The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Catholics ‘personally opposed’ to abortion? A fallacy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and abortion rights advocates outside the Capitol.
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Mary Eberstadt holds the Panula Chair in Christian Culture at the Catholic Information Center in D.C. and is a senior research fellow with the Faith & Reason Institute.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s pastoral letter, or notification, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that she is barred from receiving Communion in the Archdiocese of San Francisco amounts to a depth charge beneath the surface of the Roman Catholic Church. It makes clear that the phrase “pro-abortion Catholic” is an oxymoron. Pressure will likely increase on Catholic bishops elsewhere to do what Cordileone has just accomplished: articulate what is indisputably church law.

Many people inside and outside the United States will reject that conclusion. They include inveterate anti-Catholics, abortion-first feminists and activists of all kinds who want the Catholic Church to stop being Catholic. Even so, the archbishop’s bracing stand for principle is a plus not only for the church but for all Americans regardless of belief. This is so for three reasons.

First, any clarification of facts is its own virtue. The letter to Pelosi, alongside the archbishop’s accompanying letters to priests and the laity, calmly informs others what Catholicism actually teaches about some subjects. In an age when more and more people are unchurched, this is itself a public service. The letters say, in effect, The catechism professes this. The archbishop’s letter to the laity quotes this utter nonequivocation from Pope Francis: “Every child who, rather than being born, is condemned unjustly to being aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ.” Also clarified is another teaching worth reiterating at a time of rising secularization: Everyone sins, and there is no such thing as an unforgivable sin. But leading others to sin, repeatedly and impenitently, is uniquely grave.

A second reason to welcome the archbishop’s intervention has nothing to do with religion and much to do with a political deformation that likewise needs correcting. Since the 1960s, liberals have claimed — without cause — to speak for all womankind on this issue when the reality is far more complex. In 2016, for example, Pelosi called Republican attempts to defund Planned Parenthood an “insult to the intelligence and judgment of women.” On May 9, after the leak of Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, her news release sounded the theme repeatedly: “Republicans would rip away women’s right to make the most intimate and personal decisions. … America’s daughters will have less freedom than their mothers. … The stakes for women … could not be higher.” The speaker also played the women’s card on behalf of abortion on Mother’s Day, saying on “Face the Nation” that “the court has slapped women in the face.”

In a nation that prizes diversity, a reminder that no speaker should presume to speak for all women is another good thing.

Finally, the archbishop’s notification might mark the beginning of the end for another experiment run amok: the notion that Catholics can simultaneously rattle rosary beads in public while working overtime against bedrock teachings.

This course correction, too, is all to the good, especially as the generation responsible for yesterday’s drift moves on. Pelosi and President Biden represent a fading faction of American Catholics. Their guiding star was a speech delivered by Mario Cuomo, then the governor of New York, at the University of Notre Dame in 1984. Though philosophically scant, it greatly influenced Catholics eager to do what Cuomo pioneered: project public ambivalence about abortion, even while laboring to ensure women’s access to abortion.

The forbidding of abortion dates to the earliest days of the church. The phrase “pro-choice Catholic” should no more run trippingly off the tongue than “carnivorous vegetarian,” say, or “rampaging pacifist.” Love the church or hate it, enhanced coherence is a good thing.

In reality, “personally opposed to abortion” has meant nothing more than surrendering one restriction after another. Biden abandoned the limitations of the Hyde Amendment while he and other Democrats have lately gone so far as to push the ghoulish Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have gone beyond even Roe v. Wade. Pro-lifers have argued for decades that it is impossible to draw lines around fetal life. By declaring that the only real stop sign is infanticide, today’s pro-choicers have proved them right.

For many years, some Catholics in public life have been enjoying illicit dual religious citizenship — pro-church on Sunday yet followers otherwise of a gnostic creed that deems abortion an untouchable totem.

Now, thanks to Archbishop Cordileone, the “personally opposed” option is less viable. Public figures who want simultaneously the political benefits of “choice” and the personal consolations of being Catholic might have to decide once more which of these two masters they will serve. A new kind of choice is upon them.

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