Preaching Politics from the Pulpit

With the 2020 electoral campaign now behind us, candidates in close races strategize about how to garner votes among religious believers in two and four years. So, too, religious leaders will once again have to brace for political battle in the quest to instruct and, perhaps, sway those who follow them.

In this mix of politics and religion, the question of whether clergy should preach about politics from the pulpit inevitably arises. Conflicting answers have already created controversy; emboldened preachers have been chided for their expressed views, while silence about candidates or platforms is met with claims of one-sidedness or indifference.

When asked to speak on this topic at a major seminary during the previous presidential election season,1 I first reminded the future preachers that St. Francis de Sales, a Doctor of the Church known for his sacred eloquence, once opined that “the supreme art [of preaching] is to have no art.”2 As to the art of preaching during an electoral campaign, I offered them this advice, drawn from a well-known advertising campaign: “just don’t do it!”

That may be the bottom line, but the topic bears further consideration. The difficulty lies in the terms of the question. Yes, “the pulpit” is obvious, but “politics” and “preaching” may not be, which makes linking them a challenge. To take up this challenge, let us consider three propositions about preaching, each with a “difference” that invites continuing reflection and discussion.

(1) Preaching is Politics . . . but of a different kind.

In some respects, the question of preaching politics from the pulpit is muddled by the contemporary understanding of the term. “Politics” has taken on the dint of something disdainful, a messy mud-slinging that people find almost despicable. The word conjures up a hardened contrast of opposing viewpoints, with a ruthless competition for votes that leads to vociferous rancor across the aisles; in turn, this constant conflict creates inertia, at worst, or requires compromise, at best. All too often, politics seems mostly to pander to base emotions or self-interests, and the current presidential campaigns have done little to change that picture.

Seen in this way, politics has become politicking, an exercise in “party-ocracy” rather than an expression of democracy. The power of politics to attain the common good has, instead, turned into rivalry fueled by decadent discord. Service to society has been supplanted by the egoism of the electorate.

Because politics is so contested, rules need to be in place to govern the contests fairly. One such regulation issues from the Internal Revenue Service. Amended in 1954, it states that tax-exempt entities — and this includes religious organizations and all those who represent them — “are prohibited from participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for elective public office.”

Some groups, mostly our Protestant brothers and sisters in the pulpit, have advocated opposition to this law through the Pulpit Freedom Sunday initiative, but their efforts seem not to have gained much traction. Others, like Catholic Answers, have challenged the constitutionality of that regulation in court, but without success.3

So, as it stands the IRS regulation makes it pretty clear that preachers should abstain from preaching politics from the pulpit, unless, that is, they want to jeopardize the tax-exempt status of their diocese! Granted, no infraction of this rule has been prosecuted in more than sixty years, at least not with preachers as defendants. But that does not mean there never will be such a lawsuit, especially if we consider the government’s recent willingness to go after the Little Sisters of the Poor! Even if one considers this a proverbial line in the sand, worth crossing in the name of religious freedom, prudence suggests it is not worth the risk.

Still, an escape clause exists. According to the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, “Church officials and employees are permitted . . . to instruct the faithful about the Church’s teaching on moral and social issues and [to] identify such issues as important current political topics.” But an added proviso notes that “Care must be taken . . . not to identify any particular candidate’s views as preferable on such issues.”4

More than a legal technicality, that commentary toes the line between an endorsement and an instruction. While church spokespersons may not offer the former, the latter is, in fact, an obligation of the Church, as the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops explains well in the 2012 document on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. Catholics are called “to participate in shaping the moral character of society” as a requirement of our faith (no. 9). Clergy have the responsibility to do this by helping the faithful form their consciences correctly, by guiding them with regard to the moral dimensions of public decisions, and by encouraging them to carry out their responsibilities in public life (no. 15).

In other words, preaching is political — all the time! — because it is meant to shine the light of God’s holy Word on the very real struggles and challenges that people face living in this world. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis calls this the “missionary” task of preaching, because preaching is meant to have an impact on society (n. 180). He also reminds us that we are set apart to give people that infinite love which alone can cure their infinite sadness (n. 265).

So, the question is how best to do that from the pulpit during a campaign season. On the one hand, preachers must never tell people whom to vote for (or not vote for), not just because it is illegal to do so, but because it risks infringing on the freedom of conscience of those to whom they preach. On the other hand, and as a means to inform those consciences, they can and should address moral issues that affect voting decisions. That brings us to a second proposition.

(2) Preaching is Evangelization . . . but on a different level.

