Kudos for Abp Niederauer

All last week, the horror in Haiti made it well nigh to impossible to notice anything else. And, sadly, as predicted, a fifth horseman of the Apocalypse, Chaos, has come to torment that tormented island.

Still, there was an article by Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco that was very worthy of comment and kudos. Niederauer was replying to an interview in which Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tried to explain how she reconciled her commitment to pro-abortion legislation with her Catholic faith, invoking the idea of free will. The Speaker, of course, is not a theologian, and her explanation overlooked certain essential points in reasoning, but she is a public figure and so her words garner attention. Niederauer is her bishop and it is his place to correct Speaker Pelosi and, in this instance, it was appropriate to correct her publicly because she had spoken not simply about a political issue but about her understanding of Catholic teaching.


The archbishop’s article is noteworthy first and foremost for what it does not say. It contains no nastiness. It contains no invective. There are no threats. It does not put Speaker Pelosi down, nor question her integrity, nor devalue her commitment to her faith. From start to finish, Niederauer’s words are the words of a pastor, someone concerned that one of his flock is going astray, eager to find the words that will bring them back, eager to teach the rest of the flock how not to go astray. For example, Niederauer begins his criticism of the Speaker’s comments by noting, "These misconceptions are widespread both within the Catholic community and beyond. For this reason I believe it is important for me as Archbishop of San Francisco to make clear what the Catholic Church teaches about free will, conscience, and moral choice." Instead of attacking the Speaker, as he had been urged to do by certain fringe rightwing groups, Niederauer concedes that many, many Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, share the Speaker’s misunderstand.

"Freedom of conscience" means something in the Church, and something more, than it does in the constitutional order. Yet, no single concept articulated in the documents of Vatican II was more generally misunderstood. As early as 1968, the popular movie "The Shoes of the Fisherman" has a newly elected Pope defending heresy on the grounds of "freedom of conscience." A Catholic, by reason of being a Catholic, accepts certain data that must inform his or her conscience. For us, Revelation is data. Put differently, it is like the difference between a course in theology and a course in religious studies. A non-believer can teach religious studies, examine the behaviors and attitudes of religious people, argue about the cogency and coherence of this or that doctrine, but a theologian works from within the Church, a theologian addresses God in the second-person, a theologian does not read the Scriptures only as profound and important historical books but as living and true testimonies about the nature of God.

Indeed, the good archbishop does more than clarify Church teaching about the formation of conscience, he elevates the idea of conscience above the current cultural norm, pointing out that freedom and conscience are rooted in the Imago Dei, an idea that Vatican II returned to the heart of Christian anthropology. Our freedom flows from our covenant with God. Our freedom manifests our dignity as persons created in the divine likeness. Our conscience is the avenue that leads us to communion with the divine and, just so, it is to be cherished beyond measure, carefully tended and thoughtfully informed. These ideas and concepts are not easy to teach in our fast-paced, materialistic culture, but Niederauer does a fine job explaining them to his flock.

