Nancy Pelosi and the Prelates

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is engaged in a verbal war with the Bishops of the Catholic Church over the position of the Democratic Party on abortion rights. The Democratic Party has a strong position on this issue, and has just recently relaxed that position enough to admit that Democrats–including some important democratic office holders–can be allowed to speak even if they do not support the party line on this issue. The Bishops have not relaxed their position on abortion. Conflict is to be expected, but Speaker Pelosi, who is a smart politician ordinarily, has rather fanned the flames of conflict by attempting to lecture the Bishops on Catholic theology. Her position is wrong on theology and on philosophy and, however correct it may be with respect to the Party's platform, it is not smart politically.

The question to Pelosi was raised during a visit to Meet the Press.  Senator Biden, Senator Obama's choice for a Vice Presidential candidate, is a Catholic and a Democrat.  As a Democratic Senator and a candidate for Vice President has supported the party's position on abortion rights.  The Archbishop of Washington said that since Senator Biden is committed to the party's position on abortion,  he should not be allowed to receive communion.  This is the same position some bishops took with Senator Kerry four years ago.  It is not a formal ex-communication, and it is striking primarily because it is only candidates for President and Vice president who are singled out for this treatment.  As a Senator, apparently, Biden is allowed to receive communion.  It will not be an issue in the campaign unless Senator Biden makes an issue of it.  Under Church law, Catholics are required to receive communion  at least once a year–during the Easter Season.  Unless Senator Biden wants to push the issue, it won't really arise during the campaign.

The proper response from Speaker Pelosi and from Senator Biden is John Kenndy's position.  As a private citizen, follow the teachings of the church, as a public official, uphold the consitution.  But Speaker Pelosi took the occasion to lecture the church on philosophy.  She said that she preferred the position of St. Augustine of Hippo, who held that human life began at three months, when human sensation began.   [link edited for length]). She said that the Church should change its position–that human life begins at conception–and adopt the Augustinian position.

A great many people, not just members of the Catholic Church, believe that human life begins at conception.  I believe it does, as do some other libertarians([link edited for length]) .  The apparent conflict of rights between a woman's right to control her own body and another human beings right to life creates a  problem for us.

Speaker Pelosi says that the Church has changed its position before.  It has made modifications to its position on abortion, but only marginally and then without giving up it basic theological stance.  Until the 1960s, the position of the Church was that it was a sin to end any pregnancy prematurely.  This included pregnancies where the fertilized egg lodged in the fallopian tube rather than the uterus, a certain death sentence for the mother.  The change was made by holding that, while the ending of the pregnancy must be regarded as killing a human being, the fetus in this case was an intruder threatening the life of the mother and therefore could be the removal of the foietus could be regarded as an act of self-defense.

In defining her position as the position of St. Augustine, Speaker Pelosi did not make it more likely that the Church would follow her suggestion.  While Austine is regarded as a Saint (a martyr) by the Church and his books are still read in philosophy and theology classes, his position as a theologian has always been problematic.([link edited for length]).  The early Christians divided into competing groups who, while they all professed to be followers of Christ, had different conceptions of the nature of God and of Christ.  Before the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Empire and forced the competing Christians to agree on the basic beliefs of the Christian groups at the Council of Nicea, all questions were open, including the question of whether Jesus was a man, was God, or was a combination of both “True man of True Man, True God of True God” in the words of the creed adopted there.

Theology developed as an effort to understand the nature of God and of the relations of man to God.  This was not a scientific enterprise, as currently understood, becuase it was an attempt to understand the immaterial.  The early theologians proceded from the scriptures and used the methods of the Greek philosphers to create a logical moral code.  Augustine, living in what was still the classical world was particularly influenced by the system of Plato and the Neo-Platonists, with there attempt to understand the physical world in terms of Ideal Types, of which physical reality was a flawed copy.  Since one of the problems with which the early theologians were dealing was when true human life began, Augustine placed it where the reactions found in foetuses were clearly similar to human beings.  But the classical age in the West ended shortly after the death of Augustine, and the medieval philosophers and theologian, who framed the doctinal rules of the medieval church were followers of Aristotle rather than Plato.  Because of the loss of imperial influence in the west, and particularly after the rise of Islam, Platonic philosophy died out in the west.

Aristotle was a student of Plato who rejected the idea of the ideal and chose an empirical approach to understanding the physical world.  Evey thing in the physical world, he held, consisted of three basic things, Matter, Form, and Substance.  Matter is what a thing is composed of, form is the physical aspect, and substance, which is related to both form and matter, determines the nature of the thing.  The concept was never particularly clearly explained by Aristotle([link edited for length]),  but one way of looking at it is this.  Things are made of matter; at any particular time, that matter is shaped into a particular form.  The substance of the thing is its nature:  over time, the matter may change in type or be seen in a different form, but the subtance of the thing remains the same.  In other words, an acorn is, in substance, an oak tree; a tadpole is in substance a frog; a foetus is in substance a human being.  Barring accidents, over time each will develop into the adult form dictated by its substance, and cannot be anything else.  Since the Christians had already adopted the idea of human beings as creatures with a body and soul, then taking the life of foetus was the same as killing any other human being.

Speaker Pelosi decided that the Church ought to change her position.  Several Bishops told her she was wrong.  She is standing by her position, which is not a surprise, but in this case she is wrong.  The Church may modify its position on when the taking of foetal life is permisable, but it will not happen under Pope Benedict XVI.  The Supreme Court may change it position on abortion, but it will not do so with the current make-up of the court.  I believe that neither will change during my lifetime, and I very seriously doubt that either will change during Ms Pelosi's speakership and probably her lifetime.

In this particular conflict, the church leaders are treading close to the line, but Speaker Pelosi has clearly crossed.  In the United States, churches are free of government control.  This means that they should be careful in dealing with political matters.  They cannot coerce their church members serving in political or governmental positions to act in a particular way.  They cannot seek to order their members to vote in a particular way.  But they can hold their own positions on social issues, including those which have a political element.  As a Catholic and a political leader, Speaker Pelosi must carry out her political duties without seeking or submitting to direction from the church.  As a Christian, she can seek a church whose theological positions reflect her personal theology better; she can continue in the Church she belongs to, making a mental reservation in areas where she feels the Church leadership is wrong, or she can express her opinion as a lay person.

But what she cannot do as the holder of a powerful political position, is say that the Church must change both the basis and the details of its theological position.  As the Supreme Court noted in Engel v. Vitale( [link edited for length]) any government body writing a prayer constitutes a government sponsorship of religion.  Any attempt by the government to dictate to a church a proper theology is an establishment of religion.  Our government is coming dangerously close to this in many areas already.  Speaker Pelosi should not be participating in it.

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