"I agree with the Church in principle, but …"

Last week I posted a reaction to House Speaker Pelosi’s interview in Newsweek (cross-posted to First Things‘ “First Thoughts”). Perusing the comments, I discovered that the author of No Hidden Magenta — a blog with the daunting task of “bridging the gap between ‘Red and Blue State’ groupthink” — has responded with fury and dismay:

At least one reason why neither the Pope nor the Archbishop have denied Pelosi Holy Communion–despite having ample opportunity to do so–is because prudential judgments about how best to reflect a moral principle in public policy involved technical considerations of practical reason that do not go to the heart of what it means to be a Roman Catholic; in other words, they are not about the central value at stake. If Speaker Pelosi believes that abortion is a positive good that should be promoted by the state (rather than as a privacy right for all women) that is one thing (and her recent actions with regard to Stupak suggest that she doesn’t think this), but there are any number of good reasons for supporting less-than-perfect public policy as she claims to be doing in trying to reduce the number of abortions while not supporting an abortion ban. …

Now, we can and should have debate about this question–and I think Pelosi is profoundly mistaken in her position on public policy–but let’s be clear: both the Pope and her Archbishop do not think such a position puts her status as a Roman Catholic or as a communicant in jeopardy. And those who think it does would do well to follow their example in distinguishing between ‘moral principle’ and ‘public policy.’

I’m relieved that the author believes Pelosi is “profoundly mistaken” in her position on public policy. I’m less convinced, however, that “the Pope and her Archbishop do not think such a position puts her status as a Roman Catholic or as a communicant in jeopardy”, and the author’s explanation for why they allegedly do not think so.

First, let’s tackle the author’s statement:

prudential judgments about how best to reflect a moral principle in public policy involved technical considerations of practical reason that do not go to the heart of what it means to be a Roman Catholic; in other words, they are not about the central value at stake.

If I’m reading this correctly, the author supposes that legislators like Nancy Pelosi are in fundamental agreement with the Catholic Bishops that abortion is a grave moral evil, and that their “difference of opinion” lies not on principle (“the central value at stake”) but solely on the level of prudential judgement and the extent to which such evils can be curbed by law.

In its doctrinal note on the participation of Catholics in political life, the Magisterium asserts that participatory democracy will succeed “only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person” and that “Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle.” Concerning legislative proposals which “attack the very inviolability of human life,”

Catholics … have the right and the duty to recall society to a deeper understanding of human life and to the responsibility of everyone in this regard. John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a «grave and clear obligation to oppose» any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.

The doctrinal note references section 73 of John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae:

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. …

In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it”.

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. … when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.

This, then, would be the circumstances under which Catholics may pursue “less than perfect” measures at limiting abortion.

Taking a look at Nancy Pelosi’s morally-abysmal voting record on abortion, it’s understandable how she consistently merits a “100% pro-choice voting record from NARAL.” That she, as a Catholic, has “any number of good reasons for supporting less-than-perfect public policy” is questionable. And if her legislative actions are any indication, it is doubtful that she is even in agreement with the principles of Evangelium Vitae. (Recall as well Pelosi’s deliberate misrepresentation of Catholic teaching on abortion on Meet The Press in 2008). If she professes to be personally against abortion, her actions have sought, at every possible instance, to provide legal cover for something which the Catholic Church considers to be an intrinsic evil and an abominable crime. (The burden would be on Pelosi and her defenders to prove otherwise). Ditto for Nancy Pelosi’s stance on gay marriage, which is at complete odds — principally and practically — with that of the Catholic Church.

Moving on to the question of whether Pelosi’s legislative behavior “puts her status as a Roman Catholic or as a communicant in jeopardy.” The author disagrees — and confidently marshals the Pope and the Archbishop to his side:

both the Pope and her Archbishop do not think such a position puts her status as a Roman Catholic or as a communicant in jeopardy.

As a matter of fact, our present Pope made his thoughts on the matter known explicitly, in a letter to the U.S. Bishops articulating “general principles” on the distribution of communion:

4. Apart from an individuals’s judgement about his worthiness to present himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion may find himself in the situation where he must refuse to distribute Holy Communion to someone, such as in cases of a declared excommunication, a declared interdict, or an obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin (cf. can. 915).

5. Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

The criteria for distribution of communion is also spelled out at greater length by Archbishop Raymond Burke’s (appointed to the position of Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, equivalent to that of Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, by this same Pope): “Canon 915: The Discipline Regarding the Denial of Holy Communion to Those Obstinately Persevering in Manifest Grave Sin”.

So it would appear that Pope Benedict XVI might be inclined to disagree on this question. That said, it is understandable (and within character) for this Pope to believe that the responsibility of disciplining Catholic legislators who “consistently campaign and vote for permissable abortion and euthanasia” falls on the shoulder of the local bishop. Which would explain why a number of Catholics can’t help but wonder at the relative silence of Pelosi’s bishop, Archbishop George H. Niederauer, beyond a rather meek invitation to converse.

Ultimately: I agree with the author — there is a distinction to be made “between a moral principle and a prudential judgment of how best to reflect that principle in a specific public policy”. It’s just that, with respect to the Speaker of the House, her public speech, actions and legislative record call into question the very notion that she even agrees with the Church “in principle.”

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