The Clergy and Politics

Part I

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 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. 

Part II

This second part of a post on The Clergy and Politics is an addendum to Part I.  I would like to note here several somewhat disparate matters.  First, I make an historical point to distinguish past Christian ages from the present.  I then define further the ‘distinction of offices’ by distinguishing it from the more recent idea of the separation of Church and state.   I also here distinguish, on the one hand, the proper clerical role of teaching and of stating and inculcating moral principles from, on the other hand, the very different, political, and lay role of devising prudent ways and means to forward moral goals and principles.   This distinction repeats somewhat points made in Part I.  Finally here, I quote in full one reaction to Part I, which voices some of my own perceptions.

In the quotation from Lord Clarendon with which I began, Clarendon speaks slightingly of the political judgement of the clergy in comparison with ‘all mankind that can read and write’.  The quotation is significant, because the authority of the medieval clergy in secular affairs had as one of its main bases the fact that the clergy were literate.[ii]  In the late Roman Western Empire educated men who held, or might well have held, political or administrative offices in the empire and its provinces and cities, sometimes were recruited to become clergy:  the examples of Saints Ambrose and Augustine are well known.  With the decline of social organization and order in western Europe after the fall of the Western Empire, the process was reversed:  men who had clerical education and office were often faute de mieux recruited to serve in positions of secular authority.  In an age of general illiteracy, literacy and the clerical state became virtually synonymous. 

With a wider diffusion of literacy and a revival of secular learning at the Renaissance, kings and magnates became increasingly independent of the clergy to fill high and low administrative offices.  Cardinal Wolsey gave way to two laymen:  the first a lay saint in Roman Catholic reckoning, Thomas More; then the second, the sacrilegious despoiler of monasteries and shrines, Thomas Cromwell.  The late medieval Wolsey gave way to the early modern Cromwell.

In places and communities where illiteracy is common, the clergy still may have social and political responsibilities based on their general and, in context, unusual literacy and superior education:  the mission priest writes the local administrator on behalf of the village; the local council asks a bishop to intercede with a government official whom he once taught at the Grand Seminary or in a Church high school or whose family he once helped.  The distinction of offices assumes that such cases are uncommon in most societies now, but they do exist.

Furthermore, even now attitudes persist that probably began in the earlier, more clericalist era of a largely illiterate and ignorant laity.  In 19th century America, in the days of ‘Irish Need Not Apply’, in a heavily immigrant and peasant American Roman Catholic Church, the clergy assumed an authority that was practically understandable and even necessary.  The resultant paternalism reinforced both the theologically based clericalism of the era and also the general tendency of Roman Catholics to feel justified in and competent to address almost all matters of public concern.   These streams then have been further strengthened by more recent social-justice jargon and political co-option by influential lay politicians and their allies in the Church bureaucracy.  The result is a national bishop’s conference and subdivisions thereof that seldom seem to feel incompetent to wade into political debates with dubious and vague answers to thorny practical and political problems.

For example, in 1975 the Appalachian [Roman] Catholic Bishops published ‘This Land is Home to Me’, an odd document on the problems of a vast and complex region of the United States:

Much more recently the bishops and their subordinates have also opined in detail, for example, on immigration policy:

and on the extension of the ‘New START’ nuclear arms treaty (!):

The fact that these questions are extremely complex, with few obvious, specifically Christian answers, has not prevented the wading.

In any case, though the distinction of offices, however often neglected, did not originate with widespread lay literacy, it certainly grew in significance with the growth of learning and knowledge in the general populace.  Educated, literate, and vocal laymen do not need clerical assistance to make their voices heard. 

Within the Anglican world, the gradual restriction of the clergy to their proper ecclesiastical and religious roles can be seen in the matter of office holding during the long Stuart century between the accession of James I in 1603 and the death of Queen Anne in 1714.  The 17th century in general was decisive in this regard and in all matters affected by the general defeat of classical political assumptions and by the corresponding victory of modern, liberal assumptions.[iii]

Among the early Stuarts, great ecclesiastics often also held great offices of state.  Bishop John Williams, eventually the Archbishop of York, was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal from 1621-1625, and as Laud’s authority waned in the 1640s, Williams’s waxed.  Bishop William Juxon of London, later Restoration Archbishop of Canterbury, was made head of the Treasury in 1636.  William Laud at one point was not only Archbishop of Canterbury, but also head of the Commission of the Treasury that replaced Lord Portland, first of the Junto for Foreign Affairs, and head of the Commission for the Plantations.  A generation later, however, at the end of the Stuart dynasty under Queen Anne (Clarendon’s granddaughter!), while the bishops remained members of the House of Lords and often were privy counsellors, it was unusual and even controversial for a bishop to serve in a high state office.  This change was true despite Anne’s sincere devotion to and generous financial support for the Church and her clergy.

