Bishop Bonsu’s Corner : ‘Can a Catholic priest be a running mate or presidential candidate of a political party?’

Question by Ambrose Kusi:

Can a Catholic priest be a running mate or presidential candidate of a political party?

Answer by Bishop Joseph Osei-Bonsu:

In dealing with this question, it will be necessary for us to look at the bigger question of what the attitude of the Church as an institution should be towards politics, especially partisan politics. The issue of whether a Catholic priest can become a running mate or a presidential candidate should be looked at against the backdrop of this bigger question.

The question of whether the Church should be involved in politics or not raises its head constantly in many countries. Within the Church itself there are Catholics who would like to draw a sharp distinction between the secular and the spiritual dimensions of the human person’s life and would like to deny the Church any involvement with the secular or the temporal, which includes the political. Quite frequently a similar sentiment is expressed by politicians and governments irritated by criticisms of their policies uttered by clerics. It is in the light of views such as these that an attempt will be made to discuss the question of whether the Church today should be involved in politics. We will look at this from three perspectives:

  1. What should be the attitude of the Church as an institution to national politics?
  2. What should be the attitude of the lay members of the Church to politics?
  3. What should be the attitude of clerics to politics?
    1. The Institutional Church and Politics

Like Christ, the Church must be concerned with the salvation of the human person in his or her totality, the human person as body and soul. The salvation of the human person at the spiritual level will be difficult when his or her material concerns are in jeopardy. The human person will not have the peace of mind to concentrate on spiritual matters when he or she is denied basic human, civic and political rights. So if the Church hopes to help in saving the human person, it must be concerned with whatever affects the total person. If its members and other citizens of the nation are denied certain basic human rights, the Church must raise a voice of protest. Through its official representatives – the bishops – the Church must make prophetic denunciations of injustices and champion the cause of the oppressed. If the oppression comes from the government, the Church must courageously rebuke the government and put pressure on it to change things. If doing this is doing politics, the Church has no alternative. It is its duty to criticize bad governmental policies and offer alternative proposals.

But the Church’s duty does not consist solely in criticizing the government. It should also praise the government when it initiates good policies. It must collaborate with the government to improve the material living conditions of the nation’s citizens. It is also the duty of the Church to encourage its members to take their civic and political duties seriously. But the Church as an institution must not and cannot identify itself with any political party or government. It must be above partisan politics. The Church must act as the conscience of the society, offering constructive advice whenever possible, and criticizing whenever necessary. If it identifies itself with any political party or government, it will either lose or compromise that objectivity expected of it; its vision will be obscured. Paradoxically, while the Church must be seriously involved with the government in the attempt to improve the material living conditions of the people, it must keep a certain distance politically between itself and the government.

2. Church Members and Politics 

The individual members of the Church are citizens of two worlds, as it were – the Church and the nation. They should, therefore, “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God”. These words of Christ justify the involvement of the members of the Church in the politics of their nation. As citizens of the nation, Catholic lay faithful have every right to be involved in the political life of the country. They should be actively involved in politics. They should join political parties, take part in voting, seek key positions in government, district assemblies, etc. They should strive to become district/municipal chief executives, members of parliament, president, etc. If they refuse to vote, or show indifference to political issues, other people will vote and take decisions which will affect them, for good or ill. In this connection, it will be good for us to reflect on what Vatican II says in Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on The Church in the Modern World):

Those who are suited or can become suited should prepare themselves for the difficult, but at the same time, the very noble art of politics, and should seek to practise this art without regard for their own interests or for material advantages. With integrity and wisdom, they must take action against any form of injustice and tyranny, against arbitrary domination by an individual or a political party and any intolerance (no.75).

On the Christian’s political responsibility, we may also want to reflect on what is said in the Post-Synodal Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa:

On the political front, the arduous process of building national unity encounters particular problems in the Continent where most of the States are relatively young political entities. To reconcile profound differences, overcome longstanding ethnic animosities and become integrated into international life demands a high degree of competence in the art of governing. That is why the Synod prayed fervently to the Lord that there would arise in Africa holy politicians — both men and women — and that there would be saintly Heads of State, who profoundly love their own people and wish to serve rather than be served (par. 111).
3. Clerics and Politics

The cleric is also a citizen of the nation and must be concerned about all political issues. These issues will affect his life whether he likes it or not, and so he cannot turn a deaf ear to them. He must discuss political matters and vote when there are elections. If he happens to have any expertise on political matters, he can serve his nation by offering suggestions through writing to the government. If the government seeks his advice on political matters, he must give this for the good of the nation. Thus, a cleric can be an adviser to the government; he can be a member of an advisory body which the government can consult. However, membership of such a body must not be to the detriment of his priestly or pastoral duties. He is first and foremost a priest, a pastor, and not a professional politician. Here we may recall that some Catholic bishops were members of the Council of State under the regime of President Hilla Limann (1979-1981). This Council was advisory and not politically governing; neither was it legislative nor executive in character. This distinction is vital.

