HomeCommentaryQuestions Concerning the Political Participation of the Clergy and Religious – Part...

Questions Concerning the Political Participation of the Clergy and Religious – Part 2

This series aims to clarify issues confronting Filipino Christians, Catholics in particular, ahead of the country's national elections in May 2022

These ten questions, and answers, aim to clarify issues confronting Filipino Christians, Catholics in particular, ahead of the country’s national elections in May 2022.

What is the role and competence of the Church in politics?

Gaudium et Spes (GS) 76 (and Canon 2245 which merely quotes it) is quite clear on the role of the Church in the field of politics. In a pluralistic society like ours, the Church should know its own “competence.” It is “not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system” because it is “at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person.”

It has to respect the autonomy and independence of the political field. But right after that assertion, the Church has to “foster sounder cooperation between themselves with due consideration for the circumstances of time and place” for more effective service to all citizens. “The Church should have true 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” (GS 76).

And when Gospel values are at stake, when people are killed by State forces, when the dignity of men and women are violated, when plunderers go scot-free and run for elections using the money they have stolen from the people, and when history has been revised to deny these atrocities, the Church has to speak up. Again, we have to remember: this is the whole Church both as an institution and as individuals—lay, religious and clergy. When we do so, we are not “crossing the line.” We are “holding the line”. We are following Jesus. We are doing our Christian duty.

Sometimes, a quotation from Pope Benedict XVI’s Letter to the Catholics in China (2007) is quoted by the other writers to prove the same point: “Likewise, therefore, the Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State; rather her mission is to proclaim Christ to men and women, as the Savior of the world, basing herself in carrying out her proper apostolate on the power of God” (No.4). The same case of “proof-texting.” The context of this text is GS 76 — which Pope Benedict XVI clearly quoted right before it. Another quotation from Benedict XVI’s “Deus Caritas Est” follows it, and the context is the same: “The Church must not replace the State.” The context of both quotations is still GS 76 which we explained above—the footnotes of that encyclical will tell us, if we care to read.

The “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life” issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) on November 24, 2002 which is also used by some writers in order to reinforce this dualistic view of church and politics should be understood in the same spirit: “It is not the Church’s task to set forth specific political solutions—and even less to propose a single solution as the acceptable one—to temporal questions that God has left to the free and responsible judgment of each person.”

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When the Church as a body like the CBCP, for instance, intervenes in the political life of the country, it is not intervening with a “political solution”. It is speaking from the perspective of its own competency, from the perspective of the values of the Kingdom and the message of the Gospel. The same document (Doctrinal Note) continues: It is “the Church’s right and duty to provide a moral judgment on temporary matters when this is required by faith or the moral role.”

Even as the clergy is tasked to pass moral judgment on political matters, and the lay people engage in “active and direct partisan politics,” in real life, PCP II says, this role is not rigid and absolute. On the one hand, the lay people, not just the priests, 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 the Gospel values are at stake.

“The requirements of the Gospel in regard to human dignity, justice, charity, the common good, cannot be sacrificed on the flimsy pretext that ‘the Church does not engage in politics’. Concretely, this means both clergy and laity must be involved in the area of politics when moral and Gospel values are at stake” (PCP II, 343-344).

In short, Vatican II and other magisterial texts cannot be used to foster a rigid dualistic view of church and politics. We have shown that despite the respect for the competence and autonomy of each field (church and politics), these two worlds are far from being separate. On the contrary, these magisterial texts are an injunction towards the whole Church and its partisan role for truth, human dignity and justice.

The truncated use of magisterial texts in order to prove one’s position is called “proof texting” of which the medieval manualist theologies have been guilty of. We also know that it is doing a great disservice to the Church in our times.

These same texts cannot be used to fight against the “political partisanship” of the clergy. It is the height of clericalism for the clergy and religious to arrogate unto themselves the meaning of these texts, to think that these texts refer to them. No, these texts refer to the whole Church.

Maybe we need to look somewhere else, if we want to talk about the clergy’s “partisan political participation.”

Are the clergy prohibited from running for political positions?

Some pronouncements of the Popes also refer to this prohibition. The following text comes from Pope John Paul II in his address to the clergy and religious of Mexico in January 1979: “You are priests and members of religious orders. You are not social directors, political leaders, or functionaries of a temporal power.”

Many of the clergy during those times ran for elections or were appointed to political office in several areas of Latin America, for example, Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, and in other places. This command not to run for elections or not to join the executive branches of governments is the proximate context of these texts. To use this (and other parallel texts) in order to preach against clergy and religious “endorsing” political candidates today is to quote them out of context.

The Canon Law 285, §3 is already clear on this: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power.” Canon Law sees that running for public office is “unbecoming” of and “foreign” to the clerical state. It needs to be said that the Constitution does not prohibit a priest from running for public office. This is a canonical prohibition; not a violation of civil law. And if the priest wants to run for public office, it is clear that he needs to relinquish his clerical state.

This is the sense of the CBCP Statement when it writes: “We have no ambition of appropriating for ourselves your distinct role as laity in the just ordering of society, nor do we intend to usurp the role of the government. We are here to provide moral and spiritual guidance, in accord with our mission of proclaiming the truth from our faith.” (CBCP, The Truth shall Set You Free, 2022).

Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M. is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York.

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