Q. Are priests allowed to hold public office?
A. St. Pope John Paul II said that “at its deepest level, every vocation to the priesthood is a great mystery; it is a gift which infinitely transcends the individual.” The Lord takes the humanity and personality of a priest, and uses it for the sake of the Kingdom.
Priests are ordinary men, but the Lord works through them in a unique manner. Through their priestly ordination priests are changed in their very being to act in the person of Christ. The ministerial priest, through the character that he receives in Holy Orders, teaches, governs and offers the Eucharistic sacrifice, making present Christ’s redeeming work. By conforming himself more closely to the person of Christ, the People of God are able to see Christ in him.
The Code of Canon Law first offers some broad guidelines about the appropriate lifestyle of the priest, and then it gets more specific. Clerics are to foster simplicity in life and avoid things that would appear vain. Clerics are to avoid those things that are “unbecoming to their state” (Canon 285 §1).
Specifically, the Code says clerics are forbidden to conduct business or trade personally, without the permission of proper Church authorities. The Code is also quite clear in prohibiting clerics from holding public office. It states that “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail participation in the exercise of civil power” (Canon 285 §3). (Permanent deacons, who are clerics, are not prohibited from holding public office.)
The Church interprets “an exercise of civil power” in regard to public office as political authority in the executive, judicial, or legislative branches. Therefore, a priest should not seek to become president or mayor; judge; congressman or city councilman, among other positions.
The philosopher Aristotle said that man is a “political animal.” This does not mean that every human being must be fascinated by politics. It means that we are individuals, but also members of communities, and therefore we all have an interest in the common good. The common good ought to be the goal of every political activity.
Entering into politics is a noble pursuit. However, the Church prohibits priests from entering politics because it’s not an appropriate profession, given their calling. Having priests in public office could sow confusion. There are many issues that are intrinsically evil that a politician could never support, for instance abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage. However, there are also issues that are up for debate, and left to the prudential judgment of the politician, such as the appropriate tax rate for various incomes, whether a particular issue should be addressed by the federal government or the states, or whether or not a proposed new sports stadium in a city is necessary. If a priest were to vote in these areas of prudential judgment, it may appear that his judgment is the official position of the Church, and, thus, create confusion.
This is not to say that the life of a priest should have nothing to do with politics. A good and just society is fertile ground to receive the message of the Gospel. The Church does much to contribute to the common good of society. All Catholics are to speak out against atrocities against the dignity of the human person and offenses to religious liberty.
Nevertheless, a priest must always keep his identity as “another Christ” in his thoughts and in his actions. We recall in John’s Gospel, after Jesus worked a great miracle of feeding 5,000 people, Jesus knew that the people would want to crown him as a king, so he slipped away (Jn 6:15). Jesus knew that his mission and identity may be compromised or confused if he were given temporal power. A priest is prohibited from seeking public office to avoid the same kind of confusion, so that their priestly character might shine through them.
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