Explainer: Can a priest or a member of a religious order publicly endorse a political candidate?

Sister Deirdre Byrne endorsed Mr. Trump during her speech at the Republican National Convention. Greg Boyle, S.J. recently endorsed Joe Biden (CNS photo/Republican National Convention/Reuters/America composite). 

In the aftermath of a number of public endorsements of presidential candidates Joseph R. Biden Jr. or Donald J. Trump by Catholic priests and religious, two persistent questions for the church and for Catholic politicians once again surface: Is it permissible for a priest or a member of a religious order to publicly endorse a candidate for elected office? Should a priest or a member of a religious order publicly endorse a candidate for public office?

According to canon law, the answer to the first question is no. According to U.S. civil law, the answer to the first question is yes—in the person’s capacity as an individual citizen, but not on behalf of a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.

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According to Catholic Church practice, the answer to the second question is that you probably shouldn’t, but rarely will you be told you couldn’t (with some exceptions).

What U.S. Law Says (and Does)

The Johnson Amendment, passed in 1954 (named after then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson), says that churches and other organizations that are free from government taxation (commonly called 501(c)(3) organizations) “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Mr. Trump promised to “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment in February 2017, and in May 2017 signed an executive order, the Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty, limiting the way the amendment was enforced. In December 2017, the Republican effort to repeal the Johnson Amendment was quietly dropped from that year’s tax reform bill. It was something of a moot point, because the Johnson Amendment had almost never been enforced.

Any church historian will tell you that there is the practice of the Catholic Church de jure, and the practice of the Catholic Church de facto.

The Johnson Amendment also applies only to groups, not to individuals. “I think it is important to make a distinction between the United States Constitution and the law of the Catholic Church,” said Thomas J. Reese, S.J., former editor in chief of America and an expert in church affairs, in a phone interview with America. “There is nothing that stops a priest or a member of a religious order from endorsing a candidate under the Constitution. People who say this is a violation of church and state are completely wrong. Under the U.S. Constitution, you could even have a bishop run for office, as many Protestant ministers have done. The reason they can’t and don’t run for office is because the Catholic Church says they can’t, not United States law.”

What the church says (and does)

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In a general audience at the Vatican on July 28, 1993 (later quoted in the “Directory on Ministry and the Life of Priests,” released by the Congregation for the Clergy in 1994), Pope John Paul II said that a priest “ought to refrain from actively engaging himself in politics, as often happens, in order to be a central point of spiritual fraternity.” The Congregation for the Clergy’s document also quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1993: “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 [emphasis in original], acting on their own initiative with their fellow citizens.” The “Directory” states further that the “reduction of [a priest’s] mission to temporal tasks, of a purely social or political nature, is foreign to his ministry, and does not constitute a triumph but rather a grave loss to the Church's evangelical fruitfulness.”

In the church’s official Code of Canon Law, Canon 287 also states that priests “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.”

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But any church historian (and perhaps any practicing Catholic) will tell you that there is the practice of the Catholic Church de jure, and the practice of the Catholic Church de facto. Canon law includes a number of rules that are contradicted by church practice. Sometimes this is just a difference between a continental European understanding of law and an Anglo-American one, where the latter understanding often sees the law as absolute and the former often holds it as presenting ideals to be lived up to or striven toward, but not always fully realized in the moment.

The latest edition of the Code of Canon Law states that “[c]lerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power.”

The History in the United States

The Vatican intervened in U.S. politics in 1980 in the case of Robert J. Drinan, S.J., of Massachusetts, a Jesuit priest who had served five terms in Congress. He was one of two Catholic priests ever to hold office in the United States. The other was the Rev. Robert J. Cornell of Wisconsin, who served two terms in the House of Representatives from 1975 to 1979 and once said “[i]t is my personal belief that serving in Congress is no more inconsistent with the priesthood than teaching government and history, as I have done for 35 years.”

Through Father Drinan’s Jesuit superiors, Pope John Paul II ordered him not to seek election to a sixth term in 1980. The latest edition of the Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, states in Canon 285 that “[c]lerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power.”

Less cut-and-dry are situations in which priests or religious have not held office but were political activists. The Catholic Church in the United States has a long tradition of “labor priests,” for example, who advocated for unions and worker protection laws, including Msgr. John A. Ryan and Msgr. George G. Higgins, but their bishops did not consider them political activists. Similarly, events like the annual March for Life draw thousands of priests, seminarians and men and women religious who vocally support the pro-life cause without objection from church officials. (It should be noted that both causes are dear to the church’s heart in the United States.)

