Bishops Respond to House Speaker Pelosi’s Misrepresentation of Church Teaching Against Abortion

Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop William E. Lori, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, have issued the following statement:

In the course of a “Meet the Press” interview on abortion and other public issues on August 24, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi misrepresented the history and nature of the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church against abortion.

In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.” (No. 2271)

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.

More information on the Church’s teaching on this issue can be found in our brochure “The Catholic Church is a Pro-Life Church”.


A Statement by the Most Reverend Michael J. Sheridan Regarding the Evil of Procured Abortion

Colorado Springs, CO – Tuesday, August 26, 2008

In light of recent confusing statements by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi suggesting that Catholic teaching allows for procured abortion in certain circumstances, it is important for all Catholics to understand the teaching of the Church regarding abortion.

From the first century the Church has taught that abortion is gravely immoral. “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2271, quoting Didache 2, 2). The procuring of an abortion is always and in all circumstances intrinsically evil. (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2271). It is murder of the most vulnerable and innocent human beings. Speaker Pelosi’s outrageous attempt to present what she considers the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding abortion is simply wrong and should be disregarded by every faithful Catholic.

All other rights are useless if one is denied the right to live. Our founding fathers recognized this when they enumerated life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as unalienable human rights. They also recognized that these three rights are not equal in importance. Pursuing happiness means little if one is a slave. And freedom means nothing to someone who has been denied the right to life.

Pope John Paul II echoed these sentiments when he wrote “The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights . . . belong to human nature and are inherent in the person . . . from the moment of conception until death.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2273, quoting CDF, Donum vitae III).

The teachings of the Church on abortion are consistent and unambiguous, and it is very disturbing to hear someone who claims to be a Catholic distort these teachings and sow seeds of confusion among the faithful by attempting to relativize the right to life.

There can be no compromise on this issue. “Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2272). “Those who are excommunicated . . . and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” (Code of Canon Law 915).

Those Catholics who take a public stance in opposition to this most fundamental moral teaching of the Church place themselves outside full communion with the Church, and they should not present themselves for the reception of Holy Communion.Most Reverend Michael J. Sheridan
Bishop of Colorado Springs



To Catholics of the Archdiocese of Denver:Catholic public leaders inconvenienced by the abortion debate tend to take a hard line in talking about the “separation of Church and state.” But their idea of separation often seems to work one way. In fact, some officials also seem comfortable in the role of theologian. And that warrants some interest, not as a “political” issue, but as a matter of accuracy and justice.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is a gifted public servant of strong convictions and many professional skills. Regrettably, knowledge of Catholic history and teaching does not seem to be one of them.

Interviewed on Meet the Press August 24, Speaker Pelosi was asked when human life begins. She said the following:

I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition . . . St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know. The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.”

Since Speaker Pelosi has, in her words, studied the issue “for a long time,” she must know very well one of the premier works on the subject, Jesuit John Connery’s Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective (Loyola, 1977). Here’s how Connery concludes his study:“The Christian tradition from the earliest days reveals a firm antiabortion attitude . . . The condemnation of abortion did not depend on and was not limited in any way by theories regarding the time of fetal animation. Even during the many centuries when Church penal and penitential practice was based on the theory of delayed animation, the condemnation of abortion was never affected by it. Whatever one would want to hold about the time of animation, or when the fetus became a human being in the strict sense of the term, abortion from the time of conception was considered wrong, and the time of animation was never looked on as a moral dividing line between permissible and impermissible abortion.”

Or to put it in the blunter words of the great Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer:”Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed on this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.”

Ardent, practicing Catholics will quickly learn from the historical record that from apostolic times, the Christian tradition overwhelmingly held that abortion was grievously evil. In the absence of modern medical knowledge, some of the Early Fathers held that abortion was homicide; others that it was tantamount to homicide; and various scholars theorized about when and how the unborn child might be animated or “ensouled.” But none diminished the unique evil of abortion as an attack on life itself, and the early Church closely associated abortion with infanticide. In short, from the beginning, the believing Christian community held that abortion was always, gravely wrong.

