Jeff Chiu, Associated Press
San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer, center, takes the reins Feb. 15, 2006. He formerly served as bishop for the Salt Lake City diocese.

While serving as bishop for the local diocese, current San Francisco Archbishop George H. Niederauer liked to say that society needed both conservatives and liberals because a car needed both an accelerator and a brake.

When he offered Catholic sacraments to a homosexual couple not long ago — prompting an outcry — he was working the accelerator.

Now, by calling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who supports abortion but still takes communion — and asking her to meet him for a chat, the archbishop is apparently applying the brakes.

Pelosi's comments that even the "doctors of the church" didn't know when life began has forced the hand of Catholic leaders and put Archbishop Niederauer in the hot seat again.

In a copyrighted story in The Hill on Sept. 8, Jackie Kucinich and Ian Swanson write that Archbishop Niederauer had received letters and e-mails from the Catholic believers expressing dismay over Pelosi's remarks. She made the remarks to Tom Brokaw on "Meet the Press" on Aug. 24. Archbishop Niederauer has now come out and said her comments are in "serious conflict" with the church.

According to the story in The Hill, Archbishop Niederauer wrote to Pelosi: "Let us pray together that the Holy Spirit will guide us all toward a more profound understanding and appreciation for human life, and toward resolution of these differences in truth and charity and peace."

Pelosi replied in a hand-delivered note: "I welcome the opportunity for our personal conversation and to go beyond our earlier most cordial exchange about immigration and need of the poor to Church teaching on other significant matters."

Utahns who remember Archbishop Niederauer may see Pelosi's remarks as a poignant reminder that the two of them do share many progressive ideas when it comes society and perhaps they can find common ground in this issue. Does Pelosi suspect that the archbishop is having his hand forced on this issue? If so, the archbishop's

hands — forced or not — appear to be tied. Archbishop Niederauer seems to imply that there is precious little wiggle room on the issue in the minds of high church officials.

As a bishop in Utah, Archbishop Niederauer showed a deft touch in defusing bubbling controversies and calming all sides. When it was discovered that two local priests had been involved in the pedophile scandal, he moved quickly to push the priests out and tamp down the flames of controversy. He had a knack for using humor to defuse anxious moments and his education in the classics (he's a Flannery O'Connor scholar) helped him to bring perspective to squabbles and put intellectual distance between himself and the passionate responses of others. Thought by some to be a bit aloof and detached, he had an ability to see the long view and disengage his feelings from issues, and that served him — and his church — very well.

In San Francisco, however, an uncomfortable spotlight seems to have sought him out more than once.

Kucinich and Swanson write that Archbishop Niederauer claimed he publicized his misgivings about Pelosi's comments because "it is his responsibility to oppose erroneous, misleading and confusing positions to church teaching." They go on to say that "Niederauer also criticized an Aug. 26 statement from Pelosi's office about her comments on 'Meet the Press.' In the statement Pelosi's office said that while the Catholic Church believes life begins at conception, many Catholics 'do not agree with this view."'

Archbishop Niederauer's response to Pelosi's staff was short and succinct: "Authentic moral teaching is based on objective truth, not polling."

He then said that in 1861 polls in several states showed a variety of opinions about slavery, but this did not make slavery moral in one place and not in another.

Both the speaker and the archbishop hope to meet at their earliest possible convenience.