I have observed a concerning phenomenon in the U.S. as we draw closer to the 2020 election. Many Catholics lament that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has become too political. This is something I agree with, especially when the USCCB’s website looks like something from a non-governmental agency as opposed to an arm of the Church. But there is political posturing everywhere, while the call to holiness is hard to find.
It is only through a life of holiness that we can transform the natural order.
Those concerned about the over-politicization of the USCCB will often change their tune when a priest comes out in favor of their own political convictions. This happens with both conservatives and liberals. You can’t have it both ways, however.
Either the priesthood should not become overly political or it ought to be political, but it cannot change based on the position a priest or bishop takes on a political matter when it supports our own political convictions. That is hypocritical.
The priesthood should not become overly political one way or the other, especially publicly. The Church condemns erroneous philosophies, immoral economic systems, violations of the moral law, and injustice. She does not, however, endorse specific political parties. The most basic reason for this is that there is no political party in existence that represents the whole of Catholic Social Teaching. The Church, in her relationship with the fallen world, understands that she must lead people to properly discern, through the teachings of the Church, how best to put those teachings into practice in imperfect situations.
Every political faction supports some evils counter to the teachings of the Church. This is why the Church guides us to the hierarchical structure of the moral law, which has the dignity of the human person as the highest priority with all rights flowing from the right to life. Therefore, she teaches that abortion and euthanasia are intrinsic evils that cannot be supported by Catholics, since they violate the right to life.
The Higher Calling of the Priesthood
The sacred office of the priesthood is not meant to be dragged into the political mudslinging of different periods in history. Rather, the priesthood is meant to teach, to govern, and to sanctify the People of God so that—with properly formed consciences and as dedicated Christian disciples—we can go out and transform the political order and pursue the common good.
Priests should be good citizens and exercise their right to vote. They should also engage with the culture, as priests called to evangelize. However, as the People of God, we should not desire for them to become our political allies lest we choose the world over their supernatural calling.
Our primary objective, in relation to the priesthood, should be to protect the dignity of their sacred office above all else. Throughout Church history, priests and bishops who become overly involved in political battles, or who sought to enjoy the privileges of the political class, have sold their souls for the world, abandoned their priesthood, or brought greater corruption into the Church. The dangers of honor, power, and greed are just as strong for priests as they are for the laity.
The identity of the priesthood primarily comes from their relationships with the Church and, most especially, with Jesus Christ the Eternal High Priest:
The priest finds the full truth of his identity in being a derivation, a specific participation in and continuation of Christ himself, the one high priest of the new and eternal covenant. The priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the priest. The priesthood of Christ, the expression of his absolute “newness” in salvation history, constitutes the one source and essential model of the priesthood shared by all Christians and the priest in particular. Reference to Christ is thus the absolutely necessary key for understanding the reality of priesthood.—St. John Paul II, Pastores Vabo Dobis, 12
With the one definitive sacrifice of the cross, Jesus communicated to all his disciples the dignity and mission of priests of the new and eternal covenant…Therefore, priests are called to prolong the presence of Christ, the one high priest, embodying his way of life and making him visible in the midst of the flock entrusted to their care.—Ibid 13-15.
The priest is meant to act as an alter Christus (another Christ) in the world. He primarily accomplishes this through the proclamation of the Word, the Sacraments, and their call to pastoral charity. The priesthood reaches its apex in the celebration of the Mass, when they stand in persona Christi capitis. Their call is to reflect Christ to the world in everything they do.
The Jews of Jesus’s day were looking for a Messiah to overturn the world order: to conquer Rome and re-establish the Davidic Kingdom. Instead, Our Lord stays away from this political role, focusing on eternal salvation. He seeks to draw people to the Kingdom of God and to life with Him. This is what our priests are meant to be doing in His image. They are called to lead us on the path to holiness, so that we can go out and transform the natural order, which is the call given to the laity.
Priests are there to serve the faith, hope and charity of the laity. They recognize and uphold, as brothers and friends, the dignity of the laity as children of God and help them to exercise fully their specific role in the overall context of the Church’s mission.—Ibid 17
The Priest Leads
As priests assist us in our mission, we should encourage them to grow in their identification with Christ Crucified. They ought to help lead us to sanctity, not dragged away from their sacred calling because we want priestly political allies to justify our political convictions.
This doesn’t mean the priesthood doesn’t engage with the culture, they should and must. But this engagement should never be done in a way that blurs the line between their sacred office and political identity.
To encourage a politicized priesthood is to seek to lead priests away from their supernatural identity in Christ. This causes scandal to the faithful and to the world because it leads people to see the priesthood not from the perspective of Christ, but through the lens of the political battles of our day. This is an impediment to their evangelical mission. The integrity and dignity of priestly identity must be defended and protected from anything that can interfere with their identification with Christ.
Those who are concerned about the over-politicization of the hierarchy are right to be concerned, but we should not merely be concerned if it doesn’t line up with a particular political ideology. The priesthood’s mission is too important and too sacred to be reduced to our personal political beliefs. Our world needs more St. John Vianneys and St. Padre Pios, not more politicians or bureaucrats in the priesthood.