As Election Day quickly approaches, clergy are being reminded of their pastoral role to form consciences and to address the social issues of our day from a moral perspective rather than a political one.
Since all political issues are also moral ones, the possibilities are vast and the landscape is extremely broad for preaching and teaching by the clergy. Yet on both sides of the political spectrum, we have some members of the clergy who insist on overstepping boundaries. It appears some members of the clergy just really cannot help themselves, wanting to play politician.
Such a role reversal is as sad as politicians who want to play clergy. But members of the clergy have not been elected, and politicians have not been ordained. These are different public offices for complementary, but very different functions.
The vocation of the clergy is a heavy one, labeled under the general designation “the weight of glory” by Saint Paul. Such a call involves the forming of consciences, which brings with it a need for informed and creative preaching and teaching. It requires a certain discipline to present social issues within the light of the Gospel, explaining, elucidating, convincing, persuading, and exhorting the People of God according to revealed truth.
It’s too easy, and too transitory, to merely attack a politician or a party. Such a move is replacing the pastoral with the political, the principled for the partisan. It hurts the transparency, universality, and power of the Gospel. It is cheap homiletics and misplaced instruction. By compromising the pastoral vocation for a political one, such a guilty member of the clergy is cutting a corner, taking an easy path, and allowing the Gospel to be eclipsed by something that is of inferior and transient value.
In thinking about the tension between the political and the pastoral, I’m reminded of the account of Jericho. Yes, it’s walls fell, but there’s a lot more to the story that is oftentimes overlooked. While Israel placed the Canaanite city under siege, Joshua – the successor of Moses and the military leader of Israel – raised his eyes and saw someone facing him, with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to the person, and asked, “Are you one of us or one of our enemies?” The person replied, “Neither. I am the commander of the army of the Lord: now I have come.”
While the popular parts of the account follow this encounter, we should note that the angelic commander would not allow himself to be identified with any human power or authority. He represented God, who is above all such designations. He will lead the armies of the Most High against evil and idolatry, but he will not be associated with any human government. He is in service to God alone.
In many respects, this angelic approach could serve as a model for the members of the clergy today. In every society, the clergy are divinely tasked with reminding people about God, pointing their hearts to truth, forming consciences, teaching goodness, encouraging love, exposing error, denouncing evil, saving souls, and building up and uniting peoples.
Such tasks are a battle, a real wrestling match, as moral truth is presented to the hearts of people and argued against the cultural presumptions of a society. There is nothing simple, comfortable, or cowardly in this pastoral approach. It is demanding, and reflects the boldness and fierceness of the angelic hosts.
By focusing on moral truth and the true battle for the souls of people, the clergy are able to transcend the trappings of politics, the imperfections that are found in every candidate, and the fallenness that is a part of every platform and political party. By remaining above such matters, the clergy can keep their own – and society’s – focus on the moral aspects of an issue. They can retain the credibility that comes with objectivity and gain a broader consensus among all people of goodwill.
By avoiding political affiliation, the members of the clergy, and their religious traditions, are not deflecting the pressing issues of our day. They are not “sitting this one out.” Rather, they are keeping their focus on moral truth, and allowing it to be presented unencumbered, as they fight for what is true, good, and beautiful.
This is the vocation and responsibility of the clergy. Society doesn’t need unelected, armchair politicians. Let those who were elected (or will be elected) serve as they’ve been tasked, and let the clergy fulfill their role in teaching moral truth and forming consciences.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby