Edward Hyde, Lord Clarendon, advisor to Charles I and chancellor under Charles II, fell from power in 1667 and went into exile until his death in 1674. Clarendon’s life thus included two long periods of exile, embracing the Interregnum and then the years after his fall from power. In these two periods, Clarendon wrote and then revised a great book called History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England. On the basis of his personal knowledge of the events about which he wrote and of his long career spanning the tumultuous middle of the 17th English century, Clarendon concluded that ‘…clergymen…understand the least and take the worst measure of human affairs, of all mankind that can read and write.’ I am sure we all have known clergymen who were and are learned, prudent, moderate, well-informed, and careful in their political judgements and commitments and, particularly, in their political utterances. I am equally sure that the number of such clergymen is small. More often concerning politics we find in the reverend clergy imprudence, hasty judgements, overgeneralization, faulty conclusions, and in sum a poor ‘measure of human affairs’.
The moral principle that should govern the clergy in their political activity and, particularly, in their public political activity, statements, and self-disclosure, is the ‘distinction of offices’. The distinction is between the proper, defining, and essential office, role, and authority of a man as a cleric and even as a baptized Christian, on the one hand, and the wider, general, and natural office, role, and authority of a citizen and a statesman. The two categories may overlap and influence each other, but they also may and should be distinguished, particularly in the person of a clergyman.
Some Protestants may minimize or even deny the distinction if they see little significance in the natural law and are inclined to subsume all under the categories of grace and gospel. But for Catholic Christians, including decidedly Anglicans, morality is mostly governed not by any distinctively Christian laws or categories, but by the natural law. Most human duties and most moral obligations are not distinctively Christian but flow from our general, natural humanity. While the Christian, taught by the Church, may have a gracefully-guided clarity about the content of that natural law, as well as supernatural grace to assist him in its fulfilment, in general moral law, duty, and obligation are natural and universal, not distinctively Christian. Humanity, the family, the community, and the state are all natural in their origin. We do not refrain from plunder and murder and lying, we do not love our children and friends, we do not obey the golden rule because we are Christians, as if such restraint and love and obedience were distinctively and peculiarly Christian, but rather because we are human beings. Being Christian adds motive and power and an ultimate and heavenly orientation to our actions, but does not alter the basic content of those actions.
The individual Christian, then, operates both as a human being, governed by natural – even if gracefully natural – norms and duties, and also as a Christian seeking a City beyond this world, a true homeland which makes his life in this world that of a sojourner and pilgrim. Here we have no abiding City. Here we have no continuing stay. But though Christians seek a city that is to come, beyond the boundaries of this world, yet while in this world they are governed by natural and civil laws.
There are, therefore, obligations and duties and norms that govern us as citizens of this world’s cities or even, if we are so called, as statesmen and magistrates of this world’s kingdoms. There also are duties and norms that govern us as Christians, as baptized persons, and, in some cases, as clergymen. There is, however, no reason to think that the grace of baptism gives Christians in general, or that the grace of ordination gives clergymen in particular, prudence or insight or knowledge in the generic matters that affect all citizens: Lord Clarendon would argue that there is much reason in fact to suspect the contrary.
As citizens of this world, Christians have, as do all citizens, an interest in efficient water and sewer systems, in the regular cleaning of streets, in the proficient provision of public utilities, in law and order, in honesty and accountability in public officials, and in a balance between public revenue and private wealth. Baptism and ordination, however, do not in themselves bestow any knowledge of civil engineering, public administration, economics, law enforcement, or the host of other subjects that affect matters of public and civil interest. Baptism, and instruction in the faith, and ordination and the theological education that (one hopes) precedes it, are discontinuous from and largely unrelated to that host of subjects that bear upon most public and political questions. Francis of Assisi was a saint, a very holy and admirable Christian: it does not follow that we want Saint Francis to manage the public works department. Mrs. Smith may be a most devout woman, about whom the odor of sanctity clings: it does not follow that she should take charge of the National Security Council or the State Department or the local dogcatchers.
In short, the offices of citizen and statesman, on the one hand, and of Christian and cleric, on the other hand, may happen to overlap accidentally in the same person, but they are intrinsically and essentially different and discontinuous. This distinction of offices is the first principle that should govern our consideration of the clergy and their political activity.
Several other considerations, however, also are relevant after this fundamental and essential distinction has been drawn. Some of these additional considerations reinforce the basic distinction, while others qualify it.
