WASHINGTON — When the new Congress gathered this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s handing over the speaker’s gavel marked an end both to her era of Democratic party leadership and a 16-year unbroken run of Catholics leading the House.
Rep. Pelosi, D-Calif., had announced in remarks on the House floor last November, following the Democrats’ loss of the House, that she would not seek a leadership role in the 118th Congress. She continues to represent her San Francisco district, returning as a rank-and-file member.
The longtime House speaker was granted the title “Speaker Emerita” by her caucus, a nod to her continued influence over the party, as House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., succeeds her as the House minority leader.
Matthew Green, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America in Washington who studies Congress and American elections, told OSV News that it is “an unusual situation to have a former speaker who is still in the house with no plans to retire or resign.”
Pelosi may prove an asset to Jeffries as a fundraiser, vote-getter or adviser, Green said, especially where their agendas coincide.
“If Pelosi is seen as supporting Jeffries on an issue, that in itself can help Jeffries because Pelosi has a lot of support in the Democratic caucus,” Green said.
But there is “potential for friction” as well.
“If Pelosi is not helping you, and you’re the Democratic leader, she can obviously make things difficult,” Green said.
Pelosi has represented her San Francisco district for more than three decades, and led her party in the House from 2003-2023 through political shifts that saw Democrats in both the majority and minority. She made history as the first and only woman to serve as Speaker of the House, leading the chamber from 2007-2011 and then again from 2019-2023. She became known for her ability to bring together varied factions within her party to pass some of her party’s major legislative goals, including 2010’s Affordable Care Act and 2021’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Pelosi’s tenure was marked by both accomplishment and controversy. She gained a reputation as a staunch critic of China’s communist government, visiting Taiwan last year despite warnings from both U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jingping not to make the trip.
She pushed for a repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2010, and pushed through 2022’s Respect for Marriage Act, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ said had “insufficient” religious liberty protections for those who believe like the Catholic Church in “the unique meaning of marriage as a lifelong, exclusive union of one man and one woman.”
Pelosi’s Catholic faith is a frequent topic raised by the speaker herself, as well as her supporters, opponents and Catholic bishops concerned about public positions she took at odds with Catholic teaching.
Pelosi frequently discussed her Catholic faith in public remarks, often citing Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si'” in her remarks about climate policy, Catholic social justice teachings on immigration and economic matters, or when invoking her city’s patron saint.
Stephen Schneck, a Catholic activist and retired CUA professor, told OSV News that Pelosi is “driven by the social justice mission of the church.”
“I think if you hear her talk, in her own reflections about what her accomplishments have been, it’s always about, you know, the social justice side of things,” said Schneck, who served as the national co-chair of Catholics for Biden in 2020. He noted Pelosi often cited St. Francis’ prayer to “make me an instrument of your peace,” in comments about her opposition to the war in Iraq.
However some of Pelosi’s public policy positions, such as expanding contraception access, legalizing same-sex marriage, and her advocacy of legal abortion placed her at odds with Church teaching on these matters, a similarity she shares with Biden, another Catholic Democrat.
In a 2015 interview with the New York Times about Pope Francis’ then-upcoming visit to the United States, Pelosi argued, “I actually agree with the pope on more issues than many Catholics who agree with him on one issue.”
Pelosi has listed her opposition to the Iraq war and the death penalty, and her views on immigration reform, as areas where she is more in line with Church teaching than some of her political opponents.
Schneck said that while he disagrees with Pelosi’s stated public position on abortion, he opined Pelosi represents a heavily pro-choice district and may see her job as “reflecting the views of her district.”
But long-standing tension over Pelosi’s abortion advocacy became a national controversy in May 2022 when Pelosi’s bishop, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, directed that the speaker be denied the sacrament of Holy Communion “unless and until she publicly repudiate her support for abortion ‘rights’ and confess and receive absolution for her cooperation in this evil in the sacrament of Penance.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception” and therefore abortion is “gravely contrary to the moral law.”
In a May 20 letter to the faithful in the archdiocese, citing Pope Francis’ teaching in “Laudato Si’,” Archbishop Cordileone explained his decision came from his concern about “the scandal being caused by such Catholics in public life who promote such grievously evil practices as abortion.”
Helen Alvaré, a Catholic professor of law at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, criticized Pelosi for bringing up her Catholic faith to endorse controversial legislation involving abortion. She told OSV News that as speaker, Pelosi sought to “associate the Catholic faith with a claimed right to kill human beings in the womb.”
“In other words, Speaker Pelosi reduced Christ Himself, the Scriptures, and 2000 years of theology to political tools,” Alvaré said.
In a May interview on MSNBC, Pelosi said she comes “from a largely pro-life, Italian-American Catholic family, so I respect people’s views about that, but I don’t respect us foisting it onto others.”
In the same interview, Pelosi argued it was a double standard to block her from the sacrament over abortion, but “take no actions” against Catholic politicians who support the death penalty.
Pope Francis changed the catechism in 2018 to make explicit church teaching that the death penalty was morally “inadmissible” — the same year Catholic Gov. Pete Ricketts, Nebraska’s Republican governor, successfully led the charge to reinstate the death penalty, reversing the abolition of the death penalty championed by Nebraska’s bishops.
Pelosi’s handing over the speaker’s gavel also concludes an unusual run of successive Catholic lawmakers who served as House Speaker between 2007-2023, including Republicans John Boehner (2011-2015) and Paul Ryan (2015-2019).
Schneck said this era showed how far Catholics have come from previous American decades, when Catholics were not widely represented in U.S. elected office.
“We’ve made it in public life,” Schneck said, also pointing to a Catholic-majority Supreme Court and Biden, the second Catholic president.
Pelosi’s potential successor as speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is Baptist and leads a GOP caucus that enters the House with a razor-thin majority. However, McCarthy lacks the same kind of steely dominance over his party that Pelosi had over House Democrats, and as of the morning of Jan. 4 had yet to secure the necessary number of votes to become speaker, as some members of his caucus seek to challenge his leadership.