Boston archdiocese warns clergy, officials over political statements

CNA 50c8eeb97f743 16272 1 Cardinal Sean O'Malley at the Ecclesia in America Conference Dec 12, 2012. | CNA

The Archdiocese of Boston has issued a letter to priests, principals of parish schools, and the leaders of Catholic institutions affiliated with the archdiocese, warning against sharing overtly political posts on social media.

"In the current atmosphere and political climate it is easy to get caught up promoting or advocating a particular viewpoint or stance as that viewpoint or stance relates to political campaigns or political activities in general," said a letter from Francis J. O'Connor, the general counsel for the Archdiocese of Boston. 

The letter, obtained by CNA Wednesday, is dated August 25, 2020, one day after the archdiocese declined to respond to questions from CNA regarding political statements by a priest of the archdiocese.

O'Connor wrote that the archdiocese has "fielded a number of complaints from both sides of the political party affiliations relating to statements, publications, and social media posts which the complainants have found objectionable." 

"In turn, many of these statements, publications, and posts have invited, intentionally or otherwise, reactive statements, comments, and posts which also have stirred controversy. Therefore, it is important to once again remind you of the limitations on political activities that may be conducted by non-profit entities," O'Connor added.  

No particular member of the clergy or employee of an entity affiliated with the archdiocese was singled out in the letter for unapproved political activity. 

On Aug. 26, CNA reported a statement from a priest of the archdiocese praising presidential candidate Joe Biden and supporting the "right to choose." 

The memo focused on the tax implications of political endorsements. O'Connor encouraged clergy to "refrain from expressing those opinions which will draw negative attention regardless of ideology as well as possible unwelcome attention from the IRS," adding that  "the tax exemption issue is an increasing priority with the IRS."

Federal law provides that 501(c)(3) organizations cannot "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office."

"One's presence on Social Media, even beyond an organization's page or website, can be associated with the organization," wrote O'Connor. 

"Blurring the lines between an individual's personal thoughts and opinions and the appearance of a connection to the Church or a Church related entity to which those personal thoughts or opinions can be attributed to presents unacceptable risk and jeopardy to the Church's tax-exempt status." 

Being a member of the clergy or an employee for the archdiocese "does not in any way diminish your individual rights as a citizen to participate in the political process," wrote O'Connor, but individuals "must be aware of the guidelines published by the USCCB Office of General Counsel to dioceses, parishes, and other Catholic organizations" concerning what is and is not allowed during election campaigns. 

These guidelines, O'Connor advised "answer many of the questions that you might face." 

"It is the preferred recommendation to refrain from any form of political activity if there is a chance it might be construed as contrary to the Guidelines." he added. 

The USCCB's guidelines, issued July 21, clarifies that employees in Catholic organizations are not prohibited by federal law from political activity, "provided they 'do not in any way utilize the organization's financial resources, facilities or personnel, and clearly and unambiguously indicate that the actions taken or statements made are those of the individuals and not of the organization."

"Employees should be required to take leave to participate in political activities."

Citing federal law, the USCCB explained that "Officials of a Catholic organization, acting in their individual capacities, may identify themselves as officials of their organization 'so long as they make it clear that they are acting in their individual capacity, that they are not acting on behalf of the organization, and that their association with the organization is given for identification purposes only.'"

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Those guidelines were issued a few weeks before a USCCB official told the bishops' conference news service that she was "elated" that Kamala Harris had been named Biden's running mate, and said she expected Biden "would put good people in his Cabinet, who would not damage the agencies, or ignore the mission."

While that official was identified by her position in a media report, and did not clarify that she was speaking in an individual capacity, a spokesman for the bishops' conference later said that she had been speaking as an individual. The conference did not clarify whether the official had taken leave to offer commentary on Harris, or whether the USCCB's own employee handbook requires that.

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