Sioux City’s Bp. Nickless on Speaker Pelosi, culture, and voting

The Bishop of Sioux City, Iowa, Most Rev. R. Walker Nickless in his diocesan paper The Catholic Globe has issued a statement about Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her distortions of Catholic teaching on human life.

This is actually like a short pastoral letter about voting and how to think about your vote.

Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments.

Understanding the issues and what’s at stake

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

If any of us thought that we could avoid political chatter this fall, the past two weeks of conventions and speeches have been a dose of unpleasant reality. In truth, I hope that all of us are paying at least a little attention. When leading politicians who claim to be Catholic misrepresent so badly the basic teachings of the Church, we Catholic citizens must call them on it. [Not just bishops, he is saying, but the rank and file as well.]

No doubt, no one has missed the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), a self-described “ardent, practicing Catholic,” being interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press” two weeks ago (August 24). When asked what advice she would give a president on the issue of when human life begins, and despite the clarity of the Church’s teaching that life begins at conception, Ms. Pelosi attempted to formulate a theological argument that (a) life may not begin at conception (quoting St. Augustine); (b) the teaching of the Church that life does begin at conception is only “about 50 years old;” and therefore (c) this teaching “shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose [an abortion].” Clearly, this not-quite-argument is poorly reasoned and false[Good summary!]

As saddened as I was to hear Ms. Pelosi make such indefensible, inaccurate statements about the Church’s teachings, I was greatly encouraged by the immediate response of my brother bishops. Archbishops Chaput, Egan, Wuerl, and others have responded strongly and clearly to Ms. Pelosi, and to all who might be swayed by her confusion and evasions, reiterating the constant, unchanging, and unequivocal truth that abortion is always a grave moral evil. On August 25, Archbishop Chaput responded, completely dismantling Ms. Pelosi’s confused argument, in part simply by quoting this from the excellent book “Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective” (Loyola, 1977), by Fr. John Connery, S.J.:

“The Christian tradition from the earliest days reveals a firm antiabortion attitude . . . The condemnation of abortion did not depend on and was not limited in any way by theories regarding the time of fetal animation. Even during the many centuries when Church penal and penitential practice was based on the theory of delayed animation, the condemnation of abortion was never affected by it. Whatever one would want to hold about the time of animation, or when the fetus became a human being in the strict sense of the term, abortion from the time of conception was considered wrong, and the time of animation was never looked on as a moral dividing line between permissible and impermissible abortion.”

Cardinal Egan rebuked Ms. Pelosi even more strongly in his open letter of August 26: “Anyone who dares to defend that they [i.e. the unborn] may be legitimately killed because another human being “chooses” to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name.” [Hear hear!]

I agree completely with the rebuke and rebuttal of Cardinal Egan and Archbishop Chaput. As your Bishop, I am responsible to our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of all the souls of North-West Iowa. I can’t force anyone to believe the truth, nor would I use such force if I could, but my duty as Bishop requires that I, as my brother bishops have done, teach that truth by word and example as firmly and as clearly as humanly possible[Hey!  I am starting to like this fellow!] These true and universal doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church are the teachings of Christ.

1. Abortion is always a grave moral evil (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2270-2272). The deliberate taking of innocent human life can never be justified. The same grave moral evil is likewise practiced in euthanasia (CCC 2276-79), and in the destruction of human embryos for medical research, and in human cloning (CCC 2274). In each of these issues, as well, innocent human life is unjustifiably taken.

2. Cooperation in any evil act is also a grave moral evil (CCC 1868). Directly to assist with, for example, the taking of innocent human life makes one culpable for that action. Indirectly to assist with the taking of innocent human life may or may not be culpable cooperation, depending on circumstances. One of the key circumstances is knowledge of the evil to be perpetrated (CCC 1859-1860); and in our society today, it is scarcely to be believed that anyone above the age of reason could claim “invincible ignorance” regarding the moral status of any of these issues.

3. The proper formation of conscience is an ordinary duty of all the baptized (CCC 1777-1782). The objective sources of moral knowledge, according to which conscience can be formed with certainty, are natural law, Scripture, and the Magisterium of the Church (CCC 1785). Subjective sources of moral knowledge, such as reflection on one’s own experience, private revelation, and infused virtue, never contradict the objective sources, but can deepen and strengthen conviction in the truth of the objective teachings (CCC 1778-1779). This means that the “argument from anecdote” (so-and-so did such-and-such a grave moral evil, and they came to no harm…) and the “argument from personal authority” (I have such-and-such a belief or experience, and I say…) always fail to persuade. It also means that, with very few exceptions, no one has the easy excuse of ignorance of the moral law to justify their malformed conscience (CCC 1791-1793).

