Kerry and the bishops: What Would Lincoln Do?

The 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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