It seems to me that the Catholic bishops are missing a golden teaching opportunity.

Bishops are rightly concerned that for them to publicly warn or chastise politicians because of their voting records on abortion will be misunderstood as politically motivated. All sorts of issues get dragged into the discussion, such as separation of church and state and the role of prudential judgment in applying the Church’s moral and social teachings. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, has presented the Church’s bishops with a very new situation. In her recent statement, she did not merely defend her legislative record; she has made a crystal-clear public declaration on a doctrinal question that is not in any way political in itself (though obviously it has implications in the political order). She says that she does not believe that life begins at conception, and she cites St. Augustine to support her position.

Here are some unambiguous facts:

(1) Pope John Paul II taught explicitly in Evangelium Vitae that direct killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral:

Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom. 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

(2) The teaching in question is an article of faith, according to an explicit statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (in the Commentary that accompanied the statement Ad Tuendam Fidem ):

To the truths of the first paragraph belong the articles of faith of the Creed, the various Christological dogmas and Marian dogmas; the doctrine of the institution of the sacraments by Christ and their efficacy with regard to grace; the doctrine of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacrificial nature of the eucharistic celebration; the foundation of the Church by the will of Christ; the doctrine on the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff; the doctrine on the existence of original sin; the doctrine on the immortality of the spiritual soul and on the immediate recompense after death; the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts; the doctrine on the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being .

About this category of doctrines the same document states:

These doctrines are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and defined with a solemn judgment as divinely revealed truths either by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks ‘ex cathedra,’ or by the College of Bishops gathered in council, or infallibly proposed for belief by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

These doctrines require the assent of theological faith by all members of the faithful. Thus, whoever obstinately places them in doubt or denies them falls under the censure of heresy, as indicated by the respective canons of the Codes of Canon Law.

(3) Whatever one’s theory of ensoulment might be, it is clear that the phrase “innocent human being” used both in Evangelium Vitae and in the statement of the CDF was meant to include unborn human life at all stages after conception.

Nevertheless, it is possible to argue that, while the general principle of the immorality of killing innocent human beings is an article of faith, the factual question of whether a child just after conception is a human being is not an article of faith. Yet, even if that is so, the humanity of the unborn child after conception would still be something taught infallibly by the ordinary magisterium, and fall under the category of “truths definitively to be held.” In the words of the same CDF document:

The second proposition of the Professio fidei states: “I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.” The object taught by this formula includes all those teachings belonging to the dogmatic or moral area, which are necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by the Magisterium of the Church as formally revealed.

Such doctrines can be defined solemnly by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks ‘ex cathedra’ or by the College of Bishops gathered in council, or they can be taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church as a “sententia definitive tenenda.” Every believer, therefore, is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths, based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Church’s Magisterium, and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters. Whoever denies these truths would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.

To all appearances, Pelosi has publicly and pointedly denied a “truth of Catholic doctrine” that is “definitively to be held” (“definitive tenenda”) by “all believers”, and the denial of which renders them “no longer . . . in full communion with the Catholic Church.” Moreover, Pelosi simultaneously proclaims her right to do so because “many Catholics” agree with her. Clearly, this is a scandal in the original sense of the term.

What can the bishops do? There is something very simple they can do that would have an enormously salutary effect.

They can, in a public statement, explain the doctrinal situation and require Pelosi to respond to the following question: “Do you assent to the teaching of the Church that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being at any stage after conception is gravely immoral?”

Her previous public statement makes it presumable that her answer is no. This presumption can only be removed by a clear affirmative answer. In light of the public nature and scandal caused by her earlier statement, she should be required to make a public assent to this Catholic teaching.

This is no longer a question of a politician claiming some kind of rights or leeway as a politician. It is a well-known Catholic very publicly explicitly rejecting a “truth of Catholic doctrine.”