In an unusual move, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops today issued a statement criticizing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent comments about abortion. Pelosi is herself a Roman Catholic, the mother of five children, and a supporter of abortion rights. And her comments came just a day after Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama selected another abortion-rights supporting Catholic, Sen. Joseph Biden, as his running mate.
Pelosi made her abortion comments on Sunday, in an interview on "Meet the Press." The exchange started when the interviewer, Tom Brokaw, asked Pelosi when life begins:
Pelosi: "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 Senator--St. Augustine said at three months. We don't know. The point is, 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, and there are those who've decided..."
Brokaw: "The Catholic Church at the moment feels very strongly that it...begins at the point of conception.
Pelosi: "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. We have to handle it very respectfully and not politicize it, as it has been--and I'm not saying Rick Warren did, because I don't think he did, but others will try to.''
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops today issued a statement attributed to Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop William E. Lori, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine:
"In the course of a “Meet the Press” interview on abortion and other public issues on August 24, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi misrepresented the history and nature of the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church against abortion. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, '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.' 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. These mistaken biological theories became obsolete over 150 years ago when scientists discovered that a new human individual comes into being from the union of sperm and egg at fertilization. In keeping with this modern understanding, the Church teaches 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."
UPDATE: Speaker Pelosi's spokesman, Brendan Daly, e-mails the following statement in response to the bishops:
“The Speaker is the mother of five children and seven grandchildren and fully appreciates the sanctity of family. She was raised in a devout Catholic family who often disagreed with her pro-choice views. After she was elected to Congress, and the choice issue became more public as she would have to vote on it, she studied the matter more closely. Her views on when life begins were informed by the views of Saint 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…’ (Saint Augustine, On Exodus 21.22) While Catholic teaching is clear that life begins at conception, many Catholics do not ascribe to that view. The Speaker agrees with the Church that we should reduce the number of abortions. She believes that can be done by making family planning more available, as well as by increasing the number of comprehensive age-appropriate sex education and caring adoption programs. The Speaker has a long, proud record of working with the Catholic Church on many issues, including alleviating poverty and promoting social justice and peace.”
And Jon O'Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice, is, not surprisingly, defending Pelosi:
“In their response to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the US bishops commented on their interpretation of what Speaker Pelosi said, not what she actually said. Speaker Pelosi was correct in noting that Catholic teaching has changed over the years, even on the issue of when life begins. But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops used the occasion to bang the drum on their issue sine qua non in American politics: abortion. In doing so, the bishops ignored many relevant issues, including the importance of conscience, what Catholics themselves actually believe, and the role of religion in politics...The bishops are not on the same page as Catholics when it comes to deciding what the important issues in the next election are. 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.”
(Photo, by Bloomberg, shows Pelosi at the Democratic National Convention in Denver Monday night.)