By now you know that U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a botch of Christian history this week when she discussed abortion in light of her “ardent” Catholic faith. Newsman Tom Brokaw asked her how she would advise Senator Barack Obama regarding the beginnings of human life: “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.”
Not since the book 1066 And All That: A Memorable History of England have the Fathers been so badly mangled and tangled. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. The early Church left clear paper trails on very, very few issues, but abortion is certainly one of them. It is condemned by the Didache, the so-called Epistle of Barnabas, the apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter; by Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Hippolytus, Origen, and Cyprian. And that partial list takes us only to the middle of the third century. Those witnesses emerged from ancient Syria, Egypt, Rome, Greece, Samaria, and North Africa. So, as the Vincentian Canon puts it, abortion was condemned always and everywhere and by all. There is no exception in the ancient Christian record, and this is one of those moral teachings that set Christians distinctly apart from the pagan world. If there were Nancy Pelosis around before the discovery of California, everyone — pagan or Christian — recognized that such advocates for the “choice” of abortion were extra ecclesiam, outside the Catholic Church.
Thinking Catholics are taking the Honorable Ms. Pelosi to task, as well they should. The U.S. bishops cite Tertullian. Archbishop Wuerl goes back further and quotes the first-century Didache — a document he should know, since he hired me for a spell back in the late first century, when the document appeared.
In 1066 And All That the malaprop history was intentional. Alas, I fear that Nancy Pelosi was drawing from the depths of her knowledge of history and Christian doctrine.
Noticing some fair-haired children in the slave market one morning, Pope Gregory, the memorable pope, said (in Latin), ‘What are those?’ and on being told that they were Angels, made the memorable joke – ‘Non Angli, sed Angeli’ (‘not Angels, but Anglicans’) and commanded one of his saints called St Augustine to go and convert the rest.