In the context of the US presidential campaign, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who is a Democrat and a Catholic, expressed views on 'Meet the Press' on 23 August, regarding Catholic teaching on human life and abortion that were clearly incorrect. She was seeking to justify the pro-abortion stances of the Democrats' candidates for president and vice-president (the latter also being a Catholic). This prompted forceful responses from a number of US Catholic bishops.
On 25 August, Archbishop Charles Chaput and Auxiliary Bishop James Conley addressed an online letter (see this page) to Catholics of the Archdiocese of Denver on the Church's unequivocal stance against abortion, titled, 'On the Separation of Sense and State: a Clarification for the People of the Church in Northern Colorado.'
The Denver bishops later issued a second letter on similar lines in response to Democratic vice-presidential nominee Senator Joseph Biden (a 'pro-choice' Catholic) who repeated Pelosi's false claims.
Cardinal Edward Egan of New York (see next page) issued a similarly strong statement, as did a number of other American bishops.
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 on August 24, Speaker Pelosi was asked when human life begins. She said the following: 'I would say that as an ardent, practising 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 anti-abortion 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 abortion.'
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, practising 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 theorised about when and how the unborn child might be animated or 'ensouled.'
But none diminished 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.
- Archbishop Charles Chaput
Cardinal Edward Egan:
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 Brokow 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 honour could fail to know what these marvellous 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 civilised democracy worthy of the name.