4. Participation in the political process is an ordinary duty of all the baptized (CCC 1913-1917). This means not only that the faithful should vote, but also, more importantly, that the faithful must take responsibility for the actions of our elected officials by (a) exercising their vote with care and right discernment in conscience and truth, and (b) insisting that elected officials use their executive or legislative power for the common good (CCC 1916-1917). [He is an organized writer.  I like this!]

5. The end never justifies the means (CCC 1753). This means that the common good can never be achieved by practicing any moral evil as state policy (CCC 1789, 1905).

Now, it must be admitted that not every moral evil is equally grave (CCC 1852-1854). Some issues have little effect beyond themselves; some touch on a few related issues; some are foundational to the whole structure of politics and society. The issues which have been labeled as “non-negotiable Catholic issues” are the most grave, because they are at the foundation of all our rights and responsibilities. These are, namely, the “life issues” of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and human cloning; and the fundamental social issue of the family, which in this country today mostly means the definition of marriage. These issues are “non-negotiable” because, if the fundamental right to life is not secure, no rights are ultimately secure. If existence is contingent upon the will of others, so too is every other human right contingent.

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, made this explicitly clear, as Cardinal Ratzinger, in the 1987 document called Donum Vitae (“The Gift of Life”):

“The inviolable right to life of every innocent human individual and the rights of the family and of the institution of marriage constitute fundamental moral values, because they concern the natural condition and integral vocation of the human person; at the same time they are constitutive elements of civil society and its order…. The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined…” – 80 (Donum Vitae, III; see also Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, Chapters 3 and 4).

In this way, the rights of prisoners and criminal suspects, of the ill and elderly, of children and families, of immigrants, all depend directly for their coherence and reasonableness on the right to life. Even opposing the three great “-isms” of modern liberal philosophy (race, gender, and class) depends on the prior recognition of human personhood and its inherent dignity as such. In the same way, the root principles defining all forms of social justice, such as solidarity and subsidiarity, are only ultimately guaranteed by defense of the right to life and of the family as the basic social unit. When families are unstable units, then all voluntary associations, up to and including states and nations, ultimately lack a coherent concept of justice to animate laws and mores. The five “non-negotiables” are fundamental because, when they are abandoned, justice itself is de facto abandoned (CCC 2273).

Our nation is divided today, because we have in fact abandoned these foundations for personal and corporate liberty in our legal system, but not in our culture, our expectations, or our vocabulary. More and more, to be “progressive” means to wish to change the culture to conform to new legal interpretations, while to be “conservative” means to wish to change the laws to conserve traditional culture. More and more, because America is a nation greatly attracted to the innovative, and not much attached to tradition or conservation, the expectation that law be the servant of culture is rejected. In other words, the tools of politics tend to favor a new, illusory ideal of the isolated, autonomous self, rather than (as they ought) to protect and defend a shared and inherited idea of the common good.

When this happens, division results. The “politics of identity” take over; the perceived “rights” of this or that group (defined by race, gender, and class) begin to seem more important than shared identity, shared humanity. In some fundamental sense, as Pope Benedict has said, the denial of a shared humanity requires a denial of some particular group’s humanity: in our day, especially of the unborn, and the terminally ill.

In the early Church, as still today, Christians were ridiculed for coming to the defense of the poorest of the poor: widows, slaves, orphans, infants exposed to die. Christians challenged the assumptions of the world that only the rich and powerful mattered, and died for it. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The full fruit of the Church’s early centuries of evangelization ultimately included the conviction that politics not only can but must aim for justice – not the worldly justice of due process and evenhanded use of force, which is too easily perverted into an idolatrous worship of order or system; but the divine justice of converted hearts and life completely free from sin. The conversion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century and the democratic revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries were sparked by the brightness of this luminous ideal. Our nation claims this Christian vision as its foundation and its heritage: to choose to accept one’s personal responsibility for the common good.

We know that for the common good to exist, the strong (such as those who wield the right to vote) are obliged to defend the weak (such as the unborn). We rejoice in the political freedoms of America, especially our freedom of religion. Because freedom in Christ is always freedom from sin, freedom to love, and never license to commit evil, we trust that our freedom of religion strengthens our democracy. When we live faithful to the fundamental truths of our faith and our democracy – that life is an inalienable right, endowed by our Creator, for a clear and specific purpose – then our laws and our culture will be strong and just, defending the weak and the poor.

