After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke about the abortion issue in a television interview, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington issued a clarifying statement. Rather than a put-down as some had expected, however, the Archbishop did a dance with her.
In the interview, Pelosi had said that the Democratic Party’s position reflected the religious pluralism of the country. Uncertainty about when life begins was understandable, she said, because the theological history of even the Catholic Church had produced varying opinions about when exactly the “moment of conception” takes place. The Archbishop admitted that there had been changes in opinion about when conception takes place, but insisted that the teaching of the Church has always safeguarded that moment. The House Speaker had talked about the scientific dimension of the issue: the Archbishop emphasized the theological (or metaphysical) definition. They were moving in lock-step but in different directions – just like partners in a dance.
Other bishops continue to repeat the theological opinion, which of course they should do. However, while theologians can speak authoritatively about the need to respect the moment of conception, it is “above their pay grade” to put on a biologist cap and define scientifically when that moment occurs. Fertility doctors, who are the experts on this matter, distinguish between a “fertilized egg” and “conception.” Only when the embryo is implanted in the womb does it achieve conception, they say. In fact, it would appear that in normal circumstances a significant number of fertilized eggs – perhaps as high as 30% — never reach conception.
Now, Catholic teaching instructs us that even if an embryo is not yet conceived, it has that potential. The embryo is human life, even if undifferentiated cells do not constitute a fetus or a functioning human person. Moreover, the embryo is biologically not part of the woman’s body in its cellular composition, even if it is not viable outside of the woman’s body. While these distinctions might resemble angels dancing on the head of a pin to most of the public, they are important to theologians. It is heavy stuff, not easily reducible to bumper-sticker sloganeering – although there seem to be quite a lot of dummies who try to trivialize Catholic teaching that way.
Unfortunately, this avoids the real issue for bishops and politicians alike: Does Catholic teaching bind non-Catholics? For instance, the United Church of Christ – Senator Obama’s denomination – has a different teaching about abortion than the Catholic Church: Are Catholic voters obliged by their bishops to take away the right of Protestants (or Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.) to practice their religion (or atheists to be atheists) in the U.S.? I am sure that there are some Catholics who will cite Pope Pius IX that “Error has no rights.” In that interpretation, Catholics in America are bound in conscience to be subversive, to undermine democracy and impose a religious test on candidates, officials and legislation even if in so doing they contradict the Constitution of the United States.
Speaker Pelosi and Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden clearly do not interpret their Catholicism in ways that would be anti-American or be subversive of civil rights of non-Catholics. (We could add names of other Catholics and Republicans like Rudolph Giuliani to this list of pro-American Catholics.) I have read the bishops’ statement on Faithful Citizenship and it clearly settles this issue in favor of small-d democrats everywhere. However, so as long as the bishops give theological answers to political questions, they expose our faith to confused charges of infidelity to the American way. Speaker Pelosi is no dummy: she spoke correctly from her perspective, just as the Archbishop did from his. It would be a service to Catholics everywhere if the bishops articulated more clearly the need to distinguish between theological teaching and political decision-making. Keep Catholic political leaders and bishops on the dance floor of the public square, I say! The public needs to see the careful intricacy we undergo in living within our shared Catholic conviction. I think the two concerns of theology and democracy can make beautiful music together.