WE have a problem in my archdiocese with a priest who said that priests can campaign for the upcoming elections as long as they don’t do it from the pulpit. People are confused because the statement came out in the local papers. Is there anything in Canon Law on this?
In a previous issue, we had dedicated this column to the question of Catholic Associations and Partisan Politics. The questioner then had taken for granted that the Hierarchy should not be involved in partisan politics. Now, it seems, this criterion is not very obvious to everyone.
The Role of the Priest in Political Life
By virtue of the service that he must render to individuals and society, the priest is interested in all those questions relative to public administration, which inevitably entail an ethical dimension. The correct notion of the distinction of Church and State does not mean that the hierarchy and the political community should live oblivious of each other. It means rather that each has its own proper sphere of responsibility: the hierarchy towards the eternal common good, and the government towards the temporal common good.
But since the temporal common good necessarily dovetails—since it ends up in the same final destination of the human person—with the eternal common good, the proper role of the hierarchy towards the temporal common good is one of magisterium and guidance: it is the role of the hierarchy in general and of priests in particular to form all men of good will (but especially the lay faithful) to have the right criteria to exercise their political options with freedom and responsibility.
The priest, in addition, preserves the right to have a personal political opinion and to exercise his right to vote, according to his conscience. "In those circumstances in which diverse political, social or economic choices legitimately present themselves—pointed out the Synod of Bishops in 1971—priests, like all citizens, have the right to make their own choices.”
Limits to the Priest’s Participation in the Political Exercise
The aforementioned right—like any other right—is obviously not an unlimited one. The external manifestation of a priest’s political preferences may be reasonably restricted by the demands of his ministry, which seeks to embrace everyone, to fully proclaim the Gospel and to be a valid sign of unity among all people.
Thus, c.287, §2 of the Code of Canon Law explicitly limits the participation of clerics in the political exercise in the following terms: Clerics are not to have an active role in political parties and in the direction of labor unions, unless the need to protect the rights of the Church or to promote the common good requires it in the judgment of the competent ecclesiastical authority.
The rationale behind this prohibition is as follows:
1) To avoid any semblance of dogmatism. As the Synod of Bishops of 1971 pointed out, “political choices are contingent by nature and do not express the Gospels completely, adequately or perennially.” John Paul II, following the same line of though, would add that “a political party can never be identi¬fied with the truth of the Gospel, nor could it ever be, therefore, the object of absolute allegiance, unlike what happens with the Gospel.” John Paul II concludes that the priest should not forget the relative character of political activities “even when citizens of Christian faith create, in a plausible way, parties inspired ex¬pressly in the Gospels, and he should not cease to strive to make the light of Christ also shine on other parties and social groups” (General Audience, 28.VII.1993).
2) To avoid any semblance clericalism. As John Paul II also pointed out in the aforementioned audience “within the framework of the Christian community, [priestly ministry] should have respect for the maturity of the laity and, what is more, should strive to assist them to achieve this, through the formation of con-science.” In other words, the correct sense of empowerment of the laity consists precisely in respecting their rightful autonomy in political choices, without their being unduly coerced—whether intentionally or otherwise—through a false reverential fear of displeasing their pastor who expresses a political preference different from theirs.
The problem lies in the fact that when a priest (more so a bishop) speaks of his political preferences, it is difficult for the faithful to distinguish—especially in a country with a tradition of deep respect for the clergy—when he is proclaiming Gospel truth and when he is merely speaking of his preferences or opinions. In other words, it is difficult for a priest to claim that he is only speaking as a private citizen expressing his political leanings, without the Catholic faithful perceiving it as an authoritative moral determination.
Scope of the Prohibition
1. Active participation in political parties. The juridical norm extends the prohibition not only to the exercise of functions of management or direction of such parties, but also to any membership in such parties, the knowledge of which may trigger an alienation of those faithful of a different political leaning—an alienation which the canonical prohibition precisely seeks to avoid.
2. Active participation in the direction of labor unions. The treatment of the participation of clerics in union associations is something very different. What is forbidden in this hypothetical situation is, strictly speaking, participation on an active basis in maintaining those organiza¬tions—i.e., to have positions of government and direction in such unions.
3. Militancy in favor of a given person or party. As a logical consequence, the same Synod of Bishops of 1971 declares that “the priest, witness of future things, should keep a certain distance from any political position or effort.” It is difficult to argue that this statement does not refer precisely to the priests actively campaigning for a certain political party or electoral candidate.
4. Possible exception: To defend the rights of the Church and the common good. The canon obviates any danger of laxity in the interpretation of this exception, by precisely stipulating that such an exception must be according to the judgment of the ecclesiastical authority. Thus, no individual priest may determine by himself the existence of sufficient reason to make an exception to the general prohibition, but must rather depend on the judgment of the competent authority—i.e., the Local Ordinary.
The Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, issued by the Congregation for the Clergy on 31.I.1994, summarizes all these in the following terms (ref. n.3):
— “The priest, as servant of the universal Church, cannot tie himself to any historical contingency, and therefore must be above any political party. He cannot take an active role in political parties or labor unions, unless according to the judgment of the ecclesiastical authority, the rights of the Church and the defense of common good require it.”
— “In fact, even if these [political parties and labor unions] are good things in themselves, they are nevertheless foreign to the clerical state, since they can constitute a grave danger of division in the ecclesial communion.”
— “Like Jesus (cf. Jn 6, 15 ff.), the priest ought to refrain from actively engaging himself in politics, as it often happens, in order to be a central point of spiritual fraternity. All the faithful, therefore, must be able to approach the priest without feeling inhibited for any reason.”
— “The Priest will remember that it does not fall on the shoulders of the Pastors of the Church to intervene directly in political activities and in social organizations. This task, in fact, forms part of the lay faithful’s vocation, in which they work by their own initiative together with their fellow citizens. Nevertheless, he will not be absent in the effort to form in them an upright conscience.”
(Note: This article originally appeared in CBCP Monitor, March 2007.)