I hope these words are helpful to you. As we approach the November elections we must clearly understand the issues and what is at stake. May the wisdom of the Church’s teaching help us all and may all faithful Catholics continue to speak the truth in love.

Your brother in Christ,

Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City

 Well done!  Solid WDTPRS kudos!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. TNCath says:

    Wow! What a wonderful statement! A bishop in the heart of Democratic Iowa! I love how he ties the abortion issue with the cult of individualism in the form of the “politics of identity.” It is so refreshing to see bishops acting like bishops! Thank you, Bishop Nickless.

  2. josephus muris saliensis says:

    Dio! How amazing! If ONLY we had bishops like this in England (or indeed Europe as a whole).

    Studious, apposite, and totally intelligible.

    DG – and lucky Sioux City!

  3. Doc Angelicus says:

    I’ve said it before and recommend others just keep saying it or putting it into comboxes whenever someone supports a pro-abortion politician, and not just Catholic ones:

    Whoever refuses to protect innocent life lacks the wisdom to lead and the moral authority to speak to war and poverty.

    I overheard a fellow the other day saying he feels that Obama’s inexperience may prompt him to surround himself with experienced advisors, and so he’s leaning toward him. The reasoning is severely flawed and even dangerous. First of all, there’s no telling what kind of advisors he’ll choose, and even if he chooses “good” ones, they’ll still know that they have to cow-tow to the President and may not give him good advice. And in the end, the inexperienced guy makes the final decision.

    But Obama lacks the wisdom to choose good advisors and to recognize good advice when he sees it. The guy is willing to have his own grandkids killed so that his daughters won’t be punished by their existence. Can anyone who holds that position make any reliable decisions as a leader of a nation?

    “Whoever refuses to protect innocent life lacks the wisdom to lead and the moral authority to speak on war and poverty.” Say it everywhere.

  4. Just a small correction, Democratic Iowa may be a valid observation, but we who live in or near NW Iowa are conservative and overwhelminly Republican in our politics

  5. Giovanni says:

    This is an excellent article; organized, articulate, and well-reasoned. I especially loved this part:

    “…I am responsible to our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of all the souls of North-West Iowa. I can’t force anyone to believe the truth, nor would I use such force if I could, but my duty as Bishop requires that I, as my brother bishops have done, teach that truth by word and example as firmly and as clearly as humanly possible.”

    Too infrequently does one hear bishops and priests speak about the salvation of souls and that those who support these grave evils endanger that salvation.

  6. Giovanni says:

    Fr. Z,

    I have a question. To what extent is Catholic teaching regarding artificial contraception to be included in the type of article written by Bishop Nickless? Should artificial contraception be included in the litany of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and same-sex marriage as evils which Catholics must oppose both personally and in the public square? Or should contraception not be included in this type of article because it is not as foundational to our other “rights and responsibilities”?

    I am curious because as I read the article I felt myself wanting to see the Bishop include this often unspoken teaching in his article. What do you think? Does this teaching belong in an article like this or in another context? Thank you in advance for your time.

    [Frankly, I don’t know to what extent it should be included. Should it have been mentioned? Perhaps. As evil as “same sex unions” are, I am not sure they should have been mentioned in the letter, which really focuses on deliberately killing innocent people. “Same sex marriage” doesn’t do that. Nor does contraception, unless it is the sort of thing falsely called “contraception” but which is really an abortifacient. What “same sex marriage” does is twist nature in a fundamental way. So does cloning, in an even more fundamental way. Contraception thwarts nature and the purpose of sexual acts but it doesn’t twist nature in the same way cloning, etc., does. I also don’t think contraception is a burning political issue right now, as much as the other issues, unless it concerns distribution of condoms, etc. to minors in schools, and so forth. So, I don’t know. I think I would keep the focus narrowed to various forms of killing people, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and things that distort nature itself, such as cloning and genetic manipulation. But your question is a good one. It could also be that the bishop simply couldn’t address every possible sin.]

  7. Warren says:

    Someone actually used the word rebuke! I sense this bishop is also one who is not afraid to use words like ineffable and gibbet.

    Here is a bishop who has risen to the challenge and has acted to protect his flock. Errant Catholics need a little reminder: bishops have real spiritual power. I humbly submit that this bishop has used his power and authority wisely. Faithful Catholics are edified when priests and bishops say to wishy-washy Catholics: stop the cherry picking, repent and conform to the Law of Christ. With bishops like His Excellency Bishop Nickless, hope is kindled.