That parishioners, in general, lack sufficient understanding of the moral and social teachings of the Church is, by now, an understatement. This lack of religious education inspired the call for a “new” evangelization in terms of its ardor, its methods, and its expressions.

Preaching stands out as a prominent method of educating and evangelizing. In their 2012 document on Preaching the Mystery of the Faith, the U.S. Bishops remind preachers that “when we have the privilege of preaching the homily . . . we also have an invaluable opportunity to advance the Church’s catechetical ministry” (p. 21). These days, preachers might take advantage of that opportunity by highlighting the four pillars of Catholic Social Teaching, namely, the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity — each of which is explained, in detail and with policy implications, in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. Catechetical preaching in a campaign season can specifically engage the “life” issues that are so often points of contention in political discourse: abortion, poverty, care of the earth, and assisted suicide.

Common to these multiple social concerns is the realization, not always or clearly appreciated, that the right to life — from conception to natural death — is fundamental and primordial; it comes first because it is the foundation to any and all other rights. This is why the Bishops say a “consistent ethic of life” serves as the anchor with which to secure a just society (Forming Consciences, no. 40).

But here the second proposition runs into a snag. The recent Homiletic Directory published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, explicitly states that “the homily is not catechetical instruction, even if catechesis is an important dimension of the homily” (n. 6, emphasis added). Pope Francis affirms this in Evangelii Gaudium (no. 137), when he directly quotes St. John Paul II’s claim that “The liturgical proclamation of the Word of God . . . is not so much a time for meditation and catechesis as a dialogue between God and his people, a dialogue in which the great deeds of salvation are proclaimed and the demands of the covenant are continually restated.”

It would seem, then, that the Church’s documents on preaching reflect divergent schools of thought; in this, they disclose the crux of the question: should preaching catechize the faithful about moral matters impacting society, or is catechetical instruction beyond the purview of the pulpit? Should homilies expound upon Catholic social teaching, or is this really just “preaching politics” in a cleverly disguised way?

A resolution to this homiletic dilemma comes in parts practical and spiritual.

The practical part is simple: preachers do not have enough time in a homily to explore the rich insights of Catholic Social Teaching. They, themselves, may understand the depths and distinctions of sound moral theology. But to try and work through all that in the brief time of a homily would require oversimplifying very important clarifications, and that, in turn, would likely end up distorting the clarity of the Church’s teaching.

For example, suppose someone preached on the morality of “cooperation with evil” and implied, or openly stated, that voting in one direction or another puts one’s soul at eternal risk because of such complicity. This kind of stark claim fails to do justice to the complexities involved in making moral choices. Why? Because the preacher would also have to explain the nuances of intentionality in the act of voting, the relation between intrinsic evil and other seriously grave matters, the dilemma posed when all the candidates promote something intrinsically evil, and the reality of a given candidate’s ability to exert real influence on any one issue — all matters which are dealt with thoroughly in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (nn. 34-36).

It does remain necessary to recognize and affirm “that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions” (Forming Consciences, no. 37). Teaching people this fundamental moral truth would, itself, be a valuable contribution that clergy can make in the parishes.

Nevertheless, the Sacred Congregation remains right in its claim. To do this sort of catechesis thoroughly requires more time than preachers have at their disposal during the Mass. If during that time they attempt to teach moral theology comprehensively, the homily would necessarily be rather long, which may just provoke rather than persuade the congregation! Other ways should be found to impart these important teachings and to discuss their implications in the real life of parishioners.

Even beyond the practical limitation of time, another, more important and more spiritual reason justifies not turning the homily into a political lesson in moral theology. That brings us to the third and final proposition.

(3) Preaching is Worship . . . and knowing this makes all the difference.

The USCCB document on Preaching the Mystery of Faith, the Pope’s apostolic exhortation on the Joy of the Gospel, the Holy See’s Homiletic Directory, and even the various liturgical books all emphasize that the homily is a genre of speaking distinct in its focus and unique in its form. Put simply, the homily is an act of worship. Its liturgical character is what defines its essential features.

The magisterial documents describe the aim of preaching in various ways. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal calls it an exposition of the sacred mystery being celebrated while taking into account the particular needs of the listeners (no. 65). The introduction to the Lectionary notes that a homily “sets forth the mysteries of faith and the standards of the Christian life on the basis of the sacred text” (no. 24). Preaching the Mystery of Faith champions “the pattern in Paul’s proclamation of the Christian message,” which takes the shape of “announcing the mysteries of redemption and then drawing out the meaning of these mysteries for the Christian life” (pp. 22-23). And the Homiletic Directory speaks of three important movements in the dynamic of any homily: from the proclamation of the Paschal mystery, to that mystery becoming present in the Blessed Sacrament, to carrying the presence of that mystery into the world in which we live (nn. 12-14).

