Priests and politics: The separation of church and state

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At Sunday Mass a few weeks ago, I was listening to the homily in my usual benign trance when I was jolted awake by hearing our priest urging our Catholic political leaders to vote according to Catholic teachings in their governmental roles.

But what about separation of church and state? But this merging of religion and government seems to be commonplace these last years. Never mind that our country was founded on strict separation of church by leaders weary of constant religious wars in Europe. Forget that citizens may belong to religions other than Christianity or not follow any religion at all. It almost seems some Christians want a theocracy, a form of government in which one's religion and one's government are one and the same.

Voting according to one's religious beliefs is a good thing for individuals expressing their views at the ballot box. A problem arises when an elected official votes according to his or her personal beliefs while in an official capacity, such as passing legislation without regard for what his or her constituents may want.

The other big issue here is that churches and religious organizations are tax-exempt with the provision they not use the pulpit or their organization to endorse political candidates or positions. Many feel being able to use the pulpit to endorse or oppose candidates and issues should only be allowed if those doing so give up their tax-exempt status.There's other problems with using the pulpit for political purposes and a story entitled "Should Priests Speak About Party Politics?" by John Clark in the Jan. 14, 2020, National Catholic Register lays them out.

Already in early 2020, Clark said Americans were not so much sick of politics as sick with politics. Every event from a family birthday party to a community celebration involved often vitriolic political discussions as families and friends discovered people they thought they knew had opposing political views, which in the new norm seems to not be tolerated. A priest pouring more salt on the wound of political differences is not helpful, Clark says. Instead, he recommends priests need to help people heal, which is why he advises priests to not use the pulpit or their social media page for politics.

He's concerned that discussing politics from the pulpit may confuse the congregation as to what is the speaker's personal views and what is official church teaching. Then there's the matter of about half of any group not agreeing with political views expressed and choosing to tune out the speaker. Clark is concerned that eventually these people may choose to tune out the cleric's religious teaching as well and perhaps to even leave the church. This is not something the church can afford to have happen as Clark says, "the body of Christ (the church) is hemorrhaging already at an alarming rate." Pastors should highlight human rights and duties without referencing personalities or positions to make their point.

As if pastors preaching politics from the pulpit isn't enough, some pastors go on social media to preach their version of the political gospel, where they urge supporting or opposing government officials and policies. Never mind that Jesus hardly mentioned the tyrannical Roman officials of his day; these political pastors speak of little else.

One who pops up frequently is Father Edward Meeks of Baltimore, Maryland. Meeks, raised Catholic, converted to Anglicism, then reclaiming his Catholic roots by becoming a Catholic priest in 1996, has become known for his extreme views on everything from COVID-19 to the moral character of the current president and shares his views from his pulpit and through YouTube online videos. Last November he preached from his church pulpit, "our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. No earthly king or president or public health official… gets to dictate what we put in our bodies… that's between us and God," in reference to COVID-19 vaccinations.

He shared more of these views in a 26-minute YouTube video that, among other things, proclaims President Joe Biden is "unabashedly pro-abortion" and that the Biden administration is a danger to this country's religious liberty. This, by the way, is in direct opposition to a 1994 Vatican directive saying that a priest "ought to refrain from actively engaging himself in politics."

Beyond that, the religious liberty such demagogues tout extends only to those holding the same beliefs. Let someone claim the religious liberty to hold different beliefs and the response would be similar to that of the early American Puritans who silenced or drove out anyone disagreeing with their own brand of far-right intolerance.

— This is the opinion of Times Writers Group member Lois Thielen, a dairy farmer who lives near Grey Eagle. Her column is published monthly.

This article originally appeared on St. Cloud Times: Priests and politics: The separation of church and state