  8. Paul Haley says:

    Am I mistaken or do a number of Catholic bishops since the Pelosi affair appear to be speaking the Truth as with one voice? Is it possible that the Holy Spirit has indeed decided to raise up voices from among the episcopate in defense of Traditional Catholic teaching? Is Tradition having a comeback and will these same bishops carry the ball even further? Will the Holy Father recognize who has exhibited the true characteristics required of a good bishop and reward them in kind? Interesting questions all, I believe, and to think of what the future could hold for us traditionalists is an awesome thing to behold. However, coming down to earth, there is much that needs to be done but, at least, there’s a start.

  9. Jacob says:


    R. Walter Walker Nickless…

  10. John Gordon says:

    Paul Haley said, “do a number of Catholic bishops since the Pelosi affair appear to be speaking the Truth as with one voice?

    Those of us in Eastern Washington are still waiting to hear from Bishop Skylstad, immediate past president of the USCCB and Bishop in a state where both US Senators (Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray) claim to be Catholic yet are as rabidly anti-life as Sen. Pelosi.

    John Gordon, Pomeroy WA

  11. Thomas says:

    That was an articulate and masterful linking of Catholic teaching with democratic thought. I am in shock that in my lifetime American Catholic bishops are actually defending the faith in the the public square. If anyone doubts that miracles can still happen… Seriously, this is the fruit of the reverent reign of Pope John Paul II and of his most worthy successor our beloved Benedict XVI.

  12. Michael says:

    Father Z, is it really “Well done! Solid WDTPRS kudos!” ? Giovanni is right when asking why the contraception is not included. His Lordship fails to realize that, by omitting contraception, he undermines everything he does include; because those who dissent from what he does include, do it on the same premises on which they dissent from the doctrine on contraception: what they basically attack is the doctrine according to which the Catholics are morally bound to accept the moral teaching of the Magisterium. By this kind of “pastoral” approach he must appear, in the eyes of the dissenters, as a laughing stock.

    [A couple things. First, His Lordship probably doesn’t “fail to realize” anything. I suspect he realizes a great deal more than most of the people who will read his statement. Second, not every statement can speak to every possible issue. The statement concerns killing innocent people, not preventing them from being conceived. It can be granted that some things which are falsely called “contraceptives” are actually abortifacients but then his argument about abortion should be applied. I think dissenters won’t be chuckling about this at all, though you have perhaps given that unfounded idea to some of them now. – Fr. Z]

  13. Christabel says:

    “I am responsible to Our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of all the souls of North-West Iowa”.

    Wow. I’ve never seen such a statement from a bishop anywhere. No wonder you tell us we should pray for bishops, Father. That is a humongous responsibility.

  14. Christabel: Yes… wasn’t that great? Refreshing?

    We don’t hear about the cura animarum so explicitly these days.

  15. Emilio III says:

    Giovanni and Michael, I believe it would be wrong to include contraception at this time. Once it is understood that abortion is always wrong, it should be pointed out that some (many?) forms of contraception are actually abortions and covered by the same rule.

    A form of contraception which prevents conception is different in kind from a form which aborts human life, and it seems to me counter-productive to de-emphasize the “life begins at conception” message.

  16. tertullian says:

    I’m disappointed no one in Rome saw fit to use this episode to make a wider point of the Pelosi gaffe to the entire worldwide Catholic faithful. She isn’t the only politician who deserves to be read the riot act,but she would make an excellent example to many in other countries.

  17. God Bless Bishop Nickless…

    Pelosi the “theologian” was addressing why she suppored abortion in her comments. So it is appropriate that the Bishops comments are about Abortion. As others have mentioned Some contraceptives act more like abortions.

    A bishop who says that he’s responsible for the salvation of souls…VERY refreshing…bonus point scored.

  18. Barb says:

    Ever since Pope Benedict ascended the chair of Peter, the most amazing things have been happening. I am one thrilled and happy camper.

  19. johnny b says:


    God Bless this wonderful Bishop!

  20. Melody says:

    “…I am responsible to our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of all the souls of North-West Iowa. I can’t force anyone to believe the truth, nor would I use such force if I could, but my duty as Bishop requires that I, as my brother bishops have done, teach that truth by word and example as firmly and as clearly as humanly possible.”

    Wow indeed. So THAT is what a real bishop is. Hmmm… brings a tear to my eye.

  21. Al says:

    Finally, an Iowa Bishop speaks out. Still waiting for Archbishop Hanus to speak out on Planned Parenthood opening an office in DBQ, so his silence on Pelosi isn’t surprizing.

