by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Today’s Leaven features a joint pastoral letter co-authored by Bishop Robert Finn and myself entitled: “Our Moral Responsibility as Catholic Citizens.” I encourage you to read it carefully and reflect upon the principles it provides as you prepare to vote this November.
This joint statement will be a disappointment to some who would like the church to issue a voter guide instructing Catholics for whom they should and should not vote. Our letter points out, from the very beginning of our national history, the Catholic Church has imposed upon itself an internal discipline requesting its pastors to refrain from endorsing particular candidates or parties. This policy of the Catholic Church in the United States was adopted, not because Catholic priests were constitutionally prohibited from making such endorsements, but because the church believed it was not prudent for the church to tether its credibility to the unpredictable actions of any particular candidate or party.
What our joint pastoral statement does attempt to do is lay out as clearly as possible the moral principles and priorities that Catholics must consider and apply when exercising the privilege, the right and the duty to vote. “Our Moral Responsibility as Catholic Citizens” is an attempt by Bishop Finn and myself to fulfill our responsibility as pastors to assist our parishioners in the proper formation of their conscience.
Some will criticize our efforts to help form the consciences of our people as a violation of the so-called principle of the separation of church and state. Those who make such a charge are confused and misread our Constitution. Such critics often confuse constitutionally protected rights for free expression and religious liberty with government requirements pertaining to tax-exempt status under the Internal Revenue Service code. The Internal Revenue Service code with its criteria for tax-exempt status is a relatively recent invention. Our elected representatives, in formulating tax policies, have chosen to include certain tax exemptions for charitable organizations and institutions — including churches. They have done so in recognition of the positive contribution for the common good made by churches and other charitable organizations.
Naturally, these same tax policies must contain criteria for qualifications for tax-exempt status. In part, the Internal Revenue Service regulations, as they have been developed over decades, prohibit the endorsement of political candidates and parties and limit the percentage of resources a charitable institution can use for issue advocacy. In effect, these IRS regulations correspond to the church’s own internal policies.
Those who are genuinely concerned about a proper separation of church and state should have been troubled by the recent statements of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who attempted on national television to usurp the authority of the Holy Father and bishops to de- fine what Catholics believe about the morality of abortion.
Certainly, Nancy Pelosi has a constitutional right to express her opinion about the morality of abortion. As an elected representative, she also has a constitutional right to support public policies that conform to her personal belief.
What Nancy Pelosi does not have a right to do is to use her position as a government official to attempt to redefine the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. In a sense, Nancy Pelosi’s comments on “Meet the Press,” interpreting the teaching and tradition of the Catholic Church, made explicit what many other Catholics in public life have been doing implicitly for the last several decades.
Whether intentionally or not, Nancy Pelosi misled many Catholics by posturing herself as a devout and faithful Catholic while supporting state sanctioned killing of innocent unborn children. She was in effect saying: I am Catholic and support legalized abortion; you can be a good Catholic and support legalized abortion.
Actually, whether purposeful or not, her attempt to change the clear and consistent teaching of the church regarding the grave evil of abortion was even more dangerous. She was making an argument — not only why she believes abortion should be legal, but why an individual experiencing an untimely pregnancy could morally, according to her interpretation of Catholic teaching, procure an abortion.
Nancy Pelosi’s obfuscation of Catholic teaching on abortion reflects either an incredible ignorance of Catholic teaching or a willful effort to attempt to deceive and mislead others. The authoritative source for Catholic teaching, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, could not be clearer: “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, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (no. 2271).
The catechism then cites sources as early as the first century all the way through the 20th century that affirm this constant teaching of our church.
Nor are the Scriptures silent about the dignity of unborn human life. The Old Testament begins its narratives regarding such key figures as Samuel and Samson by describing the circumstances of their conceptions (1 Sm 1: 19-20 and Jgs 13: 2-8). Both Jeremiah (Jer 1:5) and the psalmist (Ps 139: 13- 15) relate their formation by God in their mother’s wombs.
Similarly, in the New Testament, St. Luke’s Gospel begins by relating the circumstances of the conceptions of John the Baptist and Jesus. It is the unborn John the Baptist who is the first to recognize Jesus while he was in the womb of Mary.
Nor is it merely coincidental that the church in its liturgical calendar celebrates the feast of the Annunciation (the incarnation — the conception of Jesus) precisely nine months (March 25) before the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
Nancy Pelosi’s supposed rationale for her confusion about the morality of abortion is because the church has never claimed to be able to pinpoint the exact moment of ensoulment. Such noted theologians as St. Augustine and St. Thomas — based on what everyone would recognize now as a very antiquated biology — hypothesized that ensoulment might happen at quickening, when a woman first felt her unborn child stirring in her womb, which we now know has no real biological significance. Yet, St. Augustine and St. Thomas both affirmed the church’s clear and consistent teaching that abortion was a grave evil no matter at what stage of a pregnancy.
Technological advancements and modern biology provide overwhelming scientific evidence that a unique human life begins at the moment of conception or fertilization. Modern science supports the church’s teaching regarding the dignity and sanctity of human life from its earliest moment — conception.
Unwittingly, Nancy Pelosi admitted her own error. After misinterpreting Catholic tradition and teaching about the morality of abortion and claiming it was impossible to know when human life begins, she advocated the promotion of contraception as a means to avoid unwanted pregnancy. What is contraception, except an attempt to prevent conception? It would seem Speaker Pelosi really does understand when human life begins but finds it to be an inconvenient truth.