A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Practicing Theology Without a License

Years ago, I had a friend, who was a self-described "rugged good ole' boy from West Virginia." He wore a T-shirt that read, "If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch."

This is wise advice that Nancy Pelosi should heed. Last Sunday on Meet the Press, Tom Brokaw asked Speaker Pelosi the following:

Senator Obama saying the question of when life begins is above his pay grade, whether you're looking at it scientifically or theologically. If he were to come to you and say, "Help me out here, Madame Speaker. When does life begin?" what would you tell him?

Ms. Pelosi's response:

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. And Senator--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. Roe v. Wade talks about very clear definitions of when the child--first trimester, certain considerations; second trimester; not so third trimester. There's very clear distinctions. This isn't about abortion on demand, it's about a careful, careful consideration of all factors and--to--that a woman has to make with her doctor and her God. And so I don't think anybody can tell you when life begins, human life begins. As I say, the Catholic Church for centuries has been discussing this, and there are those who've decided... (MSNBC).

Catholic moral theology is quite a rigorous discipline. As a Protestant, I have my disagreements with Catholic moral theologians at points, but I am also one who has great respect for the deeply competent theological reflection of the Catholic moral tradition-- the tradition is rich, the reflection is rigorous and the arguments are well thought through. The Catholic moral tradition is not infallible, but anyone who dares to play on the theological ball diamond with Augustine, Aquinas, et al had better be ready to play hardball.

That's what makes Speaker Pelosi's comments to Tom Brokaw on Sunday so astounding. Not only does she misunderstand Augustine, but she fails to comprehend the Catholic moral tradition in reference to abortion.

First, it cannot be refuted that from its earliest days (e.g. the Didache), the church has opposed abortion. Michael Gorman and Paul Stallsworth among others have demonstrated this quite clearly. Those who argue otherwise simply cherry pick some anecdotal evidence like a Protestant prooftexter at a Bible College.

Second, when Augustine and Aquinas argue against abortion as homicide, it has nothing to do with the question of when life begins; it instead has to do with the question of the "ensoulment" of the unborn child, a problematic notion to be sure, but completely different from how Ms. Pelosi wants to appropriate the "doctors of the church." To be sure, the fathers of the church did not know certain things about conception and the development of the unborn that we know about today. That does not change the fact that the overwhelming consensus of the church was and is that life begins at conception, even though they did not understand the exact nature of conception.

Third, those who use the medical misunderstandings of the "doctors of the church" to dismiss their views on abortion, lack appreciation for the sophistication of their arguments, and those who use the development of the church's position in a dismissive way, apply the argument in an unfair way that they refuse to apply to themselves. If development of thought and reflection demonstrates a false argument, then how does one argue that Constitutional amendments, such as giving women the right to vote, represent a valid development of the Liberal (notice the capital "L") presumptions intrinsically woven into the Constitution of the United States? The Catholic moral tradition on abortion has developed from a sound theological foundation.

Fourth, the modern context of the abortion debate is simply that-- modern. The right to life/right to choose debate is a twentieth century one, and neither side of the argument has a theological context. To suggest, as Speaker Pelosi does, that the right to choose is somehow the logical and reasonable conclusion of the supposed theological disagreement over when life begins, flies in the face of the theological tradition itself.

Fifth, the great irony of the rationale of Roe vs. Wade was the rejection of the possibility of knowing when life begins based upon the so-called disagreement among philosophers and theologians; but then in legalizing abortion, the Supreme Court took the incredible and untenable view that life begins, not at conception, but at birth. In other words, the Court argued that ignorance in knowing when life begins somehow logically leads to the affirmation that life actually begins after the fetus exits the birth canal. The question of when the fetus has human rights may have been above Barack Obama's "pay grade," but apparently not beyond that of the Supreme Court of 1973.

Sixth, neither the right to life nor the right to choose arguments in opposition to or in favor of abortion are Christian arguments. Whenever I have spoken on this issue before a divided group, I first ask those who say they are right to life to raise their hands.Then I ask them to show me anywhere in the Bible where it says that life is a right, that is, life is owed to us. How can they demonstrate such a myth? The biblical text states in no uncertain terms, not that life is a right, but that life is a gift.

