Politics can be treacherous. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walked on even riskier ground in a recent TV interview when she attempted a theological defense of her support for abortion rights.
Roman Catholic bishops consider her arguments on St. Augustine and free will so far out of line with church teaching that they have issued a steady stream of statements to correct her.
The latest came Wednesday from Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik, who said Pelosi, D-Calif., "stepped out of her political role and completely misrepresented the teaching of the Catholic Church in regard to abortion."
It has been a harsh week of rebuke for the Democratic congresswoman, a Catholic school graduate who repeatedly has expressed pride in and love for her religious heritage.
Cardinals and archbishops in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Denver are among those who have criticized her remarks. Archbishop George Niederauer, in Pelosi's hometown of San Francisco, will take up the issue in the Sept. 5 edition of the archdiocesan newspaper, his spokesman said.
Sunday, on NBC's "Meet the Press" program, Pelosi said "doctors of the church" have not been able to define when life begins.
She also cited the role of individual conscience. "God has given us, each of us, a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions," she said.
Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Pelosi, said in a statement defending her remarks that she "fully appreciates the sanctity of family" and based her views on conception on the "views of Saint Augustine, who said, 'The law does not provide that the act (abortion) pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation.'"
But whether or not parishioners choose to accept it, the theology on the procedure is clear. From its earliest days, Christianity has considered abortion evil.
"This teaching has remained unchanged and remains unchangeable," according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law."
The Rev. Douglas Milewski, a Seton Hall University theologian who specializes in Augustine, said Pelosi seems to be confusing church teaching on abortion with the theological debate over when a fetus receives a soul.
"Saint Augustine wondered about the stages of human development before birth, how this related to the question of ensoulment and what it meant for life in the Kingdom of God," Milewski said.
Questions about ensoulment related to determining penalties under church law for early and later abortions, not deciding whether the procedure is permissible, according to the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
Augustine was "quite clear on the immorality of abortion as evil violence, destructive of the very fabric of human bonds and society," Milewski said.
Advice for Nancy: "‘Get thee to a nunnery.’" (and we will throw way the key!)