When is a priest preaching politics, and when isn’t he?

From time-to-time people complain that their priest is preaching politics. Sometimes they are correct; other times they are not. In this column I’d like to clarify what a priest is permitted and what he is forbidden to do in his homily so we can have a better understanding of what is happening.

First of all, let’s talk about what a priest is not allowed to do: he cannot tell you whom to vote for or preach on issues that are purely political and have no bearing upon our faith or morals. When, however, political issues do have an effect upon our faith and morals, not only is the priest permitted to talk about it, but also, he has a duty to defend his flock from the dangers of the issues. This is especially true when a politician who is Catholic is in open dissent with the teachings of the Church and claims that his or her opinions are fully in line with the Church. Such statements confuse the people, and the priest has the obligation to let people know that those opinions do not represent the Church’s teaching on the matter, so that they do not fall into believing that they do and end up embracing those teachings and falling into sin by following them. Of course, when he does, the priest is invariably accused by some people of preaching politics, especially by people of the political party to which that politician belongs. But in those cases, he is not preaching politics: he is defending the faith. Whenever I get accused of that, I ask the person this question: if the politician I am correcting were an athlete or an actor and not a politician, would they still be offended? Would they accuse me of “preaching sports” or “preaching Hollywood?”

Some people state that, when they come to church, they don’t want to hear about politics: they want to worship God in a politics-free zone. I understand that completely. I always prefer to be preaching about Christ and His gospel and not having to discuss political situations, and when priests mention anything that even remotely seems political in nature, some people get very annoyed. Obviously, if a priest is truly preaching politics and not the faith, I too would take issue with him. On the other hand, one of the common complaints that other Catholics have about the priests and bishops is that they have remained silent whenever politicians have attacked our moral teachings and have given no guidance to the people. The complaint about the “silence from the pulpit on moral issues” is quite common. These competing opinions invariably put the priest in someone’s crosshairs. If he doesn’t talk about it, he will be accused of silence and cowardice. If he does speak out, others will complain that father is “preaching politics.” The priest cannot win. I personally have never shied away from preaching against any political position that attacks our faith, regardless of to which side of the aisle the politician happens to belong. (John the Baptist called out King Herod on his adulterous marriage to Herodias, so I’m in good company.) I don’t mind taking the abuse I will inevitably receive. But I encourage people to consider this: Whenever a politician supports a policy that violates our faith and the priest must preach on it, don’t blame the priest. It is not his fault that the political football has been tossed into religion; it is the politician who is openly supporting the offensive policy that has forced the priest to have to defend his flock from error. Why do the people who yell at the priest for “preaching politics” rarely if ever complain about the politician “preaching religion?” Shouldn’t it go both ways? But some people have a double standard. They have no problem with politicians talking about religion, but get furious when a priest even remotely talks about politics. Instead of yelling at father for “preaching politics”, blame the politician for overstepping his or her bounds and delving into religious matters, and take it out on them in the voting booth.