Can a priest speak publicly as a private citizen? My inclination is to say "no." As a priest, you speak as a representative of the Church whether you like it or not, right? At least that's what I thought. Now, sincerely, I'm not so sure. Archbishop Chaput in a highly publicized statement (even if it was addressed to a small group) seems to have muddied the waters a bit.
In a previous post, I reflected a bit on my responsibility as a priest as regards my political views. I did this in light of Archbishop Chaput's instruction to his priests and deacons that they should not publicly endorse or affiliate themselves with any political candidate. I have found it incumbent upon myself, in a similar vein of thinking, to be somewhat circumspect in sharing with others who I might or intend to vote for. I tend instead to share with others the range of issues that I am concerned with. For example, having noticed the almost complete absence of any mention of the poor in the current presidential campaign, I have come to the conclusion that advocacy on behalf of the poor is something we have to be especially concerned with in the coming years, no matter who wins the election. I also share with people my concern for the full range of life issues. In the spirit of Cardinal Bernardin, I am a "seamless garment" pro-life advocate. These issues, too, will continue to be of concern no matter who wins the election.
All that said, Archbishop Chaput this week left me a little confused as to the stance he encouraged, and which I have been taking. After make very specific statements in public about a political candidate, he made the distinction that he was speaking as a private citizen and not as a representative of the Archdiocese of Denver. But my question is: Was he speaking as a priest, or not?
I ask this not because I necessarily agree or disagree with what he said (and I will not say, in the spirit of what I've just been saying). I ask it because it has implications for the question of whether or not priests can responsibly make public statements in favor of, or in opposition to, specific candidates. Speaking from my perspective as a priest, I doubt that it would be enough for my superiors or my local bishop for me to simply say, after making public statements in favor of a particular candidate, that I was doing so as a private citizen. But this is what some might take Archbishop Chaput's statement to suggest.
Just this past year, Archbishop Burke of St. Louis suggested that it was irresponsible on the part of the basketball coach at St. Louis University to take part in a rally for Hilary Clinton, because he was a representative of a Catholic University. Archbishop Burke didn't seem to think it was enough for him to say that he was doing so as a private citizen.
This all leaves me, and I think many others, confused as to how we as priests are to engage political questions. It will be interesting to see in the coming weeks if we get some further clarification on this matter.