When an alcoholic finally gives up his booze, he no longer refers to himself as a drinker. When a nicotine addict quits puffing, she no longer calls herself a smoker. Yet for some reason, when a person who was raised Catholic stops going to Mass, ceases to accept the teaching authority of the Church, and publicly charges the institution and its hierarchy with both moral and criminal failures, that person is entirely free to continue calling him or herself a Catholic.
I’m looking at you Nancy Pelosi.
Most recently, in the context of her support for abortion rights, the California congresswoman and former House Speaker told the Washington Post, “I’m a devout Catholic, and I honor my faith and love it.” A strange and disconcerting statement from a woman who, with her very next breath, mocked what she called “this conscience thing” afflicting Catholic hospitals and health-care providers who refuse to perform abortions. As if the Church’s teaching on abortion, an act which Pope John Paul II called “a grave moral disorder,” was merely as consequential to the average Catholic as holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer or signing the kids up for CYO basketball. (Note to non-Catholics: It’s not.)
Years ago I got into the habit of jogging a few miles every other day around the reservoir in New York City’s Central Park. I was then a young husband, eager to get and stay fit. My equally young bride was, and still is, a great and committed runner, having trained for and completed two New York City marathons. I’m ashamed to say that in the intervening years, my every-other-day jogging habit became an every-other-week one. It’s probably been three years since I jogged at all.
Given my total abandonment of jogging, and my almost total abandonment of fitness of any kind, I’m trying to imagine just how loudly my wife would laugh if—say, in an interview with the Washington Post—I referred to myself as “a runner.” Such a claim would simply be unsupportable. The reporter would only have to look at me to know that I was lying.
So how come Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Chris Dodd, Pat Leahy, Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, the Kennedys, and the rest, are freely and repeatedly quoted in the press saying things such as, “I’m a devout Catholic,” or, “As a Catholic . . .”? No respectable newspaper would quote a source that couldn’t be verified and no cable network would feature commentary from someone who couldn’t provide at least a minimal credential to support claims of expertise on a topic. Yet the claims of faith from these cafeteria Catholics are never challenged or explored by the media. Though clearly falsifiable, they are simply reported as fact. This should be an urgent matter for the fact checking departments of the Washington Post and New York Times, if such departments still exist.
I happened to watch a YouTube video recently of Rick Santorum’s much discussed August appearance on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight. In it, the twice-married British tabloid editor and America’s Got Talent judge hectored the Catholic former Pennsylvania senator to admit that his (and by extension, his church’s) positions on same-sex marriage “are bordering on bigotry.” Santorum wouldn’t take the bait, countering that Morgan’s characterization of the Church’s position was itself bigoted. To which the host somewhat predictably replied, “Well, I’m a Catholic too, and I just think that unfortunately we’re in a different era now, we’re in a modern world.”
Santorum’s rejoinder—that truth isn’t truth if it changes from era to era—was a consistent and entirely reasonable response to Morgan’s relentless attempts to provoke and embarrass him. As a viewer (and, dare I say it, as a Catholic), what I would have preferred Santorum had said was, “You say you are a Catholic. Can you prove it?”
These pseudo-Catholics are having a laugh at the expense of all those who attend Mass, are committed to their faith, and respect the magisterium. For Nancy Pelosi to call herself a Catholic, while accusing actual Catholics of opposing abortion out of some desire merely to hurt women simply beggars belief. The onus should be on Nancy Pelosi and those like her to substantiate their claims of faith. To paraphrase the Marx brothers: Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?
You aren’t a vegetarian if you eat meat twice a week, and you aren’t a Catholic if you don’t go to Mass. If they’re going to call us bigots, we should call them what they are: out of communion.
Matthew Hennessey is a writer and editor who lives in New Canaan, CT. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHennessey.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.