Of course, we now know with biological certainty exactly when human life begins. Thus, today’s religious alibis for abortion and a so-called “right to choose” are nothing more than that — alibis that break radically with historic Christian and Catholic belief.

Abortion kills an unborn, developing human life. It is always gravely evil, and so are the evasions employed to justify it. Catholics who make excuses for it – whether they’re famous or not — fool only themselves and abuse the fidelity of those Catholics who do sincerely seek to follow the Gospel and live their Catholic faith.

The duty of the Church and other religious communities is moral witness. The duty of the state and its officials is to serve the common good, which is always rooted in moral truth. A proper understanding of the “separation of Church and state” does not imply a separation of faith from political life. But of course, it’s always important to know what our faith actually teaches.

+Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver

+James D. Conley
Auxiliary Bishop of Denver

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  • DRF

    Okay… Some of what these writers are saying can also be misleading. The idea that the Church has never approved of abortion as we understand it is true, but the idea that its position has been consistent is not. That may be where some of this confusion is coming from.

    The Church’s position on abortion HAS changed over time. The Church has never approved of abortion, but its reasons for disapproving of it have changed over time. For example, during the medieval period, as alluded to above, the Church did not permit early-stage abortions but placed them in the same category as contraceptive measures.

  • DRF

    “Of course, we now know with biological certainty exactly when human life begins.”

    Whoa, whoa, WHOA–NO WE DON’T. We know with spiritual certainty, not biological certainty.

    Modern medical and scientific knowledge can tell us when sperm and egg fuse, when implantation occurs, when the separate tissues form, when brain activity begins, when a child takes its first breath, and when it says its first word. It CANNOT tell us when life begins because there is no fully unambiguous scientific and medical definition of life.

    The Church can speak with some certainty about these things because it is permitted to and supposed to use spiritual resources to answer these questions. Medical and biological science must only use objective and observable phenomena.

    The beginning of life is a philosophical and religious question. Science alone cannot answer it. If it could, we would not have a debate about these things because everyone would look at the same facts and come to the same conclusions.

    “A unique genetic code has just formed,” is a fact, but “so this is a new person” is a conclusion. It’s a valid conclusion, but “this may become a person soon but it isn’t yet,” in the absence of spiritual resources, is logically valid as well.

    Do NOT claim that science can prove that an embryo is a human person. To do so both gives science more scope and credit than it should rightly have and discredits the speaker as someone either willing to obscure the truth for a political goal or not capable of understanding what science is and is not.

  • plowshare

    DRF, you incorrectly claim: “The beginning of life is a philosophical and religious question. Science alone cannot answer it. If it could, we would not have a debate about these things because everyone would look at the same facts and come to the same conclusions.”

    You are confusing “human life” with “personhood”. Textbooks on embryology will tell you that a human being is formed at the time of fertilization. The debate of which you speak is about personhood, which has a number of different definitions. It is easy to confuse them; for instance you also said:

    “Do NOT claim that science can prove that an embryo is a human person.” The bishops did not claim that; they just said that according to the Church, the human embryo must be accorded the same rights as people we all recognize as persons. Our secular government disagrees; but that IS the position of the Catholic Church, and it is wrong of Pelosi to claim otherwise.

  • 20_40_Vision

    I am overjoyed that so many Bishops responded as they did. I would be entirely surprised if my own Bishop weighed in on this, as long before Terri Schiavo died in his Diocese he has avoided “controversial subjects,” even as moral clarity is such a gift God gave our Church, and it’s such a waste to underutilize this gift. People think spiritual value is linked to intelligence or popular culture’s opinion of morality or ethics. It’s not. The Church, despite all appearances to the contrary, does not “invent” Truth by proclaimation of Dogma from upon a high throne in Rome, made low in the eyes of God. Truth is revealed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and I am overjoyed that so many American Bishops are made sick to their stomach when they near the Speaker of the House, a Lay Catholic who happens to be in a secular position of relevant power on Earth, express such a spiritually ignorant, morally bankrupt opinion on the Truth of when the soul enters the unintelligent, weak, fragile, tiny new human life, making life valuable at conception.

