Why priests don't endorse candidates: Experts respond to FEC chair

Why priests don't endorse candidates: Experts respond to FEC chair

Former headquarters for the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Credit: Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock
Former headquarters for the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Credit: Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock

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In an interview Wednesday, the chairman of the Federal Election Commission accused Catholic bishops of “hiding” behind the Church’s tax exempt status instead of backing political candidates, and said that priests and lay Catholics have a “right” to conduct political activity on parish premises. 

The Catholic Church has had long-standing policies against endorsing particular candidates for political office. Experts in civil and canon law explained to CNA why Catholic clerics do not endorse political candidates, and why that issue touches on the religious liberty of the Church.

James E. Trainor, a Catholic, was appointed to the bipartisan commission by President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate earlier this year. He spoke Wednesday in an interview with the website Church Militant.

In his interview, Trainor questioned the legal and moral authority of bishops to limit the endorsement of candidates from the pulpit and in the pews.

“I don’t think a bishop has the right to tell a priest that he can’t come out and speak… When the priest takes the vow [sic] of obedience to the bishop, it is in the area of faith and morals, but they have a higher duty to our Lord, and if the bishop is putting something out there that is not right then the priest has an obligation to the faithful to correct it,” he said.

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.

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.

“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.

George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told CNA that in his view Trainor’s comments reflected a serious misunderstanding of the relationship between priests and bishops in the Church.

“Mr. Trainor seems woefully ill-informed about the relationship between the bishop and priests of a diocese,” Weigel said.

“He also seems to think of his fellow-Catholics as dolts who require specific instructions on voting from their religious leaders.”

Weigel reflected on a longstanding American anti-Catholic stereotype that bishops and priests direct Catholics about how to cast their votes. 

Trainor’s view “mirrors the false charge laid against Catholic immigrants for decades by anti-Catholic bigots, which suggests that Mr. Trainor is also not very well versed in U.S. Catholic history,” Weigel said. 

Fr. Pietrzyk told CNA that as chairman of the FEC, Trainor “is certainly free to opine on freedom, in American law, he is not competent, however, to evaluate the provisions of ecclesiastical law.”

“The ministry of a priest in a sacred place, like a church, may be legitimately directed by a bishop,” Pietrzyk said. 

“In addition, preaching within a sacred place, even a parish church, may be regulated by the diocesan bishop. Absent that guidance, a pastor does exercise that authority within his own parish. However, simply because he is the pastor does not give him the right to act contrary to the directives of his own pastor, the bishop.”

“As Pope St. John Paul II emphasized, the ministry of the pastor is not genuine when it runs contrary to the legitimate direction of his local bishop.”

Tags: US Bishops, Catholic News, Federal Election Commission

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