Catholic World News News Feature

Archbishop Niederauer's inadequate response to Nancy Pelosi (analysis) September 05, 2008

Two weeks after Nancy Pelosi misrepresented Catholic teaching on a nationwide television broadcast, the Speaker's own archbishop has finally issued a rebuke.

Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco has indicated that he would like to speak with Pelosi about her stand on abortion. But he has also made it clear that he plans no disciplinary action.

During an August 24 broadcast of Meet the Press, Pelosi told host Tom Brokaw until recently, the Catholic Church allowed for different opinions on the morality of abortion. Citing St. Augustine, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives-- who described herself to Brokaw as an "ardent, practicing Catholic"-- claimed that prominent theologians do not agree on the question of whether human life begins at conception.

Of course, St. Augustine's views on that issue were based on a 5th-century understanding of biology. And while he was wrong on the question of when human life begins-- an error that modern science has corrected-- St. Augustine was very clear in teaching that the deliberate destruction of an unborn human is gravely wrong. That condemnation of abortion is a constant feature of Catholic teaching throughout Church history, stretching back to the time of the Apostles.

Pelosi's comments were demonstrably wrong, then, and a prompt public correction was required. Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, issued such a correction. The US bishops' conference released two different statements soon after Pelosi's remarks were broadcast, and followed up with a full 2-page "fact sheet" later. Archbishop Chaput weighed in, as did Cardinal Egan. By late this week (as the American Papist blog points out), at least 20 American bishops had made a public statement to clarify the constant teaching of the Church. Conspicuously missing from that list was the Archbishop of San Francisco, Pelosi's home town.

At last, with a statement published in the September 5 issue of Catholic San Francisco, Archbishop Niederauer ended his silence. Acknowledging the confusion caused by the Speaker's public remarks, he said that after some reflection he had concluded that "it is my responsibility as archbishop to discern and decide, prayerfully, how best to approach this question as it may arise in the Archdiocese of San Francisco."

Why did Archbishop Niederauer take nearly two weeks to recognize such an obvious requirement of his post as the primary representative of Church teaching authority in San Francisco? His public statement offers no clue.

The archbishop does reveal that he had received many letters and email messages from Catholics who were "expressed distress and dismay about the Speaker's remarks." Many of those messages from the faithful, he added, had raised the question of whether Pelosi-- and other Catholics who profess their public support for legal abortion-- should be allowed to receive Communion. To that question the archbishop did provide a clear answer: He will not take any disciplinary action.

Every Catholic should examine his conscience before approaching the Eucharist, the archbishop says, because it is gravely wrong to receive Communion while in the state of serious sin. "The practice of the Church," Archbishop Niederauer writes, citing #912 of the Code of Canon Law "is to accept this conscientious self-appraisal of each person."

It is certainly true that in most cases, the individual's self-examination is the only standard that the Church applies; a priest cannot see into the individual's soul to judge whether or not he is properly disposed to receive Communion. But in some cases, an individual's sin becomes a public matter. Canon Law provides for such cases, stipulating (#915) that those who have been excommunicated and "others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion."

Archbishop Raymond Burke-- formerly the head of the St. Louis archdiocese, now the chief judge of the Vatican's top canonical court-- has stated unequivocally that Canon 915 puts priests under an obligation to withhold the Eucharist from Catholics who are public supporters of legal abortion. Cardinal Francis Arinze, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, has observed that if a priest knows that an individual's reception of the Eucharist would cause public scandal, then that priest should withhold the Eucharist. Pope Benedict XVI has voiced his support for the same stance, both before and after his election as Successor to Peter.

Archbishop Niederauer ignores those authoritative arguments. Indeed he ignores Canon 915 altogether. In fact he opens the door to any Catholic who claims to be struggling with Church teaching on abortion or other issues:

In situations of honest doubt and confusion, they are welcome to partake of Holy Communion, as long as they are striving to understand what the Church professes and to resolve confusion and doubt.

To give Archbishop Niederauer his due, his September 5 statement does make it more difficult for Nancy Pelosi to claim that she is honestly confused about Church teaching. The Speaker's archbishop lays out the constant teaching of the Church, and observes that this teaching applies even if many Catholics find it difficult. "Authentic moral teaching is based on objective truth, not polling," he notes.

On the other hand, the archbishop praises the Speaker as "a gifted, dedicated, and accomplished public servant." He adds that she "has been supportive of legislation that helped to implement some of the social teachings of the Church."

Reading the archbishop's entire statement, one gains the impression that Speaker Pelosi is a good Catholic who has erred on an important issue. Archbishop Niederauer does not convey the sense that the Speaker's public stance has created a profound scandal.

The archbishop has corrected the public record, by properly stating the true Catholic teaching. He has not corrected the sinner, forcing Nancy Pelosi to recognize how far she has drifted away from communion with the Church.