  • 20_40_Vision

    Rude to answer my own post, but I want to add that this Sunday in the U.S. Catholic Church we hear Jesus telling us to “think as God thinks, not as humanity thinks,” or some such similar phrase. Nowhere is this more apparent than what happens when we become U.S. Senators or Congressmen whose love of power means to pander to the perceived will of the people first, and the perceived will of the Father in heaven after that. Truth is, the Unborn don’t contribute to campaigns or vote. In the political world, they really don’t have a voice but when those of us further along in the human life cycle stand up to beg all of us to quit letting society eternally silence the voice of those who only have our voice to speak for them. The Speaker of the House and the Catholic Senators from Delaware and Massachuchetts in the news this week may or not really believe in abortion. But so long as they believe that their political hides depend on the support of people who support the “choice” of ignoring the voice and opportunities of the Unborn, they will continue to “think as human beings think,” not as God would look at any of this. The Speaker of the House is either ignorant of the Church’s core principles reflecting God’s principles on this and many other subjects, or she is more afraid of her left-wing radical constituents whose money and votes she depends on for power than she is of God.
    Pray for her. I do every day.

  • wgsullivan

    Isn’t it interesting how science is starting to catch up to the Church on some of these issues? Science would do well to take rather seriously Christ’s Church and it’s moral truths.

  • Bruce Roeder


    Let’s agree to consider what the Church teaches, not what those dissenting from her teachings claim she teaches.

    The Honorable Mrs. Pelosi was asked asked when human life begins, but she gave an obfuscation about an ancient dispute about ensoulment, which the bishops explain was based on the lack of scientific knowledge until about 150 years ago.

    But the answer to the actual question she was asked, when does human life begin, was not answered. And the Church teachings have never been in question about it.

    Even in our culture, there is not really a contraversy. It is a crime in the USA to destroy a sea turtle egg or a bald eagle egg. Why? Because it destroys the life of an endangered creature. There is no dispute over this. The life of a new individual begins at conception. It’s DNA is unique, neither the mother’s nor the father’s. No dispute here.

    This Pelosi tihng is simple:

    She is lying.
    She is lying about the Church.
    She is using her prominent public position to confuse people about the truth.
    To justify evil.
    To gain power.

    It is time to pray for our bishops, both those who are courageously speaking the truth to power and those who need to but are not doing so yet.

    What a great opportunity for them to be a bishop, to be a true witness to Jesus Christ and to make a sacrifice for Him!

  • sabr

    It is great to see a strong response from these bishops.

  • serreno

    The Bishop’s I am afraid are a “day late and a dollar short” (40 million children actually…. and counting) Let’s face it….they have lost their flocks. They are now scattered and lost to the four winds. I thought Bishops were suppose to be teachers. Most Catholics don’t really know their faith…or don’t really care about what the Church teaches. How difficult would it be if you are a Bishop….to get in your car… to a particular Catholic Congressman’s or Senator’s office….one who just happens to be in your docese….one who just happens to support abortion rights….same sex marriage, etc….and let them know “charitably” of course…..just how you feel as their Bishop about it. Tell them what is expected of them as a Catholic. Teach them. How many Bishops do you really think have done that? How about an overnight letter….a phone call. Something. How many? Very few I’m afraid. How sad. I don’t know what these men do all day long…but….I would think that over the course of the last 30 years….they would try something different…I mean…40 million innocent people have been slaughtered in their mothers womb. And with all kinds of “practicing” Catholic politicians and the Catholic “faithful” supporting it. All I know is that whatever is being done….apparently is not working. And isn’t that the definition of insanity…..”doing the same thing….over and over again….expecting a different result”. So try the above Your Excellency. Serious. Go see them. Face to face. Charitably. And if and when they throw you out of their office in humiliation…..come back to your Cathedral….go before the Blessed Sacrament….and read Acts of the Apostles…..Chapter 5….verse 40 through 42. We should all read that and commit it to memory. That is what is expected of us all. Not just the Bishops. Bad times….persecutions are upon us if we don’t begin to reverse this serious moral decline we are in. In the meantime…the slaughter of the innocent continues. May God have Mercy on us all!

