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. Cardinals and archbishops in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Denver are among those who have criticized her remarks.
It has been a harsh rebuke for the Democratic congresswoman, a Catholic school graduate who repeatedly has expressed pride in and love for her religious heritage.
The Hill newspaper on Monday reported that in Pelosi's hometown of San Francisco, in the Sept. 5 issue of the archdiocesan newspaper, Archbishop George Niederauer described her comments as being "in serious conflict" with the church.
He said he has received letters and e-mails from "many Catholics" expressing dismay over Pelosi's remarks, with many of them questioning whether she should be able to receive communion.
Niederauer, former bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, invited Pelosi "into a conversation with me about these matters," The Hill reported.
Pelosi has responded, saying she welcomes the opportunity. "I hope we can meet at your earliest convenience," she wrote to Niederauer, according to The Hill's report.
Aug. 24 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.
Regarding individual decision-making, the church teaches that Catholics are obliged to use their conscience in considering moral issues. However, that doesn't mean parishioners can pick and choose what to believe and still be in line with the church.
Lisa Sowle Cahill, a theologian at Boston College, said conscience must be formed by Catholic teaching and philosophical insights. "It's not just a personal opinion that you came up with randomly," she said.
Catholic theologians today overwhelmingly consider debate over the morality of abortion settled. Thinkers and activists who attempt to challenge the theology are often considered on the fringes of church life.
However, there is a rigorous debate over how the teaching should guide voters and public officials. Are Catholics required to choose the candidate who opposes abortion? Or can they back a politician based on his or her policies on reducing, not outlawing, the procedure?
The U.S. bishops addressed this question in their election-year public policy guide, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship."
They said that voting for a candidate specifically because he or she supports "an intrinsic evil" such as abortion amounts to "formal cooperation in grave evil."
In some cases, Catholics may vote for a candidate with a position contrary to church teaching, but only for "truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences," according to the document.
It is a complex discussion. The Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, has some advice for candidates who seek to join the debate: Stick to politics and support programs that truly help reduce the number of abortions.
"It is a big mistake," Reese said, "for politicians to talk theology."