Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a self-proclaimed "ardent, practicing Catholic," had an opportunity last week to meet a fellow ardent Catholic, Pope Benedict XVI.
It appears that the pope used the visit to educate a confused Pelosi about the Roman Catholic Church's long-held position on the life issue.
Appearing on Meet the Press just prior to the Democratic National Convention, Pelosi told the country that, over the centuries, the Catholic Church had been unable to define when life begins. "We just don't know," she chirped.
The Vatican's statement after last week's meeting between Pelosi and the pope began: "His Holiness took the opportunity to speak of the requirements of the natural moral law and the church's consistent teaching on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death."
Pope Benedict did not allow any photos of the meeting, making a second and equally bracing instructional point: Dissenting Catholic politicians who deliberately mislead others about the church's core teachings will not be given another chance to do so by having their picture taken with the vicar of Christ.
The pope heads a long list of church leaders who have used the speaker's comments to teach the faithful. It includes our own Cardinal Justin Rigali.
Pelosi made it easy for the bishops to confront an offense against church teaching, because, rather than state her own position, she misstated the church's position. To the church, this is akin to wearing a "Kick me" sign on your backside.
Sadly, the church hierarchy has been less assertive when public figures' policy positions openly dissent from core teachings.
That's why Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino got so much national attention last fall. Martino, formerly the auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia, made the welcome decision to publicly bar then Sen. Joe Biden and other abortion advocates from receiving Communion in the Scranton Diocese. Then, after the November election, he admonished his brother bishops for their reluctance to deal with the issue faithfully.
Last month, Martino took on the most influential family in his diocese, the Caseys. He excoriated Sen. Bob Casey, who claims to be pro-life, for voting to give taxpayer dollars to overseas organizations that perform abortions. He warned that Casey was "formally cooperating with evil."
Martino was not done. Two weeks ago, the Philadelphia native and St. Joseph's Prep graduate issued a strong statement of disapproval to a local, nominally Catholic college, Misericordia University, that had scheduled a speech on campus by someone advocating same-sex marriage. "The faithful of the Diocese of Scranton should be in no doubt," Martino said, "that Misericordia University in this instance is seriously failing in maintaining its Catholic identity."
Then, last week, Martino took on some more of the biggest guns in the diocese: the Irish clubs that organize the largest public Catholic event of the year, the St. Patrick's Day festivities. Through a letter from his Irish auxiliary bishop, Martino warned that if any of these groups went ahead with plans that in any way honor politicians who are not pro-life, he would close the cathedral where Mass is usually held prior to the parade, as well as other diocesan churches. He said he would not countenance anything that created confusion about the teachings of the church.
The reason for the letter: Scranton's St. Patrick's Day parade last year featured Hillary Clinton.
Many of his brother bishops will look at Martino as they do at other uncompromising defenders of the faith, worrying about the world's reaction. As a Philly guy, though, his excellency knows something about being booed. He also knows his job and calling: to be the good shepherd who faithfully leads and protects his flock from those who would lead them astray.
Yes, scores of people are reportedly protesting and threatening to leave the church. In the end, however, people leaving the church because of a bishop who enforces its teachings are a blessing compared with the alternative: people leaving because bishops and their priests don't teach, much less enforce, those teachings.