Catholic priests in Minnesota have been advised not to vote in the state’s March 3 Super Tuesday presidential primary, because there is no guarantee their partisan ballot choice will be kept private, and because primary voting in the state requires voters to express support for a party’s principles.
Minnesota Catholic Conference staff have told the state’s bishops that clerical participation in the primary election is “imprudent.”
“As priests are, generally, discouraged from participating in partisan political activities, Minnesota Catholic Conference staff advised the bishops of Minnesota that, in light of the possibility that the information related to a priest’s participation and ballot selection could be made public, that it would be imprudent for them to participate in this particular primary process,” Catholic conference executive director Jason Adkins said in a statement sent to CNA on February 27.
Guidance from bishops to their priests on this matter is “within their purview,” said Adkins, whose organization represents the bishops of Minnesota on public policy initiatives.
Only ballots for the Republican Party and the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party, the state party affiliated with the national Democratic Party, are available for primary voters to choose from.
While the candidate a voter chooses in a Minnesota primary is secret, political party chairs are able to know which primary individual voters chose to vote in during the presidential primary.
Archbishop Bernie Hebda of St Paul-Minneapolis warned in an email to priests and deacons that because of the state’s policies, “nothing prevents party affiliation from being made public.”
Hebda emphasized that there is no tax-related ban on clergy voting in primaries and clergy can endorse candidates in their individual capacities.
“But the possibility that the data may become public should discourage clergy from participating,” said Hebda. “If the law were different and protected privacy, maybe the calculus would change.”
“It could be seen as ‘partisan’ political activity to align oneself with a party and to vote in its primary, which the Church generally discourages clergy from doing for evangelical reasons, more so than tax ones,” said Hebda.
According to Adkins, “most of the clergy to whom we’ve spoken about the matter were grateful for the archbishop’s guidance because it apprised them about something to which they’d not given thought and also helpfully laid out important information and considerations.”
Katherine Cross, communications director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, told CNA that the state’s presidential primary process “requires participants to attest to a party’s principles” as a condition for voting.
This limits participation to “those who are willing to publicly attest general agreement with the platform of one of the major parties here in Minnesota,” Adkins’ statement said. The change aimed to separate the primary from the party caucus process and to protect both events’ integrity as partisan events.
Adkins noted that legislators are considering whether to change the process to ensure that a voter’s primary ballot choice remains private.
DFL Rep. Ray Dehn of Minneapolis has proposed a bill to restrict party access to voter data. The bill proposes that political parties may not use the data for any purposes beyond certifying that the primary elections are free of widespread interference.
“It absolutely is a legitimate concern,” Dehn told ABC News television affiliate KSTP. “We’ve heard from not just tax-exempt groups and nonprofits but clergy don’t want that information available.”
The bill passed the DFL-controlled House of Representatives late Wednesday night.
DFL Gov. Tim Walz has said there is time to act before data is shared after the election.
“There’s folks that work really hard in positions where they’re non-partisan judges, clergy and others that don’t want to be in this position and I am with them on that,” he told reporters on February 26.
It is not clear whether the Republican-controlled State Senate will pass a bill to change the law and Minnesota Republican Party chair Jennifer Carnahan has opposed changes because voting is already underway, KSTP reported.
On March 3, Minnesota joins thirteen other states and the US territory of American Samoa in what is commonly called the Super Tuesday primary. Primary victories in the contested race for the Democratic presidential nomination will determine how candidates will split 1,357 party delegates, a key prize towards securing the majority of about 4,000 delegates needed to win the nomination.
The Minnesota primary for other elected offices will be held in August.
Adkins’ statement elaborated on concerns about partisan activity by priests.
“Counseling the avoidance of partisan political activity helps ensure that the priest retains an identity as a credible witness of the Gospel,” said Adkins.
“Especially in light of the political polarization and identity politics of today, the ability of a priest to form consciences for faithful citizenship in light of the appropriate principles depends, in part, on his ability to transcend the partisan divide and not have his catechesis tainted by the suspicion of partisanship.”
“Inevitably, addressing particular moral questions and public debates will strike some as partisan regardless of intent, but it remains important to cast the Church’s social teaching as principled, and never partisan,” said Adkins.
Minnesota Catholic Conference staff are also barred from participating in partisan political activity, Adkins said.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law bars Catholic clerics from assuming public offices which entail the exercise of civil power. It bars priests from “an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions” unless ecclesiastical authority judges it necessary to protect the rights of the Church or to promote the common good.”
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the February 2020 digital edition of their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” describes “complementary roles in public life” for clergy and lay people. Church leaders “avoid endorsing or opposing candidates” while fulfilling responsibilities to teach moral fundamentals, to help Catholics form their consciences, and to encourage the faithful to do their duties in political life.
“The Church is involved in the political process but is not partisan. The Church cannot champion any candidate or party. Our cause is the defense of human life and dignity and the protection of the weak and vulnerable,” the document said.
The US bishops’ Office of General Counsel in August 2018 published guidelines for Catholic organizations on political activity and lobbying. The document runs to 45 pages.
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