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Priests Do Not Have a Political Mission

General Audience — July 28, 1993

The discussion of the presbyter's detachment from earthly goods is connected with that of his relationship to political affairs. Today more than ever one observes a continual interaction between economics and politics. This occurs both in the vast framework of problems on the national level, as well as in the more limited areas of personal and family life. This happens in the choice of parties, in electing one's own parliamentary representatives and public officials, in supporting the list of candidates presented to the citizens, and in statements on individuals, programs and budgets in regard to handling public affairs. It would be a mistake for politics to depend exclusively or primarily on the economic context. However, high-level projects in service to the human person and the common good are influenced by it. They cannot fail to take into account questions concerning the possession, use, allocation and distribution of earthly goods.

All these points have an ethical aspect that concerns priests too, precisely because of their service to man and society according to the mission they received from Christ. He taught a doctrine and formulated precepts that shed light not only on the life of individuals but also on that of society. In particular, Jesus formulated the precept of mutual love, which implies respect for every person and his rights. It implies rules of social justice aiming at recognizing what is each person's due and at harmoniously sharing earthly goods among individuals, families and groups. In addition, Jesus stressed the universal quality of love, above and beyond the differences of race and nationality constituting humanity. In calling himself the "Son of Man," he wanted to state, by the very way he presented his messianic identity, that his work was meant for every human person, without discrimination of class, language, culture, or ethnic and social group. Proclaiming peace for his disciples and for all people, Jesus laid the foundation for the precept of fraternal love, solidarity and reciprocal help on a universal scale. For him this clearly was and is the aim and principle of good politics.

Nevertheless, Jesus never wanted to be involved in a political movement, and fled from every attempt to draw him into earthly questions and affairs (cf. Jn 6:15). The kingdom he came to establish does not belong to this world (cf. Jn 18:36). For this reason he said to those who wanted him to take a stand regarding the civil power: "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" (Mt 22:21). He never promised the Jewish nation, to which he belonged and which he loved, the political liberation that many expected from the Messiah. Jesus stated that he came as the Son of God to offer humanity, enslaved by sin, spiritual liberation and a calling to the kingdom of God (cf. Jn 8:34-36). He said that he came not to be served, but to serve (cf. Mt 20:28). He said that his followers, especially the apostles, should not think of earthly power and dominion over nations as do the rulers of this world. Instead, they should be the humble servants of all (cf. Mt 20:20-28), like their "Teacher and Master" (Jn 13:13-14).

Certainly this spiritual liberation brought by Jesus was to have decisive consequences in all areas of social and private life. It opened an era of new appreciation for man as a person and for relations between individuals according to justice. However, the Son of Man's immediate concern was not in this direction.

It is easy to understand that this state of poverty and freedom is most fitting for the priest. He is the spokesman for Christ in proclaiming human redemption and in his ministry of applying its fruits to every area and at every level of life. As the 1971 Synod of Bishops said:

"Together with the entire Church, priests are obliged, to their utmost ability, to select a definite pattern of action when it is a question of the defense of fundamental human rights, the promotion of the full development of persons and the pursuit of the cause of peace and justice. The means must indeed always be consonant with the Gospel. These principles are all valid not only in the individual sphere, but also in the social field; in this regard priests should help the laity to devote themselves to forming their consciences rightly" (Ench. Vat., IV, 1194).

This text, which shows that priests are united with all the Church's members in serving justice and peace, allows us to see that the role of priests in social and political action is not identical to that of the laity. This is said more clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where we read: "It is not the role of the pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political structuring and organization of social life. This task is part of the vocation of the lay faithful, acting on their own initiative with their fellow citizens" (CCC 2442).

The lay Christian is called to be directly involved in this activity to make his contribution so that Gospel principles may hold ever greater sway in society. Following Christ, the priest is more directly concerned with the growth of God's kingdom. Like Jesus, he must renounce involvement in political activity, especially by not taking sides (which almost inevitably happens). Thus he will remain a man for all in terms of brotherhood and, to the extent that he is accepted as such, of spiritual fatherhood.