I then ask the right to choose crowd to raise their hands. After they do, I ask them to raise their hands again if they wish their mothers would have chosen to abort them. To this day, no one has done so. Apparently, all those adults out there who support their mothers' right to choose, are glad that they did not so choose.

Life is not a right to be secured, but a gift to be treasured. Abortion is not a choice to be legalized, but procedure to be rejected. The choice for abortion is a choice that rejects hope. As Stanley Hauerwas asked many years ago, how do we tell our children that they were a choice and still make them glad that they are our children?

One of the great difficulties for pro-choice Catholics is how they continue to be pro-choice and Catholic. Bishops who have spoken out on this subject in the last few elections are reinforcing the fact that, for Catholics, their Catholicism should be more important than their Americanism. This is not a matter of the simplistic dichotomy of the separation of church and state, but how Christians, in this case Catholic Christians, will be in public service as Catholics, and how their Catholicism is truly significant for their positions on public policy.

Speaker Pelosi has every right to put forward her theology of abortion, but as she does so, she needs to remember that she is engaging intellectual powerhouses, who are in a league that the rest of us only aspire to. In reference to the theology of abortion, perhaps Speaker Pelosi should "stay on the porch."

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Cross-Posted at RedBlueChristian


Eric Helms said...

Of course being a pro-choice catholic is no less problematic than being a pro war, pro-capital punishment, pro-consumer driven capitalism Christian of any denomination. All such paradoxical positions represent a lack of hope for redemption and a lack of faith in the Kingdom of God and final judgement.

It is interesting that Pelosi chose to reference her adherence to the Catholic faith in the same breath that she takes a position in clear contrast to a well-known official Catholic position.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting post, but don't you think the discussion needs to be expanded to other issues like the death penalty and war? Aborting life, whether inside or outside the womb?

It seems to me the Left dismisses the Catholic church's teaching on abortion, and the Right dismisses the Catholic church's teaching on the death penalty and war. I personally admire Catholic consistency on the sanctity of life, and I am frustrated by our lack of a political option that is equally consistent.

I end up voting for the lesser of two evils. Or maybe I'll write in Jesus this year.

Thank you for your insight Rev. Bevere!


Anonymous said...

Your point about there being no "right to life" in the Bible is most helpful.

I actually do know people who wish they had not been born, though. I'm not sure that is a sound refutation of pro-choice - especially since the argument of the pro-choice side is that the mother - not the child - should be the one who makes the decision.

Since you are picking on Pelosi for sloppy theology, I may be reading you a pro-life from conception. If I am wrong, please forgive my error.

Do you teach the UMC position (Social Princples) on abortion?

doodlebugmom said...

I am a woman, a mom, who is a strong pro choice supporter. I may not always agree with Nancy Pelosi, but God Bless America, she has the right to her opinion and the right to voice it.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Good comments here-- thanks to one and all! Keep them coming!


Yes, of course, there are other positions on issues that are problematic for Christians. My post was simply limited to Ms. Pelosi's comments, particularly as they related to her attempt to reappropriate the Catholic tradition.

One of the things that must be remembered here is that we Protestants are quite different "animals" when it comes to our understanding of church tradition and teaching as it relates to the so-called essentials. In Catholicism, the church does not view one's position on abortion as a matter of conscience, but as a position that is essentially Catholic. I think that is one reason in the last few elections we have seen certain bishops reinforce this in reference to Catholic politicians who are "pro-choice," by suggesting that catholic officials with such views be denied Communion. Such a suggestion would not have even been made had abortion been a life-and-let-live matter for the Catholic Church.

In addition, other than your mention of "pro-capital punishment," which is quite clear in and of itself, pro-war, and pro-consumer driven capitalism are more vague and need some explanation. For example, the Catholic Church officially holds to the Just War Tradition, which means they will support a war if it meets certain criteria. The current and the previous pope both criticized the War in Iraq because it failed to meet that criteria; but presumably if a certain conflict met such criteria, the Catholic church would approve of the war being waged as long as it was fought along the same JW criteria.