  • Gemma Riordan

    TO change position is to move from one stance to different or opposing stance. Thou shalt not kill (murder the innocent) has not changed. Abortion is immoral has always been taught by the Church. Let’s not forget that when abortion became legal in the US science and religion entered the main battlefield. As Pope Paul VI predicted with great accuracy, contraception demanded that abortion be available due to the great human error and failure rates and the built in, all natural design of the pro and co-creative human marital embrace. Thanking God for the many bishops who are explaining the faith clearly and timely especially in response to the evident need for public teaching.

  • 20_40_Vision

    serreno says:
    September 2nd, 2008 at 4:23 pm
    The Bishop’s I am afraid are a “day late and a dollar short” (40 million children actually…. and counting) Let’s face it….they have lost their flocks. They are now scattered and lost to the four winds. May God have Mercy on us all!

    So far as “The Bishops are supposed to be our teachers,” that is one of those nice theories in the world of shouldism’s. In fact the Church’s greatest teacher has always been the Holy Spirit, who does, for every new life form and every new generation empower, inspire, and lead us to salvation, giving us insight beyond the structure of our VERY SLOW Church. Does the Holy Spirit not inspire the mentally challenged as much as we, the so-called “smart” people? Perhaps more so.

    I have often told my own Bishop of a 15-year old Austic boy who can’t speak in a normal conversation with anyone. His Catholic caretaker brings him into a “cry room” and from there, I have often watched him enter a Church called “Our Lady of Lourdes.” Upon entry, he comes alive, and he says “Our Lady of Lourdes – she loves you!” For someone who can’t communicate, he does quite well at Mass, reciting all of it, both in Latin and in English, usually about 5 minutes of where the Priest is. Long before the instruction from Rome came for us to change the Mass, his response to “The Lord Be With You,” has been, without fail, in Latin, “Et cum Spiritu tuo.”

    Maybe that kid was on to something. Ironically enough, he is able to distinguish the Priest from the Deacons who say this same phrase, to which he always responds “… and Also With You.”

    This is a severely Austistic boy who can’t hold a conversation. Most amazing to me is when the Eucharistic Prayer begins, after he exceitedly jumps beyond the expectations of the most excited Charismatic Church populations more than a foot off the floor in exciement during the Hosanna / Sanctus.

    He suddenly becomes completely silent and completely reverent, studiously looking not at the Altar but all around it, perceiving millions of angels arriving that our Faith only teaches us might really be there to “take this Sacrifice to Your Altar in Heaven.” He sees them.

    Politics aside, I do “get” your cynical view of humanity and your lamentation of the children far beyond the 2,000 slaughtered in Judea after King Herod became the first true proponent of the “slaughter of the innocents.” I want to direct you to a picture of many I’ve taken of one my top-100 pictures from many many visits to the ETWN Universe … this one from the Irondale Alabama Shrine where Mother Angelica started EWTN …

    Mother Angelica and I corresponded a lot in the past, and I cherish (and keep) everything she ever sent me, but now she has been reduced to Austin … someone at the complete mercy of the world around her, who can’t clothe or bathe herself without the help of fellow sisters – many who have never held a conversation with her and who don’t have the experience I have in that Mother Angelica has verbally expressed her great love for me and every other living born and unborn human. I think that Mother Angelica would be overjoyed at how Sarah Palin has turned fate over to God and given complete equal value to the soul of her new baby son as she does the rest of her children. Mother Angelica jumped the gun in the tombstone she built for the abortion victims of American society … she said “No one cared enough.” Instead she probably should have said “God cared enough, and so do many others … but not enough people cared enough.”