Naturally in regard to individuals, groups and situations there can be exceptional cases in which it may seem opportune or even necessary to help or supplement public institutions that are lacking or in disarray, in order to support the cause of justice and peace. Ecclesiastical institutions themselves, even at the highest level, have provided this service in the past, with all the advantages, but also with all the burdens and difficulties that this entails. Providentially, modern political, constitutional and doctrinal development tends in another direction. Civil society has been progressively given institutions and resources to fulfill its own tasks autonomously (cf. GS 40, 76).

Thus the Church still has her own task: proclaiming the Gospel, limiting herself to cooperating in her own way in the common good, without aiming at or accepting a political role.

In this light one can better understand what was decided by the 1971 Synod of Bishops regarding the priest's conduct in political life. He certainly retains the right to have personal political opinions and to exercise his right to vote according to his conscience. As the Synod said: "In circumstances in which there legitimately exist different political, social and economic options, priests like all citizens have a right to make their own personal choices. But since political options are by nature contingent and never in an entirely adequate and perennial way interpret the Gospel, the priest, who is the witness of things to come, must keep a certain distance from any political office or involvement" (Ench. Vat., IV, 1195). In particular, he will keep in mind that a political party can never be identified with the truth of the Gospel, and therefore, unlike the Gospel, it can never become an object of absolute loyalty. Thus the presbyter will take this relativity into account, even when citizens of the Christian faith laudably form parties explicitly inspired by the Gospel. He must strive to shed the light of Christ on other parties and social groups too.

It should be added that the presbyter's right to express his own personal choices is limited by the requirements of his priestly ministry. This limitation too can be an aspect of the poverty he is called to practice following Christ's example. In fact, he can sometimes be obliged to abstain from exercising his own right so that he can be a strong sign of unity, and thus proclaim the Gospel in its fullness. Even more, he must avoid presenting his own choice as the only legitimate one, and within the Christian community, he should respect the maturity of the laity (cf. Ench. Vat., IV, 1196), and even work to help them achieve that maturity by forming their consciences (cf. Ench. Vat., IV, 1194). He will do what is possible to avoid making enemies by taking political stands that cause distrust and drive away the faithful entrusted to his pastoral mission.

The 1971 Synod of Bishops especially stressed that the presbyter must abstain from all political activism: "Leadership or active militancy on behalf of any political party is to be excluded by every priest unless, in concrete and exceptional circumstances, this is truly required by the good of the community, and receives the consent of the bishop after consultation with the presbyteral council and, if circumstances call for it, with the episcopal conference" (Ench. Vat., IV, 1197). Thus it is possible to derogate from the common norm, but this can be justified only in truly exceptional circumstances and requires due authorization.

In their generous service to the gospel ideal, some priests feel drawn to political involvement in order to help more effectively in reforming political life and in eliminating injustices, exploitation, and every type of oppression. The Church reminds them that on this road it is easy to be caught in partisan strife, with the risk of helping not to bring about the just world for which they long, but new and worse ways of exploiting poor people. In any case they must know that they have neither the mission nor the charism from above for this political involvement and activism.

Therefore, I pray and invite you to pray that priests may have ever greater faith in their own pastoral mission for the good of the society in which they live. May they recognize its importance in our age too and understand this statement of the 1971 Synod of Bishops: "The priority of the specific mission which pervades the entire priestly existence must therefore always be kept in mind so that with great confidence, and having a renewed experience of the things of God, priests may be able to announce these things effectively and joyfully to the people who await them" (Ench. Vat., IV, 1198).

Yes, I hope and pray that my brother priests today and tomorrow may increasingly be given this gift of spiritual insight, which enables them to understand and to follow the life of poverty taught by Jesus in its political dimension as well.