A Teachable Moment? (Update)

Archbishop Charles Chaput issued a statement today, challenging Speaker Nancy Pelosi's understanding of the Catholic doctrinal tradition which she had enunciated during yesterday's "Meet the Press" appearance.Here is part of the Archbishop's statement:

Interviewed on Meet the Press August 24, Speaker Pelosi was asked when human life begins. She saidthe following:"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 def-inition . . . St. Augustine said at three months. We don't know. The point is, is that it shouldn't havean impact on the woman's right to choose."Since Speaker Pelosi has, in her words, studied the issue "for a long time," she must know very wellone of the premier works on the subject, Jesuit John Connery's Abortion: The Development of theRoman Catholic Perspective (Loyola, 1977). Here's how Connery concludes his study:"The Christian tradition from the earliest days reveals a firm antiabortion attitude . . . The condemna-tion of abortion did not depend on and was not limited in any way by theories regarding the time offetal animation. Even during the many centuries when Church penal and penitential practice was basedon the theory of delayed animation, the condemnation of abortion was never affected by it. Whateverone would want to hold about the time of animation, or when the fetus became a human being in thestrict sense of the term, abortion from the time of conception was considered wrong, and the time ofanimation was never looked on as a moral dividing line between permissible and impermissible abor-tion."

Interestingly, Chaput also cites the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose judgement is categorical:

Or to put it in the blunter words of the great Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer:"Destruction of the embryo in the mother's womb is a violation of the right to live which God hasbestowed on this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with ahuman being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended tocreate a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. Andthat is nothing but murder."

The full statement is here:http://www.archden.org/images/ArchbishopCorner/ByTopic/onseparationofsen...Amy Welborn posted earlier on the Pelosi interview, with interesting links and some fascinating readers' comments. One comment is by a Bill Bannon (whom I do not know) on the views of Augustine and Jerome.[Apologies that the transcription from a pdf file is uneven, but I think the message comes through.]Update:Here is a statement released by the Conference of Bishops and posted on their web page:

-Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Bishops Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop William E. Lori, chairman of the U.S. Bishops Committee on Doctrine, have issued the following statement:In the course of a Meet the Press interview on abortion and other public issues on August 24, 2008, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi misrepresented the history and nature of the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church against abortion.The Church has always taught that human life deserves respect from its very beginning and that procured abortion is a grave moral evil. In the Middle Ages, uninformed and inadequate theories about embryology led some theologians to speculate that specifically human life capable of receiving an immortal soul may not exist until a few weeks into pregnancy. While in canon law these theories led to a distinction in penalties between very early and later abortions, the Churchs moral teaching never justified or permitted abortion at any stage of development.These mistaken biological theories became obsolete over 150 years ago when scientists discovered that a new human individual comes into being from the union of sperm and egg at fertilization. In keeping with this modern understanding, the Church has long taught that from the time of conception (fertilization), each member of the human species must be given the full respect due to a human person, beginning with respect for the fundamental right to life.

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is a longtime Commonweal contributor.

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