First, by way of additional consideration, as just noted, there is the possibility of what we might call accidental expertise in the clergy. That is, the priest may also be a prudent, experienced engineer or economist or nuclear scientist or historian. Furthermore, in a democracy, where all citizens enjoy a public role as voters, and perhaps also such roles as members of juries or grand juries, the clergy usually enjoy the same authority as any citizen within the context of the voting booth or the jurors’ chamber.[i] But such universal political rights and particular, accidental expertise do not abolish or even greatly alter the general distinction of offices. The priest-engineer is hired or consulted as an engineer, not as a priest, and his priesthood is of precisely no significance in the matter. The fact that a fine economist is also a clergyman is of no more significance in his role as economist than would be the fact that he were a learned numismatist or a skilled clarinetist. That is, the distinction of offices remains, even if the distinctive offices are accidentally conjoined in one person.
A second consideration reinforces, emphasizes, and strengthens the distinction of offices. This consideration is the matter of the priority of religious duty. That is, there is a duty, imposed by ordination, ‘to forsake and set aside, as much as ye may, all worldly care and studies’. The clerical office is ‘both of so great excellency, and of so great difficulty’ that its cultivation and effective exercise require time, study, and diligence that cannot easily be spared, unless the necessities of earning a living demand, for lower and distinct offices and tasks. While the words just quoted are from the Anglican Ordinal, their applicability is universal for Catholic and Orthodox clergy. The better the priest, the less time he will have for messing about in political and worldly affairs.
Thirdly, and also reinforcing the distinction of offices, is the serious danger that failure to observe the distinction tends to tarnish and undermine the distinctive and proper authority of the clergy, to diminish their standing as clergymen in the eyes of both the laity and the other clergy, and to undermine at least potentially their effectiveness as dispensers of the sacraments and ministers of the gospel. Political discord, which usually is based on contingent, worldly judgements and honest, prudential differences of opinion, often has no clear, much less distinctively Christian, resolution. The passions stirred up by political discord and differences easily attach to the individuals who hold the opinions in question. If observers conclude that a priest is wrong about a contingent political squabble of the day, they also may conclude that his other views (e.g. on the Trinity and baptism and the ordination of women and sexual morality and the sanctity of life) are questionable. While such a conclusion is based on a fallacious conflation of issues that can and should be distinct (private versus public opinions; personal and political versus official and religious), it is nonetheless foreseeable. Since the primary duty of the clergy is religious and ecclesiastical, not secular or political or civic, this danger argues for reticence and care. In general the clergy should avoid public and partisan positions that may detract from their authority in their proper, distinctive sphere.
Fourthly and finally, however, one consideration does qualify the significance of the distinction of offices. There are cases when the clergy alone, or nearly alone, are able and free to speak for their community. Such cases usually involve situations of repression or systematic authoritarianism, and are much less likely to arise in liberal regimes in which freedom of speech, protest, and assembly are generally strong.
For example, in the southern United States under the political and social realities popularly described as the Jim Crow era, black clergymen were often the only members of the African American community who were not beholden to white people and who were relatively independent and free to speak their minds. In such an era, when frank speaking could get a protestor fired from employment, imprisoned, or even killed, the black clergy had a unique position which qualified or even abrogated for a time the distinction of offices. In a largely, if inconsistently, Christian society, there also was sometimes a reluctance on the part of racists to attack clergymen, even when their views were resented. While circumstances prevented the rise of lay leaders and lay voices in the African American community, the clergy could be excused for filling the vacuum. When lay leadership came forward, however, the clergy should properly recede from actively political roles.
Another example was in Cyprus, where the Christian community in Ottoman days was led by an ethnarch, the Greek Orthodox archbishop. As religious repression was lifted under British colonial rule and then under independence, the Greek majority population gradually developed secular political leadership. In the period of transition political leadership was often and understandably vested in a relatively influential, relatively independent clerical elite. Once circumstances changed, it was appropriate for the clergy to return to more distinctively clerical roles as liturgical celebrants, moral and religious preceptors, and shapers of the souls of citizens.
[i] The qualification, ‘usually’, is appropriate because sometimes the clergy of constitutionally established Churches, on account of their privileged status in the regime, have rights and duties that differ from those of lay citizens. In some periods in England, for example, the clergy were not taxed directly by Parliamentary legislation, but by levies and subsidies voted by Convocation, and in turn the clergy were not Parliamentary electors but instead were represented in the councils of the nation by the bishops in the House of Lords and by the lower house of Convocation that was annexed to Parliaments. Likewise, clergy in Christian countries often are exempted from jury duty and military service, which were understood to be lay offices and duties. In return for such exemptions, the clergy were expected to provide pastoral care and to be reticent about their partisan political opinions.