Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Pope Francis and Abraham Lincoln

A reader sent me a very interesting reflection about Abraham Lincoln, Pope Francis, and what folks today call "messaging."  With permission, I am posting it here at Mirror of Justice:

It seems to me like there is an apt analogy to Pope Francis's change in messaging (not doctrine) within American political history. 

I'm reminded of Lincoln's speech to the Washington Temperance Society.  He pointed out, "The cause itself seems suddenly transformed from a cold abstract theory, to a living, breathing, active, and powerful chieftain, going forth 'conquering and to conquer.' The citadels of his great adversary are daily being stormed and dismantled; his temple and his altars, where the rites of his idolatrous worship have long been performed, and where human sacrifices have long been wont to be made, are daily desecrated and deserted. The trump of the conqueror's fame is sounding from hill to hill, from sea to sea, and from land to land, and calling millions to his standard at a blast."  Not too different from the pro-life movement today.  Ultrasounds and CPCs transform the unborn "from a cold abstract theory" to "living, breathing, active" humans.  We are storming and dismantling abortion clinics where human sacrifices are made.  Public opinion trumpets increasing support for the Catholic position "from hill to hill, from sea to sea, and from land to land".

But Lincoln didn't provide a therapeutic speech to his audience.  He called upon them to consider why "that success is so much greater now than heretofore" and attributes it to "rational causes".  He encourages them that "if we would have it continue, we shall do well to inquire what those causes are."  He then lays into a significant part of the temperance movement, saying that the "old school" had in fact set back the gains.  Their method was wrong.  "Too much denunciation against dram sellers and dram drinkers was indulged in" which was both "impolitic and unjust". 

The old school used "thundering tones of anathema and denunciation, with which the lordly Judge often groups together all the crimes of the felon's life, and thrusts them in his face just ere he passes sentence of death upon him, that they were the authors of all the vice and misery and crime in the land; that they were the manufacturers and material of all the thieves and robbers and murderers that infested the earth; that their houses were the workshops of the devil; and that their persons should be shunned by all the good and virtuous, as moral pestilences".  Lincoln calls it impolitic "to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation, crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema" because that would be "to expect a reversal of human nature, which is God's decree, and never can be reversed."  The old school was unjust because they argued "that all habitual drunkards were utterly incorrigible, and therefore, must be turned adrift, and damned without remedy, in order that the grace of temperance might abound to the temperate then, and to all mankind some hundred years thereafter".  This is "so uncharitable, so cold-blooded and feelingless... so fiendishly selfish, so like throwing fathers and brothers overboard, to lighten the boat for our security" that a noble mind shrinks from the "manifest meanness of the thing".

In contrast, there was the new temperance movement:  the "victim of intemperance" who "appears before his neighbors 'clothed, and in his right mind,' a redeemed specimen of long-lost humanity, and stands up with tears of joy trembling in his eyes, to tell of the miseries once endured, now to be endured no more forever; of his once naked and starving children, now clad and fed comfortably; of a wife long weighed down with woe, weeping, and a broken heart, now restored to health, happiness, and a renewed affection; and how easily it is all done, once it is resolved to be done; how simple his language, there is a logic, and an eloquence in it, that few, with human feelings, can resist."  Their methods are just.  "They go for present as well as future good. They labor for all now living, as well as all hereafter to live. They teach hope to all -- despair to none. As applying to their cause, they deny the doctrine of unpardonable sin. As in Christianity it is taught, so in this they teach, that 'While the lamp holds out to burn, The vilest sinner may return.'"

Now take Lincoln's speech and use it as a lens through which to view Pope Francis.  Just like Lincoln, he's not stopped decrying the target of the rhetoric (abortion for Francis, alcohol for Lincoln), but he's been calling for moderation in the rhetoric.  Just as with Lincoln, it's not all that off based to suggest that we could use some moderation.  A quick run through the comboxes on traditionalist/conservative Catholic blogs or the rhetoric used in fundraising e-mails by Catholic political organizations makes plain the sentiment that the President is utterly incorrigible, without remedy, and that the White House is the workshop of the devil.  That sort of language is over the top and both impolitic and unjust, as Lincoln believed.  That's not to say it's always the case that pro-lifers use that language in every case, but that we use it in too often a case.  It's something I think Pope Francis sees, too.

Go back to his interview for Jesuit magazines.  He said, "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context."  This was immediately preceeded by a discussion of a post-abortive woman who regrets the abortion and now has a large family.  He wants us to realize the context in which our listeners exist.  The woman who has come to sincerely regret her abortion and embrace life is Lincoln's "redeemed specimen of long-lost humanity" who is "restored to health, happiness, and a renewed affection."  But if we seek to have more people like that, we must be in the new school which seeks to draw people in rather than divide them and condemn the opposition.  Incorporate into the discussion Pope Francis's General Audience of 25 September and see how he condemns gossip as the source of disunity.  Like Lincoln, this is a man very conscious of words and their power.  He wants that power used wisely.

Turning then to the American context, we'd do well to do a better job of self-policing.  We build up echo chambers of mutual reinforcement rather than reproaching ourselves.  We scarcely recall the phrase that Pope Francis uses often: "I am a sinner."  We may see ourselves less as the older brother and more as the younger if we kept in mind the log pole in our own eyes.  But this is uncomfortable.  So just as the Church under Benedict and John Paul II made many people on the left uncomfortable, perhaps its good that the right now feels uncomfortable as well.  It may make us grow in new areas and be more cognizant of other parts of the Christian life in which we must take action.


Garnett, Rick | Permalink


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