Father Ernesto Cardenal, the poet-
priest of Nicaragua who defied the
order of Pope John Paul to resign his
post as Minister of Culture in 1983.
Sister Agnes Mary Mansour, RSM, was appointed the director of the Michigan Department of Social Services in 1982. As her job entailed administering funds for abortions, the Holy See determined, not unreasonably, that it was not appropriate for a religious to hold this post and she was given an ultimatum to either secularize or give up her post. Sister Mansour reluctantly asked for a dispensation from her vows. She was able to remain an affiliate of the Sisters of Mercy and continued to live with the Sisters and for all practical purposes to live as a Sister for the remainder of her life. She died in the Mercy Sisters’ infirmary and was buried in their plot at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, Southfield MI.
Father Robert Drinan, SJ, was elected to Congress as a Democrat on an anti-Vietnam War platform in 1970. Drinan had been admitted to the Bar in Massachusetts in 1956 and had served as Dean of the Law School of Boston College from that time until his election to Congress. In Congress he earned a reputation for espousing liberal causes, most of which were soundly rooted in the Magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church as found in papal encyclicals and the Documents of the Second Vatican Council. An unfortunate exception was his support of abortion “rights” where he tried to separate personal opposition (he called it ‘virtual infanticide’) from public policy. It was and remains a dubious distinction. In 1980 when Pope John Paul demanded that all clergy and religious withdraw from public office, Drinan obediently complied though he remained a powerful commentator on American political and public life to the annoyance of not a few bishops and many conservative Catholics. Contrary to what many think, Father Drinan was not the only priest toserve in Congress. Father Robert Cornell, a Norbertine Canon from Saint Norbert’s Abbey in DePere had served from 1975-1979 representing his district in Wisconsin. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Father Gabriel Richard, a French immigrant, had served as a non-voting delegate from the Michigan Territory.
While Fathers Cornell, Drinan, and Richard had all done credible service in their political careers—short though they were—not all priests have been witnesses to the compassion of Christ in their political involvement. Monsignor Josef Tiso (1887-1947) was the President of Slovakia from 1939-1945) during which time he was a collaborator with Slovakia’s Nazi overlords. Far from using his admittedly limited power to shield Jews, Gypsies and other peoples marked for destruction, Tiso embraced the anti-Semitic policies of the Reich. He was hanged as a war criminal in 1947.
A far more morally credible example of a priest in politics is the noted Nicaraguan poet, Ernesto Cardenal. Cardenal comes from a wealthy Central American family and he studied in the United States. He had spent time in the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky where Thomas Merton had been his Novice Master. Cardenal did not profess final vows but instead went to Cuernavaca in Mexico where he studied for the priesthood. At Solentiname in Nicaragua Cardenal established a semi-monastic community of peasants from which developed a famous artist colony. A supporter of the peasants in their struggles with the plutocratic families that had long dominated Nicaragua (with American assistance) politically and economically, Cardenal was appointed Minister of Culture when the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza regime. He ignored Pope John Paul’s demands to resign from the Government and was rebuked by the Pope during the papal visit to Nicaragua in 1983. That visit was a public relations disaster for the papacy as it was made to appear that the Church favored the wealthy families who had long ruled Nicaragua and opposed the popular Sandinista regime. At several points the crowds booed the pope when he spoke against the government. John Paul’s personal experiences with Socialism in Poland left him with a very unnuanced appreciation of the situation in Central America. On the other hand, Ortega and others were initially blind to the authoritarian and undemocratic aspects of the Ortega regime. Cardenal eventually broke with Ortega claiming that Ortega’s party was a “false revolution” that had betrayed the people of Nicaragua. Five years ago Cardenal was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature in recognition of his status as one of the great poets of our time.
I think priests and religious often have much to bring to the political arena. They are often highly perceptive of human nature; they are usually more compassionate for the needs of the poor. At least in the past the clergy and the women religious have been not only better educated than the average Catholic, they have often been of notably above average intellect. I think they usually have a moral anchor and the skills to articulate that. With the socio-economic advances of the Catholic population over the last half century I think today the laity are often better educated though not necessarily more intelligent. (I am reluctant to trust my impressions on a matter than needs objectification.) It does seem however that clergy and religious have a proper role in the moral education of the faithful but that the direct political action belongs not to the clergy but to the laity. So I think Father Rodriguez is fine in the pulpit and even in the newspapers, but not at the city council meeting. I also think he is wrong about Catholics having to oppose partner “benefits” regardless of marital status and indeed even about the legalization of same-sex marriages. But we can save that for another day.