Models of Political Meddling by Clerics

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 24, 2020

A priest is a messenger boy. His job is to sow the good seeds of the Gospel on behalf of Jesus, and cast away the evil seeds of the Devil. He has authority only to the extent he teaches in union with Christ. If he wishes to be a good priest, he must jealously guard the integrity of that authority for the salvation of souls.

The clergy feel a lot of pressure to respond to the political events of the day, and often find it difficult to remain silent. In June, El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz took a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement (including its violence?). Apparently the Holy Father approved. But the pressure for a pastoral response from the clergy usually comes from the laity, often eager to claim the pastor as a political ally. But clerical meddling in politics is fraught with danger.

Jesus distinguishes: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mt. 22:21) Hence as a general rule, the priest and bishop speak from the “religious sphere,” and the people apply Christian teaching in the secular or “political sphere.” Priests and bishops spread the good seed of the Gospel when they preach solid Christian principles, with (one hopes) prudent illustrations. But the faithful have the ultimate responsibility, with God’s grace, to go further and apply those Christian principles.

Although there is usually overlap, it is important to maintain the distinction between the religious and political spheres. Yet the clergy often (unwittingly, foolishly, sloppily, or maliciously) violate the rights of the laity by encroaching on their political prerogatives. In matters of public policy such as immigration, taxation, foreign policy, and government bureaucracies, there is plenty of room for debate. Guided by Catholic moral principles, it’s perfectly legitimate for the laity to disagree with episcopal—and even Vatican—prudential judgments and remain in good conscience.

Some people suggest that priests are dabbling in politics when they condemn abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. But from an orthodox Catholic point of view, intrinsically evil actions are mortal sins. So it’s fair game for a priest to play the part of John the Baptist and identify the proponents—including Catholic politicians who promote these evils—for the brood of vipers they are.

There are extraordinary examples of churchmen venturing into the political sphere with great success. But it’s a risky business. Pope John Paul II, for example, as the Vicar of Christ, but also as the head of the Vatican city-state, helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet empire by his support of Solidarity, the Polish workers’ movement. The power of his personality, and his life experience under Communist rule, added to the authority of his position as Pope. This was a rare combination that seems to have been possible only in the providence of God. But the possibilities of clerical overreach remain.

Here is a story of one such overreach, the history of Bishop Alois Karl Hudal, an Austrian bishop who died in 1963. During World War I, he was an army chaplain. He preached, “loyalty to the flag is loyalty to God” but he also warned against “national chauvinism.” Picture-perfect advice for soldiers on both sides of the battle lines. Later, he rose up through Church ranks and ventured into national politics. In 1933, Hudal publicly embraced pan-Germanic nationalism as he struggled to reconcile the emergence of National Socialism with the Christian faith.

Bishop Hudal was a committed anti-Communist. He was most concerned with the rise of the international Communist movement and its infiltration of the worker parties in Austria. He thought there was an urgent need for a Christian army from Central Europe to invade Russia and eliminate the Communist threat to the Church.

By 1935, Bishop Hudal proposed a list of “errors and heresies” of the era, condemning several racist errors of Nazi politicians. He criticized the works of several Nazi ideologues, like Alfred Rosenberg and Ernst Bergmann, who considered Christianity “alien to Germanic genius.” He considered Himmler a left-wing fanatic. He proposed a “truly Christian National Socialism”: education and church affairs would be controlled by the Church, while political discourse would remain exclusively National Socialist.

Much of this, before the outbreak of the war, suggested noble aspirations. During the war, as a friend of National Socialism, he intervened with the German military governor of Rome to suspend all activities against the Jews. But after the war, Hudal worked the “ratlines,” helping former Nazis find safe haven in overseas countries. He viewed it as “a charity to people in dire need, for persons without any guilt who are to be made scapegoats for the failures of an evil system.” It is said that he assisted Adolph Eichmann and other war criminals to escape to Argentina.

When a priest meddles in politics, there are significant dangers to his ministry and to the people he serves. He risks not only damaging his authority as a priest of Jesus Christ but unleashing great evils. So as a priest, when I offer my views on the current troubles (below), many Catholics will undoubtedly heartily agree. Others, like Bishop Seitz, may disagree. It doesn’t matter. The political sphere belongs to the laity and they need to work out their differences according to their state of life.

In my view, the violence we see in the cities has very little or nothing to do with racism. I believe it is a Marxist-Leninist diabolical assault on the family and our culture. We’ve seen it before in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and—going all the way back to 1917—in Russia. At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow (Phil 2:10). But not for Communist agitators.

As long as you keep the salvation of your soul as your first priority, you can take or leave my opinion. But it’s helpful to keep in mind this useful nugget of political wisdom by Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines.
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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 26, 2020 5:59 PM ET USA

    Burke's observation that you quoted is among the most important pieces of political advice of all time.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Jul. 24, 2020 5:53 PM ET USA

    Because of the times we are living in, IMHO, it is increasingly impossible for members of the clergy to remain silent as so much of what is going on is a direct, frontal assault on fundamental tenets of Catholicism and when no one speaks of such things, it is easily taken as an "it must be OK" view. And besides John the Baptist, Christ Himself drove out evil from the temple. Discernment and prudence are the order of the day but the battle must be joined.