Certainly in England and America, the distinction in offices is now so strongly maintained in at least one respect that few clergymen become public officials of high rank.  There are exceptions, such as John Danforth (United States senator, 1976-1995), but they are usually not widely known to be clergymen at all.  That is, the exceptions are hardly recognized as such.  An ‘exception to the exception’, however, is found, probably for historical reasons dating back to the Jim Crow era (see Part I), in the African American community:  Senator Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, formerly led by Martin Luther King, was elected a United States senator in 2020.  Warnock’s campaign signs when he ran for reelection in 2022 usually referred to him as ‘Reverend Raphael Warnock’:  a mixing of offices that probably would not have occurred if Warnock were not black.  And if Warnock were white, such flaunting of his clerical status probably would have excited negative comment. 

In any case, the distinction of offices should not be confused with the American, much less Jeffersonian, separation of Church and state.  The constitution of a nation may provide for the formal, legal establishment of a Church, such as the Church of England or the Church of Scotland, in which case Church and state explicitly are not separated.  A country might even provide for the establishment of two or three Churches, as in Finland both the Lutheran and the Russian Orthodox Churches are given official status and as in Germany the Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic Churches all long have had official status and public financial support.  In such lands it is inappropriate and inaccurate to refer to the Church and state as ‘separate’. 

The distinction of offices, however, continues to apply whether or not the Church and state are legally separated and whether or not the Church is legally established.  In fact, as a note already has suggested, the constitutional establishment of an official Church might itself reinforce the duty of the clergy to be reticent and careful about using their privileged and public positions to opine about or interfere in controversial, contingent, and debatable matters of public, political division.  The parish priest and the diocesan bishop, like the King of England, have official duties, authority, and obligations that make official political neutrality expedient for all parties and all persons concerned.  Such neutrality is not the result of constitutional separation but of the distinction of offices.

On this last point – the difference between ‘separation of Church and state’ and the ‘distinction of offices’ – I would observe that modern, enlightenment, liberal opinion has taken a traditional category and created a superficially similar but in fact quite different alternative.  The clerical modesty and reticence implied by the distinction of offices is converted by the modern liberal state into its doctrine of ‘separation’.  By this conversion the liberal state removes and separates religious bodies and persons from a position of possible moral superiority to the regime and its basic principles.  The separation is often presented and defended as a way of protecting the Church from undue state influence, and no doubt at times that protection may be an actual effect of the separation.  But in any case, there is on the theoretical level no doctrinal or specifically Christian support for the secular doctrine of separationism.[iv] 

The distinction of offices does not mean that the clergy have no politically significant role or that their proper role and authority may not well have political implications.  The proper role of the clergy in political terms is to form consciences, inculcate moral sensitivity and care, and to instruct and catechize the people in the Church’s moral teaching.  The ways-and-means by which Christians seek to realize the Church’s teaching in the world are, however, not within the office of the Christian or clergyman as such. 

For example, that an arm of an episcopal conference encourages Christians to support or oppose the extension of a particular arms control treaty is a clear violation of the distinction of offices.  The just war tradition has a clear place in Catholic teaching, and its elements can and should quite properly be taught by the clergy.  The detailed application of the principles so taught, however, belongs to statesmen, politicians, military advisors, and others whose expertise and responsibilities fit them to that role.  Likewise, the Church’s moral teaching clearly prohibits directly willed abortion, and all clergy should teach that moral principle.  But it is for citizens, politicians, jurists, and statesmen, not Christians and clergy as such, to work in the world to implement and make effective that moral principle.  Whether a constitutional amendment or congressional legislation or judicial activism or business boycotts or street demonstrations are prudent and appropriate and likely to be effective are not moral or religious or clerical or specifically Christian matters:  they are contingent, prudential, secular, debatable, lay, and worldly issues. 