This brings us to the rather problematic question of whether a cleric can and should hold an executive or legislative or judicial position in government. We should recall that in August 1989 the Chairman of the PNDC, Flight Lt. J.J. Rawlings, in his address at the Fifth Triennial General Assembly of the Association of Episcopal Conference of Anglophone West Africa (AECAWA) in Kumasi, lamented the fact that some Catholic priests had not been allowed to stand as candidates in the District Assemblies elections. Should a priest hold such an executive position in government? Here we are not dealing with a cleric acting in an advisory capacity to the government on a part-time basis. The issue here is whether a cleric should hold such an executive position in government, whether at the district, regional or national level.

Admittedly, there have been instances of priests holding executive and legislative positions in Ghana and elsewhere. About forty years ago, a Catholic priest, the late Rev. Dr. Vincent Damuah of the Sekondi-Takoradi Diocese, accepted membership of the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) in contravention of the law of his Church and ignoring the directive from his bishop to resign from the PNDC. Until his tenure came to an end, he was a full executive member of the PNDC. We must also draw attention to the United States of America where some priests held legislative positions in government. The most notable was Robert F. Drinan, a Jesuit priest from Massachusetts who served in the House of Representatives for ten years. In May 1980 he withdrew his candidacy for another term in obedience to an order from the Jesuit Superior General, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, which was given at the express wish of his Holiness Pope John Paul II. A few days later, the apostolic delegate to the United States, Archbishop Jean Jadot, exercising his own authority, barred Norbertine Fr. Robert J. Cornell, who had lost his seat in Congress 1978, from seeking to regain it.

Pope John Paul II in his address to an international gathering of religious-order priests in Mexico City in January 1979 said, “You are priests and members of religious orders. You are not social directors, political leaders or functionaries of temporal power”. In his address to the priests in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) during the Drinan crisis, Pope John Paul II said,

“Leave political responsibilities to those who are charged with them. You have another part, a magnificent part, you are ‘leaders’ by another right and in another manner, participating in the priesthood of Christ, as his ministers. Your sphere of interventions, and it is vast, is that of faith and morals, where it is expected that you preach at the same time by a courageous word and by the example of your life.

We should note that the new Code of Canon Law (1983) contains such a prohibition on all clerics. Canon 285, section 3 reads, “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power”. The Church has interpreted the phrase “a participation in the exercise of civil power” to refer to those political positions which involve legislative, executive, and judicial power. This in turn means that becoming a member of Parliament (or of Congress), a cabinet official, or a judge are all off-limits to Catholic clergy. A priest seeking to be a running mate or a presidential candidate will not be permitted by this canon since it will entail a participation in executive power.

But whether a cleric should hold an executive or legislative or judicial position in government or not is not something that can be settled simply by appealing to Church law or papal pronouncements. There must be good reasons justifying such laws and pronouncements. I would like to put forward a few such reasons.

Firstly, there is the lesson from Church history. The Catholic Church has over two thousand years of history behind it. Some of it has been good, some of it has been bad. There were times when popes and bishops wielded political power, most of the time disastrously. In the case of some of the popes and bishops, we could rightly say with Lord Acton, the English Catholic historian, politician and writer, that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. There were times when some popes were more powerful than emperors and used this power in a way that left much to be desired. In more recent times, the cases involving priests holding executive and legislative positions leave much to be desired. We have already referred to Fr. Robert F. Drinan. His voting record became a matter of great scandal when he repeatedly voted in favour of abortion, while claiming at the same time to be “personally opposed”— a fact which did not escape the attention of the new Pope, John Paul II. He had been elected Pope while Fr. Drinan was still a member of Congress. To this day, the Drinan case and other cases from other countries constitute a good example of the potential harm that can be done when Catholic clergy become unduly involved in contemporary civil politics. The controversial voting-record of Congressman Drinan, and the understandable scandal it was causing, might very well have been the motivating factor behind John Paul II’s decision to revamp canon law on this issue. The Church has learned from its mistakes and so has enjoined its clerics to desist from active political involvement in the sense of holding executive, legislative or judicial positions in government.

Secondly, because of his unique role as pastor of the flock of God, the cleric should strive to be the source of unity in his congregation and not the source of disunity. A clear and official identification with one political party or ruling government will have the effect of driving a wedge between the cleric and his flock, alienating those of his flock who do not share his political stance. Indeed, temporal leadership can easily become divisive whereas a priest must be a sign and symbol of unity. As the Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests says, “Like Jesus (cf Jn 6:15 ff.), the priest ‘ought to refrain from actively engaging himself in politics, as it often happens, in order to be a central point of spiritual fraternity’. All the faithful, therefore, must always be able to approach the priest without feeling inhibited for any reason” (no. 33).

Thirdly, holding an executive, legislative or judicial position in government will affect the cleric’s pastoral work. The work of the priest is a full-time one; so also is the work of the politician. The priest who holds an executive position will do justice neither to his priestly work nor to his work as a politician. He must choose one of them.

Fourthly and finally, by not holding an executive position and thereby not identifying himself with any political party, the priest or bishop can be objective and approach political issues in an unbiased way.

For further explanations or enquiries, you may contact the author, Most Rev. Joseph Osei-Bonsu, Catholic Bishop of Konongo-Mampong, on this number: 0244488904, or on WhatsApp (with the same number).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *