Pelosi's Poor Theology

Nancy Pelosi teaches us an important lesson in the distinction between catechetics and theology: they aren't the same thing.

If you've read the news lately, you couldn't have missed the bit about the Speaker of the House's attempt to justify her pro-choice stance on abortion by aligning herself with the theological tradition of St. Augustine. The following, taken from a rebuttal by her spokesman, sums up her thinking:

After she was elected to Congress, and the choice issue became more public as she would have to vote on it, she studied the matter more closely. Her views on when life begins were informed by the views of Saint Augustine, who said: ‘…the law does not provide that the act [abortion] pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation…’ (Saint Augustine, On Exodus 21.22)

No surprise to any serious scholar of Catholic thought is the fact that the views of saints do not always express the views of the Church. Although saints—and particularly Fathers and Doctors of the Church—attain such recognition by thinking and acting in accord with the faith of the Church, and by pursuing virtue and holiness to a degree that is exemplary and commendable, they are still humans with human opinions and biases. This is precisely one of those examples.

Amidst the onslaught of reprisal from Church authorities (one unprecedented in recent years), US bishops sought to establish just what the position of the Church, in relation to the ideas of saints such as Augustine, really states.
In the Middle Ages, uninformed and inadequate theories about embryology led some theologians to speculate that specifically human life capable of receiving an immortal soul may not exist until a few weeks into pregnancy. While in canon law these theories led to a distinction in penalties between very early and later abortions, the Church's moral teaching never justified or permitted abortion at any stage of development.

These mistaken biological theories became obsolete over 150 years ago when scientists discovered that a new human individual comes into being from the union of sperm and egg at fertilization. In keeping with this modern understanding, the Church teaches that from the time of conception—fertilization—each member of the human species must be given the full respect due to a human person, beginning with respect for the fundamental right to life.

The advance of modern science does not, thus, enable us to condemn St. Augustine as a liar or heretic. He was a product of his environment, scientifically speaking, and was therefore confined to the conceptions of procreation available in his historical period. Nancy Pelosi, and other Catholic politicians, are similarly products of their historical matrix, and are responsible for discerning truth insofar as truth is discernible. It is not appropriate nor just to point toward a medieval conception of reality if modern conceptions and demonstrations of reality prove otherwise; to such would be a denial of man's ability to reason and develop over the course of time, and an ultimate disavowal of his dignity as a rational creature.

What I find most perplexing about this whole matter is that no self-respecting politician nowadays would point to the Middle Ages as a basis for understanding the role of women in the workplace, or in society at large. They would be criticized as supporting chauvinistic and dated views. But to identify a medieval theory of human conception as scientifically valid is not only permissible, for some politicians, it is laudable. "While Catholic teaching is clear that life begins at conception," continued Pelosi's spokesman, "many Catholics do not ascribe to that view." Perhaps Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues in thought are simply ahead of the curve, jumping ahead of what the Church recognizes as true. Or perhaps she is afraid to admit that her position is indefensible. Either way, you can be assured, Saint Augustine is rolling in his grave.