By Elizabeth Tenety
Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (L) hands the speaker’s gavel to incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) after Boehner was elected Speaker on the opening day of the 112th United States Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 5, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young
Two of America’s most powerful Catholics transferred power in the U.S. House of Representatives today, as Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ceded her role as Speaker of the House to John Boehner (R-Ohio).
In his speech to the House, Boehner mentioned his Catholic faith –a faith whose entanglement with politics has been problematic for religious and political leaders alike.
“In the Catholic faith, we enter into a season of service by having ashes marked on our foreheads. The ashes remind us that life in all its forms is fragile – our time on this Earth, fleeting. As the ashes are delivered, we hear those humbling words: ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
Remember, dear politicians, that you are elected, and to the polls the people shall return.
Pelosi and Boehner personify a debate within American Catholicism about what it means to be a Catholic, especially as it applies to politics.
Do the nuns who spoke in support of health care reform represent the church? Or, as Cardinal George said in an November meeting of the bishops, do only bishops speak for the church? Is a congresswoman who advocates for the poor but thinks abortion should be legal a Catholic? Who decides?
At the 2010 Catholic Community Conference on Capitol Hill, Pelosi said “she believes she must pursue public policies ‘in keeping with the values’ of Jesus Christ, ‘The Word made Flesh.”
Pelosi has never been afraid to articulate how she channels her religious beliefs into public policy: She called immigration reform a “manifestation of our living the gospels,” said she “prays morning and night for the poor hungry children of the world” and told reporters that she petitioned St. Joseph’s to pass health care reform. But it is her support of abortion rights that agitates her Catholic opposition the most. Pope Benedict XVI even reportedly made it a point to clarify the church’s prohibition on abortion during a 2009 meeting with the speaker.
In contrast, Boehner has been known to be private with his faith (“‘It’s very personal, very private, and very real,’ Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, Boehner’s closest friend on the Hill” told World Magazine), but largely because of his solid anti-abortion voting record, some conservative Catholic bloggers are cheering his election. Deacon Keith Fournier, reflecting at Catholic.org on the transition from Pelosi to Boehner called the new speaker a “real Catholic.”
So Pelosi is “a rock star to progressive Catholics,” as USAToday’s Cathy Lynn Grossman reported, and Boehner is a “real Catholic” to concerned conservatives.
Who gets to define who is a Catholic?