Fr. Pius Pietrzyk, OP, is a civil and canon lawyer who was nominated by President Barack Obama and unanimously confirmed by the Senate to the Board of Directors of the Congressionally-funded Legal Services Corporation, which provides funding for legal aid programs.
The priest, who serves as a professor of canon law at St. Patrick’s University and Seminary in California, told CNA it is not the function of clergy to instruct laity on who they should choose in the voting booth.
“The primary end of the Church is not the ordering of civil society,” he told CNA. “The primary end of the Church is the sanctification of humanity,” he said. “While the Church is concerned that secular society be just and moral, the prudential decisions on carrying that out is properly the role of lay people in the world.”
“While it is true, as the Second Vatican Council said in Gaudium et Spes, ‘the Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other,’ that autonomy of the secular world does not mean an autonomy from natural and divine law. The Church must grant to the secular government its legitimate autonomy, and the legitimate freedom of Catholics within a particular country to participate in that governance.”
“Nonetheless,” he said, “the Church has a right and duty to elucidate the moral precepts that guide a society in properly fostering the common good.”
Trainor also said bishops are too cautious about their ability to engage directly in partisan politics under civil law.
“The bishops are using their nonprofit status as a shield to hide behind,” he said, “from having to make a decision about who to support [in the elections].”
He charged that bishops choose to be silent on political matters out of concern they might lose grants received by Catholic institutions for refugee resettlement and other federal programs.
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.
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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.”