In short, what the clergy properly teach should have political and worldly consequences, but it is not for the clergy to govern the practical and contingent implementation of moral principles. 

Finally, I would like to quote here a response to my basic position from a priest formerly in my diocese.  This article originally was posted in two parts in large part is inspired by a question asked by this priest.   In response to the first post, the priest wrote: 

I am pleased my point on Facebook (a wretched place for wise discourse) provided some impetus for this lovely, learned article. I have shared it with a group of traditionally minded young ACNA clergy, and it reads to them like a breath of fresh air. There is desperately little interest among myself and the other younger clergy with whom I am friendly for engaging in fights over political ideology.  Far too many of our congregations are already better catechized in the doctrines of their favorite politicians than they are in the faith which actually saves men’s souls, and I do believe people will only evangelize what they have been catechized. For some time, I was terribly disappointed that our coffee hours sounded more like a meeting of the [_________] Executive Committee than a fellowship gathering of joyful Christians resting in God’s eternal victory, and so for the last year or two I just go from table to table, and if the talk moves to politics, rather than give my two cents, I bring up God in some way. What I have found is that people are much more comfortable talking about politics, a topic which 24 hour news and social media have turned into entertainment, than they are about their faith. I fear for many it has become a replacement faith (an obvious reality among religious progressives, but a burgeoning reality among conservatives).  In discussions regarding evangelism, it strikes me as key for this trend to be faced, attacked, and reversed. Clergy talking about God rather than politics seems to be the best way to lead by example.

[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.

[ii] The second great basis for clerical authority was the sincere, though not uncritical, respect given to the clergy by laymen, high and low, in a deeply religious age.  The third great basis was the relative order and prosperity of dioceses, the parochial system, and the Benedictine and other religious houses in an era of general disorder.  As bishops and dioceses, cathedral churches, large parishes, great houses of religion, and, later, religiously founded universities grew wealthy, they were able to offer hospitality and alms in their communities, performed public services in tending for the sick, keeping up roads and bridges, and providing education.  Adam Smith attributes the decline of the clergy in France to the improvement of arts and manufactures through specialization, trade, and technical advances.  In the Middle Ages the clergy could not consume their wealth – largely agricultural – on themselves, so they were profuse in their charity and thereby grew to be loved.  When the clergy were able to consume most of their wealth themselves, their charity and popularity declined.  What Smith desired – the increase of arts and manufactures and wealth – led to a decline of the Church, which lost the affection of those once ‘supported by the charity and hospitality of the clergy’ (see The Wealth of Nations, V.i.g, p. 25). 

[iii] The central element in this process is the replacement of the classical assumption that political communities have as their main goal and purpose the inculcation of virtue in their members.  The central modern assumption is that political communities have as their main goal and purpose the fostering of instrumental, secondary means (life, liberty, and property) and not the pursuit of virtue or salvation or other ultimate goals.  Modern politics is the realm of instrumental goods, while ultimate goods and goals are treated as private.  In England this replacement occurred under the combined influence of the English Civil Wars and the settlement that followed the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-1689, though the process remained incomplete, with periodic Tory glances back.  Queen Anne at the end of her first Parliament spoke of ‘such of my subjects as have the misfortune to dissent from the Church of England’ and of ‘those who have the happiness and advantage to be of our Church’.  Anne, while promising to tolerate religious dissent, assured Parliament that ‘I shall always make it my particular care to encourage and maintain the Church as by law established, and every the least member of it in all their just rights and privileges’.  ‘Good Queen Anne’, the Church understandably calls her. 

[iv] Similarly, secular society asserts a doctrine of toleration that can seem superficially similar to, but is in fact quite different from, the Christian virtues of charity and respect for conscience.  See my post elsewhere on tolerationism: 

Likewise, the modern virtue of altruism is a secularized version of (and alternative for) charity.  Altruism is benevolence towards others even when there is no apparent selfish benefit or motive.  Charity is benevolence towards others for the sake of the love of God and for the sake of an ordinate self-love that is itself commanded by God and directed towards Him as its ultimate and proper end.  Altruism has its end in this world.  Charity is ultimately oriented towards God and becomes with that general goal and motive the form of all other virtues.    


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