Monday, March 19, 2012

Permanent Deacons and Politics

     In a forthcoming column for a national magazine intended for Catholic priests, I discuss the participation of deacons (and in particular, those commonly referred to as "permanent" deacons) in politics, based on the provisions of canon (universal) and particular law.  This question is made especially important given the growing presence of deacons and priests in the blogosphere and in other social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.  So, I thought I would put the substance of what I wrote here as well.

      As the political primary season continues, nothing could be more current than a review of the rather unique situation of the deacon in the political life of a nation, with a particular view of the deacon in American politics.  This seems especially appropriate since increasingly deacons are joining millions of other Americans in their use of social media and are blogging, tweeting, writing, speaking and teaching at every conceivable level, and even venues formerly considered more informal, such as Facebook, have become sources of public discourse on the political process.  It is important to reflect on our own participation in such exchanges in light of our responsibilities as clergy.  It is often not what we say, or don’t say, from the pulpit that can influence others, but our casual “status update” on Facebook, a blog entry or even a tweet can have far-reaching effects.
Canon 285 directs that “clerics are to refrain completely from all those things which are unbecoming to their state, according to the prescripts of particular law.”  The canon continues in §3: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power,” and §4 forbids clerics from “secular offices which entail an obligation of rendering accounts. . . .”  Canon 287, §1 reminds all clerics that “most especially, [they] are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people,” and §2 directs that “they are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”

However, c. 288 specifically relieves permanent deacons (transitional deacons would still bound) of a number of the prior canons, including cc. 285 §§3 and 4, and 287 §2, “unless particular law establishes otherwise.”  Particular law in this instance is provided by the National Directory on the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, which states at #91: “A permanent deacon may not present his name for election to any public office or in any other general election, or accept a nomination or an appointment to public office, without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop.  A permanent deacon may not actively and publicly participate in another’s political campaign without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop.”  The diocesan bishop may also create particular law within his own diocese on such matters.  In one case, a diocesan bishop notified his clergy that if anyone could even infer, through their speech, manner or demeanor, which political party or candidate the cleric was supporting, then that cleric had gone too far.  While we are each entitled to form our own political decisions for ourselves, we must always be aware of the political lines we must not cross.

Let’s put this all together.  Deacons, although clerics, may participate in political life to a degree not permitted other clerics under the law.  However, they are required by particular law in the United States to obtain the prior written permission of their diocesan bishop to do so.  I find that two other aspects of this matter are too often overlooked.  First, is the requirement under the law that all clerics (and, most significantly, permanent deacons are not relieved of this obligation) are bound by c. 287 always “to foster peace and harmony based on justice.”  This is such a critical point for reflection for all clerics: How do my actions, words, and insinuations foster such peace and harmony, or are my actions serving to sow discord and disharmony?  Since permanent deacons may become more engaged in the political sphere than presbyters (with the permission of their bishop), this will take on particular relevance for deacons.  Second is the whole area of participation in political campaigns.  Deacons may only participate in their own or someone else’s political campaign with the prior written permission of their bishop.  Today, when political support is often reflected through the social media, all of us might well reflect on how our opinions stated via these media constitute active participation in someone’s political campaign.  

All of us, lay and cleric, are obliged to participate appropriately in the political process.  However, as clerics – and in a particularly challenging way, deacons – we must walk a fine moral tightrope in doing so.


  1. Canon 287, §2: “they are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”

    I'd love to have competent ecclesiastical authority rule on the following scenarios. Can a deacon:
    1) Attend a campaign rally?
    2) Put up a yard sign for a candidate?
    2a) do so in a nominally non-partisan race, but one obviously quite partisan
    3) Make a campaign contribution?
    4) Participate in legislative redistricting?

  2. Dear Lacustrine,

    I'm not the "competent ecclesiastical authority" you've asked for, but since it's my blog I'll go ahead and opine anyway. My responses are keyed to your questions.

    1) Can a deacon attend a campaign rally? The answer depends on the circumstances. If the deacon is simply attending EVERY campaign rally he can to learn more about the candidates, then I suppose that would be OK. However, he needs to be concerned that his presence might be interpreted by others as support for the particular candidate. If that's a concern, then he should NOT go; personally, that would be my own concern, and I would not attend.

    2) May a deacon put up a yard sign for a candidate? No. Again, a deacon -- as an ordained minister of the church -- cannot publicly "take sides". Each of us, privately, as citizens, has an obligation to form our consciences and to vote. A lay person, further, has a right to express that personal decision publicly; an ordained person, according to the canons, may not.

    2a) See previous answer. No.