Archbishop Niederauer stands out as one of the leading members of the American episcopate at this time, not only for his intellect, but for the way he brings that intellect to the service of his flock, gently but firmly, welcoming all and demeaning none, in short, Niederauer acts like the Good Shepherd. In this current article he deploys his authority not as something to be lorded over his flock but as something, like all gifts human and divine, that should be employed to build up the Body of Christ.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
David Nickol
9 years ago
It seems to me that what Pelosi really meant when she said free will was actually freedom of conscience. I would agree that the concept of free will can't justify allowing others to make bad moral decisions, but freedom of conscience is another matter entirely. For Catholics, revelation may be data, but exactly how a democratic government in a pluralistic society is suppose to handle the issue of abortion is not a matter of revelation. Any Catholic theory of how a secular, pluralistic society is supposed to deal with abortion is necessarily very new when compared to the Church's position on procuring and performing abortions. The leap from ''It's intrinsically evil'' to ''It must be outlawed by the state'' is a large one, and for those who make it, there are questions about what other activities Catholics consider intrinsically evil should be made into crimes. Pelosi did not articulate her position well, or if she did, it is a very unsophisticated one. But Archbishop Niederauer did not even come close (in my opinion) to making a case about what Nancy Pelosi is actually obligated to do regarding abortion as Speaker of the House. 
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years ago
" ... he elevates the idea of conscience above the current cultural norm, pointing out that freedom and conscience are rooted in the Imago Dei, an idea that Vatican II returned to the heart of Christian anthropology. Our freedom flows from our covenant with God. Our freedom manifests our dignity as persons created in the divine likeness. ..."
This sounds RADICAL, getting to the very root of the matter, and in a way that shows that the Catholic Faith is truly a gift of freedom.  This is the way to attract young people; this is the way to bring the exiled Catholics back into the fold.
Being a pro-life liberal, I welcome, salute, and cheer the manner in which the Archbishop is addressing Speaker Pelosi.  She'll get it, and so will the rest of the Catholic Democrats, and liberalism can again become the truly radical Catholic response to social issues.
Brian Thompson
9 years ago
However, David, while the "how" and "if" questions of which moral precepts ought to be enshrined in law is indeed a prudential judgement, there are some issues where the answer is more clear.
Whether or not to allow abortion is something that admits to very few degrees. Either you allow it, allow it under certain circumstances, or you make it illegal. Additionally, it is an issue where infinite damage is being done to a person with infinite value. People of good will would hopefully not have to even think about whether or not to ban torture, something that inflicts immense and perpetual but not always infinite damage. Both are affronts to the value of a human being; both are moral issues; both are only coherent (whether people know/admit it or not) in the light of revelation and our anthropology as equal and in the image of God. 
There can be prudential differences on the "how," but the "if" would be very difficult to defend given the basic nature of Law as the guarantor and enforcer (but in most cases not source) of one's rights, and the desire to be coherent in our public stances. If we feel it is appropriate to make illegal the sin of murder or torture or rape or slavery or abduction, vel cetera, then there is no reason abortion is not something which is eligible for abolition. Indeed, if we are to be coherent and consistent, there is no reason it should not be abolished (indeed, it is not a novel crime, being identical in moral object and effect to things which are already illegal). 
People have the right to many things, or moral and natural law dictates that Justice demands people be treated in a certain way. but how to provide the more concrete things our fellow men deserve simply by being our fellow men: food, shelter, health care, the Gospel proclaimed to them, etc. is far more dependent on the "how" question. Is it better for the State to provide the material needs, or should the state pull back and let charities do the work? If charities are given the task, is it desirable that the State financially aid them, or does that excessively entangle the State? Is it better to encourage a development of a culture of family as the safety net? is it better for more people to offer time in service? Would a greater willingness among the young to offer their lives in religious vocations to serve the poor or pray for the world a better solution? Is it better for the State to regulate and ensure the wealthy are, in justice and charity, aiding the poor or to encourage them to be more generous of their free will? Given that charities often carry the Gospel through and with their work, is it appropriate for the State to work with them at all? to what degree? Such questions have no definite right answer. 
You cannot be Catholic and unconcerned with social justice, just as much as you cannot be Catholic and anti-life. But the "how" is where we are free to disagree,
Jim McCrea
9 years ago
"Archbishop Niederauer stands out as one of the leading members of the American episcopate at this time, not only for his intellect, but for the way he brings that intellect to the service of his flock, gently but firmly, welcoming all and demeaning none, in short, Niederauer acts like the Good Shepherd."
You may want to talk with the LGBT members of the Archdiocese of SF and you will get a slightly different take on Niederauer's "welcoming all and demeaning none."
9 years ago
"...Paul VI appealed to the conscience of the world when he warned about "the consequences of practicing artificial birth control." His warning was prophetic. What have been the consequences of contraception in one once-civilized nation after another?

They have been myriad. But I would give especially seven, which may be listed in sequence.

Breakdown of the family; and
Murder of the unborn.

John Hardon SJ
Brian Thompson
9 years ago
Welcoming all, including sinners, is one thing, but to pretend a sin is not a sin is the opposite of Christian charity and would indeed be a lie.
Joseph Farrell
9 years ago
This is the second time recently that Speaker Pelosi has given a very misguided view of Catholicism in a public setting and twice her bishop has corrected her.  If she does, in fact, take her faith seriously, she must begin to take to heart the things that her God-given shepherd and the Church that she claims as her own definitively teach.  Until then, she is actively leading Catholics, many of whom value her opinions, into error.
Jim McCrea
9 years ago
Brian:  are you stating that being homosexual is a sin?
Brian Thompson
9 years ago
Jim: Nope. And neither is His Excellency, nor is the Church. However, though not necessarily a sin, homosexual attraction is not a positive condition to have. It is one of the effects of a fallen world that people suffer from sexual and emotional dysfunctions.
It is crucial that people know that one is not evil or less human or less valuable for being thus afflicted. Yes, he is making a sinful choice if he embraces and acts upon the temptations to which his condition weakens him (culpability and ongoing struggle mitigate the gravity of the sin, obviously), but most importantly-even if he is mired in his sin-he is the unfortunate sufferer in need of love and support-warts and all-and redemption in Christ. Christ came to save the wounded yet always required that the outsiders to whom he ministered seek to reform their lives and break the chains that bound them.
I cannot imagine what a cross it is to bear,and the Church should work to minister to such people with love. And part of that love is to firmly uphold the Truth. Compassion so-called that is willing to sacrifice Truth is just empty babble. If the Church is doing a substandard job at such ministry, by all means we should improve. But if we fail to separate the non-sinful disordered desire from the sinful activities and sinful attempts to normalize the disorder, we are doing a great disservice to these wounded children of God.
Typically people who are disappointed in the Church's approach to ministering to those with homosexual tendencies do not make a division between affliction with Homosexual attractions with its related emotional and psychological baggage, and a person who is living a gay lifestyle or attempting to normalize it in society. If you make such a distinction, or a similar one, then I misread you and I hope my above explanation will show that having such a condition is not a sin, but succumbing to its disordered promptings is. If you do not make such a distinction, and do equate homosexuality with being gay, then at least a portion of what you consider homosexuality is very sinful indeed.
I repeat again for clarity: Having homosexual desires is an unfortunate and disordered condition, but not sinful. Actively living a gay lifestyle and/or promoting it socially as a good, is quite sinful (though many factors can mitigate the gravity of one's guilt),
Jim McCrea
9 years ago
Maria:  homosexuality has been a part and parcel of humanity long before contraception was ever thought of!
Brian Thompson:  the only cross LGBT folk have to bear is the one imposed by people such as yourself who keep insisting that we are "suffering" from something.  Any suffering I have endured has come from the good citizens of church and state and not from my nature.
It would be nice (and I realize that this would be a huge stretch from those who are imposers of suffering) if my fellow Christians concerned themselves with compassion. 
James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead in  “The Shape of Compassion: Reflections on Catholics and Homosexuality” ( SPIRITUALITY TODAY, Summer 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 126-136) have this to say:
“For many Christians, compassion takes root when they share the faith journey of a gay friend or lesbian colleague. In this sharing they learn that their attractions and delights are very much like everyone else’s.
Compassion protects from equating fruitfulness with biological fertility. Some homosexual couples’ inability to bear children is sometimes taken as a sure sign that their love is selfish. But daily experiences tell us something quite different. Here we meet single adults and childless couples whose lives are profoundly fruitful. In the Christian community can be met gay and lesbian couples who are deeply generous, whose shared love bears fruit for them and for the world.
As we speak the truth to one another we recognize that, in our sexuality as in so much else, we are more alike than we are different. An emerging sense of the faithful does not ignore the responsibility we all share to fashion faithful and fruitful ways to express our love. But it does acknowledge that, in any credible discussion of the shape of Christian sexuality, we must honor the seasoned experience of mature homosexuals.
Through compassion we learn that we are more alike than different.  To our Christian identity what matters most is not sexual orientation or ethnic origin or gender. What marks us as followers of Jesus is our behavior. From the first century onward Christians provoked the response: “See how they love one another!” The fruitfulness of this love is recognized in its respect, generosity, and fidelity. Today the church struggles to have her stance toward Catholic and other Christian homosexuals shaped by such compassion.”


The latest from america

Protestors march to support a U.N. anti-corruption commission in Guatemala City on Jan. 6. Photo by Jackie McVicar.
“What they are doing not only puts Guatemala at risk but the entire region. Bit by bit, for more than a year, they have been trying to divide us. The elections are at risk. We are six months away.”
Jackie McVicarJanuary 18, 2019
“We will just do what we need to do to help people in need,” said Antonio Fernandez, C.E.O. of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Emma Winters January 18, 2019
The study found Latina immigrant women in Arizona who were pregnant during the contentious S.B. 1070 passage had babies with lower birthweight compared with those in prior years. Average birth weights did not decrease among U.S.-born white, black or Latina women during the same time.
J.D. Long-GarcíaJanuary 18, 2019
This week's guest is Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of New Wave Feminists, a pro-life feminist organization dedicated to changing the divisive language surrounding the abortion debate.
Olga SeguraJanuary 18, 2019