Kerry and the bishops: What Would Lincoln Do?

LincolnThe story of Sen. John “Call me JFK” Kerry and the Catholic bishops is going to roll on for awhile. There all kinds of hooks that journalists have not really explored yet, such as the nature of the divisions among the U.S. Catholic bishops and how these fractures are linked to other issues within Catholicism. For example: Do Catholics still need to go to confession? How often?

Many of you are leaving comments that raise interesting issues as well, such as, “Why does Kerry want to remain a Catholic if he opposes so many of the teachings of his church?” Why not become an Episcopalian? Is this simply a matter of regional political clout?

Another good question: What should Catholic clergy do if parishioners approach the altar wearing Kerry campaign buttons? By the way, do Catholic priests every hassle supporters of President Bush? Has anyone checked?

Meanwhile, I have been mulling over a letter from reader Herb Ely. He raises some interesting questions related to President Lincoln’s approach to slavery and how this might relate to this latest round of debates on abortion and faith. Here is his letter:

When I think of “personally opposed”, I’m reminded of Lincoln’s stance on slavery. His personal opposition went beyond just saying he personally disapproved of it. Yet he did not favor abolition. When several ministers wrote him in 1862 urging a course of action upon him he replied with this letter:

“I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men who are equally certain that they represent the divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps in some respects both. I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others on a point so connected to my duty, it might be supposed that he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is, I will do it. These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible, and learn what appears to be wise and right.”

It is one thing for the bishops to say a politician should be opposed to abortion, or should take another position. It is another for them to specify how the politician should approach the task of implementing a moral position. I hope the bishops meditate on Lincoln’s letter and exercise a little humiity before they start prescribing courses of action. That said, I recognize that Kerry (and Bush) are not in the same league as Lincoln when it comes to moral discernment.

And Lincoln was a Protestant. And the bishops cannot affect Kerry’s actions and status as a politician. A few bishops are saying that they want to affect his sacramental actions and status as a Catholic.

Nevertheless, this letter got me thinking and led me back to a classic Atlantic Monthly article by George McKenna entitled “On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position” (September 1995). This is quite a long article. Still, I urge readers — especially working journalists — to dig into it. It notes that, in his classic debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln managed to take a reluctant “pro-choice” stance, while making it very clear that he was “anti-slavery” in his heart and head. This stance also led him to take strategic steps to weaken slavery as a legal institution.

What does this have to do with Kerry and the bishops? I think the following passage by McKenna is quite relevant. Now, what would happen in the media if Kerry followed this advice? How would the bishops respond?

… (We) can find in Lincoln’s anti-slavery rhetoric a coherent position that could serve as a model for pro-life politicians today. How would this rhetoric sound? Perhaps the best way to answer this is to provide a sample of what might be said by a politician devoted to a cause but no less devoted to building broad support for it. With the reader’s indulgence, then, I will play that politician, making the following campaign statement:

“According to the Supreme Court, the right to choose abortion is legally protected. That does not change the fact that abortion is morally wrong. It violates the very first of the inalienable rights guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence — the right to life. Even many who would protect and extend the right to choose abortion admit that abortion is wrong, and that killing 1.5 million unborn children a year is, in the understated words of one, `a bad thing.’ Yet, illogically, they denounce all attempts to restrain it or even to speak out against it. In this campaign I will speak out against it. I will say what is in all our hearts: that abortion is an evil that needs to be restricted and discouraged. If elected, I will not try to abolish an institution that the Supreme Court has ruled to be constitutionally protected, but I will do everything in my power to arrest its further spread and place it where the public can rest in the belief that it is becoming increasingly rare. I take very seriously the imperative, often expressed by abortion supporters, that abortion should be rare. Therefore, if I am elected, I will seek to end all public subsidies for abortion, for abortion advocacy, and for experiments on aborted children. I will support all reasonable abortion restrictions that pass muster with the Supreme Court, and I will encourage those who provide alternatives to abortion. Above all, I mean to treat it as a wrong. I will use the forum provided by my office to speak out against abortion and related practices, such as euthanasia, that violate or undermine the most fundamental of the rights enshrined in this nation’s founding charter.”

