Saint Pedro de Jesús Maldonado was
a priest ordained in the Cathedral of
El Paso in 1918 and martyred for the
faith during the Mexican Persecutions
The next several Sundays parking lots in many Catholic churches will be leafleted with partisan literature advocating one candidate or another because this candidate is pro-life and anti-same-sex marriage or because this candidate’s opponent is pro-abortion or pro-same-sex marriage. Some pastors will try to stop the leafleting squads, others will invite them into the rectory for coffee and rolls. Many people don’t see the issue with the Church endorsing a particular political candidate. Unfortunately the United States tax code does. What is the role of the Church when it comes to politics?
There are serious moral issues and the Church must struggle to maintain its right to speak on moral issues even when those moral issues have political repercussions. There is much debate about the role of Pope Pius XII and the Nazi Holocaust. Some claim that the Pope “did what he could.” Others claim that he did nothing. From the viewpoint of history, even if Pius did “all he could” he did not do enough. I am not a foe of Pius; in fact I would rank him as one of the greatest popes of the 20th century, perhaps even the greatest. He was not indifferent to the suffering of the victims of the Nazi regime. He took particular interest in saving the Jews of Rome and was proactive in that cause. The Italian Jews in general and the Roman Jews in particular suffered fewer deportations and subsequent murders than Jews in the rest of Axis and occupied Europe. This was due to a number of factors but not least of these factors was the role of the Catholic Church and of the Pope. Nevertheless, Pope Pius XII still failed to meet the moral challenge. He was very unwise not to speak more clearly both in condemning the racial policies of National Socialism and in warning the peoples of Europe of the exact nature of the Nazi Holocaust.
There were courageous churchmen who did speak out against the Nazis. Konrad von Preysing was the Bishop of Berlin from 1935 until his death in 1950. He was an outspoken opponent of the Nazi Regime and both its policy of eugenics and extermination of the Jews. Bernhard Lichtenberg, provost of von Preysing’s Cathedral in Berlin, was arrested and sent to Dachau for his public prayers for the Jews. He died on his way to the camp. Clemens Augustus Graf (Count) von Galen, bishop of Münster was another vehement oppose of the Nazi Regime. He had openly supported the Protestant candidate, Paul von Hindenburg, for the Reichs presidency in 1925 in the hopes of preserving the Weimar Republic and he actively opposed the Nazi party in the 1933 elections. During the Nazi regime he regularly preached against its policies. There are times when regardless of the restrictions of civil law, those entrusted with preaching the gospel must speak up and speak out.
Nevertheless, I am not sure that Father Rodriguez falls into the same league as the Cardinals von Preysing and von Galen or even Canon Lichtenberg. No one can legitimately complain about a sermon upholding the traditional view of the sacred nature of marriage between one man and one woman any more than we could fault a sermon on the sanctity of human life. In the same way priests and deacons need to speak up not only against abortion but against the death penalty, against wars that the Catholic Church has declared acts of unjust aggression, against funding the training of assassins in our military installations, against torture, and other attacks on human life and dignity. I defend priests and religious demonstrating at the gates of Fort Benning where the notorious Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as “The School of the Americas”) and so I need to defend priests and religious marching or praying in front of abortion mills. I think Catholics were far too slow to get into the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and so I need to applaud those Catholics who come out in defense of life every January. Churchmen—and Churchwomen—don’t lose their rights to voice their political views as individuals even if the tax-exempt organization to which they belong must abstain from overt political activity. It is a fine line. But I do not think that the clergy or religious should go to public gatherings and give political opinions. I don’t believe that a priest or religious belongs addressing a city council meeting or other governmental body unless they are called as an expert witness to give testimony—in which case they are not there as a member of the clergy but as a sociologist, psychologist, lawyer, or whatever their field of expertise is. Catholic doctrine qua Catholic doctrine does not belong in the political forum any more than does the doctrinal teachings of any other religion. If the clergy are doing their job of informing their laity, educating their laity in the teachings of the Church, it is the role of the laity not the clergy to participate in political life. I believe—and I am speaking only as an individual—but I believe that it is the work of the clergy to change hearts and it is the apostolate of those changed hearts to change the laws. So I think Bishop Ochoa is right. Keep Father Rodriguez in a pulpit, but get him out of City Council Meetings. Oh, and by the way, remind him that according to the norms of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, the cassock is proper to church property, not to public appearances whether of duty or recreation.