It is hard to know what is more exasperating, the ill-informed statements of Catholic prochoice politicians about the church’s teaching on abortion, or the response of certain bishops, whose criticism of politicians sometimes seems designed to be exploited for partisan purposes.

Let’s be clear: When public figures misrepresent Catholic teaching, bishops have a responsibility to set the record straight. Appearing on Meet the Press in August, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got just about everything wrong regarding the church and abortion. Describing herself as an “ardent Catholic,” she nevertheless expressed agnosticism about when human life begins, arguing that in any event it “shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.” Reminded that the church teaches that life begins at conception, Pelosi dug an even deeper hole for herself, maintaining that the church has only taught that for “maybe fifty years or something.”

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden’s error, made on a subsequent episode of Meet the Press, was not nearly as egregious. “I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception,” he said. But in defending his prochoice position, Biden went on to say that the question of when life begins is a “personal and private issue,” and that in a pluralistic society he could not impose his “religiously based views” on others. In response, Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Prolife Activities, and Bishop William E. Lori, chairman of the Committee on Doctrine, explained that the question of when life begins is not “a matter of faith,” but a biological fact. “Protection of innocent human life is not an imposition of personal religious conviction but a demand of justice,” they added.

At least ten bishops have publicly corrected Pelosi or Biden, including Cardinal Francis George, president of the bishops’ conference, and Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of New York. Not a few commentators have judged these statements to be thinly veiled endorsements of the Republican ticket. Perhaps the most ill-considered statement was Cardinal Egan’s on Pelosi. “They are not parts of their mothers,” Egan wrote of the unborn, “and what they are depends not at all upon the opinion of theologians of any faith. Anyone who dares to defend that they may be legitimately killed because another human being 'chooses' to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name.”

That outburst is unhelpful in at least two respects. First, however we judge the moral status of the unborn, they are in some sense “parts of their mothers,” in that they are inseparable from them in the earliest stages of life. The total dependence of the unborn on their mothers is what makes abortion such a contested legal and political question. Even less helpful was Egan’s condemnation of Pelosi as unqualified for “leadership in a civilized democracy,” a judgment notably absent from the cardinal’s statements about prochoice Catholic Republican officeholders in his own state, such as Rudy Giuliani.

Pronouncements like these lead fair-minded people to suspect that a double standard is at work in the church’s attitude toward Democrats and Republicans. This perception is reinforced by the media’s relative neglect of positions the bishops take on issues such as immigration, health care, and poverty. Dramatic conflict drives news coverage. Knowing this, bishops must be careful not to issue statements that are easily manipulated by one party or the other. Stressing the consistency of Catholic teaching is one way to do that.

Abortion, the bishops tell us, is a fundamental moral issue, because unlike most public-policy questions, it entails the intentional killing of innocent human life, which is always and under all circumstances grievously wrong. There is another fundamental moral issue in American political life that involves the intention to kill innocent human beings. Because of the indiscriminate destruction caused by nuclear weapons, the intent to use such weapons, even in retaliation for a nuclear attack, is always and under all circumstances wrong. Yet the targeting of cities, and a determination to retaliate if attacked, has long been U.S. nuclear policy. In responding to this intrinsic evil, one that may yet involve the deaths of tens of millions, the bishops have been firm on principle but also prudent, rhetorically disciplined, and seekers of reasoned compromise on policy. The same discipline and prudence—the same concern for practical effect—should shape their pronouncements about abortion.

September 16, 2008

Published in the 2008-09-26 issue: View Contents
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