OK, journalists, what is the New York Times lead the next day after Kerry gives this speech? Would anyone cheer at the Vatican? How about the National Catholic Reporter? The headquarters of National Right to Life? Planned Parenthood?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Herb Ely

    Terry, thanks for your comments. I do sense that the position” is a way for the country to avoid the culture wars. James Davision Hunter expresses his alarm in the title to his second book on the topic: “Before the shooting starts”. I’m skeptical about the success of this approach – prolife and pro-choice positions are frozen. It is politically incorrect to talk about slavery. The media, well, that is your baliwick. We can all pray, write and act as Lincoln said “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”

    “Still full of sap…” Psalm 92:14

  • Ken Holet

    While I can agree that Lincoln did indeed say what he said, there is nothing in your commentary that indicates his position at the time was a correct one. During the time it took him to change his mind, persecution of innocent human beings continued. (In this case, while we are waiting to change our national mind, MILLIONS of innocent human beings are being slaughtered.) Fortunately (when pressed), he eventually took action which even stood up to the Supreme Court itself. I have absolutely no confidence that Mr. Kerry would display the same character. Moreover, as you point out, Mr. Lincoln was not a Catholic.

    Mr. Kerry claims to belong to an organization which expressly forbids the type of behavior which he publicly condones. Unlike many other religions, the Catholic church does not give individuals the right to “vote” on what the Church believes. He certainly does have the right to choose to belong or to not belong the church. A requisite to membership, however, is the requirement to believe in its tenets. Because of his public position on the matter, he indeed should not be given the sacrament of Holy Eucharist (or Communion of the Faithful), for afterall, he is NOT in communion with the official position of the Catholic Church. It is also important to note that this a decision that the Church makes on his affiliation with it. Although the Church condemns abortion, it does not say that a citizen does not have the right to that postion– it only comments on the the conditions of its own membership (The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the right of the Boy Scouts to require that a Scout believe in a God, and the right of the organization to refuse membership to those who don’t). In the case of Mr. Kerry, the Church has actually exercised restraint, by withholding communion, but by stopping short of excommunication itself.

    Unlike Lincoln with his challenge, I have zero confidence that Mr. Kerry has any intention of working toward the elimination of abortion. Rather, his position is merely the political one of trying to attract as many votes as he can get from the right without giving up the base on the left. The “moderate” position that he takes reminds me of the message to the Church of Laodicea in Rev. 3:15-16, “I know your works. I know you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you from my mouth.”

    Perhaps we are on the verge of another civil war– this one a spiritual one. In the meantime, the “smoother” approach on the surface will do nothing to address the serious cancer, which is internal. Indeed we should continue to pray for wisdom and dialogue.

  • Tom Harmon

    McKenna’s speech leaves out the most important part: If the first amendment is violated in the case of abortion,a dn if the U.S. Supreme Court ahs ruled that abortion is constitutional then either 1.) the Constitution is radically incoherent and needs to be amended or b.) the Supreme Court is radically incompetent in discerning the meaning of the Constitution and either needs to be curtailed, or its makeup changed. So, this theoretivcal moderate pro-life candidate still needs to answer this question: What will you do to fix the radical incoherence in our laws?

  • JACK

    I actually don’t think there is much wrong with McKenna’s speech from a Catholic perspective. The toughest line is “If elected, I will not try to abolish an institution that the Supreme Court has ruled to be constitutionally protected…” Given the rest of the comments, it is strikingly defeatist and may be reason in many people’s minds to question the candidate’s quals for the office(as someone who is too deferential to the judiiciary’s view of things) or the sincerity of the rest of the comments about limiting abortion. But I don’t think the Church has ever suggested that Catholic politicians must take an all or nothing approach to ending abortion. If the line was “If elected, I will try to abolish abortion despite the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled it to be constitutionally protected, but we will only accomplish that in the long-term and with broad public support…” I think the statement would be on better footing from a Catholic viewpoint.

    The problem of course isn’t that this is what a pro-choice politician really means but that saying one is “personally opposed” gives one cultural cover for supporting what is an ugly and disgusting position (and for political convenience): the taking of an innocent life.