Politics & Policy

Don’t Blame the Bishops

Catholic means pro-life.

You are unlikely to ever come upon a group called Mohammedans for Polytheism or Environmentalists for Seal Slaughter. A Muslim who espouses a multiplicity of deities has, ipso facto, placed himself outside the Muslim confession. Polytheism is not an Islamic thing. An environmentalist who patronizes anti-ecological activities is not an environmentalist at all, but a subversive. This is because the monikers “Muslim” and “environmentalist” mean something; they carry with them a series of necessary consequences. Certain terms — like “Muslim” and “polytheism” — simply can’t be squared, and combining them is nonsensical.

The recent ecclesiastical backlash to Nancy Pelosi’s unfortunate remarks on Meet the Press should have surprised no one, least of all Speaker Pelosi herself. Her attempts to squeeze abortion rights into Catholic moral teaching were no more credible than trying to pass apartheid off as a legitimate goal of the civil rights movement. The bishops — some seven have weighed in on the matter so far — had no choice but to speak out.

People — including apparently some “ardent” Catholics — seem to forget how central the pro-life issue is to Catholic morality and why that is so. We are not quibbling here about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is no exaggeration to say that the inviolability and sacredness of innocent human life is to Catholic morality what the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is to Catholic dogma. Both are not only non-negotiable; they are foundational. I would challenge Speaker Pelosi to come up with any moral question on which the Church has expressed itself with greater clarity than on the intrinsic evil of abortion.

A solid core of beliefs or principles undergirds any human organization. These beliefs constitute the cement that binds the society together and determine its identity. Obviously plenty of issues fall outside this fundamental core, and there is a difference between legitimate pluralism of opinion and arrant contradiction. Environmentalists, for example, can disagree about many things — such as strategies, priorities, tactics, funding and the like — but devotion to the environment and its logical corollaries are not up for debate. If you sport a mink coat, you’re out of the club.

Being Catholic is no different. The title “Catholic” presumes a whole string of basic beliefs, succinctly laid out in the Apostle’s Creed. Catholics believe in one God, creator of heaven and earth, in Jesus Christ his only begotten son who became man, suffered and died for us, rose from the dead on the third day, and so forth. Along with this canon of doctrines, Catholics also embrace a body of moral teaching (summed up tidily in the Catechism of the Catholic Church) which governs their understanding of right and wrong, what is pleasing to God and what offends Him.

From the earliest days of Christianity, Jesus’ followers distinguished themselves from those around them both by their doctrinal beliefs and their moral code. The earliest known work of Christian antiquity outside the New Testament is called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, known also by its familiar Greek appellation, the Didache. This catechetical manual makes no bones about what it means to be a Christian. It begins with the stark admonition: “Two ways there are, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the Two Ways.” Included in the explanation of what it means to love one’s neighbor, as part of the “way of life,” first century Christians read the words, “Do not kill a fetus by abortion, or commit infanticide.” Such has been the consistent teaching throughout the history of Christianity and no amount of political posturing will change that.

Some people think that when Catholics compare abortion to slavery or to Nazi anti-Semitism they are engaging in hyperbole. They couldn’t be more wrong. Abortion is not only the greatest social injustice of our century; it is arguably the greatest social injustice of all time. Abortion circumscribes an entire class of human beings (the unborn) as non-citizens, excluded from the basic rights and protections accorded to all other human beings. In this way abortion mimics the great moral tragedies of all time, which always began with the denigration of an entire class of people as unworthy of life or freedom.

The evil of abortion is compounded by the magnitude of the problem. Though completely reliable statistics are unavailable, conservative estimates place the number of legal abortions performed worldwide each year at 25-30 million, a figure that alone makes abortion a social problem of staggering proportions. “Humanity today offers us a truly alarming spectacle,” wrote Pope John Paul in his 1995 encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, “if we consider not only how extensively attacks on life are spreading but also their unheard of numerical proportion.” The legal, systematic elimination of the most vulnerable members of society is the most heinous crime known to man. To fail to oppose it is to make oneself complicit in it.

The most disturbing element of Speaker Pelosi’s comments, however, was not her historical fudging, her disingenuous misrepresentation of Catholic moral teaching or her implicit adoption of cafeteria Catholicism. It was her insouciant dismissal of the moral significance of abortion. She said that in the end, it didn’t matter when life begins anyway. Her exact words were: “The point is, is that it [when life begins] shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.” No matter when human life begins, a mother’s right trumps a baby’s, and that right includes the choice to destroy the child. This is irreconcilable not only with Catholic morality, but with the most basic natural ethics.

Pundits and liberal commentators have predictably accused the bishops of playing politics and using Speaker Pelosi’s comments to further the agenda of the Republican party. Any objective observer knows this is not the case. If Speaker Pelosi didn’t want a response, she should not have forced the bishops’ hands. And if the Democrats’ star running back steps out of bounds, it’s not the referees’ fault for calling it.

Speaker Pelosi can campaign for abortion all she likes, but to do so as an “ardent, practicing Catholic” is to invite a stiff correction. Americans still value truth in advertising, and know that words have meanings. “Catholic” means pro-life.

– Father Thomas D. Williams, LC, ThD is Vatican Analyst for CBS News and author of Knowing Right From Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience (Hachette, 2008).


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