The Sin of Believing in Sin

From the looks of things, Nancy Pelosi thinks that matters of religious doctrine are simply a matter of choosing sides. In particular, it looks as though she thinks that it is a matter of choosing the side that happens to agree with what you already think. When it was pointed out to her that the Catholic Church has always held abortion, from the moment of conception, to be gravely wrong, she was forced to admit as much but went on to say "many Catholics do not ascribe to that view" (I think she meant "subscribe", but whatever). She went on to say that she is happy to stick with Augustine, who held that the embryo is not ensouled at conception. She apparently takes this to mean that abortion prior to ensoulment is OK, even though Augustine himself would disagree with her: he thought it gravely wrong from the moment of conception, soul or no soul. But if you're a Catholic of the Nancy Pelosi stripe, it doesn't matter if the source of your beliefs doesn't go with you all the way: you just pick and choose those elements that are to your liking. In short, she, and those who think like her, is not using Augustine, or the Church, as a source of authoritative teachings, but rather as backup for her own antecedently endorsed political opinions. Augustine agrees with me here--so he and I are both right on that; but Augustine disagrees with me there, so I'm right and he's wrong on that one. It's all very convenient.

The claim that "many Catholics do not [subscribe] to that view" comes as no surprise from this sort of Catholic. There's safety in numbers, after all. On this sort of a view, there is really no such thing as sin, other than going ahead and doing something that you, yourself, already think is sinful. On the Pelosi view, if she happens to think that something is OK, then it is OK, whether or not the Church happens to agree with her. It is much better, of course, if she can point to "many Catholics" who agree with her against the Church, but there is no reason in principle that she would even need to have any others on her side. After all, the "many Catholics" that she has in mind are really just a minority of Catholics in Western Europe and North America; the majority of Catholics in those areas, and the majority of Catholics worldwide, happen to agree with the Church. So it's not even a matter of democratic judgment on her part, she's just playing oratorical games: I have lots of people on my side, so who cares what the Church, or even Senator Augustine, have to say on the matter.

Indeed, when other Catholics attempt to engage in a little fraternal correction with the Pelosi types, they are told in no uncertain terms that they are the ones who are being bad Catholics, because they are "judging" the people that they disagree with and are not showing Our Lord's "compassion" and "acceptance" of "the Other". It's a rather startling inversion, really: those who remain faithful to the Church's teaching are now the ones who are least Catholic, while those who question all the "outmoded" dogmas are the ones who are on the cutting edge, helping to build the Church of the future. On this sort of a view, of course, there is no teaching of the Church that is not at risk. These people may decide that God is not really a Trinity, or that Christ did not really rise from the dead, or that the Holy Spirit is really just a sort of nice feeling in one's gut. Indeed, many people appear already to have formed such banal views.

It might be time for folks like Pelosi to cut their losses: just admit that they're lousy Catholics. Why do they want to insist on this anyway? Is it supposed to attract Catholic voters to have people think that they're Catholic? That's not going to work very well when the Church itself is standing robustly against you, unless they're counting on that good old American notion of Questioning Authority. Well, if the Church says I should accept some view, then by golly I'm not going to accept it! I'm sick and tired of being hassled by the Man! Off the establishment! The "thinking man's" Catholic politician, maybe. Hey, I'm hip, I think for myself--hell, I even think for Senator Augustine, because he was way off when he said that unensouled fetuses deserve protection in the womb.

To be fair--if that is the right word--to folks like Pelosi, I think that there is at least one non-cynical way to interpret what she is doing. It is true, after all, that theologians like Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Bonaventure, or whoever, discuss matters like ensoulment all the time, and among the theologoumena one encounters in their writings are, of course, the many ramifications of adopting one point of view rather than another. To the unskilled reader, this obvious empirical fact about theological writings can give the impression that the Church herself has not settled upon any definitive answers to certain kinds of questions. The impression is mistaken most of the time, however, as here in the case of abortion. Does thinking that the Church has no definitive teaching when, in fact, she does, alter one's culpability in rejecting Church teaching? This is an interesting question, one that Dr. Michael Liccione has commented on at some length at Sacramentum Vitae. The principle of charity, perhaps, suggests that we ought to go easy on folks like Pelosi, but as Mike has argued with considerable persuasiveness, many of the folks who adopt positions like Pelosi's are people who ought to know better.

Comments

Brandon said…
She apparently takes this to mean that abortion prior to ensoulment is OK, even though Augustine himself would disagree with her: he thought it gravely wrong from the moment of conception, soul or no soul.

This is something that certainly always irritates me: people ignore the fact that when Augustine, or Bonaventure, or Aquinas, or any of the suggests that the embryo is 'ensouled' with the rational soul at a later date than conception, they are not saying that it is not a sin to abort prior to that point, but that it would not be, in their view, the sin of homicide, strictly speaking. (I forget where precisely, prob. in the Sentences commentary, but Bonaventure has a lovely and explicit discussion of this very issue -- he argues that abortion becomes the grave sin of homicide at a later date than conception, but that abortion prior to this point is still a grave sin.) It really does seem to be a matter of cherry-picking one's authorities.
Mark D. said…
Well said!

The inversion is startling. Catholic who is obedient (naughty word, I know) to Catholic teaching = bad Catholic. Catholic who disregards Church teaching = prophet of the Church of tomorrow. Put in such simple terms, it seems so absurd, but with good rhetorical skills you can make any nonsense sound plausible. The human mind is wonderfully adept at justifying itself.

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