Office of priest overrides party

| Archbishop Bernard Hebda | March 12, 2020 | 0 Comments

“Hey, are you a Penguins fan?”

It was a question that I never anticipated coming up at confirmation. It was my first year as a bishop, and I was celebrating the sacrament in northern Michigan, solid Red Wings country. The young man had heard me mention that I was from Pittsburgh, and he was unwilling to be confirmed by anyone who cheered for Sidney Crosby. His parents and sponsor were stunned, and the congregation slightly amused. It was only after I convinced him that I had grown up in a family that was never interested in professional hockey that he stepped forward for the sacrament. I was grateful that he had not asked about the Steelers or the Pirates!

Archbishop Bernard Hebda

Archbishop Bernard Hebda

It’s amazing how secular divisions can creep into the practice of our faith, even affecting priestly ministry. It might be irrational, but it’s a fact of life. It’s partly in response to that reality that the Church requires her priests to refrain from “taking an active part” in political parties (canon 289 of the Code of Canon Law).

When the staff of the Minnesota Catholic Conference called to my attention that Minnesota’s presidential primaries this year were “closed” primaries open only to those who align with a given party, I opted to share that information with our clergy, along with the MCC’s advice “that discouraging primary voting by clergy during this cycle (though not in the general election) is the prudent thing to do.”

Given that the priest is called to act in the person of Christ for all of his flock, regardless of their affiliations, he needs to avoid those things that could unnecessarily sow division or undercut his ability to minister effectively to all of his sheep. As St. John Paul II reminded us, priests are called to be “agents of unity.” In the present politically charged atmosphere, it does not seem unreasonable to hold that a public labeling of a priest as a registered member of any party could diminish his ability to serve as an “agent of unity.”

Beyond that pastoral reason for the rule, there’s also a theological motivation, rooted in the Church’s understanding of the proper “division of labor” between the laity and clergy. While the whole Church has to be concerned about the common good, partisan politics falls more properly within the specific sphere of the laity (the renewal of the temporal order). By requiring priests to refrain from active participation in party politics, the 1983 Code, after centuries of clerical influence in the political arena, carved out a golden opportunity for the laity to exercise the leadership that is proper to them. In his 1988 exhortation on the vocation of the lay faithful, St. John Paul II articulated well the distinct responsibilities of priests and laity in this area: “it is the right and duty of pastors to propose moral principles even concerning the social order and of all Christians to apply them in defense of human rights. Nevertheless, active participation in political parties is reserved to the lay faithful” (“Christifideles Laici,” 60).

A few community members have expressed concern that my letter to our clergy represented an improper infringement of constitutional rights. While I am always delighted when people stand up for our priests, I am not convinced that the analysis is accurate in this instance.

As U.S. citizens, we clerics indeed have the same rights as other citizens. When we are ordained, however, there are some of those rights that we voluntarily agree not to exercise. We agree, for example, not to exercise our right to marry. We similarly agree that, without specific permission from the Church, we won’t exercise our right to operate a for-profit business, or our right to exercise leadership in a labor union, or our right to volunteer for military service. We cherish our rights as Americans but give priority to following the universal law of the Church, recognizing that the unique demands of pastoral ministry might suggest that some individual rights are best not exercised. The shepherd has to put the sheep first, and the shepherd’s role is to lead the flock in the way of the Gospel, which transcends any party affiliation or political issue.

In the meantime, it falls to all of us, clergy and laity alike, to prepare to exercise our right and duty to vote in the November elections. As Pope Francis reminds us, “Every election and re-election, and every stage of public life, is an opportunity to return to the original points of reference that inspire justice and law.”

Agentes de unidad

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Category: Only Jesus