Published: November 28, 2011
“This conscience thing’’
Pelosi parts ways with bishops yet again, opposes abortion exemptions for Catholic healthcare facilities
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, a famously self-described “ardent, practicing Catholic,” has again parted ways with U.S. bishops -- this time on the issue of conscience protections for healthcare workers and institutions.
In a Nov. 17 interview with the Washington Post, Pelosi refused to back down from an earlier statement she made condemning a bill that would allow Catholic healthcare providers -- and others -- to refuse to perform abortions for reasons of conscience.
The bill, the Protect Life Act, was adopted by a 251-172 vote in the House of Representatives on Oct. 13 and is now in the Senate, where political observers give it little change of passage. Even if the Senate were to approve the measure, President Obama has vowed to veto it. In addition to providing conscience exceptions, it also explicitly forbids the expenditure of any federal funds for abortions.
While the bill was still pending, Pelosi said its passage would mean abortion-seeking women “can die on the floor and health-care providers do not have to intervene.”
Since the passage of the national healthcare law in 2010, U.S. bishops and healthcare facilities have been pushing Congress to carve out exemptions so that Catholic institutions would not be required to perform or refer for abortions. The lack of such exemptions in Obamacare was one of the reasons U.S. bishops opposed it when it was being debated.
Pelosi told the Post that she stood by her harsh characterization of attempts to legislate such exemptions. Those who disagree with her “may not like the language, but the truth is what I said. I’m a devout Catholic and I honor my faith and love it… but they have this conscience thing,’’ Pelosi told the newspaper.
Pelosi’s pro-abortion views while claiming to be “a devout Catholic” are nothing new. She has had many run-ins with Catholic bishops over the conflict between her self-avowed faith and her political activities.
In a Dec. 21, 2009 interview with Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift, Pelosi admitted that she had been personally counseled by San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer about her views on abortion and other moral issues, but said she has no intentions of changing her opinions, regardless of the archbishop’s advice.
“I have some concerns about the church's position respecting a woman's right to choose,” Pelosi told Clift in the interview. “I have some concerns about the church's position on gay rights. I am a practicing Catholic, although they're probably not too happy about that. But it is my faith. I practically mourn this difference of opinion because I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that is that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have that opportunity to exercise their free will.”
Pelosi’s Newsweek interview was apparently more than Archbishop Niederauer could take, prompting him to reply in a column published in the archdiocesan newspaper Catholic San Francisco, and posted to the archdiocesan website. After a lengthy explanation of Catholic teaching on free will and individual moral responsibility, Archbishop Niederauer concluded, “While we deeply respect the freedom of our fellow citizens, we nevertheless are profoundly convinced that free will cannot be cited as justification for society to allow moral choices that strike at the most fundamental rights of others. Such a choice is abortion, which constitutes the taking of innocent human life, and cannot be justified by any Catholic notion of freedom.”
Pelosi was also singled out by Madison, Wisconsin, Bishop Robert C. Morlino in March of last year after the Catholic Health Association and an organization called Network, a lobby of American religious sisters, wrote a letter used by Pelosi to suggest Catholic support for President Obama’s healthcare reform bill – even though US bishops had repeatedly urged its defeat.
“And, of course, people like (then) Speaker Pelosi could not do enough to wave the letter from the Catholic Health Association and the letter from Network to provide cover for Democratic legislators who wanted to waffle in protecting innocent human life,” said Bishop Morlino. “Speaker Pelosi is not called by Jesus Christ to lead the Catholic faithful, any more than the religious Sisters in Network are, any more than the leadership of the Catholic Health Association is. The bishops are called to teach, sanctify, and govern.”
Pelosi provoked another major tiff with Catholic bishops in August 2008 when she described herself on NBC’s Meet the Press as “an ardent, practicing Catholic,” then told moderator Tom Brokaw and an audience of millions that Church teaching on when human life begins is unclear.
Besides, said Pelosi, even if life does begin at conception that would not change her pro-abortion views. “The point is, is that it shouldn't have an impact on the woman's right to choose,” she said. “Roe v. Wade talks about very clear definitions of when the child -- first trimester, certain considerations; second trimester; not so third trimester. There's very clear distinctions. This isn't about abortion on demand, it's about a careful, careful consideration of all factors and – to -- that a woman has to make with her doctor and her god.”
Pelosi said that she had studied the issue of when human life begins for a long time, adding, “And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition. And Senator -- St. Augustine said at three months. We don't know... And so I don't think anybody can tell you when life begins, human life begins. As I say, the Catholic Church for centuries has been discussing this…”
Within days of Pelosi’s remarks on Meet the Press, a series of American bishops came out publicly to rebuke Pelosi. Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, then chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop William E. Lori, then chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, said in a prepared statement that Pelosi had “misrepresented the history and nature of the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church against abortion.”
Bishops from New York to Denver individually issued their own official statements in an attempt to set the record straight. Cardinal Edward Egan, then Archbishop of New York, called Pelosi’s views “utterly incredible.” Even the normally taciturn Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, took Pelosi to task.
So frequent and severe have been Pelosi’s strayings from the faith that, in March 2010, noted Canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters wrote in his blog that Pelosi should be denied Communion under the provisions of Canon 915.