It is comforting to see that some American Catholic bishops have used Nancy Pelosi’s ridiculous comments about theological confusion over the beginning of life and abortion as a “teaching moment.” Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has taken the lead in rebuking Pelosi and providing a proper Catholic theological framework for thinking about the issue of abortion, and a handful of other bishops have been equally vocal. Not that it is that difficult an issue, given the clear teaching of the Catechism and other definitive sources like John Paul’s Evangelium Vitae. But it is useful to hear it explained in response to Pelosi’s attempt to rewrite Catholic doctrine.
It took a simple parish priest, however, to say it most eloquently. This weekend, Fr. John De Celles, an associate pastor at Old St. Mary’s Church in Alexandria, Va., delivered a homily squarely confronting Pelosi and her thinking, but put the debate an interesting historical context. Fr. De Celles reminded his parishioners first of the papal response to slavery: “In the year 1839 in a document called In Supremo, Pope Gregory XVI reiterated the Church’s ancient teaching against slavery, specifically reproaching those who: ‘dare to …reduce to slavery Indians, Blacks or other such peoples…. as if they were not humans but rather mere animals.’” Unfortunately, continued Fr. De Celles, “some Catholics, in particular, some American bishops — especially Southern bishops — tried to argue that the doctrine didn’t apply to American slavery, because somehow it was ‘different.’ It seems, caught up in the prevailing attitude of the world around them, these bishops twisted the clear teaching of the popes into something that makes us sick to think of today. They fell into the trap that St. Paul warns against . . . : ’Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God.’”
The confusion generated by the American bishops contributed, De Celles suggests, to the Dred Scott decision, written as it was by “devout Catholic Roger Taney.” This is what happens when “bishops — and priests — fail to clearly teach, or purposefully dissent from the well defined doctrine of the Church, handed on and protected by the office of Peter. The gates of hell prevail in society: slavery, the Civil War, and a 100 more years of racial oppression.”
But Fr. De Celles also explained what could happen when bishops courageously follow unpopular Church teaching, citing the example of New Orleans Archbishop Francis Rummel, who, in 1956, ordered the desegregation of Catholic schools in his diocese over the very strong objection of many Catholic civic leaders (several of whom he excommunicated).
With that background, he turned to Pelosi’s comments. In response to the notion that there is confusion about the issue of abortion in Catholic theology, Fr. De Celles explains:
From the first century teaching in the book called the Didache: “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.” To the 20th century teaching of Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae: “by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his successors…. I declare that direct abortion … always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.”
Fr. De Celles also answered Pelosi’s distortion of Saint Augustine, who “like all the Fathers, condemned abortion from the first moment of conception.” Augustine’s musings on when the soul entered the unborn child had little to do with the abortion question, for he agreed that abortion was always morally wrong. And in speculating that it occurred at the “quickening,” Augustine was limited to Fourth Century science. Fr. De Celles has little doubt that Saint Augustine would accept today’s science that human life begins at conception.
Fr. De Celles, drawn into the theological debate by a self-professed Catholic politician, reminded Pelosi, and those Catholic politicians that agree with her, that “it is always a grave or mortal sin for a politician to support abortion.” To those that argue that a priest shouldn’t enter the political fray, he responded that “it was the Speaker of the House who started this; she, and other pro-abortion Catholic politicians, regularly cross over into teaching theology and doctrine. And it’s our job to try clean up their mess.”
Is Nancy Pelosi, modern day theologian and Speaker of the House of Representatives, the “ardent, practicing Catholic” that she claimed to be on Meet the Press? Well, Fr. De Celles asks:
Imagine if someone came in here and said “I’m a mafia hit man and I’m proud of it.” Or “I deal drugs to little children.” Or “I think black people are animals and it’s okay to make them slaves, or at least keep them out of my children’s school.”
Are these “ardent practicing Catholics”?
No, they are not.
And neither, he concludes, “is a person who ardently supports and votes to fund killing 1 to 1.5 million unborn babies every single year. Especially if that person is in a position of great power trying to get others to follow her.” Like the unrepentant drug dealer or bigot, “they are not ardent Catholics. They are, in very plain terms, very bad Catholics.”
Now you could argue that it is this sort of judgmental preaching that gets priests or pastors in trouble, and there is little doubt that there were some in the pews that found Fr. De Celles’ blunt assessment troubling. But it also takes a great deal of courage to speak the truth so candidly. Fr. De Celles had to know that he would get grief from a handful of those who disagreed with him. He probably didn’t know that he would receive a round of applause at one mass, however. But he did so not to embarrass Catholic politicians that he didn’t know. He did so only to reach those of the flock that he could reach. He would not, he claimed, be responsible for misguiding those to whom he preached. His sermon was “about learning from the terrible mistakes of the past in order not to repeat those mistakes today. It’s about warning you against following those who would lead you to believe that you don’t have to love your neighbor because she’s still in her mother’s womb.”
Fr. De Celles words left the church in a pensive silence. No one got up to leave, but everyone seemed to listen and to hear. He concluded with a prayer that surely has resonance for all Catholics. And in this election season, I don’t think you have to be Catholic to appreciate his supplication:
As we enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection in this Holy Mass, let us pray for ourselves, and for one another, and for our leaders in the Church and in public life. That each one of us may never conform ourselves to this age, but may be transformed by the renewal of our minds, always discerning the will of God. That we may be true followers of Christ, and in the most honest sense of the words, “ardent practicing Catholics.”
— Shannen W. Coffin, an occasional NRO contributor, is an attorney in Washington, D.C. Fr. De Celles’s homily is reprinted with permission. It is available in full here.