Will Obama's Priest Excommunicate Himself?

By Nicholas G. Hahn III

In March of 2009, DePaul University in Chicago hosted a town hall panel discussion entitled "Put the Guns Down!" Father Michael Pfleger was one of the featured panelists, presumably to offer a few pastoral thoughts. Instead, he lobbied for legislative action. He even encouraged the audience to "call [their] representatives" and demand they vote against a specific bill. In the question and answer session, one audience member suggested Father Pfleger stay out of politics and just "stick to giving Catholics the sacraments." Pfleger scoffed and, referring to the lives taken by gun violence, asked "how can I give sacraments to a dead person?"

The reality, of course, is that those affected by gun violence can seek political advice from a politician -- not a Catholic priest. The very definition of the word "priest" comes from the Greek presbyteros or presbus, primarily meaning elder. In early Jewish and Christian communities, it had also come to mean father or minister. Throughout the 2,000 year old story of Christianity, the Church and the State have been unavoidably intertwined; even so, these were individuals with a principal duty of overseeing a community of faith. They were not politicians.

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As a long-time "social justice" activist, Pfleger clearly doesn't see his role in this way. He regularly led protests and press conferences with his close friend, then-State Senator Barack Obama. In addition to Jeremiah Wright and James Meeks, Obama named Father Pfleger as one of his "spiritual mentors." Pfleger endorsed Obama in nearly every one of his political races and State Senator Obama even helped secure $225,000 in grants for Pfleger's parish, Saint Sabina.

Yesterday, the Archbishop of Chicago wrote to Father Pfleger concerning his recent public musing whether or not he would still remain in the Catholic Church. Pfleger appeared on the "Smiley and West" radio show and told hosts Tavis Smiley and Cornell West that "If they say 'You either take this principalship of [Leo High School] or pastorship there or leave,' then I'll have to look outside the church." In making this statement, Cardinal George wrote to Pfleger, "you have already left the Catholic Church." His Eminence continued with a stinging rebuke, likely in anticipation of Pfleger's typical reaction: "You are not a victim of anyone or anything other than your own statements." In other words, Pfleger has made his bed and now must sleep in it -- his latae sententiae.

This has often been the case for Pfleger and not the first time Pfleger has been asked to "take a few weeks to pray over [his] priestly commitments." In May of 2007, Pfleger was reprimanded for "betray[ing] the civil order" in shouting at a protest that he would "snuff out" a local gun shop owner. He was later arrested for criminally obstructing the entrance to that store. A year later during the Democratic presidential primary campaign season, Pfleger infamously mocked Hillary Clinton during a sermon at Barack Obama's home Church, Jeremiah Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ. As of very recently, Pfleger advocated for the ordination of women and allowing priests to marry.

And yet, Pfleger seemed to weather it all -- until now. In His Eminence's April 27th letter, Pfleger was advised to "come to a mutual agreement on how [he] understand[s] personally the obligations that make [him] a member of the Chicago presbyterate and of the Catholic Church." Cardinal George's letter draws an interesting historical parallel and as such, Father Pfleger's career of activism presents a pressing opportunity to examine the proper role of clergy in public life.

In March of 1983, Pope John Paul II made a pastoral visit to Nicaragua amidst a civil war. The Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or Sandinistas, who were communists, were in power and were much aligned with the Nicaraguan Catholic Church. In fact, Father Ernesto Cardenal was a minister in the government. When John Paul II arrived on the Managua airport runway, he greeted Cardenal with a wag of the finger and the words: "You must make good your dealings with the Church." This came after the Pope demanded that all priests withdraw from electoral politics in accordance with Canonical Law wherein clerics are "forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power."

Granted, clergy aren't the only ones to blame. Catholic politicians occasionally contribute to this misunderstanding of proper roles in the public square. At a May 2010 National Catholic Reporter briefing with elected officials and leaders in the Catholic community, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi discussed the clergy's role in immigration reform: "I want you to speak about it from the pulpit. I want you to instruct your -- whatever the communication is -- the people, some of them oppose immigration reform are sitting in those pews, and you have to tell them that this is a manifestation of our living the gospels." This poor understanding of proper roles in the public square enables instances of egregious overstep in authority and professional capacity.

The role of the clergy, rather, is to first of all "fulfill faithfully and tirelessly the duties of the pastoral ministry." This idea of pastoral ministry has been developed significantly in two documents: Presbyterorum Ordinis, a decree on the ministry and life of priests, and Fulfilled in Your Hearing, which addresses the question of preaching in the Sunday homily. Presbyterorum Ordinis held that the most primary duty of the pastoral ministry is "proclaiming the Gospel of God to all." Yet, perhaps the most effective way of applying the lasting truth of the Gospel is "the very ministering of the sacraments;" this is most true in the "Liturgy of the Word in the celebration of Mass." And so, the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, are central to the proclamation of the Gospel.

With the sacraments comes the important role of preaching. Fulfilled in Your Hearing defines the preacher as a "mediator" and as one who helps to provide "ultimate meaning." Preaching also has a "pastoral role" where the clergyman should display a "sensitive and concerned knowledge of the struggles, doubts, concerns, and joys of the members of a local community." As such, preaching should be mindful of the social make-up of the congregation. Ultimately, preaching the word of God "ought not to be explained in a general and abstract way, but rather by applying the lasting truth of the Gospel to the particular circumstances of life."

From this, an appropriate question might be: what is the competency of the clergy in these particulars of life? Perhaps an analogy from author and historian Thomas E. Woods, Jr. will help frame this discussion of competency: "It is perfectly unobjectionable for churchmen to say that churches should be built with the sturdiest materials in order that they might remain standing as long as possible. But they go beyond their competence as churchmen...as soon as they say, 'The best building materials are A, B, and C, and the wisest techniques to use are X, Y, and Z.'" And so, while clergymen should have an understanding of issues prevalent in their community, they simply are not in the position to offer specific and binding answers to social questions.

The family, however, is -- or, at least ought to be -- in the position to provide solutions to social concerns. As Pope Pius XI wrote in Quadragesimo Anno, the long held principle of subsidiarity insists that all attempts to answer political questions be done at the most local authority first: "it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do."

In all cases, the family is the most local, and I submit, the most authoritative unit to address social concerns. As the late Pope John Paul II wrote in Familiaris Consortio, "families should be the first to take steps to see that the laws and institutions of the State not only do not offend but support and positively defend the rights and duties of the family." And because of their most direct understanding of the impact of policy, the "laity, moreover, by reason of their particular vocation have the specific role of interpreting the history of the world in the light of Christ, in as much as they are called to illuminate and organize temporal realities according to the plan of God, Creator and Redeemer."

In short, clergymen simply have a different calling to civil life. As families are "called to illuminate and organize temporal realities," clergymen are called to proclaim the Good News. This understanding of calling provides a worth-while distinction between the spiritual and temporal realms; a distinction recognized in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church: "The Church is organized in ways that are suitable to meet the spiritual needs of the faithful, while the different political communities give rise to relationships and institutions that are at the service of everything that is part of the temporal common good." Civil life is ordered and assigns specific roles, which require distinct responsibilities.

In addition to speculating as to whether or not he would remain in the Catholic Church, Father Michael Pfleger also defined how he understood his role: "I believe my calling is to be a voice for justice. I believe my calling is to preach the Gospel." Here Pfleger joined two distinctive concepts of justice that have long been kept separate.

Perhaps Father Pfleger ought to consult the Gospel of Mark. There we see Christ challenged by the theological powerhouses of their day, the Pharisees. They asked Him, "Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or should we not pay?" Christ responded, "Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the Editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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