Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic mother of five and Speaker of the House, caused a firestorm of controversy over her comments on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
In an interview Aug. 24 with “Meet the Press” moderator Tom Brokaw, the host asked Pelosi, “Sen. Obama [says] the question of when life begins is above his pay grade, whether you’re looking at it scientifically or theologically. If he were to come to you and say, ‘Help me out here, Madame Speaker. When does life begin?’ what would you tell him?”
What Pelosi Said
The California Democrat responded, “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. And … St. Augustine said ‘at three months.’ We don’t know. The point is, that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose. Roe v. Wade talks about very clear definitions of when the child … first trimester, certain considerations; second trimester; not so third trimester. There’s very clear distinctions. This isn’t about abortion on demand; it’s about a careful, careful consideration of all factors and … to that a woman has to make with her doctor and her god. And so I don’t think anybody can tell you when life begins, human life begins. As I say, the Catholic Church for centuries has been discussing this …”
Brokaw then said, “The Catholic Church at the moment feels very strongly that it begins at the point of conception.”
To which Pelosi replied, “I understand that. I understand. 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. But it is, it is also true that God has given us, each of us, a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And we want abortions to be safe, rare, and reduce the number of abortions. That’s why we have this fight in Congress over contraception. My Republican colleagues do not support contraception. If you want to reduce the number of abortions, and we all do, we must — it would behoove you to support family planning and, and contraception, you would think. But that is not the case. So we have to take, you know, we have to handle this as respectfully. This is sacred ground.”
Responses were immediate.
The Hill, a website that covers the national political landscape from Capitol Hill, reported that Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, defended Pelosi.
“Speaker Pelosi was correct in noting that Catholic teaching has changed over the years, even on the issue of when life begins,” he said Aug. 26.
In a release from Catholics for Choice, he added, “Fortunately for Americans of every faith group and no faith group, Catholics in public life, such as Speaker Pelosi, inform their actions by their faith, their conscience and the voices of their constituents, focusing on what is best for all Americans, not just the dictates of Catholic bishops.”
In an unprecedented development, five bishops, three archbishops and two cardinals issued immediate statements correcting Pelosi, perhaps the most critical coming from Cardinal Edward Egan of New York.
“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,” he said Aug. 26. “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.”
Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., on the archdiocese website, called Pelosi’s statements “incorrect.” He said, “We respect the right of elected officials such as Speaker Pelosi to address matters of public policy that are before them, but the interpretation of Catholic faith has rightfully been entrusted to the Catholic bishops. Given this responsibility to teach, it is important to make this correction for the record.
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear: The current teaching of the Catholic Church on human life and abortion is the same teaching as it was 2,000 years ago. The Catechism reads: ‘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, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law’ (Nos. 2270, 2271).
“The Catechism goes on to quote the Didache, a treatise that dates to the first century: ‘You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.’”
The archbishop’s statement concluded, “From the beginning, the Catholic Church has respected the dignity of all human life from the moment of conception to natural death.”
Pelosi continued her assault on Church doctrine when she issued a statement Aug. 26. Her spokesman, Brendan Daly, said the Speaker “fully appreciates the sanctity of family and based her views on conception on the views of St. 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 ...’’’ Daly said that while Catholic teaching is clear that life begins at conception, many Catholics do not agree.
Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops followed up to rebut her latest volley.
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, said in a joint statement that she “misrepresented the history and nature of the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church against abortion.
“The Church has always taught that human life deserves respect from its very beginning and that procured abortion is a grave moral evil. In the Middle Ages, uninformed and inadequate theories about embryology led some theologians to speculate that specifically human life capable of receiving an immortal soul may not exist until a few weeks into pregnancy. While in canon law these theories led to a distinction in penalties between very early and later abortions, the Church’s moral teaching never justified or permitted abortion at any stage of development.”
The statement continued: “The Church has long taught that from the time of conception (fertilization), each member of the human species must be given the full respect due to a human person, beginning with respect for the fundamental right to life.”
Members of Pelosi’s own fraternity on Capitol Hill issued criticism, as well. In a letter to Pelosi dated Aug. 25, Reps. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., Peter King, R-N.Y., Steve King, R-Iowa, Daniel Lungren, R-Calif., Devin Nunes, R-Calif., John Sullivan, R-Okla., and Patrick Tiberi, R-Ohio, said:
“As fellow Catholics and legislators, we wish you would have made a more honest effort to lay out the authentic position of the Church on this core moral issue before attempting to address it with authority. Your subsequent remarks mangle Catholic Church doctrine regarding the inherent sanctity and dignity of human life; therefore, we are compelled to refute your error.”
The letter concluded, “To reduce the scandal and consternation caused amongst the faithful by your remarks, we necessarily write you to correct the public record and affirm the Church’s actual and historical teaching that defends the sanctity of human life.”
Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, addressed Pelosi’s comments at length.
Following her reiteration on what the Catechism teaches about abortion, she wrote, “It’s a far cry from Nancy Pelosi’s catechism, which would make Roe v. Wade a sacred doctrine.
“Like Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joseph Biden, presidential nominee John Kerry before him, nearly every Kennedy who has ever ran for office, and countless other ‘Catholic’ Democrats, Pelosi doesn’t shy away from using her Catholicism on the campaign trail and in her political life. As these politicians court ‘the Catholic vote,’ faithful Catholics need to consider their moral responsibilities in the voting booth and hold accountable those politicians who support and defend a candidate who, for example, has refused to oppose infanticide.”
And columnist Daniel Allott of The American Spectator used Pelosi’s comments to declare that the Democratic Party has no intention of softening its hard-line stance on abortion.
“An examination of the party platform, ratified [Aug. 25], reveals that the Democratic Party has no intention of moderating its extreme stance on abortion,” he noted. “As in past election years, the 2008 Democratic Party platform re-affirms the party’s commitment to Roe v. Wade and taxpayer funding of abortions. But this year the platform dropped any reference to the goal of making abortion ‘rare.’”
Allott ends with an ominous question: “Could it be that the Democratic Party’s abortion position has become even more extreme than that of the most pro-abortion presidential candidate ever?”
CNS contributed to this story.