In all these descriptions, a common pattern emerges: first the proclamation, then the exhortation. In other words, preaching is first and foremost an announcement of what God has done for us, not an instruction on how we should act. Proclaiming the joy of God’s saving mystery always comes first. Specifying how to live according to the faith flows from this and is a consequence of it.

In other words, preaching is not intended to deliver a lesson in theology; its purpose is to inspire people to live differently. This happens, says Pope Francis, when we give them “an idea, a sentiment, (and) an image” of the wonders of salvation, when we offer to them what Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P. calls a proposition of “my life for the better because of a Love” — God’s love — “that has come to claim me.”5

That life-claiming Love comes to people not through theological concepts, but in the person of Jesus Christ. The task of preachers is to share Him with people. From the pulpit this happens when listeners are engaged on a personal level in a way that fosters their encounter with the concrete reality of God.

In his sermons, St. John Henry Newman “exults in the fact that Christianity discloses to us not a divine principle but a Divine Agent.” That Divine Agent works His transformation of human life not through education for the mind, but by the experience of grace in one’s heart and soul. As Newman rightly points out, “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description.” From this comes his famous dictum: “Many a man will live and die upon a dogma; no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.”6

Perhaps that explains why the Homiletic Directory states that catechetical instruction is only a dimension of, not the substance of, preaching — because theological education, much as this is needed, does not, of itself, offer motivation to follow the Lord. Were catechetical instruction about socio-political matters to be the sole, or even the primary, focus of preaching, people who listen to homilies will agree or disagree, while some will simply not care. But few will be newly inspired. Only if preachers focus their homilies on God’s saving work in our midst, and persuade the faithful that this really is “Good News” for them, can they then propose how this redeeming mystery can have an effect on one’s faith in the concrete circumstances of our social and political lives.

This is the properly liturgical dimension to preaching. The implications of that for the ministry of preaching should now be more obvious.

As a proclamation of redemption, the homily should focus on, and flow from, the “intrinsic power of the text” of Sacred Scripture more so than from the contentious power of news cycles. God’s word is a far richer resource than the stuff of any political debate.

As a liturgical expression, the preacher should propose, rather than impose, what the Church teaches and what our faith believes in terms of our role in society. Inspiration offered with imagination generates interest, whereas instruction that comes off as indoctrination leads to indifference or sometime even indignation.

As an act of worship, the message from the pulpit should not be the expression of the preacher’s own thoughts on the issues of the day, but instead the expression of the Holy Spirit speaking through him the words of God’s loving mercy which is there for believers every day. This is ultimately the message the Church has to offer, one that speaks divine truth to the heart more than to the mind.

Non-Political Virtues for Preachers

To make homilies more an act of worship, more “heart-to-heart” and more inspiring, preachers should strive to cultivate three virtues so that they can be who they are and be that well.

A first virtue, one not ordinarily associated with preaching, is what Pope Francis calls “tenderness” or simply “nearness.” As is obvious in any discussion of politics, people struggle. They struggle with the issues affecting them. They struggle with others opposing them. They struggle with the decisions they need to make in the voting booth.

God’s saving word is the preacher’s response, the best response, to the struggles people face. The task of preaching is to bring that divine Word to people, bridging the gap between then and now. As Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium, “the Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness” (n. 88), and “If we succeed in expressing adequately and with beauty the essential content of the Gospel, surely this message will speak to the deepest yearnings of people’s hearts” (n. 265).

A second virtue for preachers is prudence or discretion. As is obvious whenever talk turns to politics, people clamor a lot. They debate and they discuss; they criticize and they complain. But when they come to Church, what they want, what they really need, is something else. They expect the preacher to bring them into a different realm, one that transcends the mundane realities of our socio-political existence. As Pope Francis tells us, “the preacher has the wonderful but difficult task of joining loving hearts, the hearts of the Lord and his people. . . . In the course of the homily, the hearts of believers keep silence and allow God to speak” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 143).

