We have shown that the presumed clear-cut distinctions in Church documents and pronouncements are not rigid at all. There are two sides to the same coin; and a balanced way to understand the issue, is to consider both angles. There are no easy answers. Moreover, the magisterial injunction looks different when seen from the ground.
a. On the one hand, the priest should be the “center of unity.” On the other hand, the same rule tells him to promote peace and harmony “based on justice.” The rule of non-involvement falls flat when common good and justice requires it.
b. On the one hand, non-partisan involvement enables the Church provide a critical voice vis-à-vis the limits of any political platform. On the other hand, society does not work without concrete political programs. The Church’s detachment from political agenda in the name of neutrality makes its distinct voice irrelevant and impractical to the actual workings of society.
c. On the one hand, the presumed division of political labor in the Church—the clergy to pronounce moral truths; and the laity to engage in actual politics—is blurred “when the Gospel values are at stake” and the common good is seriously threatened.
In the end, we are back to our initial question: Can the clergy and religious endorse political candidates? What are the options available on the ground?
a. ENDORSEMENT. The clergy and religious can take partisan position when the common good demands it, when justice is grossly violated, when the good of the Church requires it or when the Gospel values are at stake. On the one hand, when a political party and its candidates neglect the common good, obviously defend blatant corruption and violate Gospel values of life and justice, it is incumbent upon all Christians—priests and religious included—to denounce them. On the other hand, when a political candidate and political party promotes the opposite values, priests and religious can also endorse them. All these answers are derived from the abovementioned Church documents, and our interpretation of them.
b. CLEAR CRITERIA. In the process of discerning, the clergy and religious shall unequivocally state on which Gospel/Christian principles and values such a decision is based, and how it is applied to the specific situation. At this historical juncture, for instance—graft and corruption during Martial Law (“Thou shall not steal”), the promotion of extrajudicial killings (“Thou shall not kill”) and complicity with and/or silence about them—are non-negotiable criteria for such a decision. Political parties and candidates who do not uphold these criteria as crucial to their campaign are outside the ambit of the Christian values we uphold. There can be other criteria that they believe as important—respect for human rights, upholding the rule of law, preferential option for the poor, rejection of political dynasty, etc. The clergy and religious also need to declare them clearly as the basis for their decision.
c. CONTINUAL CRITICISM AND DEMAND FOR ACCOUNTABILITY. Having said that, it is also enjoined upon the clergy and religious to be continually discerning on the political candidates, parties and the political agenda they have endorsed. The whole Church—together with its clergy and religious—needs to critically engage the government and its programs with the values of the Gospel and the Kingdom. They should not be afraid to criticize their previously endorsed politicians and parties, and ask them to be accountable to the people. We are not a “fans club” but “citizens”. No political agenda is absolute. Only the Kingdom is.
d. SIMPLE PROCESSES OF DISCERNMENT. If the priest or religious decides not to take a partisan position for one reason or another, he or she still need to do the task to provide people with ethical criteria and simple processes of discernment accessible to the people, especially those among the grassroots (Circles of Political Discernment, Gabay sa Pagboto, Basic Ecclesial Communities, etc.) with which to discern the political sphere. Gospel values and the Social Teaching of the Church (CST)—our distinct contribution to the workings of the socio-political process—can be helpful guides. These Christian principles also need to dialogue with other voices in society—other faiths, other convictions, other ideologies. These principles of discernment shall be elaborated and applied in actual and concrete contexts by the Christian communities.
e. PRINCIPLE OF NON-NEUTRALITY. Such a “non-partisan” discernment process above already threatens abusive political power, and is in danger of being tagged as a “partisan” activity, as has always happened in the past until today. But despite such danger, no Christian can remain neutral in front of victimization and abuse of power. The principle of preserving the “unity of the community”—which also amounts to complacency—can never be used not to take a position. Neutrality surely takes the side of the oppressor. As prophet, the Christian shall always take the side of the victim. Pope Francis’ has a helpful reminder to neutral fence-sitters: “Robbers usually find secret allies in those who ‘pass by and look the other way’. There is a certain interplay between those who manipulate and cheat society, and those who, while claiming to be detached and impartial critics, live off that system and its benefits” (Fratelli Tutti, 75).
f. SHARING OF ONE’S PERSONAL DISCERNMENT. The priest and religious—as an individual citizen and as a discerning Christian—may also share with the faithful the product of his own discernment process; the actual criteria that he or she uses; and the concrete conclusions he or she has reached. In the process, s/he shows to the faithful that Gospel values are not abstract and detached realities. They have real consequences in our personal decisions and political options. In doing so, s/he must also be careful not to impose himself or herself to others but to encourage them to undergo the same political discernment themselves.
g. LISTENING TO THE “SENSUS FIDEI” AS COMMUNITY. It might be helpful to the whole Christian community for the pastor and religious to lead the people into the same process of communal discernment without imposing the products of one’s own reflection. The whole community can discuss their basic criteria of choice and discern together as they apply these criteria in context. In the process, the clergy and religious help to form them how to communally listen to the “sensus fidei” towards responsible citizenship and mature political participation.
In effect, clergy and religious help to put into practice Pope Francis’ dream of a listening, dialogical and synodal Church.
Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M. is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital.