Asking the right follow-up

One of the things for which Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert was best known was his informed follow-up questions and his tenaciousness in pursuing an issue when a guest waffled or misinterpreted. Russert, a devout Catholic, was noted for his questioning of then-Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore on the issue of when life began.

Russert's questions to Gore in 2000 came to mind Sunday night as I listened to the podcast version of that morning's interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Meet the Press interim moderator Tom Brokaw asked Pelosi to comment on Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren's question recent question to the presidential candidates on at what point a person gets human rights.

Needless to say, Brokaw failed to ask good follow-up questions on the subject of when life begins:

MR. BROKAW: 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?

REP. PELOSI: 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 . . .

MR. BROKAW: The Catholic Church at the moment feels very strongly that it...

REP. PELOSI: I understand that.

MR. BROKAW: . . . begins at the point of conception.

REP. PELOSI: I understand. And this is like maybe 50 years or something like that. So again, over the history of the church, this is an issue of controversy. But it is, it is also true that God has given us, each of us, a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And we want abortions to be safe, rare, and reduce the number of abortions. That's why we have this fight in Congress over contraception. My Republican colleagues do not support contraception. If you want to reduce the number of abortions, and we all do, we must -- it would behoove you to support family planning and, and contraception, you would think. But that is not the case. So we have to take -- you know, we have to handle this as respectfully -- this is sacred ground. We have to handle it very respectfully and not politicize it, as it has been -- and I'm not saying Rick Warren did, because I don't think he did, but others will try to.

MR. BROKAW: Madame Speaker, thanks very much for being with us.

What a terrible time to end an interview.

Before all of GetReligion's beloved commenters even consider discussing the merits of Pelosi's statement on this blog post, please remind yourself that this is not the place to do that. A better and acceptable line of discussion would be along the lines of the types of follow-up questions Brokaw could have asked Pelosi.

The response to Pelosi's response has been harsh and swift from some Catholic quarters. The Associated Press reported late Monday night that two "prominent Roman Catholic archbishops" have said that Pelosi "misstated church teachings about abortion."

Here is what the AP has reported:

Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, citing the teaching responsibility entrusted to bishops, issued a statement late Monday that read, in part: "Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable."

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and his auxiliary bishop, James Conley, said in a statement posted on the archdiocesan Web site: "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."

Abortion "is always gravely evil, and so are the evasions employed to justify it," the statement continued.

Other news organizations are also reporting on the conflict, and more recently the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop's pro-life and doctrine committees has leveled criticism against Pelosi.

Please use this post to ponder why Brokaw did not attempt to challenge the self-described "ardent, practicing Catholic" on her answer? Was Brokaw satisfied with the answer?

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