HomeCommentaryThe Church’s prohibition on the clergy’s participation in partisan politics

The Church’s prohibition on the clergy’s participation in partisan politics

All Christians and the whole Church—priests, religious men and women, and laypeople—“must be involved in the area of politics when Gospel values are at stake”

The present question is: “Can priests [and religious] endorse political candidates?” The classical answer is “No” as is asserted by repeated church pronouncements. Let me mention several reasons found in the magisterial documents:

a. The role of the clergy is “to foster peace and harmony based on justice.”

Canon 287 §1 writes: “Most especially, clerics are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people; §2. They are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.” [italics mine].

The above prohibition for priests joining political parties (or labor unions, though this appears strange to me) is based on his role as the “center of unity.” The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests (2013) refers to the above provision and writes: “Like Jesus (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 always be able to approach the priest without feeling inhibited for any reason” (No. 44).

Let me forward some comments: First, this is the nearest provision that we can refer to—joining political parties. The point at issue is actually less than that: to endorse a political candidate, not even joining a political party. Second, the reason given is the role of the priest as the “center of unity” [and by extension, the religious as well]. In ordinary elections, when the parishioners come from different sides of the partisan divide, being identified with one party or candidate inhibits the faithful to come to him for an “objective” view and moral guidance. He is presumed to be biased through his endorsement.

Following the spirit of Vatican II, the value of this provision is to protect the Church’s “freedom to preach the faith, to teach her social doctrine, to exercise her role freely among men, and also to pass moral judgment in those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it” (Gaudium et Spes, 76). In short, to maintain the authority to pass moral judgment on the political realm, the Church leader has to keep his or her neutral stance.

However, there are other comments to the contrary. First, two exceptions are also provided by the Canon Law 287: “protection of the rights of the Church” and “the promotion of common good.” What concrete contexts can we envision here? I can think of the suppression of the right to worship, for instance, as a fundamental human right. It is also the “right of the Church” and its members to be able to worship. When this right is denied by the State, the Church needs to take a partisan position in “the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority.”

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The second one, i.e., the “requirement of the common good,” is closer to our situation. When people are killed, tortured or detained (during the Martial Law or on the War on Drugs perpetrated by State authorities, for instance); or when corruption is so blatant and obvious at the expense of people’s lives, “common good” requires that we stand up against these atrocious crimes. In the first place, the role of the priest is not just “to foster peace and harmony” but to do such “based on justice,” Canon 287 says.

Third, the use of Jesus’ example in the document is lopsided. John 6:15ff talks about Jesus escaping from the crowd when they wanted to make him a king after he multiplied the loaves. But what about other verses where Jesus unmasked the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders or whipped the money changers out of the temple? That was definitely a non-neutral and partisan position. It is also to be “like Jesus” to fight for justice and work for the liberation of the poor (Luke 4: 16-20).

b. We should not tie the universal and catholic Church to any historical contingency.

The Directory writes: “The priest is a servant of the Church, which by virtue of its universality and catholicity cannot have ties with any historical contingency, and hence he will therefore remain above and beyond any political party” (No. 44). To be tied to a political party is to reduce the Church’s mission to “temporal tasks of a purely social and political nature” and a “grave loss to the evangelical fecundity of the entire Church.”

This dualistic and binary view of the Church (as against the world) is precisely what has been rejected by Vatican II: one is universal, the other contingent; one is divine, the other purely human. There is only one history—the history of the world is also the history of salvation. The Church’s salvific mission is social and political in nature. “Extra mundum nulla salus,” the Dutch theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx writes.

On the one hand, this advice is useful to relativize the positions of political parties and platforms. No political program is absolute. They are means to an end and they are not the only means. In theology, this refers to what is called the “eschatological proviso” – a condition or provision that limits the valuation of the political realm. Any socio-political arrangement when considered from the perspective of the values of the Kingdom always falls short of its ideals, thus, always needs to be continually critiqued and revised.

On the other hand, an all-out and absolute use of “eschatological proviso” (or a permanent “allergy” of political parties and ideologies in the Church) denies our authentic human political struggle of its necessary social vision and practical processes that furnish social agents with concrete ways toward human development and empowerment. “Faith without ideology is dead”, writes the Latin American theologian Juan Luis Segundo. To remain in the level of abstract principles and values renders the Christian vision impractical and incapable of incarnating itself in history. It is the well-thought of vision and programs of political parties that can incarnate the Christian vision in the world.

c. It is the task of the lay faithful to directly intervene in political affairs.

The Directory quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church and writes: “The priest will remember that ‘it is not the role of the Pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political structuring and organization of social life. This task is part of the vocation of the lay faithful, acting on their own initiative with their fellow citizens’ (CCC 2442).” This is a constant refrain in the documents of the Church. Priests and religious, don’t meddle in politics. Leave it to the lay faithful!

CBCP writes: “Negatively put, the clergy can teach moral doctrines covering politics but cannot actively involve themselves in partisan politics. In practice, religious men and women are also included in this prohibition.”

Thus, the CBCP rallied the lay faithful towards “principled partisan politics” in the document Lay Participation in Politics and Peace (2009): “(1) We call upon those who are competent, persons of integrity, and committed to change to get involved directly in principled partisan politics, and become candidates for political election, aware that the common good is above the good of vested interests; (2) We remind the laity that it is within their right as well as their duty to campaign for candidates they believe to be competent, honest, and public-service minded in order to reform our country.”[11] But even in this same document, the CBCP also commits the Church personnel—meaning priests, religious and lay leaders— “to the indispensable task of raising social awareness and forming social consciences through political education.”

Two comments. First, I sincerely hope that competent and conscientious lay people take on the cudgels of political participation from their own professional expertise and as mature Christian faithful (PCP II, 341). But “for many people today, politics is a distasteful word, often due to the mistakes, corruption and inefficiency of some politicians” (Fratelli Tutti, 176). Moreover, the hierarchy has not formed the lay people toward sound and mature partisan political participation. Historically, in the Philippines, the clergy have formed the lay people in the priests’ own idealized image—to be a Christian is to be non-partisan—at the most encouraging people to join PPCRV and watch the ballots. This is the farthest that Christian political participation can get, thus, also reinforcing the image of partisan politics as evil and dirty.

Second, even as priests limit themselves to the teaching of moral principles alone, it must be admitted that this is “actually interpreted by some as partisan politics, because of actual circumstances” (PCP-II, 343-344). For instance, preaching against the evil of extrajudicial killings or blatant government corruption is seen as “politically partisan” because it hits certain political programs and personalities.

Third, in this curious division of political labor, the clergy passes moral judgment on political matters, and the lay people engage in “active and direct partisan politics”. But in real life, the CBCP says, this rule is not rigid. On the one hand, the lay people also need to discern and teach the morality of our political situation. On the other hand, all Christians and the whole Church—priests, religious men and women, and laypeople—“must be involved in the area of politics when Gospel values are at stake” (PCP-II, 344).

Also read: Can priests and religious endorse political candidates?

Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M. is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital.

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