Statement on Speaker Pelosi's Comments on Abortion
Archbishop George H. Niederauer
Archbishop of the Archdiocese of San Francisco
This statement by San Francisco Archbishop George H. Niederauer is in
response to recent comments on abortion, Catholic teaching on the beginning
of life, and other life issues made by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker
Nancy Pelosi. It was published in the Sept. 5, 2008 issue of Catholic San
Francisco, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
Last month, in two televised interviews and a subsequent statement released
through her office, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of
Representatives and a Catholic residing in the Archdiocese of San Francisco,
made remarks that are in serious conflict with the teachings of the Catholic
Church about abortion. It is my responsibility as Archbishop of San
Francisco to teach clearly what Christ in his Church teaches about faith and
morals, and to oppose erroneous, misleading and confusing positions when
they are advanced.
In his statement about Speaker Pelosi’s remarks, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of
Washington, D.C., expressed the response of many bishops when 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." In
addition to Archbishop Wuerl, several other bishops have already
appropriately and helpfully pointed out the errors in the Speaker’s remarks.
Nevertheless, it is my particular duty to address them as well. Let me
acknowledge even as I do so that Speaker Pelosi is a gifted, dedicated and
accomplished public servant, and that she has stated often her love for her
faith and for the Catholic Church. The Speaker has been supportive of
legislation that helped to implement some of the social teachings of the
Church. However, her recent remarks are opposed to Church teaching.
In The Catechism of the Catholic Church we find this statement: "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, willed either as an end or a means, is
grossly contrary to the moral law." (2270-71) The Catechism then quotes the
Didache (also referred to as The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles), the
oldest extant manual of church order, dating from the late first or early
second century: "You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not
cause the newborn to perish." In 2004 the bishops of the United States, in
their statement, "Catholics in Political Life," said: "It is the teaching of
the Catholic Church from the very beginning that the killing of an unborn
child is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified. This is the
constant and received teaching of the Church. It is, as well, the conviction
of many other people of good will."
On the television program "Meet the Press," on Sunday, August 24, 2008,
Speaker Pelosi spoke of herself and the bishops of her Church in these
words: "So there’s some areas where we’re in agreement and some areas where
we’re not, and one being a woman’s right to choose, and the other being stem
cell research." In April of this year, in a teleconference with Catholic
News Service and other media she made a similar remark: "I have a sort of
serenity about the issue. I come from a family who doesn’t share my position
on pro-choice. The Church sees it another way, and I respect that."
The bishops at the Second Vatican Council declared that, as Catholics, we
believe what the Church authoritatively teaches on matters of faith and
morals, for to hear the voice of the Church on those matters is to hear the
voice of Christ himself. (Lumen Gentium, No. 25; Mysterium Ecclesiae, No. 2)
Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church and protects it
from error. We believe that the Roman Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, is the
successor of Peter, the Rock on whom Jesus Christ has built his Church, and
is not just another man who is entitled to his opinions on faith. We believe
that we are called to trust the Spirit to guide the Church, so we do not
pick and choose among her teachings.
Mr. Tom Brokaw, the moderator of "Meet the Press," asked Speaker Pelosi,
"When does life begin?" She responded: "We don’t know. The point is that it
shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose." Later: "I don’t
think anyone can tell you when life begins, when human life begins." Mr.
Brokaw: "The Catholic Church at the moment feels very strongly that it
begins at the point of conception." Speaker Pelosi: "I understand. And this
is maybe fifty years or something like that."
Speaker Pelosi’s remarks called forth many responses, from Catholics in the
pews as well as from bishops. As a result, on Tuesday, August 26th, two days
after "Meet the Press" had aired, the Speaker’s office issued a statement on
her behalf. It contained this sentence: "While Catholic teaching is clear
that life begins at conception, many Catholics do not ascribe[sic] to that
view." That statement suggests that morality can be decided by poll, by
numbers. If ninety percent of Catholics subscribe to the view that human
life begins at conception, does that makes Church teaching truer than if
only seventy percent or fifty percent agree?
Authentic moral teaching is based on objective truth, not polling. For
instance, in 1861, as the Civil War began, a majority of the residents of
Massachusetts opposed slavery, a majority of the residents of South Carolina
approved of slavery, and in Missouri people were sharply divided on the
issue. Does that mean that, in 1861, slavery was immoral in Massachusetts,
moral in South Carolina, and something of a moral "wash" in Missouri? Sound
moral teaching demands much more good sense than that.
