I've been more than a little intrigued by Nancy Pelosi's recent gaffe on NBC's Meet the Press, where she averred as to how the Church's teaching on abortion has only been around "like maybe 50 years" (see the story at Amy Welborn's site, or at the Catholic League website). The difficulty, of course, lies partly in her inability to distinguish theologoumena from dogmata, that is, theological speculation from authoritative teaching. As Pelosi rightly noted, theologians have pondered various questions about human life for a very long time. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, held the view that there is a moment in time, called "quickening" in non-technical contexts, at which a human body is "ensouled", and in some of his writings he speculates that this moment may be at some point in time after conception. His statements in this regard were not intended to be interpreted as arguments against the Church's definitive teaching against all forms of procured abortion, but try telling this to the desperate Democratic Catholic who wants to feel better about receiving Holy Communion on Sunday.
In Pelosi's remarks we see what we always see with politicians: an attempt to spin a story in such a way as to make their own views seem more reasonable, more pertinent, and more acceptable to a broader range of the public than the views of their opponents. Rhetorically it is a very good move, but from the point of view of, well, what's right (if such folks believe that there is such a thing), it leaves much to be desired. More interestingly, her remarks show the mark of the American Zeitgeist, which may perhaps be stated rather simply as "Every opinion is sacred." This is a democracy, after all, and in particular it is a democracy in which we treasure the freedom to express our opinions publicly. (If you think that this freedom is overrated here, try living in Canada for a few days.) Some folks--Pelosi, apparently, among them--appear to think that because everyone is entitled to their opinion every opinion is deserving of some entitlement. Or, to put it another way, Pelosi, like so many other moral slobs these days, confuses the rather obvious empirical fact that people disagree about things with the utterly false ontological claim that the things about which people disagree have no definitive answers. In her view, the question of "when human life begins" is unsettled. Why does she regard it as unsettled? The only reason that she herself can give for thinking the matter is unsettled is the fact that theologians have disputed it over time. Does that mean that it is really unsettled? If I ask a room full of students in a math class what the square root of 17 is, may I regard that question as unsettled if they each give me a slightly different answer? I suppose it is settled that the students don't know what the answer is, but if one of them were to produce a calculator and key in the relevant input, it seems as though the question would come a lot closer to being settled.
In the Catholic Church we have something that is analogous to a calculator in a math class, namely, the Magisterium. Theologians can discuss and dispute all they like, but definitive teachings cannot be changed. Pelosi, like many others, seems to be either unaware of this or, if she has heard of it, simply does not believe it. I have actually known Roman Catholic priests who have denied it, so it comes as no surprise to me that a Sunday-go-to-meetin' Catholic like Pelosi would deny it, or even be totally ignorant of it. I don't really even want to blame her for not knowing better: I think the lousy state of Catholic catachesis in this country is probably to blame. The good news in this regard is that Bill Donohue has sent Pelosi a copy of Catholicism for Dummies; the bad news is she probably won't read it--people like her think that they already know everything that a dummy needs to know.