New York Times: In Pelosi, Strong Catholic Faith and Abortion Rights Coexist

September 22, 2015
By Jennifer Steinhauer

For Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, the issue of abortion rights has always been ancillary to her unwavering faith and deep approbation for generations of popes. ''I actually agree with the pope on more issues than many Catholics who agree with him on one issue,'' Ms. Pelosi said in an interview in her office at the Capitol last week.

But that one issue, abortion, is adding a thick layer of tension to the otherwise convivial mood as Congress prepares for the arrival of Pope Francis this week. The Capitol is ensnared in an imbroglio over funding for Planned Parenthood and a host of other abortion-related fights that could lead to a government shutdown next week.

Scores of House Republicans, responding to undercover videos claiming that Planned Parenthood affiliates illegally profit from selling aborted fetal tissue to researchers, are demanding that any bill to keep the government open be stripped of all federal funding for Planned Parenthood. The House passed two bills that would chip away at the organization and at abortion practices, and the Senate will bring its own abortion measure, perhaps the first of several, to the floor this week.

Ms. Pelosi is not impressed.

''If they think they are making the pope more welcome'' by putting abortion measures on the legislative calendar the week he is in Washington, ''they are mistaken,'' she said. ''The pope is his own reason.''

Abortion opponents disagree. ''My understanding is that this is not considered a minor matter by the church,'' said David O'Steen, the executive director of National Right to Life. ''We are very glad the vote is coming up. I think it's a very good thing to have the debate.''

For Ms. Pelosi, who has led Democrats in the House for more than a decade, abortion and family planning access -- as important proxies for women's rights -- are core values central to her party's platform and base. Opposing abortion rights, and reframing women's health care as having nothing to do with family planning, is just as important to many congressional Republicans.

It is in this stark division that Francis will arrive Thursday to be the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress, in which more than 30 percent of the members are Catholic.

A focus on trying to dismantle Planned Parenthood -- a fiscal strategy doomed to fail with President Obama in the White House -- against the backdrop of a visit from the pope detracts somewhat from an otherwise largely unifying visit from a highly popular international figure.

For Ms. Pelosi, the notion of disagreeing with other Catholics about abortion has not weighed on her sense of faith. ''I think everyone grants everyone their position,'' she said. ''The church has their position, and we have ours, which is that a woman has free will given to her by God. My family is very pro-life,'' she added, noting that she has lived with the conflict all her life.

Like Speaker John A. Boehner, Ms. Pelosi was born into a large Catholic family, for which faith was central and reverence for the pope assured. Her father, Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., was the first Italian-American mayor of Baltimore and a member of the House, and was prominent in the larger American Roman Catholic community.

Ms. Pelosi keeps a folder in her office with photos and news clips memorializing her encounters with popes over the years, including an elegant black-and-white photograph of her in the eighth grade, dressed in white, during a visit to Rome with her family in the 1950s to see Pope Pius XII.

''It was beyond anything you could ever imagine,'' Ms. Pelosi said wistfully. ''I remember the pope asked if I was in college, and I told my brother, 'The pope thinks I am in college,''' she said, laughing. Her brother sniffed, ''In Italy, college meant high school.''

As a young woman in New York, Ms. Pelosi lined up with New Yorkers on the street in 1965 when Pope Paul VI became the first sitting pope to visit the Western Hemisphere. ''I even, as a young person, waved to Pope Paul VI in Manhattan when I lived there,'' she said.

She greeted Pope John Paul II when he came through California in the late 1980s, and in her pile of photos, Ms. Pelosi has one of herself kissing the ring of Pope Benedict XVI as President George W. Bush looked on in 2008. When Pope Francis was installed, she flew to Rome with a small group, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., to watch, drawing attention to the abortion debate.

''I loved Benedict's writing and his speeches,'' said Ms. Pelosi, who carefully reads each encyclical with the rapt attention of a serious cook who devours every issue of ''Bon Appétit.'' Her personal favorite is ''God is love,'' she said. ''It is so beautiful.'' She curled up with a copy of the latest encyclical from Pope Francis and a pen, to take notes.

Like many other Catholic girls from Baltimore, Ms. Pelosi attended the Institute of Notre Dame high school and went on to Trinity College, now Trinity Washington University, a Roman Catholic college for women in Washington, although she notes that priests had more power than nuns and as such did not cotton to a career in the church. Among her guests for the pope's visit this week will be the Rev. Stephen Privett, the retired president of the University of San Francisco, and students from Trinity.

With Mr. Boehner, she is helping to manage the extreme logistical challenge of a papal address to Congress, an event that security personnel here are treating like a combination of a visit from a head of state, an address by the president to Congress and an inauguration.

''There is no question it will be emotional,'' Ms. Pelosi said. ''This is something where we all come together, a oneness that transcends party.''