LETTER ABOUT PRIESTS IN POLITICS
THE BISHOPS OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA and SOLOMON ISLANDS
Dear Brother Priests,
We, the bishops of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, write this letter to you our priests, national and missionary alike, both diocesan and religious. You are our closest and most trusted co-workers with whom we share the ordained ministry and thereby make present in a special way in the Church the Priesthood of Jesus Christ. We are a brotherhood of men seeking holiness in the performance of our sacred ministry in service to others. It is our duty, in communio, to preach the Good News to our people, to help them grow in holiness as together we gather around the altar of the Eucharist, and to shepherd the flock entrusted to us by the Good Shepherd.
Unfortunately, once again, despite the bad experiences of the past, some of our brother priests are planning to run for political office in the 2012 PNG National Election. This is a great disappointment for us bishops and for the majority of our Catholic people, something that makes us all very sad. We believe that most priests, religious and lay people share our disappointment and consider the choice by a priest to enter politics a betrayal of the people he was given to serve as their shepherd. Like the hired workman in the Gospel story who does not care about the sheep (John 10:12-13), he abandons the flock entrusted to him.
It is entirely appropriate that qualified Catholic lay people represent the Church through direct political involvement and thereby find creative ways to apply the Church’s social teaching in shaping specific policies that promote the common good. However, running for public office, as well as actively campaigning for a political party or candidate, is at times necessarily partisan and sometimes even divisive, and thus is contrary to the vocation to the priesthood. Priests speak in a different and very special way in the name of the Church. They must proclaim relevant moral principles and explain Catholic social teaching to all people, and in our setting especially to politicians and to political parties, without suggesting that the Church endorses only one or the other among many morally good ways of organizing government or of seeking to address particular social issues. The priest must offer a clear and ethical stance about right and wrong based on the Good News of Jesus Christ and the teaching of the Church untainted by any suspicion of bias or personal gain. For these reasons priests are forbidden by Church law to run for political office (Canon 285).
It is good and noble when a priest hears the cry of the poor, desires to right injustices and wants to ensure that those who are suffering under an unresponsive government have access to basic social services such as healthcare and education. But an honest, hard-working, caring and dedicated priest, a good shepherd, already knows that through his call to the ordained ministry he possesses a moral authority which allows him to unify people and bring about great and positive change in the community. It is misguided thinking when a priest believes that if only he had access to large sums of money he would be able save the world. This is a hard lesson many priests have learned when they traded their true vocation of prophetic witness for a political dream ultimately doomed to failure.
Our brothers in the priesthood who run for public office break a solemn promise to obey their bishop made at the time of their ordination to the diaconate and again when they became priests. No bishop in PNG or Solomon Islands will ever give permission or encourage one of his priests to enter politics, run for office or act as a campaign manager. This is a very serious matter and therefore, as a punishment, a priest who enters politics will be suspended by his bishop or religious superior from exercising his priestly ministry. The suspension begins immediately and extends for at least two years beyond the time when the priest finally withdraws from politics and returns in obedience to his bishop or religious superior. This policy is a decision taken unanimously by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference more than ten years ago. Sadly, in many cases, maybe most of them, priests who enter politics do not return to their religious community or to the brotherhood of diocesan priests. They throw away their priesthood for something to which God does not call them and the Church forbids them to do.
Priests, religious and laity must understand the real meaning of the term “suspension” as it is being used here. Suspension is not a leave of absence or permission to take time off and put aside one’s priesthood to do something else with the blessing of the bishop or religious superior. Suspension is a serious penalty which a bishop or religious superior uses as a corrective punishment to try to change the bad behavior of a priest or religious. As with all punishment, it is intended to reaffirm and restate the value that has been threatened and to educate the offender and the people about the non-negotiable importance of that value.
Bishops and religious superiors do not “suspend” a priest lightly. Only in such cases as sexual misconduct (Canon 1395), gross negligence of pastoral duties, serious scandal caused by repeated alcohol or drug abuse, involvement in business (Canon 286), as well as running for public office (Canon 285) or involvement in party politics (Canon 287) will a bishop or religious superior find it necessary to “suspend” one of his priests.
Regrettably, Catholics and members of other Christian denominations are sometimes the ones who encourage a priest to run for political office. Without their support the priest might not have gotten involved in politics. Does anyone really want to be responsible for a priest leaving the ministry to which God has called him? That is something we should all think about as the time for the National Election approaches.
Bishops of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands
+Archbishop John Ribat, MSC
President of the CBC-PNG/SI
24 April 2012