America’s Penance?

An 1864 Mathew Brady photo depicts President Lincoln reading a book with his youngest son, Tad

An 1864 Mathew Brady photo depicts President Lincoln reading a book with his youngest son, Tad

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Second Inaugural Address
Saturday, March 4, 1865

The morning after, I awoke to hear that US House of Representatives had passed by a vote of 220 to 215 a bill authorizing a major reorganization by the Federal government of health care in America. My first thought was, “Oh well, I’ve always wanted to live in Europe.”

Along with others, I have grave reservations not about the need for health care reform in this country, but on the form that it seems likely to take under the twin auspices of the Democratic led Congress and the Obama administration. I worry about the intrusion of the government into what is not only a personal matter but also more than 15% of our economy. Even for one as irenic as I try to be, I fear that philanthropic rhetoric conceals and justifies an authoritarian urge.

Without wanting to minimize the need for reform or the potential adverse consequences of current policy decisions, a different thought came to mind as I read the press coverage on the recently passed House Bill. Naftali Bendavid and Janet Adamy in the lede to their article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (“Senate Abortion Foes Takes Aim At Overhaul“) write that following the path taken by House colleagues Sen. Ben Nelson (D. NB) is “insisting on tough antiabortion language before he votes for a health overhaul bill.” They quote the senator from Nebraska who says that “If it isn’t clear that government money is not to be used to fund abortions — whether it’s subsidies or direct payments or tax credits or something like that — I will not support it.” He continues by stating directly that “If it [the Senate bill] doesn’t make it clear that it does not pay for abortion, you can be sure I will vote against it.”

Senate Democratic proponents of the health bill find themselves in a situation similiar to that of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) who “capitulated at the 11th hour to Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.), who led a group of antiabortion Democrats. Mr. Stupak introduced an amendment blocking the bill’s government-administered insurance plan from covering abortion and forbidding people who receive government subsidies from buying policies covering abortion through a new insurance exchange.” Passage of the Senate’s bill will require the active support of pro-life Democratic senators and without their support, there may not be sufficient votes to avoid a Republican lead filibuster on the bill.

But as Bendavid and Adamy write, while abortion “hasn’t been a big issue in Senate health talks so far. . . . Democratic leaders expect that to change after its eruption among House Democrats over the weekend.” Least there be any mistake that what we are seeing is NOT an assertion of a pro-life agenda, it is “the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — which was instrumental in forcing the change in the House bill. ” Long supporters of health care reform and some form of universal coverage, the Conference of Catholic bishops have “sent a message to churches Saturday, urging members to ask their senators to ‘correct the serious defects in their bills’ by tightening insurance coverage for abortions.”

As I said above, I think the current bills are likely to have a negative, if not actually ruinous, effect on the American economy and lead to an evermore intrusive government. Serious those these consequences may be in time, I am heartened that health care reform seems also to be leading to a more robust, and effective, pro-life witness in Congress. Whether anything will come of this new assertiveness pro-life Democrats remains to be seen of course. But thinking about it theologically for a moment, I can’t help but wonder if the negative consequences that I fear aren’t part of the cost we must pay for almost 40 years of increasingly liberal abortion laws.

Reflecting on the violence and bloodshed that marked the War Between the States. Lincoln wondered in his Second Inaugural Address wondered if blood “drawn with the sword” wasn’t the necessary means to compensate for, as he says, “the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” A sin as grievous as slavery called down upon the American people, divine judgment, “true and righteous” even as Israel’s sins called down a like judgment some “three thousand years ago.”

Again and again in the prophetic works of the Old Testament we are reminded that God demands not sacrifice but justice; not religious observance, but the active and effective protection of widows, orphans and the foreigners who lived among the Jewish people. We read in the Prophet Zechariah:

Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me, saying, “Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me? When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves? Should you not have obeyed the words which the LORD proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?'” (7:4-7)

God continues and says to Israel,

Execute true justice,
Show mercy and compassion
Everyone to his brother.
Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless,
The alien or the poor.
Let none of you plan evil in his heart
Against his brother. (vv. 9-10)

Like Israel, and as it did with slavery, America “refused to heed, shrugged their shoulders, and stopped their ears so that they could not hear.” (v. 11) And just as He did with Israel then, and with us in the 19th century, God may very well be saying to us now, that He will scatter us “with a whirlwind among all the nations” making us “desolate” because through our passive acceptance of abortion we have made this our “pleasant land desolate” (v. 14)

Obviously, I don’t know what God does, or does not intend for America. But it does seem to me not unreasonable that we least prayerful consider that, as a people, we must suffer an epitimia, a healing penance, for our own unrighteousness in the presence of God. And again, like Israel, and our 19th century ancestors, it may very well be that our penance as a nation requires a certain humbling desolation.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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