Should Priests Speak About Party Politics?
In a nation flooded with partisan politics, the Kingship of Jesus Christ is the surest high ground.
Over the past few years, it seems that priests have become increasingly eager to comment on American politics. Through various means—homilies, discussions, columns, blogs, social media—priests are letting their thoughts and feelings be known. But the more I read and listen, the more I wonder if it’s time for priests to consider curbing their public discussion of American politics. I think this for several reasons, but two are especially important.
First, we Americans may not be sick of politics, but whether we realize it or not, we are sick with politics—and we need the help of priests to heal.
Referencing the Church in the 1980s, Peggy Noonan wrote, “The Catholic Church could not decide if its job was public policy or the redemption of souls, so it failed at both, offering pilgrims hungry for sustenance tepid homilies on defense spending.”
Forty years later, things are far worse. Politics and policy (of which seemingly everyone now considers himself a noted expert) is the consuming subject at children’s birthday parties, wedding receptions and New Year’s Eve countdowns. We’re drowning in politics. And being that the Catholic Church is the Ark of Salvation, the wise counsel of priests should provide us with the desperately-needed opportunity to dry out for a few moments. But when priests insist on politicking from the pulpit or delivering an endless barrage of political posts on their social media pages, our lungs just fill with water.
Second, political posts and homilies unnecessarily risk confusing and/or antagonizing congregations.
Part of the problem with homilies on defense spending (or tax rates, or diplomacy, or environmental policy) is that they confuse the faithful. They make it difficult for the faithful to decipher between official Church teaching and one’s personal politics. It’s hard to see how that might be beneficial, especially considering the fact that we now commonly use political terms to describe one’s Faith — i.e., “conservative Catholic” or “liberal Catholic.”
But while confusing the congregations is bad, antagonizing them is worse. I’m guessing there are priests who are reading this and thinking: “What’s John talking about? People tell me they love my political posts from Breitbart (or CNN)! They love my sermons about how Donald Trump is the new Constantine (or the new Caligula)!” And, to some degree, they’re right: half the people probably love the posts. That’s not the problem; the problem is that the other half don’t. And once someone has tuned you out on the subject of politics, how long do you honestly think it will be before they tune out your theology, i.e., the Catholic Faith?
Imagine for a moment that you are the pastor of a parish in Denver, Colorado. How wise would it be to talk every week about how great the Oakland Raiders are? How smart would it be to Facebook-post commentary about how much more intelligent the Raiders coaches are than the Broncos coaches? This may all be true, but that’s not the point. Some members of the congregation will resent it. And they will wonder why you bring it up at all.
The Mystical Body of Christ is hemorrhaging members at an alarming rate. Is it reasonable to think that the best way to rebuild the Church is to engage people in political arguments? My point is not that priests are lacking the competence to speak about current political issues; my point is that prudence may dictate that they don’t.
Some might also object by pointing out that priests have an illustrious history of political writing. After all, Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, Bellarmine and Suarez were brilliant scholars of state, citizenship and governance. These men made timeless observations about the nature of government, justice, the common good, and law. But therein lies the difference between then and now: Rarely did these men write about party politics, and even less so the “personality politics” that is so prevalent today.
Sermons and social media posts can—and should—highlight the immutable nature of human rights and duties within the political sphere, but they should do so without constantly referencing polarizing personalities to make the point.
Priests have a duty to teach Catholic doctrine even if it touches on politics, but it is important not to reduce doctrine to a mere political level. For instance, the topic of abortion must be addressed from the pulpit, but it should be pointed out that abortion is not a mere political issue — rather, it is the preeminent moral issue of our time. That truth must be forcefully and charitably told, and if that offends one’s political sensibilities, so be it. We cannot hide doctrine, but neither can we reduce it to the level of civics.
With the state of American politics being in such disarray, we should focus on the earthly Kingship of Christ. It’s unfortunate that that this doctrine receives so little attention, because a Catholic political stance must revolve around it. It is important to know your elected representatives who serve in government, but infinitely more important is to know and serve Christ the King. As Pope Pius XI put it, “When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.”
This is a beautiful teaching, and one we need to hear.