  22. EDG says:

    This is an excellent statement that cuts through all the silly attempts to make the “common good” a way of getting a free pass on abortion. The common good is this year’s seamless garment, but this time we’re better informed, we have the Internet, and the orthodox bishops are more numerous and bolder. I agree that that the “gay marriage” issue may not be on the same level as abortion, but I think it was included because it is a political issue (whereas contraception is not, at the moment).

    Also, I suspect the inclusion of “gay marriage” may be influenced by what is going on in Europe, where “gay marriage” has been used by the enemies of the Church as a way of imposing the will of the state (particularly in Socialist Spain) and even in some cases eliminating Christians from public office, since there is no conscience clause and a number of Catholic mayors and other local officials have resigned rather than have to perform these “gay marriages.” I believe Pelosi supports “gay marriage,” and this is something that should be discussed with her and other supposedly Catholic pols at some point. But abortion is the first concern.

  23. Sioux City believer says:

    I have heard Bishop Nickless preach in his Cathedral against contraception, too. Truly, the Church does speak with one voice; the question is how many of her people echo that voice, and how many try to drown it out with their own? If all “who hold and teach the Catholic faith” spoke with the one voice of the Church, how loud and clear would the message be? “The gates of hell would not prevail against!” Pray for our bishops, and for all the clergy!

  24. Paul says:

    Re: contraception

    I think we should also keep in mind that, abortifacient contraceptives excluded, contraception is a sin, but not a sin against justice, and therefore is not a “non-negotiable.”

    Government is not charged by God with the salvation of souls from all sins (that’s the Church’s job). Government’s obligation is to justice and order. Therefore murder, which is a direct assault against justice, and the dissolution of the family, which destroys the basic unit of society, are “non-negotiable” because it is a failure of a government’s God-given responsibilities to leave unanswered.

    Government may not legalize murder. Government may not organize society with anything other than the family as the basic unit. Government may, if it so chooses, tolerate any number of other sins, including contraception (I think).

    We do need to understand the difference between a sin and a sin which is also a crime. Abortion is, and always will be, a crime, and the government is morally obligated to make it illegal and to punish those who commit it. Contraception, while a grave sin, does not seem (to me, I may be mistaken) to be a crime.

  25. Michael says:

    Fr. Z., Emilio III, your comments would be appropriate had His Lordship restricted himself to the abortion; but he listed “euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and human cloning; and the fundamental social issue of the family, which in this country today mostly means the definition of marriage”. And to this, quite unnecessary, departure from the subject, he qualified the things listed as “the issues” that “are ‘non-negotiable’”. So, contraception is either negotiable or less relevant, in the context, than the other issues he listed, while the evil of contraception is exactly in the contra-life will which is involved in that act. Not to mention that those with the contra-life will are likely to have a recourse to abortion if the contraception fails, or at least are tempted to do so.

    I am quite happy to say: “fails to put down in writing” instead of “fails to realize”. A dissent from the teaching on contraception is only a specific example of the dissent from the moral teaching of the Church; if it is played down, particularly in the context in which it shouldn’t be played down, the whole moral doctrine is undermined.

  26. Ben D. says:

    Paul, I think a good argument can be made that contraception is a sin against justice and that it ought to be outlawed. Pope Paul VI predicted that widespread contraception would undermine societal order, presumably because it promotes broken families, and he seems to have been right.

    But the argument about whether Bishop Nickless should have mentioned contraception seems to be overlooking the fact that he did not come up with the list himself. He is restating the “5 non-negotiables” (abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, euthanasia, and traditional marriage) that are frequently discussed in this context.

    The particular list seems to come from the Catholic Answers Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics, which draws, in part, from a CDF document signed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in 2002.

    The CDF document identifies a few additional fundamental issues but the five listed above seem to be the ones most urgently contended in America today. It’s worth noting that the CDF document does not mention contraception.

  27. Jordanes says:

    Paul said: Contraception, while a grave sin, does not seem (to me, I may be mistaken) to be a crime.

    Contraception, like sterilisation, in vitro fertilisation, cloning, or surrogate motherhood, is a moral crime and ought to again be recognised as such in our codes or law. Prescribing and dispensing such poisons and instruments of sterility should be penalised in law.

  28. Mary Jane says:

    My thought when I read many of these comments is that “no good deed goes uncriticized.” Instead of rejoicing in this articulate (and lengthy) statement, many immediately begin complaining about what the bishop didn’t say.

    Wouldn’t it be more useful to support these bishops in their speaking out? They’ll get enough criticism from other directions.

Comments are closed.