"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.”

6 Responses to "I agree with the Church in principle, but …"

  • Rick Lugari says:

    How could anyone say she accepts Church teaching on the matter?

    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 St. Augustine said three months. We don’t know. The point is it that it shouldn’t have an impact on a woman’s right to chose.”

    Aside from her deficient understanding of Augustine and the Church(speaking as charitably as possible), she still negates her argument by the last line. “A women’s right to choose [killing her unborn child]” is not a Catholic concept and is clearly at odds with the Church (including Augustine and the other Doctors – not to mention that the Doctors aren’t the Magesterium either).

    Many bishops published corrections of Pelosi’s transparent theological hack job and there is nothing to indicate she was persuaded.

  • c matt says:

    There may be several ways to exercise prudential judgment on how best to reflect the principle that abortion is evil in a specific public policy. But proposing and voting for legislation to keep it legal at all stages for any reason, refusing others to exercise their own conscience in opposing it, and getting it publicly funded ain’t one of them.

  • W Posh says:

    Public policy is crouched in the public good and unity. The good for the public could mean a need for euthanasia. We see these ideas put forth in the heathcare debate. Some illness are way too expensive at the end of life. So Ms Pelosi is saying she can separate ethical and moral discernment when it envolves public policy. What upsets me is that her ideas confuse her own beliefs in principle and she tell us we should follow her way.

  • Phillip says:

    W Posh,

    The public (common) good does not call for a moral evil. Euthanasia is such and is not consistent with the common good.

    Now it will in fact be that there will need to be limits on health care. Individuals will disagree with what should be covered for all and what some may pay for out of their own resources. These distinctions can be in concordance with the common good. But setting those limits is different that actively seeking to kill a person.

  • Marvin says:

    Pelosi, and others seem to be trying to justify themselves into Heaven. Isn’t this whole piece about relativism? 2 + 2 = 4, for ever and always – that’s a truth. God issued a COMMANDMENT, not a suggestion, which states (as near as we can tell) “thou shalt not murder” – that’s also a truth. No matter when you think life begins, if you plan and act to cause that life to cease, then you have committed a grave ( we used to use the more descriptive term “MORTAL”) sin. It doesn’t matter what your religion, it is STILL a Mortal Sin.

    Remember, God created us with free will. In the Garden, we exercised that free will, and turned our backs on God, chosing to follow the creator of lies. Why do we STILL follow those who justify their lies to us? At the end of our lives, and for all time, we will be in Heaven or Hell, Forever.

  • Jim says:

    I agree with you marvin the only reason they changed the name to grave is people thought that mortal was to harsh… why is that so hard? dont like it? then don’t sin..

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