On the eve of Ash Wednesday, St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda wrote to his priests with a rather surprising suggestion for something to abstain from: voting in the state’s upcoming primary on Super Tuesday.

The recommendation seems motivated by concerns about voter privacy in the state’s new primary system and the appearance of partisanship if priests’ party affiliation were to be made public.

While canon lawyers told NCR the move is within the archbishop’s purview, other political observers expressed concern that it discourages clergy from participating in this country’s process for structural change.

Citing a memo from the Minnesota Catholic Conference, Hebda’s Feb. 25 email said it would be “prudent” for clergy to not vote in the March 3 primary because of the possibility that the voter’s party choice — documented when the voter chooses the party’s ballot — could be made public.

“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,” Hebda said in the letter to clergy.

Although the Johnson Amendment in the U.S. tax code prohibits certain nonprofit organizations, including churches, from endorsing or opposing political candidates, Hebda clarified that “there is no tax prohibition on clergy voting in primaries, as clergy can endorse candidates in their individual capacities.”

Hebda’s letter referred to Minnesota’s primary as “closed,” because voters must “align” with the party. According to the Secretary of State, voters are not asked to publicly declare affiliation with a political party when they register to vote. But voters must select a party when choosing their ballot on Election Day.

Both Hebda’s letter and a subsequent statement by the conference’s executive director indicate that primary voters also “attest” agreement with the party’s principles and platform by voting in the primary.

Read more.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference issued a statement on this yesterday:

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 to for them to participate in this particular primary process,” Catholic conference executive director Jason Adkins said in a statement sent to CNA Feb. 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.”

Finally, I think now might be a good time to revisit these words of wisdom from Deacon Bill Ditewig: 

We clergy exist, according to Church teaching (cf. especially Lumen gentium #18) to build up the People of God.  Our actions then must be understood with that end in mind: are the words I’m using, the actions I’m taking, the positions I’m teaching all serving to build up, or do they tear down.  It is easy in the heat of the moment to let our emotions get the better of us, and especially when the rhetoric surrounding our current political “discourse” is so heated and volatile, we might succumb to the temptation to be just as superheated in our responses.

Canon 285 directs that “clerics are to refrain completely from all those things which are unbecoming to their state, according to the prescripts of particular law.” The canon continues in §3: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power,” and §4 forbids clerics from “secular offices which entail an obligation of rendering accounts. . . .” Canon 287, §1 reminds all clerics that “most especially, [they] are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people,” and §2 directs that “they are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”

…The diocesan bishop may also create particular law within his own diocese on such matters. In one case, a diocesan bishop notified his clergy that if anyone could even infer, through their speech, manner or demeanor, which political party or candidate the cleric was supporting, then that cleric had gone too far. While we are each entitled to form our own political decisions for ourselves, we must always be aware of the political lines we must not cross.