Every few weeks, it seems, mainstream media celebrate a "devout" or "faithful" Catholic who bravely stands against church structures and strictures. This week in the New York Times, it's Nancy Pelosi.
"Strong Catholic Faith," says the headline about the California Democrat. "Unwavering faith," says the lede. And papal teachings? She reads encyclicals with "rapt attention."
With one exception: abortion. That's a "core value" for her politics and her right as a woman.
The time peg, of course, is the planned address of Pope Francis at a joint session of Congress on Thursday -- a Congress, as the Times reports, that is more than 30 percent Catholic. A further ingredient is the current debate over defunding Planned Parenthood, in the wake of widely publicized videos said to show that the group profits from selling aborted fetal body parts.
Where to bring all this together? For the Times, it's one of the best-known members of Congress , who champions "family planning" and embraces a "strong Catholic faith:"
For Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, the issue of abortion rights has always been ancillary to her unwavering faith and deep approbation for generations of popes. “I actually agree with the pope on more issues than many Catholics who agree with him on one issue,” Ms. Pelosi said in an interview in her office at the Capitol last week.
But that one issue, abortion, is adding a thick layer of tension to the otherwise convivial mood as Congress prepares for the arrival of Pope Francis this week. The Capitol is ensnared in an imbroglio over funding for Planned Parenthood and a host of other abortion-related fights that could lead to a government shutdown next week.
Pelosi's Catholic creds? Well, she grew up in a "large Catholic family, for which faith was central and reverence for the pope was assured." She attended a Catholic high school and a Catholic women's college. And she has met an amazing four popes, starting with Pius XII while she was in eighth grade.
She also reads papal teaching letters avidly, the Times says:
“I loved Benedict’s writing and his speeches,” said Ms. Pelosi, who carefully reads each encyclical with the rapt attention of a serious cook who devours every issue of “Bon Appétit.” Her personal favorite is “God is love,” she said. “It is so beautiful.” She curled up with a copy of the latest encyclical from Pope Francis and a pen, to take notes.
That's undeniably impressive; many Catholics seldom look at the encyclicals. But what does she take from such close readings, besides "God is love"? The article gets a little squishy about that. It says that "abortion and family planning access — as important proxies for women’s rights — are core values central to her party’s platform and base." Which is funny, after the lede said abortion was only ancillary(i.e., secondary or subordinate) to Pelosi's faith.
This is the "Devout Catholic" archetype, media-speak for "someone who calls himself/herself Catholic but breaks with the church on one or more key doctrines." "Devout Catholics" this year include:
*Rick Santorum, who wants Francis to "leave science to the scientists";
* Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland, who has "pushed to reduce the church's influence on policy and state services";
* Researcher Arthur Brooks, who doesn't like Francis' criticisms of capitalism.
And although the New York Times didn’t use the "D" word, HuffPost columnist Regina Weinreic did, in paraphrasing Pelosi: "I had 5 kids in 6 years, said the devout Catholic using herself as an example. No one should have the right to tell me or anyone else how to plan our families."
The main exception lately appears to be Jeb Bush, who doesn't obviously break with the Vatican. Some AP reporters must have an autocorrect that adds "devout Catholic" whenever they type Jeb's name.
But how does Pelosi reconcile her allegedly strong Catholicism with her stand for abortion? The Times never quite answers:
For Ms. Pelosi, the notion of disagreeing with other Catholics about abortion has not weighed on her sense of faith. “I think everyone grants everyone their position,” she said. “The church has their position, and we have ours, which is that a woman has free will given to her by God. My family is very pro-life,” she added, noting that she has lived with the conflict all her life.
Note the shift there. It's no longer about veering from church teachings, just aboutfamily arguments. Even then, why didn’t the Times interview any of her relatives?
And does Pelosi, in fact, believe that individual free will supersedes centuries of teachings by popes and bishops? Dang, sounds like a Protestant to me. Or maybe a politician.
Because it's hard to mistake what the Catholic Church says about abortion. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, right in Washington, D.C., posts a pretty detailed bunch of statements on abortion, starting with:
God loves each human life from the instant of his or her conception and entrusts this gift to the protection of a mother and father. Abortion ends the life of a childand offends God. It also deeply wounds the men and women involved.
And if Pelosi prefers Pope Benedict XVI's statements, here's one of his:
Children truly are the family's greatest treasure and most precious good. Consequently, everyone must be helped to become aware of the intrinsic evil of the crime of abortion. In attacking human life in its very first stages, it is also an aggression against society itself. Politicians and legislators, therefore, as servants of the common good, are duty bound to defend the fundamental right to life, the fruit of God's love.
I'll bet the Times could have found all of this at least as fast as I did.
And there are other yardsticks for "strong" Catholic faith than birth in a large Catholic family or attending Catholic schools. There’s also things like attending Mass, going to confession, volunteering in a parish. Does Pelosi do any of these? Why didn’t the Times ask?
I guess her meetings with several popes are qualification enough, although she ignores their teachings on abortion.
Photo: Nancy Pelosi, U.S. photo from 2007. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.