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This week: Should clerics vote? Is bankruptcy a disgrace? And more.

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 28, 2020

► This week’s news was dominated by reports about the coronavirus. Even in Rome, when Pope Francis curtailed his schedule for a few days because of a “slight indisposition,” some overeager reporters questioned whether it was possible the Pontiff had somehow contracted the feared virus. Yes, it’s possible. But not at all probable. There was no report of an outbreak in Rome, and statements from Vatican officials—who were obviously being terse, to discourage speculation—suggested that in the Pope’s case the culprit was an ordinary winter flu.

By the way, questions about the Pope’s health will probably remain unanswered next week. After his scheduled public audience on Sunday, he is due to go into seclusion for a week, with the leaders of the Roman Curia, for the annual Lenten Retreat.

► Otherwise it was a quiet week. But I was taken aback, I admit, by Archbishop Bernard Hebda’s directive that priests and deacons in his St. Paul archdiocese should not vote in Minnesota’s presidential primary. Why would a prelate discourage clerics from exercising their civic rights—and, some would say, their duties? Archbishop Hebda explained that voting “could be seen as ‘partisan’ political activity” under new Minnesota rules for the primary, and canon law bars clerics from involvement in “partisan” causes.

The new rules in Minnesota are neither unusual nor extreme. They require primary voters to select the ballot of a particular political party; this is, after all, a primary, to determine the parties’ candidates. And records are kept of which voters chose which ballots. Pulling a ballot for one party does not necessarily mean that the voter endorses that party’s platform or favors that party’s candidate. The voter could, if he wished, write in a Republican candidate’s name on a Democratic party ballot, or vice versa. There is no public record of how the voter marked the ballot—only of which ballot he chose. So a cleric’s “activity” inside the voting booth would still be secret, and unlikely to embroil the Church in political disputes. But when a voter chooses not to vote in the primary, he forfeits any opportunity to influence the party’s—any party’s—choices. So the archbishop is asking clerics not to make their voices heard in the political process. Again I wonder: why?

Maybe I’m too cynical, but I wonder whether Archbishop Hebda knows that a solid majority of his priests would choose to vote in the Democratic primary. If so, it’s theoretically possible that some energetic researcher could search the voter rolls and determine which percentage of the local clergy chose to participate in the primary of a party whose leadership is firmly committed to legal abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, and gender ideology. We still wouldn’t know how those priests voted. But the data would be interesting, wouldn’t they?

► This week also brought the news that the Diocese of Buffalo has filed for bankruptcy protection, the 22nd American diocese to take that step. (The neighboring Diocese of Ogdensburg will likely join the list soon.) I can still remember the time in 2002 when the finance council of the Boston archdiocese approved a move toward bankruptcy. At the time the decision was shocking. No American diocese had ever previously contemplated such a radical step, and as things happened the Boston archdiocese never took it. But now there are 22 on the list (23 if you include the Archdiocese of Agana in Guam, a US territory), and the list is sure to grow longer. Signs of unhappy times.

► Before I sign off for the week, let me call attention to two noteworthy articles on other sites:

  • Stephen White, writing for The Catholic Thing, expresses misgivings about the decision to remove the McCarrick coat of arms from the walls of St. Matthew’s cathedral in Washington. The former cardinal-archbishop now lives in disgrace, but he was a part of the history of the archdiocese. Do we want to erase that history? As White frames the question:
    Removing McCarrick’s name and arms from the cathedral may make things less painful for us in the short run, but I’m not sure they make anything better in the long run: for us, for him, or for the faithful who will come long after all the rest of us are gone.
  • And since the coronavirus is so much in the news, take a look at Alessandra Bocchi’s analysis, for the Wall Street Journal, of how Italian Catholic dioceses are responding to the epidemic there. In the north, where the virus has spread quickly, churches have been closed, on directives from public-health officials. Bocchi remarks that when the Black Plague ripped through Milan in the 17th century, the churches stayed open and priests risked their own lives to provide the sacraments to those who were in danger. Not so today, Bocchi observes:
    Once a firm source of strength against all adversity—with men of the church willing to die to keep the presence of Jesus Christ in the lives of believers—now churches across Italy have suspended all religious activities except weddings and funerals, which can be attended only by close relatives.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 02, 2020 7:58 AM ET USA

    First, I was on the side of bishop Hebda, thinking there was no need for priests to reveal their political leanings and to antagonize parishioners. It took me a while to realize that no Catholic, and certainly no priest or bishop, can in good conscience lend their support to unrestricted abortions and infanticide proposed by every Democrat candidate. Innocent human life is the preeminent issue for all voters, and the clergy must not hide their standing on priorities.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Feb. 29, 2020 3:34 PM ET USA

    I read somewhere that when a diocese declares bankruptcy, it cannot be forced to pay damages in a civil suit—sort of a copping out. OTOH—why should money donated by the faithful pay for individual clerics’ sins? Could you, or some moral theologian and/or canon lawyer tell me what’s the RIGHT solution?

  • Posted by: wenner1687 - Feb. 29, 2020 6:40 AM ET USA

    Archbishop Hebda is attempting to render to God (with God's disapproval) what is Caesar's--the civil right & patriotic duty of his clerics to vote for the good of their community. If bankruptcy is required to "do the right thing" in making amends for the sins of some corrupt clergy, then it is a duty of justice whether it is a "disgrace" or not. End of.

  • Posted by: Cory - Feb. 28, 2020 11:39 PM ET USA

    That last topic really is just a sign of the times - the shepherds abandoning the sheep

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Feb. 28, 2020 5:39 PM ET USA

    We have an open primary in Virginia, and since Trump will win the Republican one easily, I will vote in the Democrat primary, either for the candidate most like to lose to Trump or the one who would do least harm if he were to win. I mention this only to point out one can't infer someone's political leanings from which primary they vote in, in a state with an open primary.