In reference to capitalism, the current and previous popes have warned against the dangers of the excess and greed that is always the temptation in a free market economy, but they have been just as clear that socialism (and its extreme form of Communism) discourages the pursuit of excellence and limits human freedom.

Capital punishment and abortion, on the other hand, are less complex as issues, although specific situations of capital punishment and abortion may indeed be more difficult than others.

But even more to the point, your comments remind us that Christians on both sides of the political aisle have positions that do not square with the Kingdom of God.


Yes, the discussion does need to be broadened to include more issues, but that's another post for another time. As you can see, the post was already long, and I really just wanted to focus, less on Ms. Pelosi's position on abortion, and more on how she astoundingly tried to reconcile her view with the Catholic tradition that is clearly in opposition. What she attempted is new. Catholic politicians have not tried such a reappropriation before.

Yes, we Christians are not consistently pro-life and it is sad. I do not understand how Christians on the right reject the killing of children in the womb, but seem all to eager to wage war at the drop of a hat. At the same time, I am baffled by Christians on the left who are so concerned with defending and taking care of "the least of these," but do not include the unborn as among the "least." If Christians are to be concerned about the helpless and the most vulnerable, that must include all human beings, including the unborn. As Karl Barth said many decades ago-- the Incarnation demonstrates that the light of God shines even in the womb.


I am glad you find the rejection of the notion of "the right to life" as unbiblical to be helpful. I want to say again as well, that the notion of "the right to choose" is also unbiblical. What is biblical is that life is a gift, and human beings must not reject with God gives as a gift.

Yes, of course, there are those who have encountered life in tragic ways that they may have wished that they would never have been born, but I would like to think that is clearly the exception; otherwise it would be difficult to affirm the goodness of creation. My exercise in asking pro-choice people if they wish they had been aborted is simply to make the point that now that they are here, their lives stand in stark contrast with their views.

I think Hauerwas' question is right to the point. Would any person who is pro-choice be comfortable with saying to her child, "You know, if I wanted to or felt I needed to, I could have decided not to have you."

Yes, I do believe that life begins at conception. When else would it begin? By the way, when one reads the account of the Supreme Court proceedings on Roe v. Wade, as I have, the biologists and geneticists and other scientists that were called to testify were unanimous that human life did indeed begin at conception. It was the theologians and the philosophers who muddied the waters by asking such questions like, "Well, what do we really mean by life?" Leave it to philosophers and theologians to trivialize the momentous and complicate the obvious.

As far as the UM position on abortion is concerned, exactly what is our position? In many conversations with my Methodist colleagues over the years, they cannot agree on whether our stance is pro-choice or pro-life, but allowing for abortion in extreme circumstances. The language in our Social Principles is vague and unhelpful. I wish it weren't


Yes, Nancy Pelosi has every right to express her views; I said as much in my post. My point was that she should reconsider attempting to do the impossible-- reconcile her pro-choice position with that of the Catholic tradition. If she sticks with the typical pro-choice argument, leaving out the attempt at reappropriation, and thus, distortion, at least she wouldn't sound so foolish. Several Catholic bishops have already rigorousely responded. She will not win that argument.

That was in actuality my main point.

Michael said...

Very well said, Allan. I was actually working on my own post, but I think you've already done what I could not have done half as well.

What struck me about Ms. Pelosi's rejection of learned theologians and the Church's teachings is that she may well be a personification of the appalling arrogance of far too many members of Congress who overstate the importance of their jobs and their less-than-magnanimous places in history. Ms. Pelosi did not seem to be offering merely an "opinion": "I have STUDIED ... for a long time ..." Therefore, my conclusion ...

You're right: she is way out of her league in addition to being, in my humble opinion, way off the mark.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your thoughtful responses to the post.

I agree the Bible does not support rights on either side. I didn't mean to suggest otherwise.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks, Allan, for this most illuminating and helpful take on this subject.

I would hope the one religious expert on NBC who is sometimes on "Meet The Press", and I can't recall his name, would get and take the opportunity to point this out.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Yes, that would be helpful; yet my take on it is that the Catholic bishops have already responded to Ms. Pelosi in such a clear and decisive fashion, I think she will probably drop it and not mention it again.