, more than most, are up close with these dissident Catholics in public office. We hear their shameful arguments all the time. It is nice that they are now being corrected. Let us pray for more.”

Said Dannenfelser: “The ‘old guard’ represented by Pelosi and Biden, those politicians who have followed Mario Cuomo’s famous formulation of personally pro-life, but publicly pro-choice, have not shifted at all in the arguments they put forward. The politicians that take this dual stance are not authentic, and people are looking for authenticity. They see a great difference between what they [politicians] believe and what they do.  There has been too much pain and experience for this worn-out approach to ring true anymore.

“The denial of holy Communion is something to grapple with, but it is squarely within the realm of the bishops and priests to implement their pastoral duties according to Scripture.”

In an interview with the Register (see Inperson, page 1), Archbishop Raymond Burke, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest court, discussed this pastoral duty.

“We follow the evangelical counsel the Lord gives us, that in the Church, first of all you confront them individually,” he said. “So her bishop or parish priests or whoever has responsibility for her pastorally, should confront her and say, ‘Now look, what you are doing is gravely wrong, and if you continue to hold onto this teaching which is contrary to the natural moral law and also the Church’s teaching, you should no longer approach to receive holy Communion,’” said Archbishop Burke, who was archbishop of St. Louis until this summer. “One also prays and hopes, of course, that not being able to receive holy Communion might lead them to a further reflection on the error of their position, whether it be with regard to procured abortion or whatever it might be.”

Robin Carter is based in

Willits, California.

On Aug. 23, when Sen. Barack Obama announced that he had picked Sen. Joseph Biden to be his vice-presidential running mate, he made history. He also sparked a revolt from a volunteer organization called Catholics Against Joe Biden (CatholicsAgainstJoeBiden.blogspot.com).

Stephen Dillard, an attorney from Macon, Ga., and four others founded Catholics Against Joe Biden on the same day that Sen. Obama named Sen. Biden as his vice-presidential pick.

“I had to do something,” Dillard said. “Senator Biden professes to be a Catholic, yet he willfully disregards the fundamental, non-negotiable teaching of the Church on abortion and other life issues. This is patently unacceptable.”

Biden has received high ratings from NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) Pro-Choice America:

2004 - 100%

2005 - 100%

2006 - 100%

2007 - 75%

On Sept. 7, Biden said, “I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at conception.” But, he added, “for me to impose that judgment on others is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.”

Embryologists agree that there is a new organism at conception, and that it is human. The U.S. bishops have made it clear that abortion is a grave evil and politicians have an obligation to oppose it. On the bishops’ Faithful Citizenship website, under the section titled Catholics in Political Life, the bishops state: “It is with pastoral solicitude for everyone involved in the political process that we will also counsel Catholic public officials that their acting consistently to support abortion on demand risks making them cooperators in evil in a public manner. We will persist in this duty to counsel, in the hope that the scandal of their cooperating in evil can be resolved by the proper formation of their consciences.”

Annie Tomasini, a spokeswoman for Biden, said the senator was not available for comment.

Dillard, formally a Baptist who joined the Catholic Church in 2003, is putting his own time and money into the volunteer organization because “Catholics should oppose Senator Obama and Senator Biden,” he said. “They are unwilling to stand up for the most vulnerable members of society — the unborn. Both men have an abysmal record on life issues.” 

In 2003, while Obama was an Illinois state senator, he vigorously opposed the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, which would require doctors to give medical attention to babies who survive an abortion.

After some 29 years in the Senate, Biden is ranked by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life as being “strongly in support of Roe v. Wade.

Catholics Against Joe Biden is not Dillard’s first organization that has opposed a Catholic politician. On July 4, Dillard, who is a Republican, formed Catholics Against Rudy, a group and website dedicated to educating Catholics about the pro-abortion positions of Rudy Giuliani, then a Republican presidential hopeful.

“First and foremost,” Dillard says, “I hope that Catholics Against Joe Biden will help faithful Catholics make an informed decision when they cast their ballots this November. We are asking Catholics to visit the site, read it daily, and get the word out that Senator Biden is not someone who represents faithful Catholics. Period.” 

— Jeff Gardner