In September, 2015 Pope Francis addressed the US Congress as part of his visit to our country. Since one in four Americans is a Roman Catholic, interest was quite high and the curiosity was lively speculating on what the newly minted Pope would tell Congress and the American people. I was equally intrigued by what the Argentinian Jesuit, archbishop and now Pope would say.
The fact that the Pope chose the name, Francis, demonstrates he is not afraid to go new places. No Pope before had chosen that name. Especially as St. Francis in the thirteenth century did what he did and became such a model of spiritual depth and service, no Pope felt up to the challenge of being compared to that apostolic witness. But we now have our own Pope Francis I.
When the Pope spoke to that Congressional audience, he talked about four Americans as models of faith, which is my term of description. I found the choice of these four Americans both interesting and revealing of the papal perspective. The first of the four named by the Pope is Abraham Lincoln. In many ways Lincoln is the most obvious. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the second American named and that also does not surprise. The other two chosen by the Pope were Catholics, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. While these may have been less obvious, they make sense as we begin to get to know what Pope Francis expects from faithful women and men.
The Pope picks Lincoln. That is no surprise and, yet, in many ways Lincoln is certainly not the model Christian or religious person if you use traditional standards. This in and of itself says a great deal about the Pope. For example in the race for the Illinois Congressional seat, Lincoln had been accused of not being a Christian. His response is interesting. He says, “That I am not a member of any Christian Church is true; but I have never denied the truth of Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general or of any denomination of Christians in particular.” Lincoln never joined a church. So the real question is whether he was religious?
There is no doubt the Pope thinks Lincoln passes muster. To use our contemporary language, I actually think Lincoln might be the “spiritual, not religious” kind of person. Membership, traditional church doctrine and creeds were not important in his life. I don’t think he would belittle someone for which this was meaningful, but for Lincoln they were not.
In fact, Lincoln could be funny. At one point he notes, “The Bible says somewhere that we are desperately selfish. I think we would have discovered that fact without the Bible.” Lincoln was the kind of person for whom nature spoke of a God who was creative. The Catholic Church calls this natural theology and that made sense to Lincoln. Careful consideration of Lincoln’s life and development as a human being reveals a person who grows and changes and whose way of looking at religion evolves.
Given everything Lincoln experiences in his life would make it surprising if he were not affected by history. The period of the Civil War was about as awful as it could get for the United States. Being the nation’s leader at this time must have exacted an incredible toll on this native of Kentucky, youth of Indiana and young adult of Illinois. Nothing would have prepared him for what he faced. And yet he grew into his role as nation’s leader.
Part of that growth was seeing the role of God in the process. There is no question that by the 1850s and 1860s God was a reality in Lincoln’s life. Lincoln certainly did not think God chose sides in the Civil War. In spite of his early Baptist exposure by virtue of his parents, Lincoln did not believe in predestination. Instead he affirmed a God who acted providentially. Providence was God’s activity in the world.
Lincoln felt like God would act in the world to bring everything that happens to a good or, even, better end. Humans might not know in the minute what that meant, but God was at work in any event. Lincoln would have been clear that God’s Providence would work to good, loving and just ends. It would be in the context that slavery was seen. God’s providential action in the world would not justify keeping some people enslaved.
Freedom and liberty were part of the Divine design. Lincoln undoubtedly felt called to be instrumental in helping Providence work out its destiny. To a group of Quakers Lincoln allowed that “he might be an instrument in God’s hands of accomplishing a great work and he certainly was not unwilling to be.” I think this is why Pope Francis calls Lincoln “a guardian of liberty.”
With the Pope’s choice of this guardian of liberty, I believe the Pope is hoping and suggesting all Americans follow this model and work to free people of all sorts of slavery---bondage of poverty, exclusion, racism, sexism, etc. We are called to be instruments of Providence, too.