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On Catholic Clergy and Politics


Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 06/07/16

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With another election cycle heating up, this seems a good time for a refresher course on the role of Catholic clergy when it comes to politics. We all need to be reminded from time to time of what is and is not appropriate, particularly on social media.

I posted on thisin 2014:

Some days back, I posted the historic news about the wife of a deacon serving on her state’s Supreme Court.  On another forum a couple of deacons noted that, while the news was noteworthy and laudable, it could pose problems for her husband. One wrote: “We had a deacon who moved to another diocese and his wife became a State Representative. The diocese did not let the deacon minister in that diocese until his wife was no longer in office.” That surprised me. While a bishop can, of course, set his own standards for his deacons, things get complicated when it comes to the spouse. Canon Law is silent about the wife of a clergyman—who is, of course, a lay person. But a few years ago, Deacon William Ditewig wrote about this in the pages of Deacon Digest. He examined the issue of clergy and politics, and even touched on the role of the deacon’s wife. I think it’s worth another look. As Bill wrote:

This topic seems especially appropriate since, increasingly, deacons are joining millions of other Americans in their use of social media and are blogging, tweeting, writing, speaking, and teaching at every conceivable level, and venues formerly considered more informal, such as Facebook, have become sources of public discourse on the political process. It is important to reflect on our own participation in such exchanges in light of our responsibilities as clergy. It is often not what we say, or don’t say, from the pulpit that can influence others. A casual “status update” on Facebook, a blog entry, or even a tweet can have far-reaching effects.

Canon 285 directs that “clerics are to refrain completely from all those things which are unbecoming to their state, according to the prescripts of particular law.” The canon continues in §3: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power,” and §4 forbids clerics from “secular offices which entail an obligation of rendering accounts…” Canon 287, §1 reminds all clerics that “most especially, [they] are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people,” and §2 directs that “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.”

However, c. 288 specifically relieves permanent deacons (transitional deacons would still be bound) of a number of the prior canons, including cc. 285 §§3 and 4, and 287 §2, “unless particular law establishes otherwise.” Particular law in this instance is provided by the National Directory on the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, which states at #91: “A permanent deacon may not present his name for election to any public office or in any other general election, or accept a nomination or an appointment to public office, without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop. A permanent deacon may not actively and publicly participate in another’s political campaign without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop.” The diocesan bishop may also create particular law within his own diocese on such matters. In one case, a diocesan bishop notified his clergy that if anyone could even infer, through their speech, manner, or demeanor which political party or candidate the cleric was supporting, then that cleric had gone too far. While we are each entitled to form our own political decisions for ourselves, we must always be aware of the political lines we must not cross.

I have been asked if this means that deacons are not permitted to put campaign yard signs or posters on their property or political bumper stickers on their cars. It would be my opinion that, based on universal and particular law, the deacon should not do so. Such public displays, again in my opinion, would violate both the letter and intent of the law. What about making financial contributions to a particular campaign or political party? I believe that this all becomes an issue of public and private participation, but in all cases, I would seek advice from competent authority on the diocesan staff or from the bishop directly.

Let’s put this all together. Permanent deacons, although clerics, may participate in political life to a degree not permitted other clerics (including transitional deacons) under the law. However, permanent deacons are required by particular law in the United States to obtain the prior written permission of their diocesan bishop to do so. I find that two other aspects of this matter are too often overlooked. First, is the requirement under the law that all clerics (and, most significantly, permanent deacons are not relieved of this obligation) are bound by c. 287 always “to foster peace and harmony based on justice.” This is a critical point for reflection for all clerics: How do my actions, words, and insinuations foster such peace and harmony, or are my actions serving to sow discord and disharmony? Since permanent deacons may become more engaged in the political sphere than presbyters (with the permission of their bishop), this will take on particular relevance for deacons. After this, is the whole area of participation in political campaigns. Deacons may only participate in their own or someone else’s political campaign with the prior written permission of their bishop. Today, when political support is often reflected through the social media, all of us might well reflect on how our opinions stated via these media constitute active participation in someone’s political campaign.

Still another consideration involves the participation of a married permanent deacon’s wife in political life. As a lay person, the wife of a deacon is certainly not under the same canonical/legal restrictions her husband is as a cleric. She may run for office herself, and she may participate actively in someone else’s election campaign. She has every right, and perhaps in some cases, even an obligation to do so! Now imagine how this might work out in actual practice. What if the wife of a deacon decides to place campaign yard signs on their property, and political bumper stickers on their cars? The deacon can’t do this (at least, without the prior written consent of his bishop), but his wife can. What happens when parishioners complain to the pastor or bishop that “the deacon” is overstepping his bounds? Certainly, this is a matter that the married deacon and his family will have to discuss and discern prayerfully.

All of us, lay and cleric, are obliged to participate appropriately in the political process. However, as clerics—and in a particularly challenging way, as permanent deacons—we must walk a fine moral tightrope in doing so.

Another document worth reading is from the USCCB, offering guidelines for appropriate political activity.  

I should note here: the USCCB’s primary concern is keeping churches and church institutions from running afoul of the IRS.

Among other things, the bishops address endorsements from the pulpit and how that could be perceived by the IRS:

Participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate is contrary to the statutory qualification requirements for section 501(c)(3) organizations. If the IRS determines that an organization has violated this absolute prohibition against political campaign intervention, the IRS may revoke the organization’s tax-exempt status, including its ability to receive tax deductible contributions.108 In addition, or in lieu of revocation, the IRS may impose excise taxes. If the participating “organization” is parish that is not separately incorporated from its diocese, then the diocese may be penalized for the actions of the pastor.

And there’s this interesting paragraph about social media:

Blogs and various social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can present risks of political campaign intervention for unwary organizations. The IRS has not provided guidance about the application of the prohibition against political campaign intervention to social media communications. After evaluating all facts and circumstances, the critical questions in every instance will be: (1) whether the post or communication at issue expresses an opinion about a candidate – pro or con; and (2) whether that communication is attributable to the Catholic organization. For example, is an organization’s “friending” or “following” a political candidate tantamount to an endorsement or preference for that candidate? What about a church employee tweeting, texting or e-mailing about candidates during work hours? How do these employees identify themselves? Are they using the church-provided facilities? Are these postings part of their job responsibilities? What about blogs? A Catholic organization is responsible for blog content posted on its website by its employees, but is the organization also responsible for guest blogger postings? What about user comments? What if the organization undertakes to moderate postings and selectively deletes posts according to content? Catholic organizations should seek local legal advice regarding political content or links to political content on their websites, e-mails and social media.
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