Eric Kniffin, an attorney specializing in First Amendment and religious freedom cases, told CNA that, in practice, bishops have little reason to be concerned about government ramifications from political speech.
"The Internal Revenue Code, on its face, bars tax-exempt organizations-including churches and other religious organizations-from saying anything 'on behalf of' or 'in opposition to' a political candidate," Kniffin said.
"This restriction, often referred to as the 'Johnson Amendment,' is still on the books, even though President Trump has directed the IRS to be lenient in its enforcement of the law.
"At a practical level, the federal government has not had much appetite to enforce this rule," Kniffin, who has worked for the Department of Justice and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told CNA.
During the interview, Trainor also said that in his view, civil law prevents bishops from prohibiting their priests from endorsing candidates.
"If you look at it just from a legal perspective, the priest to bishop is still an employer-employee relationship and that's the employer telling the employee what they can and cannot do."
"We don't tolerate that anywhere else, in fact there has been this huge uproar over NFL owners not allowing players on the field to be able to protest."
But Kniffin told CNA that the comparison to NFL franchises was inapt, and that the legal ability of churches to regulate the actions of clergy is well established.
"The Supreme Court recently affirmed that the First Amendment's church autonomy doctrine guarantees churches 'independence in matters of faith and doctrine and in closely linked matters of internal government,'" he told CNA.
"This doctrine prevents government from interfering with the relationship between churches and their members and between churches and their 'ministerial' employees."
Fr. Pietrzyk explained that in the mind and law of the Church, the relationship between a bishop and priest is much more than employer-employee.
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"It is completely inappropriate, and a violation of the Church's legitimate autonomy, an autonomy recognized in the First Amendment to the Constitution, for a federal official to opine, under the cloak of that office, on the duty of obedience owed by a priest to his bishop," he said.
"There is a tendency among U.S. government officials – whether federal bureaucracies or local judges – to try to fit the Church into a secular category," he told CNA.
"Certainly there are aspects of the bishop-priest relationship that look like employment. The diocese usually pays the priest's salary, provides him health insurance, etc. But it is an ongoing mistake on the part of secular authority, and indeed a violation of the freedom of religion, to force the employer-employee model as the primary or only way of understanding that relationship," the priest added.
"The document Christus Dominus, a decree from the Second Vatican Council on the Pastoral Office of the Bishop, said that, '[Bishops] should regard the priests as sons and friends.'"
"At the same time," Pietrzyk told CNA, "the bishop is the head of the diocese, as a father in a family. The ministry of the priest depends on his submission to the legitimate authority of his bishop. Thus, as Pope St. John Paul II wrote, 'there can be no genuine priestly ministry except in communion with the one's own Bishop, who deserves that filial respect and obedience.'"
"Every Catholic, and even more so a priest, has a duty to submit to the legitimate governance of their bishop," he said.