    3) May a deacon make a campaign contribution? I believe that question revolves around whether such a contribution will become a matter of public knowledge. Again, the deacon has a private right as a citizen to support a particular candidate; he may not publicize his choice.

    4) May a deacon participate in legislative redistricting? Here, I'm not clear about the process involved in such a thing, so I'm not going to attempt a response.

    The bottom line here is this: As a private citizen, the deacon should do all that any other citizen can do with regard to researching the positions of the various candidates, making an informed choice about which candidates to vote for, and then to cast those votes accordingly. However, ordination imposes restrictions on him beyond that. The Church expects the clergy -- as PUBLIC MINISTERS OF THE CHURCH -- to present only the principles of thought and belief which lie behind the issues, and then let parishioners wrestle with those issues themselves,just as the cleric himself has had to do. The Church does not want the clergy to become public endorsers of particular parties or candidates.

    And remember, even when I think I'm doing something simply as a private citizen (such as putting a yard sign in my yard), it will be interpreted as a PUBLIC act by those who know him.

    God bless,
    Deacon Bill

  3. Hello Deacon Bill!

    I find your post very interesting. Two weeks ago I attended a Catholic Men's Conference in New Jersey. It was very well attended. We had some wonderful speakers, the first being Bishop Arthur Serratelli, Diocese of Paterson, NJ. The Bishop is a wonderful speaker - unafraid, he speaks the truth. He spoke much about the government assault on the freedom of religion.

    This past Sunday, I quoted some of the Bishop's words in my homily. I tried to enlighten our congregation about the ongoing battle against darkness, experienced by the Church today.

    Now, when I speak about the "government mandate", everyone listening knows what party initiated it. And they surely know that this deacon whould never vote for a candidate that took part in its implementation.

    So, is it ok for me, a deacon, to speak of such things in my homily?

    Thanks & God bless!

  4. Dear Brian,

    Thanks for your note.

    Your example is one of the reasons why I thought it was important to raise the canonical issues in the first place, so thanks for a great example.

    It is perfectly wonderful to critique government policies when they are at odds with what we believe, whether that is about this current issue, issues of war and peace, immigration, and so on. However, I do think that there is a line we should not cross. We can and should critique the policy. Not the politics or politicians behind the policy, but the POLICY itself. In other words, I think it would be incorrect to say that "The HHS mandate proves that Democrats are against the free practice of religion in the United States." It would have been similarly wrong to say that "The war in Iraq proves that Republicans are war mongers." What might be rightly criticized is the policy involved, without necessarily extrapolating into other claims.

    Does that make sense?

    God bless,
    Deacon Bill

  5. Bill, I have no problem with the notion that I should not put a campaign sign in my yard. My wife, however, who is a laywoman and understanding of the distinction between clergy and laity will not be prevented from the free exercise of her rights. As a matter of fact she has always put signs up in her yard and I have never put signs up in my yard. Golly gee, what is a poor deacon to do? Hope all goes well with you.

  6. Dear Deacon Bill (great name!),

    See what I mean? You guys have worked it out.

    On the other hand, it will be interesting if a parishioner raises the question/concern that YOU are the one supporting the candidate in question.

    God bless,
    Deacon Bill

  7. As for #4, it has a long history, predating both current parties - see the 1812 Gerrymandering of Massachusetts' districts, It is, sadly, quite current, and is too often used in the last 200 years to -as the courts just ruled - weaken voting rights for minorities:

  8. I'm hearing from a lot of people that they have found his post helpful, and I am most grateful that has been the response.

    For much more information, I recommend a visit to the USCCB web site, especially under "Faithful Citizenship." Here's part of what you'll find: a whole section on political activities:

    God bless,
    Deacon Bill

  9. Bill:

    i know a deacon -- now elderly enough to be in "senior/retired" status -- who was an elected County Commissioner in his rural Ohio county.

    Not at all sure how many terms he served nor what political party he represented (County Commissioners in Ohio are in partisan elections).

    At that time there was absolutely no hassle from our local Ordinary at all.

    Only the best

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  10. Dear Norb,

    We have many, many deacons who serve or have served in elected office. One even ran for governor of one of our States!

    God bless,

  11. Deacon Ditewig I would like to pm or email you if possible.

    I am doing a thesis on diakonoia in the Franciscan tradition and would like to pick your brain a little, and also find out if you could direct me to some resources.



  12. It is absolutely forbidden to have the ministry of preaching or the cleric's own public ministry identified with a Party or candidate in the US context and in very few nations. It is however just as correct to preach about issues that have a moral content, including the HHS Mandate as long as truth, personal attacks and advancement of the GOP cause are not explicitly included. What people "hear" or "think" you said of course is an old problem for all teachers and preachers.