In their responses to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl and the US bishops commented on their interpretation of what Speaker Pelosi said, not what she actually said. Speaker Pelosi was correct in noting that Catholic teaching has changed over the years, even on the issue of when life begins. But Archbishop Wuerl and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops used the occasion to bang the drum on their issue sine qua non in American politics: abortion. In doing so, the bishops ignored many relevant issues, including the importance of conscience, what Catholics themselves actually believe, and the role of religion in politics.On conscience, Catholic politicians need no reminding that Catholic teaching requires them to follow their own consciences—even if it is in conflict with church teaching. In addition, Catholic teaching requires at least tolerance, if not respect, for other people’s decisions. Speaker Pelosi and the many other prochoice Catholic politicians are following this teaching to the letter when they recognize the proper place for personal religious convictions in the political arena, and support policies that help ensure affordable contraception, safe and legal abortions, comprehensive sexuality education, and affordable health care for all people in this country.
Despite what many bishops might hope, they cannot impose teachings on an unwilling faithful. Barely a fifth (22%) of Catholics in the US agree with the bishops that abortion should be completely illegal, and Catholic women in the US have abortions at the same rate as women in the population as a whole. In fact, while the bishops may seek to make abortion an election issue, it is clear from a poll conducted by the noted Washington, DC, firm Belden Russonello and Stewart, that many of the hierarchy’s teachings on reproductive health and rights have not been received by the faithful.
The bishops are not on the same page as Catholics when it comes to deciding what the important issues in the next election are. Fortunately for Americans of every faith group and no faith group, Catholics in public life, such as Speaker Pelosi, inform their actions by their faith, their conscience, and the voices of their constituents, focusing on what is best for all Americans, not just the dictates of Catholic bishops.
This entry was originally posted on The Hill’s Congress Blog on 27 August 2008.