In today’s first reading from Second Thessalonians (2:1-3a, 14-17), St. Paul diffuses a situation disturbing the young Church in Thessalonica. Word reached them, purportedly from Paul himself, that the anticipated “Day of the Lord” had already come and gone. Imagine if you were told that the Second Coming of Christ had happened, and that you missed it. As an apostle, Paul first calms the anxiety of the Thessalonians. He convinces them that the word they received was false. Then, he sets out to strengthen them against spurious teaching by telling them, among other things: “hold fast to the traditions you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.”
Here we see the apostolic ministry of the Church at work. Because of sin, ignorance, and weakness–and sometimes through malice–error often affects the lives of believers. But watchful shepherds, commissioned by the Lord to lead and teach, detect the error, confront it, correct it, and then restore the faithful to right teaching. In the Church, the apostolic office is a mercy given us by Christ himself to protect and guard the fullness of his salvific truth. The teaching office of the bishops, who at their head sits the Pope, possesses the grace of infallibility when it defines and interprets issues of faith and morals. Within the past few days, we’ve seen the grace of this office enacted in rather dramatic ways.
As is now well known, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), made over the weekend woefully inaccurate statements regarding the consistency of the Church’s teaching on life. Here is a transcript of the remarks she made on Sunday’s Meet the Press:
MR. BROKAW: Senator Obama [said] 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?
REP. 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…
MR. BROKAW: The Catholic Church at the moment feels very strongly that it…
REP. PELOSI: I understand that.
MR. BROKAW: …begins at the point of conception.
REP. 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 Speaker is correct in pointing out that theologians in various ages, including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, differed in their opinions regarding “animation,” the moment when the human soul infuses its body. These theologians based their opinions on the best science available in their day. They figured that the human soul doesn’t inform the fetus until the fetus itself begins to look human. Contemporary embryology, however, with its use of microscopes and genetic mapping, makes speculating about later moments of animation unnecessary. We know today that from the moment of conception the new life created by egg and sperm is human, genetically and otherwise. It cannot be anything else. Regardless, when speaking of animation even within its historical context, the concept should never be used as a justification for abortion. Patristic and medieval theologians certainly didn’t use it that way, even those who argued for delayed ensoulment. But this is what Speaker Pelosi would have us believe, that in earlier ages the Church was softer on abortion because of the debates over animation. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Despite the various theological opinions regarding animation given throughout Christian history, the Church has consistently taught from day one that abortion constitutes a grave sin against the fifth commandment.
The Archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput, was the first US bishop to correct the Speaker’s distortion of Church’s history and teaching:
To Catholics of the Archdiocese of Denver:
Catholic public leaders inconvenienced by the abortion debate tend to take a hard line in talking about the “separation of Church and state.” But their idea of separation often seems to work one way. In fact, some officials also seem comfortable in the role of theologian. And that warrants some interest, not as a “political” issue, but as a matter of accuracy and justice.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is a gifted public servant of strong convictions and many professional skills. Regrettably, knowledge of Catholic history and teaching does not seem to be one of them. Interviewed on Meet the Press August 24, Speaker Pelosi was asked when human life begins. She said the following:
“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, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.”
Since Speaker Pelosi has, in her words, studied the issue “for a long time,” she must know very well one of the premier works on the subject, Jesuit John Connery’s Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective (Loyola, 1977). Here’s how Connery concludes his study:
“The Christian tradition from the earliest days reveals a firm antiabortion attitude . . . The condemnation of abortion did not depend on and was not limited in any way by theories regarding the time of fetal animation. Even during the many centuries when Church penal and penitential practice was based on the theory of delayed animation, the condemnation of abortion was never affected by it. Whatever one would want to hold about the time of animation, or when the fetus became a human being in the strict sense of the term, abortion from the time of conception was considered wrong, and the time of animation was never looked on as a moral dividing line between permissible and impermissible abor-
Or to put it in the blunter words of the great Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed on this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.”
Ardent, practicing Catholics will quickly learn from the historical record that from apostolic times, the Christian tradition overwhelmingly held that abortion was grievously evil. In the absence of modern medical knowledge, some of the Early Fathers held that abortion was homicide; others that it was tantamount to homicide; and various scholars theorized about when and how the unborn child might be animated or “ensouled.” But non ediminished the unique evil of abortion as an attack on life itself, and the early Church closely associated abortion with infanticide. In short, from the beginning, the believing Christian community held that abortion was always, gravely wrong.
Of course, we now know with biological certainty exactly when human life begins. Thus, today’s religious alibis for abortion and a so-called “right to choose” are nothing more than that – alibis that break radically with historic Christian and Catholic belief.
Abortion kills an unborn, developing human life. It is always gravely evil, and so are the evasions employed to justify it. Catholics who make excuses for it – whether they’re famous or not – fool only themselves and abuse the fidelity of those Catholics who do sincerely seek to follow the Gospel and live their Catholic faith.
The duty of the Church and other religious communities is moral witness. The duty of the state and its officials is to serve the common good, which is always rooted in moral truth. A proper understanding of the “separation of Church and state” does not imply a separation of faith from political life. But of course, it’s always important to know what our faith actually teaches.
+Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver
+James D. Conley
Auxiliary Bishop of Denver
The next bishop to respond was Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, whose jurisdiction within our nation’s capital gives his statement particular weight:
On Meet the Press this past Sunday, August 23, 2008, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi made statements regarding the teaching of the Catholic Church, human life and abortion that were incorrect.
Speaker Pelosi responded to a question on when life begins by mentioning she was Catholic. She went on to say, “And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the Church have not been able to make that definition…” After Mr. Tom Brokaw, the interviewer, pointed out that the Catholic Church feels strongly that life begins at conception, she replied, “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.”
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.” (Catechism, 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.’”
From the beginning, the Catholic Church has respected the dignity of all human life from the moment of conception to natural death.
On behalf of all of the country’s bishops, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released the following statement. It comes from the offices of Justin Cardinal Rigali and Bishop William Lori, the chairs of the pro-life and doctrine committees respectively:
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.” (No. 2271)
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.
The strongest response yet to Speaker Pelosi has come from our own archbishop, Edward Cardinal Egan. It was released earlier this afternoon.
Like many other citizens of this nation, I was shocked to learn that the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States of America would make the kind of statements that were made to Mr. Tom Brokaw of NBC-TV on Sunday, August 24, 2008. 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.
We are blessed in the 21st century with crystal-clear photographs and action films of the living realities within their pregnant mothers. No one with the slightest measure of integrity or honor could fail to know what these marvelous beings manifestly, clearly, and obviously are, as they smile and wave into the world outside the womb. 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. They are not parts of their mothers, and what they are depends not at all upon the opinions of theologians of any faith. 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.
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York
No doubt more will be said as this controversy unfolds. Desiring a happy conclusion, we pray that the right words will come from the right mouths, and that these words will fall fruitfully on the right ears.
To read excerpt’s the Church Fathers regarding abortion, click here.
UPDATE: Despite thorough debunking by the nation’s bishops, Pelosi stands by her comments. Click here for the story.