Letters & Op-Eds 2008
San Francisco Chronicle

Pelosi views on abortion in synch with most Catholics

In its response to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s comments last month about abortion, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops missed the mark on political discourse in the United States. The conference not only commented on its interpretation of what Speaker Pelosi said, not what she actually said, but also chose to place itself at the center of the political discussion on abortion.

The U.S. bishops are erroneous in not reflecting the fullness of Catholic teaching on abortion nor what the majority of Catholics nationwide believe. In her comments on “Meet the Press,” Speaker Pelosi was correct when she noted that Catholic teaching has changed over the years, even on the issue of when life begins. While members of the Catholic hierarchy have consistently opposed abortion, their reasons for doing so and the teachings they espoused to the faithful have varied.

It is telling that the conference of bishops chooses to omit mention that no pope has proclaimed the prohibition of abortion an “infallible” teaching. This means there is much more room for debate, with opinions among theologians and the laity differing widely. In any case, Catholic theology tells individuals to follow their personal conscience in moral matters – even if it is in conflict with church teaching. In addition, Catholic teaching requires tolerance and respect for other people’s decisions. Speaker Pelosi and the many other pro-choice Catholic policymakers are following these teachings to the letter when they recognize the proper place for personal religious conviction in the political arena.

Individual conscience in matters of moral decision-making is at the core of the Catholic tradition – and the public policy views of Catholics in the United States reflect this tradition. Like the majority of Catholics nationwide, as well as people of other faiths, Speaker Pelosi supports policies that help ensure affordable contraception, safe and legal abortions, comprehensive sexuality education and affordable health care for all people in this country. As a Catholic, Speaker Pelosi has a responsibility to inform her conscience and decisions with church teaching; as a policymaker, she has a responsibility to her constituents and to the people of many religious faiths and no faith that make up the foundation of America.

While the bishops continue their attempt to make reproductive rights the single national issue that Catholic should vote on, in doing so, they are ignoring more relevant issues, including the importance of conscience, what Catholic themselves actually believe and the role of religion in politics.

Despite what many bishops might hope, they cannot impose teachings on an unwilling faithful. Barely a fifth (22 percent) of Catholics in the United States agree with the bishops that abortion should be completely illegal, and Catholic women in the United States 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, D.C., firm of Belden Russonello & Stewart, that many of the hierarchy’s teachings on reproductive health and rights have not been received by the faithful. For example, 6 in 10 support keeping abortion legal and 7 in 10 say they feel no obligation to vote against candidates who support abortion. An even larger majority (75 percent) disapproves of denying Communion to Catholics who support legal abortion.

Catholic voters are not concerned with so-called values issues as much as they are with improving the economy (68 percent saying it should be one of the highest priorities); protecting the United States from terrorism (54 percent); resolving the war in Iraq (50 percent); and making health care more affordable (48 percent).

The bishops would better serve American Catholics by acknowledging their true priorities.


This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on September 15, 2008.

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