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The gospel in a Catholic’s political life

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), elected minority leader of the House of Representatives by her Democratic colleagues, is the first woman to lead a party in either the House or Senate. In a wide-ranging interview with NCR Washington correspondent Joe Feuerherd, Pelosi explained where she hopes to lead House Democrats, her position on war with Iraq, and what it means to be a high-profile Catholic in public office. Excerpts of that 40-minute conversation follow. A fuller version of the interview can be found by clicking on DOCUMENTS on the NCR Web site, www.natcath.org

NCR: Last October when the House was considering the resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, you stated that you had “seen no evidence or intelligence that suggests that Iraq indeed poses an imminent threat to our nation.” Have you seen such evidence since then?

Pelosi: No, what I’ve said in the context of that, is that when the director of Central Intelligence [was] asked what threat Iraq posed to the United States, [he] said that if unprovoked the probability was low that Iraq would use … weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. However, if we went into Iraq with the intention of regime change, and backed Hussein up against the wall, the probability was high that he would use chemical or biological [weapons] against us.

I saw nothing in the intelligence that said what the administration was positing -- that you had to go into Iraq because they were developing a weapon of mass destruction to be launched against the U.S. They don’t have that technology, and they certainly don’t have the technology to launch against the U.S., so I didn’t see that as a justification for war. And we knew of no plans or intentions from an intelligence standpoint that Iraq was thinking about doing this, recognizing that they didn’t have the technology to do it. Maybe if they had the technology they would … [but] they do not have the indigenous capacity in Iraq to produce [such] a weapon of mass destruction, they don’t have the fissile material, they have to get it from some place else, and they have to get the technology for the launch capacity from someplace else. So let’s stop it at the source rather than going to war at the end user.

Having said that, if the president of the United States makes a decision to place our young people in harm’s way because it is his judgment that we have to do that to protect the American people, I know that we will all be 100 percent behind the president and in support of our young people in the military.

Is war justified absent an imminent threat?

I’m not the commander-in-chief. If war is justified with Iraq on the basis of their development of weapons of mass destruction, the threat they pose to the United States, and the treatment of their people … then I think there are several other countries which are candidates for us to go to war with.

One that immediately comes to mind is Iran, which is a proliferator, an exporter of terrorism to the Middle East, a threat to its neighbors, [and] is developing weapons of mass destruction. It is as much or more of a threat to the stability of that region, which is important to our national interest, to the Persian Gulf and the Middle East region.

Certainly the North Koreans have nuclear weapons and the launch capacity -- they can’t reach the U.S. yet, we don’t think -- but we have tens of thousands of our young people on the border there. They are a threat to their neighbors. They have the technology and they are major proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.

Is being a Catholic in public life a blessing or a burden?

Oh, it’s a blessing. I have more people praying for me.

Love of country, deep love of the Catholic church, and love of family were all the values I was raised in. I don’t like to have religion and politics come too closely together, but I will say that I am motivated by the Gospel of Matthew, as many people in politics are. I find it an inspiration.

What did I see the other day? “The divinity in me bows to the divinity in you.” The respect that we have for the individual because of the spark of divinity that we all carry serves me well in politics -- to respect people and their point of view. I say that -- I hope it doesn’t sound patronizing -- in a very respectful way.

My upbringing -- working on the side of the angels with my parents -- to help people, again according to Gospel of Matthew, and the idea … [that we] look upon God’s creation as an act of worship. To ignore the needs of God’s creation is to dishonor the God that made them. And that we have that responsibility, all of us.

It’s part of me, it’s immediate in my life, it’s immediate in the lives of many of my colleagues.

You were recently quoted as calling yourself a “conservative Catholic.” Are you?

I think so. I was raised, as I say, in a very strict upbringing in a Catholic home where we respected people, were observant, were practicing Catholics and the fundamental belief was that God gave us all a free will and we were accountable for that, each of us. Each person had that accountability, so it wasn’t for us to make judgments about how people saw their responsibility and that it wasn’t for politicians to make decisions about how people led their personal lives; certainly, to high moral standards, but when it got into decisions about privacy and all the rest, that was something that individuals had to answer to God for, and not to politicians.

I have five children, five grandchildren; I try to abide by all the teachings of the church in relationship to family. I think my family speaks very clearly to that.

Two litmus tests that help define “conservative” and “liberal” in the church: Married priests and women priests.

What can I say? The record speaks for itself in some respects. I have always thought that there should have been a stronger role for women in the church. When I was little my mother always wanted me to be a nun. I didn’t think I wanted to be a nun, but I thought I might want to be a priest because there seemed to be a little more power there, a little more discretion over what was going on in the parish. I think the reality of life is that wherever God sends a vocation that marriage should not bar anyone from following that vocation. I know that that is in the future, I just don’t how long it will take.

Women as priests?

Oh absolutely … Why not? Why not?

You have worked with the church leadership on many issues over the years -- Central America, China -- and other domestic concerns. Have the scandals of the past year damaged the church’s credibility?

I don’t think so. I think the church has high moral standing on issues of lifting people up and reducing violence in the world. I don’t think there’s anybody in the world who is a more credible messenger for social improvement in the lives of people than His Holiness [Pope John Paul II]. I say that without any question.

Of course, in different parishes and different dioceses it’s different, but … in my diocese years ago … our archbishop got a standing ovation for standing up on issues related to disarmament. And in our churches in San Francisco and across the country we have worked together on issues relating to sanctuary for people from El Salvador and to end the violence in Central America. The pope is the leader in the world in helping on alleviation of poverty in terms of the debt. … All of these issues are not only important values that the church has taken the lead on, worked closely with its parishioners and [its] following on, [but are issues in which it has provided] moral leadership for the rest of the world.

Having said that, the tragedy for some of us is that as much as we have worked on alleviation of poverty, and [on] social issues, and reducing violence in the world, and respecting the other person, and meeting the needs of other people, and [seeing] God’s creation as an act of worship -- those relationships have been sadly affected by the decision on the part of some in the church to disassociate themselves from [some political leaders] because of our position on choice.

Is it more difficult today to be a pro-choice Cath-olic then it was, say, 10 years ago?

It’s about the same. When I traveled across the country when I was campaigning for candidates this last time, when I was in another city on a Sunday, I would try to find a Catholic church nearby. I heard some of the sermons in some of the churches down South, so I understand what some of our colleagues undergo in the church -- it was difficult. We’ve had those sermons in California, but [with] a little more subtlety than I was hearing down South. It gave me a better understanding of what some of my colleagues are going through.

If I was going to receive Communion, in my district in California, in my archdiocese ... I never knew if this was the day it would be withheld. And that’s a hard way to go to church. Fortunately, I’m invited -- I have a big family -- I go to a lot of weddings, I’m in a different church every week. I’m a moving target. I travel, so I’m not exactly a target in terms of always being in the same church, although I go to St. Vincent de Paul, which is my neighborhood parish.

In addition to that, on many occasions the archdiocese has told the nuns that I couldn’t be the speaker at some event. And that’s hurtful because we have so much in common. But it’s the decision the church has made.

On the flip side of the abortion question, how big a tent is the Democratic Party? Is it big enough to welcome Democrats who oppose abortion?

I think it is a bigger tent than people realize. I come myself from a family that does not share my views on choice.

That must make for some interesting dinner table conversations.

Interesting in that they get back to the point that I made earlier -- that we are all blessed by the Creator with a free will [to] which we are answerable and I will step back to that. And that seems to be common ground [among the family].

Having said that, I think there are occasions where they would like me to be less visible, that they don’t like to see any disagreement between the church and any of us.

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2003