Guidelines for Pastors and Parishes on Advocacy and Political Action

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The California Catholic Conference of Bishops has prepared the following instruction on political advocacy for use by Catholic clergy and parishioners:

In a 2013 reflection entitled Pray for Politicians that They Govern Us Well, Pope Francis wrote:

“We need to participate for the common good. Sometimes we hear ‘a good Catholic is not interested in politics.’ This is not true: good Catholics immerse themselves in politics by offering the best of themselves so that the leader[s] can govern.”

As disciples of Christ, we are called to share the richness of our faith in the public square, as Pope Francis states in Gaudete et Exsultate:

“Your identification with Christ and his will involves a commitment to build with him that kingdom of love, justice and universal peace. . . .You cannot grow in holiness without committing yourself, body and soul, to giving your best to this endeavor.”

Catholic Social Teaching

The principles and themes of Catholic social teaching should be the moral framework from which we address all issues in the political arena.  Among those principles are:

  • The life and dignity of the human person,
  • Human rights and responsibilities,
  • The call to family and community,
  • The dignity of work and the rights of workers,
  • The preferential option for those who are poor and vulnerable
  • Solidarity, and
  • Care for God’s creation.

Guidelines for Advocacy and Political Action

While it is increasingly accepted that major public issues have moral dimensions and that religious values have public consequences, there is often confusion and controversy over the participation of religious individuals and groups in public life.

The following are some practical guidelines for pastors and parishes on advocacy and political action that will clarify what is allowed on an individual basis and an institutional basis. Since these are only guidelines, each (arch) diocese, (arch) diocesan agency and parish, in consultation with its bishop, remains free to make its own determination as to what activities are proper for its personnel and committees.

1. Individual citizens are free to fully engage in partisan politics. The Church encourages all citizens to vote. In light of that, the Church urges voters to examine the positions of candidates for public office on the full range of issues, as well as on their personal integrity and performance. (Making Practical Decisions)

Religious leaders, however, should avoid taking public positions on candidates or publically participating in political party matters even when acting in their individual capacity.   Although not prohibited, it may be difficult to separate their personal activity from their public role as a Church leader.

2. Unlike individuals, Churches and other institutions, which qualify for tax-exempt status under the Internal Revenue Code, may in no way engage in partisan politics such as supporting or opposing individual candidates for office.

That means that no diocesan or parish entity or organization or other 501 (c) (3) exempt Church organization should engage in voter education which directly or indirectly suggests that a particular candidate or party should be supported or opposed. That also means that no one candidate should be invited to a parish function during an election campaign unless all candidates for that office are invited. And if all are invited yet not all attend, mention of the candidacy of the candidates in attendance must not be made, and a non-partisan environment must be maintained, so as not to misconstrue this as political campaign intervention (promoting the candidacy).

Advocacy on “issues” is not a partisan activity. Therefore, Church organizations may take positions on public policies such as proposed legislation and ballot initiatives, which can be referendums, constitutional amendments, or changes to statutes. If this advocacy takes place in close proximity to voting for political candidates, it is advised that a broad range of issues be advocated so as not to be misconstrued as indirect campaign intervention.

3. Parishes and other Church organizations should, in some cases, engage in issue-oriented activities and political action.

The local diocesan attorney should be consulted for local guidelines but limitations on the extent of such political action and advocacy are not generally a problem for parishes or active institutions, since that activity would be an insubstantial part of their total work.

The following are examples of such acceptable activity:

  • Conducting meetings and gatherings designed to share the Catholic Church’s teaching regarding the moral and ethical dimensions of public policy issues and/or legislation;
  • Preaching to parishioners about the sanctity and dignity of human life and the concept of the common good and exhorting them to “faithful citizenship;”
  • Organizing participation in Catholic Advocacy Day and/or diocesan-sponsored issue-oriented events;
  • Distributing fliers containing both a statement about issues before the Congress, the California Legislature or local government and the names and addresses of elected representatives;
  • Encouraging individuals to contact their state or federal legislators in order to educate them and to develop support/opposition for legislation.

The following types of activities may be conducted with appropriate advice from the California Catholic Conference or from your (arch)diocese:

  • Urging parishioners to register, to vote and to participate actively in Church-sponsored “get-out-the-vote” drives and other nonpartisan voter-education initiatives;
  • Sponsoring multi-issue candidate forums to which all candidates for a particular office are invited;
  • Conducting single-issue forums which present both sides of the issue objectively.

4. No (arch)diocesan or parish entity or organization may endorse, oppose or evaluate any political party or candidate for public office. No such organization can contribute in any way to a political candidate, party, campaign or political action committee. Church property or personnel should not be used in campaign ads. (Why the Church does not Endorse Candidates)

The following are examples of activities which are not allowed:

  • Urging readers or listeners to vote for or against a particular candidate or party;
  • Labeling a candidate or party as “pro-school aid” or “anti-life”; such a practice removes objectivity by not allowing readers to evaluate a candidate’s position themselves;
  • Using plus (+) and minus (-) signs, or checkmarks (✓) and “Xs” (✗) to evaluate a candidate or party;
  • Rating candidates or parties on a scale of “1 to 10” for example, or otherwise saying “X is good,” “Y is better”;
  • The use of marked sample ballots.

5. Although Churches have no jurisdiction over public sidewalks and other public property in their vicinities, Church parking is ordinarily private property and the general public has no right to distribute partisan materials thereon. This may be difficult to control, but parish leaders should nevertheless deny permission for any such activity. Lack of enforcement here may be construed as institutional support for partisan activities.

6. The California Catholic Conference staff reviews all of the statewide ballot initiatives and referenda. The bishops, after appropriate consultation, may choose—either individually or as a conference—to support, oppose, or take no position on each measure.

When neither the California Catholic Conference nor the (arch)diocese has taken a public position on a specific measure, a parish or Catholic organization should not do so without previous consultation with the bishop.

Granting the use of Church facilities to supporting or opposing groups should rarely be allowed. Only with the specific permission of the diocesan bishop and the local pastor should Church facilities be used for signature gathering to place an initiative on the ballot.

All public policy materials distributed in parishes must be prepared by the (arch)diocese, the California Catholic Conference (CCC) or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

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