Archbishop Disputes Pelosi's Statements

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By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl and several other U.S. bishops are disputing statements by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a "Meet the Press" appearance about the Catholic Church's teachings on abortion. They say she misrepresented the church's longstanding opposition to the procedure and twisted some church teachings.

On the news show on Sunday, Pelosi (D-Calif.), a Catholic who supports abortion rights, said that the question of when life begins has been a subject of controversy in the church and that over the centuries, "the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition."

But Wuerl and the other bishops swiftly responded, saying that the church has opposed abortion since the first century.

"Abortion is evil," Wuerl said in an interview yesterday. "It's the destruction of a human life . . . this teaching has not changed and remains unchanged."

Wuerl's objections were echoed by two representatives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, where the Democratic National Convention is being held. Pelosi's speech to the convention Monday made no mention of abortion.

Chaput and Denver Auxiliary Bishop James D. Conley called Pelosi "a gifted public servant of strong convictions and many professional skills," in a statement posted on the Denver archdiocese's Web site.

"Regrettably," they added, "knowledge of Catholic history and teaching does not seem to be one of them. . . . [Abortion] is always gravely evil, and so are the evasions employed to justify it."

Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee on pro-life activities, and Bishop William E. Lori, chairman of the bishops' doctrine committee, noted in a statement yesterday that in the Middle Ages, the church distinguished between penalties for very early and later abortions. Yet they said its teachings "never justified or permitted abortion at any stage of development."

But Pelosi refused to back down yesterday. A spokesman said she has studied the matter closely and her views have been influenced by St. Augustine, a leading 4th century theologian, who wrote that "the law does not provide that the act [abortion] pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation . . . "

Observers say the controversy over Pelosi's statement is nowhere near the furor that erupted in 2004 when a dozen bishops threatened to withhold Communion from then-presidential candidate John F. Kerry and other Catholic officials who voted for abortion rights.

Nonetheless, the bishops' emphatic response to Pelosi's statements this week shows that they are willing to speak out when the church's teachings are challenged publicly by high-profile Catholics, according to the very Rev. David M. O'Connell, president of Catholic University of America.

"We're seeing more of that in recent years than perhaps we saw in the past," O'Connell said. "When you have very prominent individuals in the public square who are eager to identify themselves as Catholics . . . the bishops want to make sure that the people understand that quote unquote celebrities don't get a pass when it comes to the teachings or the practices of the church."

For conservative Catholic groups, the fact that Wuerl weighed in on the controversy was welcome news.

He angered some conservatives for refusing to discipline Pelosi and other pro-abortion rights politicians after they received Communion at the Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in the District in April. Wuerl has said that he believes those decisions should be made by the politicians' own bishops.

"We're very, very encouraged by his statements" on Pelosi, said Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, a Catholic organization opposed to abortion that is based in Stafford. "He is her shepherd when she is in Washington, and for him to speak out that way is very meaningful for all of us."


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