Since August 24th many Catholics have written me letters and sent me e-mails
in which they expressed their dismay and concern about the Speaker’s
remarks. Very often they moved on to a question that caused much discussion
during the 2004 campaign: Is it necessary to deny Holy Communion to some
Catholics in public life because of their public support for abortion on
demand? I want to address that question in the light of the 2004 statement
of the U.S. bishops, "Catholics in Political Life," and their 2006 statement
on preparing to receive Christ worthily in the Eucharist, "Happy Are Those
Who Are Called to His Supper." Both statements can be found on the bishops’
website, usccb.org, and they lead the reader to conclude that this is a
sensitive and complicated question, and does not lend itself to sound bites,
headlines or slogans.
In their 2006 document, "Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper," the
bishops begin by reminding Catholics that "the celebration of the Mass is
the center of the life of the Church." The Eucharist joins each of us to the
one sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross, unites us with the Risen Christ,
and unites us with one another in Christ. Each reception of Holy Communion
looks forward to our union with Christ forever in heaven.
The very first generation of Christians saw the need to examine one’s
conscience regarding one’s worthiness to receive the Body and Blood of the
Lord. Writing around 57 A.D., St. Paul told the Corinthians, "Whoever eats
the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for
the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat
the bread and drink the cup." (1Cor. 11;27-28) Of course we are never fully
worthy to eat the bread and drink the cup, as we exclaim at each Mass before
we receive Holy Communion: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only
say the word and I shall be healed." However, the unity nourished and
expressed in Holy Communion can be broken by serious sin, hence our
self-examination enables us to acknowledge whether we have committed such a
sin, and to seek out the Sacrament of Reconciliation before eating the bread
and drinking the cup.
The practice of the Church is to accept this conscientious self-appraisal of
each person (Canon 912). Thus, in this matter the state of the person’s
awareness of his or her situation is of fundamental importance. As the
bishops say most forcefully in the 2006 document, we should be cautious when
making judgments about whether or not someone else should receive Holy
Nevertheless, the bishops go on to say: "If a Catholic in his or her
personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the
defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately repudiate her
definitive teachings on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously
diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion
in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic
celebration, so that he or she should refrain." Why is this repudiation of
Church teaching such a serious matter? The bishops respond: "To give
selective assent to the teachings of the Church deprives us of her
life-giving message, but also seriously endangers our communion with her."
This teaching of the bishops does not violate the separation of church and
state. That separation does not require a division between faith and public
action, between moral principles and political choices. Believers and
religious groups may practice their faith and act on their values in public
life, and have done so throughout the history of this country. In his or her
conscience, properly formed, a Catholic should recognize that making legal
an evil action, such as abortion, is itself wrong.
What of Catholics who find themselves questioning the teachings of the
Church, or experiencing uncertainties and questions about them? The bishops
answer, "Some Catholics may not fully understand the Church’s doctrinal and
moral teachings on certain issues. They may have certain questions and even
uncertainties. In situations of honest doubt and confusion, they are welcome
to partake of Holy Communion, as long as they are striving to understand
what the Church professes and to resolve confusion and doubt."
Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, and my predecessor as Archbishop here in San Francisco, wrote in
2004: "No bishop is eager to forbid members of his flock from receiving the
precious Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, who invites us into communion with
Himself and his Body, the Church, as grace and salvation." In that same
year, the U.S. bishops acknowledged that pastoral sensitivity, and they
endorsed the following approach to this question of denying Holy Communion:
"Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential
judgment on a matter of this seriousness, we recognize that such decisions
rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and
pastoral principles. Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on
the most prudent course of pastoral action. Nevertheless, we all share an
unequivocal commitment to protect human life and dignity and to preach the
Gospel in difficult times." From that statement I conclude that it is my
responsibility as Archbishop to discern and decide, prayerfully, how best to
approach this question as it may arise in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
I regret the necessity of addressing these issues in so public a forum, but
the widespread consternation among Catholics made it unavoidable. Speaker
Pelosi has often said how highly she values her Catholic faith, and how much
it is a source of joy for her. Accordingly, as her pastor, I am writing to
invite her into a conversation with me about these matters. It is my
obligation to teach forthrightly and to shepherd caringly, and that is my
intent. Let us pray together that the Holy Spirit will guide us all toward a
more profound understanding and appreciation for human life, and toward a
resolution of these differences in truth and charity and peace.
September 5, 2008