Lincoln’s Virtues

One of the most enlightening and inspiring books I have read recently is William Lee Miller’s Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (Vintage, 2002). It is scholarly but very readable and of great relevance to the current political scene, especially for citizens who are deeply committed to moving their moral values into public policy and law.

Our greatest president, Miller makes clear, was ethically opposed to the institution of slavery throughout his life. Drawing on the language of the Declaration of Independence, he repeatedly affirmed that all men (all persons, we would now say) are created equal. That included Africans reduced to slavery in the home of the brave and the land of the free. He found the institution of slavery morally abhorrent. He said more than once that if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.


And yet he recognized that the Constitution permitted slavery and that it had existed legally as the backbone of the Southern economy for generations. He even acknowledged that had he been born a Southerner he might have become a slave-owner himself. The moral difference between the Northern abolitionist and the Southern plantation owner, Lincoln surmised, could be construed as at least partly an accident of birth and history. He never lorded it over his fellow citizens who happened to be on the wrong side of the slavery issue and he tended to think that full-bore abolitionists were long on moral righteousness but short on political wisdom and therefore ineffective in advancing their cause.

Thus, while adamant that slavery not be extended into any new territories or states, Lincoln nonetheless diverged from the abolitionist agenda regarding the longtime slave-owning South. He even supported, however reluctantly, the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that escaped slaves captured in the North be returned to their owners. The Great Emancipator was, in other words, also the Great Compromiser. He stood his ground on the moral principle but was realistic about what was possible in the public arena. He understood that moral absolutes such as all men are created equal do not always translate smoothly into public policy. He counted on Southern slavery to wither away of its own internal contradictions.

Some Catholic commentators today try to portray the current complex political situation relative to abortion in the same light in which President Lincoln viewed the issue of slavery. But they are often rebuked for doing so by fellow Catholics with the same single-minded moral righteousness with which Lincoln was rebuked by absolutist abolitionists in his own day. No doubt he was slandered with accusations of pro-slavery drivel and lies by people who were not his equal in any way, as was a colleague of mine recently who dared to suggest that deciding how to vote in this presidential election might be a matter of some agony for consistent-ethic Catholics.

Neither of our major presidential candidates today gives evidence of anything like the moral character or political wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. When so many lives are at stake in so many arenas of our national and global communities, fractured as they are in so many ways, the wise might consider that lack of great moral and political leadership an occasion for some agonizing. That was my colleague’s point.

Just as I honor President Lincoln for his understanding of the sometimes tortured relationship between morality and politics, I admire those who try to elucidate a complex political situation in our own day. That they sometimes do so with deep moral concern is perhaps evident only to those who can also appreciate Lincoln’s virtues.

Roger Bergman
Omaha, Neb.

Not Easy Concepts

All the coverage in America and other Catholic publications on the topics of life issues, pro-choice candidates, the upcoming election, the bishops and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has been educational. I have truly learned some things. My conscience is better informed.

In the past I felt that there was a balance of life issuesthat the politician who advocated the death penalty for criminals but opposed abortion was morally identical to the politician who supported abortion but was opposed to the death penalty. Now I better understand why abortion, euthanasia and other situations in which the lives of innocent people are deliberately taken, stand at the pinnacle of life issues. I also understand something about formal cooperation in evil versus material cooperation in evil. Perhaps I learned of these things in my Catholic schooling, but if I did, I had since forgotten the terms. I also understand better the concept of proportionate reasons.

Suppose I had to cast a vote for county sheriff. Suppose my choices were Candidate A, who ardently supported the overturn of Roe v. Wade but who was also a known drug dealer and extortionist, and Candidate B, who was an ardent supporter of a woman’s right to choose but was an upstanding citizen with a record of involvement in the community and a solid background in law enforcement. Thanks to what I’ve learned, I can articulate now how voting for Candidate B would not involve any formal cooperation in the evil of abortion. It would involve some material cooperation, which is acceptable because of proportionate reasons (those being that the evil of having a criminal as county sheriff outweighs the evil of having a pro-choice county sheriff, since a county sheriff can do little about abortion, while a criminal in the sheriff’s office can do great harm). And because I understand and can articulate all this, I feel better about my vote.

Proportionate reasons, formal and material cooperation and the like are not easy concepts. They do not fit in a political culture where ideas get expressed as sound bites. But this is part of what I like about Catholicism. Catholicism requires that we know our faith well and seriously think about our actions. Catholicism requires that we inform and abide by our consciences. It is hard work, but it’s worth doing.

Thanks to the recent coverage of life issues and voting, we are all getting a good dose of Catholic education these days, which helps us do the hard work of informing our consciences. Judging by opinions and letters I have seen in Catholic publications, too many people would rather ignore this chance for Catholic education and not make the effort. They would rather pigeonhole their Catholic faith into the usual slots: Democrat or Republican, left or right. Too many folks declare that any true Catholic will vote for the Democrat, or that any true Catholic will vote for the Republican, or that any true Catholic will always vote for the candidate who opposes Roe v. Wade. In a recent Signs of the Times section of America (10/11), there was mention of personal attacks in regard to politics, and how the unpleasant tone of modern politics has crept into the church.

All Catholics need to remember that Catholicism doesn’t fit in the left versus right world of politics. Catholicism is more than left and right. It is also up and down, ahead and behind, roll, pitch and yaw, past, present and future. Catholics who think their candidate is the obvious Catholic choice, and who view those who think otherwise as being wrong or stupid or sinful, should take advantage of all the information currently available in America and other publications and learn and think and inform their consciences.

Chris Graney
Louisville, Ky.

More Possibilities

Thanks to Peter Kountz for Priestless Liturgies (10/11). He has demonstrated that there is an alternative to sterile lament over priestless parishes. His article lists several opportunities opened up by the new Liturgy of the Word With Communion Service. I would add a few more possibilities.

One is the reform and integration of formation for all liturgical and pastoral ministries. The isolated Tridentine seminary has had its day. Where lay ministers for the new rite and future ones (not only leaders/presiders but lectors, homilists, Eucharistic ministers and others) as well as for pastoral and evangelizing roles are formed side by side with candidates for diaconal and priestly offices, the lay/clerical gap will be narrowed.

Another is a theological and pastoral rethinking of what distinguishes the Mass from this new liturgical form as it develops. How important is it that the hosts received in the new rite have been consecrated elsewhere in the diocese? Is the new rite not truly eucharistic through the real presence, as this has been redefined by the Second Vatican Council?

Also needed is a creative and effective address of the priest shortage. With the decline of the traditional, devout Catholic family and of parochial school systems as two basic seedbeds of priestly vocations, could it not be that the vibrant local communities envisaged by Peter Kountz might step into the breech? Priests emerging from such faith communities would in a fuller sense be our priests.

Finally, as things develop, two minor hopes: that we no longer speak of the priest’s chair but of the presider’s chair; and that appropriate liturgical garb be found for all the ministers of the rite. After all, they have all been anointed with sacred chrism in baptism and again in confirmation.

Thomas E. Clarke, S.J.
Highland Mills, N.Y.

Much Grander

Michael McCauley brings to light an irony of the age of science and technology in The Deep Mystery of God (10/18)the lack of wonder and awe on the part of our youth for the immensity and complexity of our universe. I know; I am a high school freshman theology teacher.

Of course, I realize that pop stars and movies are uppermost in the minds and hearts of my students and that the center of the universe is their local, familiar part of the world. On the other hand, these young people do service hours and hold numerous fund-raisers for strangers. They are not selfish or lazy. They are unimpressed with creation.

Before I lead them into the practice of contemplative prayer, for which there is a hunger and great interest, I try to inculcate a sense of the sacred by awakening them to the majestic scientific evidence now available. Middle school science classes might be informing but are certainly not inspiring our youth, while Confirmation preparation classes do not appear to be preparing the soil in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit can be planted.

It is only with a sense of wonder and awe at God’s creation that we can begin to sense the limitless mystery that has revealed itself through that creation. My hope is that we will all come to appreciate how much grander must the creator be than what we have experienced thus far!

Angela Perry
Coral Springs, Fla.

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