Should priests run for office?

22 October 2012, 16:10 | Andrew Sorokowski's column | 1 |   | Code for Blog |  | 


The Ukrainian parliamentary election campaigns have once again raised the question of clerical participation in politics. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church have forbidden their clergy to run for office. But historically, bishops and priests not only engaged in political activity, but held both legislative and executive positions. Why should they not do so now?

For Catholics, the 1917 Code of Canon Law forbade priests to hold public executive or legislative office without special permission (CIC 1917 canon 139 par. 2, par. 4). The 1983 Code flatly prevents them from holding any office involving the exercise of civil power (CIC 1983 sec. 285 (3), see also sec. 287 (2) limiting activity in political parties). The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (canons 383 (1), 384 (2)) follows the Latin code in this respect. But what is the reason behind the rule?

History suggests some answers. In the early modern period, bishops held office in representative assemblies like the French Estates General or the Senate of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (though Orthodox bishops were excluded). With the rise of democratic politics in the wake of the French Revolution,members of the lower clergybecame active in national liberation movements from Poland to Mexico. In Austrian Galicia in 1848,the Supreme Ruthenian Council was led by Greek-Catholic Bishop HryhoriiYakhymovych, and eight Greek-Catholic priests were elected to the Austrian House of Deputies. Sometimes, however, the political activity of the lower clergy came into conflict with the loyalties of their superiors.

With the triumph of mass politics in the twentieth century, clerical participation became more problematic. Msgr. AvhustynVoloshyn (born in Transcarpathia in 1874, ordained a Greek-Catholic priest in 1897) was active as a teacher, writer, and politician. He was a member of the Czechoslovak Parliament, leading theRuthenianNational Christian Party. Adopting a pro-Ukrainian position, he headedthe autonomous Carpatho-Ukrainian government which lasted from October 1938 to March 1939. Msgr. Voloshyn was president of the independent Carpatho-Ukrainian state which lasted for one day on 15March 1939. Arrested by the Soviet secret police in Prague in May 1945, the 71-year-old priest died within two months in Moscow’s Butyrkaprison.

The career of Slovak Roman Catholic priest Fr. Jozef Tiso (1887-1947) in some ways paralleled that of Msgr. Voloshyn. A member of the Slovak People’s Party (founded by fellow priest AndrejHlinka), he served in the Czechoslovak parliament from 1925 and in the government in 1927-1929. In October 1938 he became premier of the autonomous Slovak government. In February 1939 he refused German demands to declare Slovakia “independent” under Nazi auspices. In March, however, Hitler gave him a choice of independence under German “protection” or partition and annexation by Poland and Hungary (which had already taken a third of its territory the preceding November). On March 14 the Slovak parliament declared independence, withFr. Tisobecoming  prime minister, and from October 1939, president. In fact, his government was controlled by the Nazi authorities. Some historians hold Fr. Tiso responsible for the deportation and extermination of most of the Slovak Jews. Others point outthat he opposed the Nazis’ antisemitic policies, noting that the deportations were halted for some time. After the Soviet victory and the re-establishment of the Czechoslovak republic, Fr. Tiso was arrested and, after a well-publicized trial, sentenced to death for treason and Nazi collaboration in April 1947. The government refused clemency, despite the priest’s enormous popularity among the Slovaks. Fr. Tiso was hanged in Bratislava on18 April 1947 and buried in secret.

Two Roman Catholic priests served in the Congress of the United States. Fr. Robert John Cornell, O.Praem (1919-2009) served as a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Wisconsin from 1975 to 1979. His contemporary Fr. Robert Drinan, SJ (1920-2007) was more controversial. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1942, and was ordained in 1953. A lawyer and later a law professor, he was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1956, and served as Democratic congressman from Massachusettsfrom 1971 to 1981. An opponent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, in 1973 Fr. Drinanunsuccessfully sought impeachment of President Nixon on the ground that the bombing of Cambodia, which military advisers considered necessary to stop the communist invasion of South Vietnam, qualified as a “high crime and misdemeanor.” While Fr. Drinan personally opposed abortion as comparable to infanticide,he considered its legality a separate issue from its morality.He therefore supported a right to abortion – thus providing fresh meaning for the term “jesuitical reasoning.” When in 1980 Pope John Paul II demanded that all priests withdraw from electoral politics, both Fr. Cornell and Fr. Drinan complied. 

Nicaragua’s Fr. Ernesto Cardenal Martinez did not. Born in 1925, this “Christian Marxist” poet, priest, and politician spent a few years at Thomas Merton’s Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky before completing theological studiesin Cuernavaca, Mexico and entering the priesthood in 1965. A supporter of theFrente Sandinista deLiberacionNacional (FSLN), he served in Nicaragua’s Sandinista government as Minister of Culture from 1979. Visiting Managua in 1983, Pope John Paul II publicly berated the liberation theologian for his continuing political activity. Fr. Cardenal did not resign from the government, however, until his ministry was closed in 1987. He left the FSLN in 1994, objecting to its authoritarian turn.

In view of these examples, it is not surprising that the Catholic Church has forbidden priests to hold political office. It is not just that the exercise of civil authority is unseemly for a cleric, or that its consequences can be embarrassing for the Church. There is also the scandal that may arise when believers see their pastors rallying to political causes that they find morally offensive. Besides, political involvement carries the threat of secularization. After all, priests labor for a kingdom that is not of this world.

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  • Susan Jean Lepak | 30 October 2012, 04:57
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    It is not unreasonable to expect that clerics should enter the political fray where it concerns their duty to stand up for human rights and freedom.It is not wrong for them to influence their flock,for example to encourage them to vote their conscience and not to be afraid or sell out. To do so is to serve God, however, a priest holding office is an attempt to serve two masters. Not a good idea.

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  • bopa | 8 June 2020, 11:43

    То перераховані факти ви називаєте "фантазиями и ночными кошмарами"? Чому викладену інформацію ви "Очередная статья нижайшего интеллектуального уровня"? У вас

  • Slava43 | 4 June 2020, 13:46

    Це жодна агітація. На Буковині казали :»Мойше герехт, Сури герехт».

  • Slava43 | 4 June 2020, 13:39

    За часів союза, УПЦ підлягала моіковському патріярхату, примусово. Від незалежності УПЦ старалась отримати незалежність від Москви. Тепер, коли Україна має ТОМОС та незалежність то Лавру потрібно

  • Стефан | 2 June 2020, 15:54

    Последние события показали глубокий кризис РПЦ МП, где только отдельные редкие священнослужители твёрдо исповедуют Православную Веру, как схиигумен отец Сергий Романов, которого сейчас травят

  • Рокитне | 2 June 2020, 12:34

    Це добре було б.

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