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Politicians, Theology, and Abortion

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

To the surprise of some political commentators and observers, abortion has emerged as an important issue in this year’s elections. Despite the talk about the “broadening” of moral concerns on the part of Christian voters, these voters still care about the sanctity of human life—just ask the Speaker of the House.

During a recent appearance on “Meet the Press,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was asked what she would tell Senator Obama (D-Ill.) if he asked her when life began. He already said that he does not know.

Pelosi identified herself as an “ardent, practicing Catholic” and said that she had “studied [the issue] for a long time.” The Speaker then said that “over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition.” She added that “St. Augustine said at three months,” and concluded that “we don’t know.”

In any case, according to Pelosi, “it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.”

The Speaker was scarcely done sharing the fruit of her “studies” when people in a position to know—Catholic bishops and theologians—set the record straight, quickly. The chairmen of the Catholic Bishops’ pro-life and doctrine committees issued a statement saying that the Speaker had “misrepresented the history and nature of the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church on abortion.”

Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop Lori of Bridgeport pointed out that since the first century, the Church has “affirmed the moral evil of every abortion.”

It is true that in the late classical and Middle Ages “uninformed and inadequate theories” about human embryology led to speculation about the age at which the unborn child receives a soul. But debates about what is called “ensoulment” were independent of the question of the evil of abortion.

In any case, we now know that “a new human life begins with the union of sperm and egg” and Catholic teaching reflects this scientific fact.

Archbishop Chaput of Denver pointed out the inconsistency in the statements and actions of politicians like Pelosi. On the one hand, they “tend to take a hard line in talking about the ‘separation of Church and state.’” However, “their idea of separation [only] seems to work one way.”

“Public leaders inconvenienced by the abortion debate,” wrote Chaput, “also seem comfortable in the role of theologian.”

It is not only Catholics. Protestant politicians also play theologian. They desire the political benefit of professing faith without taking what they perceive as a politically costly position. So they insist that Christian teaching on the subject is “unclear” or that Christians have historically disagreed on the subject.

Of course, as the Bishops pointed out, nothing could be further from the truth. As I write in my new book The Faith, the Didache, a first-century Christian document thought to be the earliest Christian catechism, called abortion “the murder of a child.” You don’t get it any clearer—or older, for that matter—than that.

Of course, this kind of clarity is, as Archbishop Chaput put it, “inconvenient” for those who find themselves in opposition to 2,000 years of Christian teaching. In that case, my suggestion is that these politicians spare us their uninformed and inadequate theories about what Christianity teaches.

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