It is difficult to miss the controversy swirling this week around Speaker of the House and part-time Catholic theologian Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Appearing on Meet the Press Sunday, she identified herself as "an ardent, practicing Catholic" who has "studied for a long time" the question of when life begins. She then went on in her interview with Tom Brokaw to seriously misrepresent the teaching of the Catholic Church and its 2000 year history on the subject of abortion. The official Catholic response to such an authoritative pronouncement by a high-ranking (third in the line of succession to the president) public official was swift and unequivocal--and, it is fair to say that the various responses (from several archbishops and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) indicated that Rep. Pelosi should either be more ardent or study a little longer.
But, this post is not about politics. It is about the significance of words, which was driven home to me as I read the various responses by the Catholic hierarchy to Rep. Pelosi's theological pontifications. Abortion is intentionally referred to by the Catholic hierarchy as a "grave moral evil" and a "grievously evil" act. This language is very significant, but its meaning could be easily overlooked.
In the language of ethics and moral theology, a moral act is an act that proceeds from the free choice of man with the intellectual awareness of the moral goodness or badness of the object chosen. A morally good act is an act that is proper to man as man. A morally evil act is an act that is unsuitable to man as man because the agent wills what is unbecoming to his nature. The act is formally evil whenever the agent chooses an act that he thinks is wrong--even though objectively it is right. The act is materially evil whenever the agent chooses as right an object that is objectively wrong. An act is grievously evil when the agent wills what is so inappropriate to his nature that to engage in that act is to totally deny and overthrow the order of his nature. An act is venially evil when it is directed away from what is proper to man as man, but not so much so that it is a total subversion of his nature.
I am not a Catholic theologian; I hold no position of authority in the Catholic Church, and I had nothing to do with the official responses to Rep. Pelosi's remarks--thus, my interpretation of the above-mentioned terms carry no force of authority. Nonetheless, some basic familiarity with the language of ethics and moral theology certainly illuminates the significance of the words carefully chosen by the Catholic hierarchy.
Calling abortion grievously evil is to say that it is an act so inappropriate to a human being that to engage in that act is to totally deny and overthrow one's human nature. It is quite simply an act that is less than human, even though conducted by a human being. By intentionally using such language, the Catholic hierarchy is not ignoring the confusion and heartbreaking circumstances that sometimes surround abortion, nor engaging in the condemnation of individuals. It is merely describing an act so profoundly at odds with human nature (the killing of one's defenseless offspring) that it is fundamentally a subversion of what it means to be human.