Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my family went to see Spielberg’s Lincoln. It is a wonderful movie that reminds us of how good and important politics can be, but it also raises some hard questions for Catholics.

According to David Brooks of the New York Times, the movie rightfully celebrates politics, which is important because,

you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.

These are hard words for a Catholic moral theologian to swallow, for two reasons. First, for Catholics, politics is significant but not ultimate. The framework laid out by John Courtney Murray, SJ in We Hold These Truths is still influential. Politics is valuable for Murray because the American experiment with a government of the people is valuable. But it works precisely because it does not pretend it can be everything.  In politics people are “locked in argument” about how to achieve a little more justice or a little more peace, not engaged in building the kingdom of God on earth.

Ending slavery is certainly the sort of good thing Murray would have acknowledged could come of politics. Yet, even though “Lincoln” celebrates the passage of the 13th amendment through the House of Representatives, the key players acknowledge that the amendment is only the beginning. Reconstruction will require years of work on legal, social and cultural levels. That work continues today. Politics does enormous good, but it is not the only sphere in which to do good and the good it achieves is never ultimate.

Second, the portrayal of political virtue in the movie celebrates compromise and, well, lying, in troubling ways. When Thaddeus Stevens, who devoted his life to the anti-slavery cause, speaks for the 13th amendment, he denies that he wants anything more than “legal equality” for blacks so as not to alienate potential supporters who worry about the possibility of intermarriage or suffrage. Near the end of the film, we see how utterly false this statement is and know how devastating it must have been for him to make it, but when challenged he claims that “there is little I would not say” in order to achieve the goal of overturning slavery. The film celebrates his lie, and in doing so, tells us (according to Brooks) that, “Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good.” It “involves such a perilous stream of character tests: how low can you stoop to conquer without destroying yourself . . .?”

Stevens is not the only one who stoop low for the cause. Three men are recruited by Lincoln to twist the arms of Congressmen who are on the fence about the bill.  And, most significantly, Lincoln himself is forced to work in the tension that exists between two key goals: an end to the war and an end to slavery. He, too, seems ready to, well, be a little less than fully honorable in order to reach his goal.

We who have just suffered through perhaps one of the least inspiring campaigns in recent memory, know plenty about stooping low for a cause. We calculate that it is worth the cost. Yet it is hard not to wonder whether we are destroying ourselves.

In the LA Times, film critic Kenneth Turan wrote:

One of the surprises and the pleasures of “Lincoln” is its portrait of the president as a man gifted at reconciling irreconcilable points of view, someone who wouldn’t hesitate to play both ends against the middle and even stretch the truth in the service of the greater good.

Kushner has said that he wrote “Lincoln” because, upset at today’s endemic lack of faith in governance, he wanted to tell a story that “shows that you can achieve miraculous, beautiful things through the democratic system.” It’s a lesson that couldn’t be more timely, or more thoroughly dramatic.

Catholic moral theologians, especially those committed to virtue ethics, might have something valuable to say about the potential destructiveness of this sort of compromise, of the limits of this kind of beauty.

Yet, I can’t help wondering if we also need to learn from it.  What if Lincoln and Stevens had followed the lead of some bishops who insisted that Catholics must always oppose certain intrinsically evil acts by refusing to vote for imperfect candidates or support imperfect legislation? Could they have have formed the coalitions and crafted the legislation that ultimately ended the evil of slavery? In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Catholic bishops argue that “outright opposition to laws and other policies that violate human life or weaken its protection [is required]. Those who knowingly, willingly, and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil” (no. 31) This is the point that received the most critical attention during the last campaign.

Many worried about the bishops’ emphasis on purity. Cathleen Kaveny argued for a better sense of what politics is about, saying that, “Instead of evaluating the relative significance of issues in the abstract, voters should consider whether and to what degree the problems identified by the issues can be ameliorated by the particular candidate seeking a particular office.” Not just what a candidate says she believes but what she is actually capable of doing matters.

In Faithful Citizenship, the bishops do give a nod to “prudential judgment and ‘the art of the possible.'” They admit that, “at times this process may restore justice only partially or gradually” (no. 32). They show an awareness of the limits of politics. But far more needs to be said about what that messy process might look like and what sorts of compromises might be necessary and tolerable along the way.

As much as I love Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Lincoln is far more honest about the beauty and ugliness of politics. And if Catholics want to be taken seriously in public debates, we probably need to spend more time thinking about the unique, imperfect virtues of this particular arena in which we strive for good.