It’s an election year: time for some provocative thoughts about faith and politics.
Two Februarys past, Nancy Pelosi met with Benedict XVI in Rome. No press attended the meeting; there was no photo op. Afterward, Mrs. Pelosi praised the “Church’s leadership in fighting poverty, hunger and global warming, as well as the Holy Father’s dedication to religious freedom . . .” This was somewhat at odds with the Vatican’s version of the papal-politico confab:
His Holiness took the opportunity to speak of the requirements of the natural moral law and the Church’s consistent teaching on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death which enjoins all Catholics, and especially legislators . . . in creating a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development.
Mrs. Pelosi has been cautioned, lectured to, and scolded by any number of priests, bishops, and cardinals since then, but she proceeds blithely along as before.
“I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess,” she told Newsweek in December, “and that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have the opportunity to exercise their free will.”
This led San Francisco’s archbishop, George H. Niederauer, to once again undertake some remedial instruction. To wit: free will does not excuse sin.
In May of this year, the Speaker addressed a meeting of something called the Catholic Community Conference and said:
My favorite word is the Word, is the Word. And that is everything. It says it all for us. And you know the biblical reference; you know the Gospel reference of the Word. And that Word is, we have to give voice to what that means in terms of public policy that would be in keeping with the values of the Word.
As some exasperated Catholic wags quipped at the time, this suggests a new bumper sticker: WWJA (“Who Would Jesus Abort?”).
Now, nobody expects Mrs. Pelosi – mother of five and grandmother of seven – to be a politician and a theologian (moral or otherwise). Her stepping into the middle of such things has been foolhardy. Remember 2008 when she tried to instruct the American bishops on the theology of St. Augustine, which was only slightly sillier than Joe Biden attempting to instruct them about Aquinas? Her political position and profession of Catholicism in private and public require something more than wrist-slapping and finger-wagging so that American Catholics will see that what she is pushing is not Catholicism.
It’s time somebody finds the gumption to excommunicate her.
She is all but certainly excommunicated already, latae sententiae (literally, “given sentence,” meaning her loss of union is inherent in her actions), but where is the public value of that? Her continued misstatements about the faith and her unrepentant support of abortion rights (where she most obviously stands outside the faith) amount to textbook case of scandal, the sort that begs for formal redress.
One of America’s leading canon lawyers, Edward N. Peters, has written: “If her prolonged public conduct does not qualify as obstinate perseverance in manifest grave sin, then, in all sincerity, I must admit to not knowing what would constitute obstinate perseverance in manifest grave sin.” His point of reference is to a passage in Canon 915: “Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin , are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” (Emphasis added)
[N.B., I had originally included a parenthetical note in our now-defunct Comments section, but think it best to insert it here as well: “I must qualify the opinion of Edward Peters. At his website (In the Light of the Law) he points out in response to this column that he has never called for Mrs. Pelosi’s excommunication – only that she be denied Communion. It’s an important distinction and one I’m sorry I hadn’t immediately grasped. Of course, I still think she should be excommunicated. But I’m not a canon lawyer.]
And here’s the rub: How is a priest (in Washington, D.C. where Mrs. Pelosi works or back in her California district or, for that matter, at St. Peter’s in Rome) to certainly know that she should not be allowed to receive the Host unless he has been directed to refuse her by ecclesial authority? (I ask this even though a priest may be required by 915 to refuse Communion even without a bishop’s formal declaration.) How are Catholics to judge the distinction between her position on abortion and that of a pro-life candidate who may be her opponent? (In fact, opponent John Dennis is not a pro-lifer, but a libertarian Republican who opposes government funding of abortion.)
Why haven’t bishops in Washington, San Francisco, and . . . Rome stepped in to make clear that Mrs. Pelosi should be refused at the rail? Recall the 2007 statement of Archbishop Raymond Burke that if “the lack of right disposition is serious and public, and the person, nevertheless, approaches to receive the Sacrament, then he is to be admonished and denied Holy Communion.” Admonished and denied, he means, by the individual priest – without the necessity of a bishop’s direction.
But with all due respect, isn’t that kicking the can down the road? Isn’t that like the Joint Chiefs giving platoon leaders ad hoc responsibility for rules of engagement? There’s bound to be a priest out there who’d like nothing better than to be the one to say “No!” to Nancy (and then get three minutes on “The O’Reilly Factor”). But the faithful will only be left wondering if the priest hasn’t “acted alone.” This is especially true given Archbishop Burke’s strong summary statement:
No matter how often a Bishop or priest repeats the teaching of the Church regarding procured abortion, if he stands by and does nothing to discipline a Catholic who publicly supports legislation permitting the gravest of injustices and, at the same time, presents himself to receive Holy Communion, then his teaching rings hollow.