Sister Deirdre Byrne endorsed Mr. Trump during her speech at the Republican National Convention, calling him the “most pro-life president this nation has ever had."

There is not so much wiggle room for priests or religious who publicly endorse a candidate. Late last month, the Rev. Paul Garrity, a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, endorsed Mr. Biden’s presidential candidacy on Facebook; he apologized after Cardinal Sean O’Malley issued a public statement that priests should not endorse political candidates. Similarly, in July, the Rev. Frank Pavone, who has been vocal in his support of Mr. Trump, announced he would step down from his position on the Catholics for Trump advisory board after the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy requested he do so, citing Canon 287.

On the other hand, Sister Deirdre Byrne endorsed Mr. Trump during her speech at the Republican National Convention, calling him the “most pro-life president this nation has ever had," and claimed without substantiation that Mr. Biden supported infanticide. Similarly, Greg Boyle, S.J., the well-known founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, the largest network of gang intervention and rehabilitation programs in the United States, publicly endorsed Mr. Biden on Aug. 28, noting that Mr. Biden had visited Homeboy Industries and that “Joe Biden knows how to stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgment at how they carry it.”

Greg Boyle, S.J., publicly endorsed Mr. Biden on Aug. 28, saying “Joe Biden knows how to stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgment at how they carry it.”

Consequences for Church and State

In other Christian denominations in the United States, ministers routinely endorse candidates and political parties, with the consequence that those churches often seem to have more political influence and engagement than comparable Catholic communities. It is possible that if individual endorsements by priests and members of religious orders were to increase, the Catholic Church would see similar results. The negative effects, however, might be long-lasting. For politicians, the advantage from having one’s own supporters among the ranks of priests and religious remain fairly muted in their endorsement is that the other side will likely do the same. It may be in the best interest of all candidates to avoid a competition for endorsements from priests and members of religious orders. The consequences of a further polarization of Catholics if pulpits across the United States are used to amplify candidate slogans are unknown.

“It is important for all citizens ‘to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest’.”

The consequences for the church could also be negative in terms of its relationship to U.S. politicians.

Nicholas P. Cafardi, a canon lawyer, former dean and professor of law at Duquesne University and the editor of Voting and Holiness, expressed similar views in an email interview with America. “A priest endorsing a political candidate is tying himself to a historical contingency and is actively engaging in politics, both of which the 1994 Directory prohibits,” Professor Cafardi said. “And the Directory gives a good reason for that: ‘All the faithful, therefore, must always be able to approach the priest without feeling inhibited for any reason.’ If I support Joe Biden, and I know that my pastor has endorsed Donald Trump, how likely am I to go to him for spiritual assistance?” In other words, any effort by a bishop or priest to endorse a party or candidate (or worse, stating that to vote for a particular candidate is sinful) could end up causing serious division in the diocese or parish.

Endorsing parties or candidates also can leave Catholic voters with the false idea that there is a “Catholic” and a “non-Catholic” candidate, when no one party or candidate could ever fully reflect church teaching on all the issues. Nor could any one party or candidate ever fully express Jesus’s vision for the world as expressed in the Gospels. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stated in “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” in 2016 (quoting from their 1998 document, “Living the Gospel of Life”), “it is important for all citizens ‘to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest’.”

In “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S.C.C.B. has always stressed that the role of priests and religious is to help people weigh church teaching, their individual conscience and the various pros and cons of each candidate before voting. This careful policy has often allowed the Catholic church in the U.S. to stay out of the political fray, even when one of the major political parties has a Catholic on the ticket (which has been the case this year and in the past four presidential elections).

“It is a good idea for the U.S.C.C.B. to stay out of active politics, such as political endorsements, and to advise priests and members of religious orders to do the same. They can do the most good addressing the moral issues confronting the Catholic voter, as opposed to speaking publicly in favor of certain candidates,” Mr. Cafardi said. “Being identified as partisan will, as the 1994 Directory indicates, harm their ability to do their job, which is to make Christ present to all people regardless of their politics. They would do better to stick to the issues and let the laity decide how the church’s teachings on those issues should affect their vote.”

With this year’s presidential election generating high levels of interest and passion, there is little question this issue will arise again—for the bishops, for the clergy, for men and women in religious orders, and for Catholic voters and politicians around the country.

[More from James T. Keane: Explainer: If Joe Biden wins, what does that mean for abortion policies?]

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