A NUMBER of people have asked me how priests—and yes, bishops especially—should behave when hot social and political issues erupt, gripping the whole society in intense suspense.
I suppose the question is asked in view of what may look like a growing number of clerics who are drawn to the public eye because of these issues and controversies.
I am made to understand that while there are people who are happy with these priests getting involved, there are also those who get confused and disturbed.
Some even sound scandalized. They claim that some clerics are abusing their position, entering into areas for which they have no direct authority nor expertise and which are, to their minds, better left in the hands of lay people.
They also claim that this undue clerical interference leads many priests to take partisan and divisive positions, get trapped in politicians’ maneuverings, play politicians themselves, and scandalize people who may end up going to other sects or losing their faith.
For sure, I cannot speak for all priests, much less, for bishops. My views are strictly my own, based on my understanding of Church teaching on the clergy’s role in social and political affairs.
I must say that the whole matter is very complicated, since we cannot expect Church doctrine to fully capture the intricacies of the different situations priests and bishops may find themselves in with regard to these controversies.
There’s also the problem of applying the proper and relevant principles to the concrete issues at hand. The requirements of prudence can be very tricky and confusing. Many mistakes in this area have been committed.
To be avoided should be the positions that can lead, on the one hand, to Church indifference, neglect and isolationism in social matters, and on the other, undue, imprudent and harmful interference.
To strike the balance is no easy job. But effort must be made to clarify and explain this phenomenon.
The relevant Church teaching can be found in many sources, but for now let me just summarize a few points taken from John Paul II’s social encyclical “Sollicitudo rei socialis” (The social concern of the Church).
Its paragraph no. 41 has the following to say that can shed light to us:
1. The Church does not have technical solutions to offer for the problem of underdevelopment as such. She does not propose economic and political systems or programs, nor does she show preference for one or the other, provided that human dignity is properly respected and promoted, and provided she herself is allowed the room she needs to exercise her ministry in the world.
2. As an “expert in humanity,” the Church extends her religious mission to the various fields of human life and activity, but never reducing what affects the dignity of individuals and peoples, such as authentic development, into a merely “technical problem.”
3. Thus, the Church always has “something to say” about the nature, conditions, requirements and aims of authentic development, and also about obstacles which stand in its way. This is part of her evangelizing mission, her first contribution being the proclamation of the truth about Christ, about herself and about man, applying this truth to a concrete situation.
4. As her instrument for reaching this goal, the Church uses her social doctrine, which should be widely taught and spread. With this social doctrine, it can readily be seen that the problems at bottom are moral in nature, and therefore the solutions should be moral first, last and always, not merely technical, practical or popular.
5. The condemnation of evils and injustices is also part of the prophetic mission of the Church. But it should be made clear that proclamation is always more important than condemnation, and the latter cannot ignore the former, which gives it true solidity and the force of higher motivation.
I think for now, these points will suffice to give us some guiding light. Elaborations can be made later on. I also suggest a careful study of Church history to familiarize ourselves with similar situations and what the different solutions yielded.