By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
In a brilliant response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent statements about how the gift of free will justifies her support for positions such as abortion and gay rights, Archbishop George Niederauer turns her comments into a valuable teaching moment for Catholics.
Speaker Pelosi made the comments during a Dec. 21 interview with Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift when asked about her disagreement with the U.S. Bishops on several Church teachings.
“I have some concerns about the church’s position respecting a woman’s right to choose,” the Speaker said. “I have some concerns about the church’s position on gay rights. I am a practicing Catholic, although they’re probably not too happy about that. But it is my faith. I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that is that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have that opportunity to exercise their free will.”
In a column appearing in the Jan. 15 issue of Catholic San Francisco, Archbishop Niederauer replied to the statement, saying it embodies “fundamental misconceptions about Catholic teaching on human freedom” that are widespread within the Catholic community.
He went on to explain that “Catholic teaching on free will recognizes that God has given men and women the capacity to choose good or evil in their lives. . . . However, human freedom does not legitimate bad moral choices, nor does it justify a stance that all moral choices are good if they are free: ‘The exercise of freedom does not imply a right to say or do everything.’ (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1740) Christian belief in human freedom recognizes that we are called but not compelled by God to choose constantly the values of the Gospel—faith, hope, love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, integrity and compassion.”
He goes on to say that “It is entirely incompatible with Catholic teaching to conclude that our freedom of will justifies choices that are radically contrary to the Gospel—racism, infidelity, abortion, theft. Freedom of will is the capacity to act with moral responsibility; it is not the ability to determine arbitrarily what constitutes moral right.”
The “rudder” that guides our use of free will is a properly formed conscience, he said, not one formed according to the Speaker’s ideas about how she was raised and how she feels about an issue.
“Where do we go for this education of our consciences?” the Archbishops writes. “Our living tradition teaches us that ‘In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.’ (CCC, No. 1785)
He concludes: “While we deeply respect the freedom of our fellow citizens, we nevertheless are profoundly convinced that free will cannot be cited as justification for society to allow moral choices that strike at the most fundamental rights of others. Such a choice is abortion, which constitutes the taking of innocent human life, and cannot be justified by any Catholic notion of freedom.”
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