Discretion facilitates that conversation through the choice of the homily’s content and the manner in which it is presented. Yes, preachers need to be sufficiently prudent so as not to cross the line into political endorsements. But prudence also calls for the recognition that, as an element of the liturgy, preaching is a prayerful time, a time to direct people into conversation with God’s holy Word. But the homilist has only a brief time for this conversation! So, let it be a time to appeal to people’s freedom, as well as their faith. And, in contrast to much of what passes as political speech nowadays, the homily should be saving speech, a speech that Pope Francis says should be “positive” in as much as it “always offers hope, points to the future, (and) does not leave us trapped in negativity” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 159).

Finally, a third virtue for preachers young and old is reverence. Politics too often turns to personal attacks and negative ads. In today’s media age, the campaign advantage comes through popularity, whether of personalities or positions. In the end, majorities win, even at the risk of devolving into “might makes right.”

But from the pulpit, preaching is about truth, the “might” that really makes right because it comes from the revelation of God’s saving words and deeds, which are disclosed to us in the Sacred Scriptures and explicated for us in the teachings of Sacred Tradition. Proclaiming that truth and persuading people that that truth is Good News for their lives will always be the homily’s primary objective. Preachers revere God’s truth when they first let it speak to them in their own hearts, in prayerful dialogue with the sacred Word. This they should do not only to understand better the saving mystery for themselves, but also to know how to speak about that mystery in light of the needs of the faithful. Reverence for God’s holy Word will distinguish good preaching from that “tedious and ineffectual preaching” which everyone knows is all too prevalent in churches. As Pope Francis reminds us, “To speak from the heart means that our hearts must not just be on fire, but also enlightened by the fullness of revelation and by the path traveled by God’s Word in the heart of the Church and our faithful people through history” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 144).

Elections will come and go, with fortunate or unfortunate results. The Word of God is eternal. It speaks always and everywhere the Truth of salvation. The enlightened preacher does well when he just does that.

  1. This article is adapted from a lecture given at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD on April 7, 2016.
  2. St. Francis de Sales, On the Preacher and Preaching, trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Henry Regnery Company, 1964), p. 64.
  3. PEW Research Center, “Preaching Politics from the Pulpit,” Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2012. https://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/02/preaching-politics-from-the-pulpit-2012/.
  4. Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, “Political Activities Guidelines for Catholic Institutions in PA” (9/4/2012), https://www.pacatholic.org/frequently-asked-questions-regarding-political-activity-guidelines-for-catholic-entities-in-pennsylvania/.
  5. Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., Evangelii Gaudium and Pope Francis’ Revolution in Preaching (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2014), p. 36, with reference to Evangelii Gaudium, n. 157.
  6. John F. Crosby, Personalist Papers (Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), pp. 236-237.
Fr. Thomas F. Dailey About Fr. Thomas F. Dailey

Ordained in 1987, Fr. Dailey is a priest in the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. He holds a doctoral degree in biblical theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome) and currently serves as the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Comments

  1. Avatar Deacon George says:

    Parishioners don’t have an understanding of what the church teaches, because it’s been dumbed down for 40 years, whose fault is that? Priest don’t have enough time to prepare or deliver? POPPYCOCK! It’s
    sit on the fence articles like this that has the church in the shape it’s in, which is outta shape, period!

    • Avatar Tom McGuire says:

      Deacon George,

      The Gospel does not put us on a fence. Jesus makes very clear in Matthew 25 what and how we are to be in this world, would you agree? So if the Gospel is proclaimed, How is that Poppycock?

  2. Dcn Peter Lovrick Dcn Peter Lovrick says:

    Hello Fr Dailey
    Your article is superb, clear, and faithful to the vision of homiletics that has come out of the council and found full expression in the Homiletic Directory. Keeping in mind that the homily is part of the liturgy, and thus an act of worship in itself, protects the homily from being less than it is meant to be – and from becoming that can be dismissed as simply partisan. In particular, it prevents it from becoming a platform for the preacher’s personal agenda and becoming just another voice in the polarized warfare into which public discourse has descended. When parishioners can hear different preachers preaching different positions on different political candidates, the voice of the Church becomes less clear. The voice of the Church is very clear on particular issues, especially life and moral issues in modern times. Those are non-negotiable. The listener can decide which candidate or party best promotes them — if any at all. Thank you for an article which is worth re-reading in the difficult times in which we live.

  3. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Fr Thomas,
    So clear, so true, so hopeful, your explanation of the homily in worship. We need models of dialogue. The role of the homily as worship as a dialogue between God and God’s people. This is a model of the way for people to be with people in politics. The new kind of politics Pope Francis encourages in Fratelli Tutti. I long to experience this each time I participate in the Eucharist. Thank you so much for your encouraging reflection. I pray future homilists will begin to recognize this as the WAY of Jesus.

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