Opinion: Speaker of the House (of God)


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As a theologian, Nancy Pelosi is a great politician. This was evident in her unnecessary foray on “Meet the Press” into the history of Catholic thought about when human life begins. The San Francisco Democrat’s statement “as an ardent, practicing Catholic” that “doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition” was imprecise and impolitic. It also deprived pro-choice Catholic politicians of the best counter-argument to the idea that they should vote their faith on abortion issues.

First to what Pelosi got right: As in many other areas, Catholic teaching on abortion has undergone an evolution. The current insistence that life -– or a human soul –- begins at conception was not always taught by theologians. Some favored the notion that ensoulment takes place at quickening (the stage of pregnancy when the fetus can be felt to be moving).


As a Catholic, Pelosi is free to argue even to the pope that conception is not milestone for ensoulment or personhood. That theory is not infallible pronouncement. But using theology to justify a pro-life position in the political arena confuses the realms of politics and religion in a way that John F. Kennedy was careful not to do in 1960. The better response for Catholic politicians is to argue that personal faith and public duty do not perfectly overlap. Sometime legislators feel bound to vote the way her constituents want her to do.

It’s ominous that Pelosi was scolded not only by conservative Catholic bishops but also Archbishop of Washington Donald Wuerl, who has been a moderate in the debate over whether pro-choice Catholic politicians should be denied Holy Communion. As Tim Rutten observes, the Pelosi flap benefits Republicans in the current election campaign. Pelosi should discuss theology with her priest, not with Tom Brokaw.

The image of the Speaker of the House comes from this week’s Democratic National Convention, courtesy of AP Photo/Matt Rourke.