Amid the cascade of words pouring out of Denver this week, none may have more long-term punch than the bubbly Mile High musings of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday's "Meet the Press." Tom Brokaw had asked about Barack Obama's saying that deciding when life begins was "above my pay grade." Pelosi showcased the Peter Principle in action. It says that people rise to the level of their incompetence. Her answer showed that the principle has nothing to do with Saint Peter.
"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 ... We don't know ... And so I don't think anybody can tell you when life begins, human life begins."
How bad was it? Her pontifications left Brokaw as dumbstruck as a host can appear at such times. He noted her church believes life begins at conception. "I understand," she said. "And this is, like, maybe 50 years or something like that. So again, over the history of the church, this is an issue of controversy. But it is ... also true that God has given us ... a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions."
How bad was it? Catholic leaders in Washington, D.C., New York and Denver sternly corrected her valley girl pronouncement. Like, maybe 50 years or something like that ... free will—yeah, whatever.
It's one thing for a politico to bring up the teachings of her church on an issue. Sometimes it's a risky thing in a nation built on the separation of church and state; sometimes it's an altogether legitimate thing. But it's another thing for someone to call herself an ardent, practicing Catholic and then make a holy hash of her church's teaching on abortion.
"Ardent, practicing Catholics will quickly learn from the historical record that from apostolic times, the Christian tradition overwhelmingly held that abortion was grievously evil," Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput stated. "Some of the Early Fathers held that abortion was homicide; others that it was tantamount to homicide; and various scholars theorized 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 ..."
He continued: "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."
It hardly requires a prelate's instruction for Catholics to learn what the church actually teaches. It's right in the Catholic Church's catechism: "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."
Pelosi must have been on a Rocky Mountain high Sunday. She was operating way above her pay grade.
There's a term for Roman Catholics who pick and choose what non-negotiable church teachings to follow: "Cafeteria Catholics." The modern Democratic Party presents a special temptation for Catholic politicians and voters alike, since the right to an abortion has become the party's holy grail. The result is lots of rationalizing or a willful ignorance of their church's position. But Pelosi has hurled herself into a whole new realm. She combined lame rationalization of her own position with an ignorance of the church's position that, sadly, didn't seem willful.
This teachable moment for the Catholic Church couldn't come at a worse moment for Democrats. As they reach out to working-class Catholics, Pelosi's remarks highlight the party's abortion problem. Its support for unchecked abortion—and a presidential candidate more radical than abortion-rights groups—doesn't make this easy. Case in point: Before Pelosi prompted Chaput's rejoinder, the Denver archbishop had said that Sen. Joe Biden should avoid taking communion because of the Catholic vice presidential pick's pro-choice stand on abortion.
Unlike Catholic teaching on capital punishment or papal statements on the Iraq war, you see, the church's ancient position on abortion isn't something Catholics are free to ignore. Even ardent, practicing Catholics. Their only choice: Practice more.