Pope Francis Speaks Out Loud & Clear – Why Can’t More Clergy Speak Out on Some Issues?

This week in America – as we saw – The Holy Father certainly makes his views abundantly clear…so people often ask, why can’t or don’t more clergy speak out on some issues that the flock care about?

Commentary by Reverend Tom Goodhue – shared here on the blog by Hank Boerner

HB Introduction:  The Holy Father Pope Francis has been speaking out this week is in the United States for his first official visit.  This is (among other events) Climate Week and Pope Francis has spoken out — quite vigorously — on the subject. His Encyclical Letter — “Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care For Our Common Home” —  will now serve as guidance for the many official bodies of the Roman Catholic Church and almost one billion of the RC faithful.

The Encyclical is much broader than “climate change” as an anchor phrase for some pundits on cable TV and in social media.  The Pope writes on the necessary care of our Common Home; pollution; loss of diversity; water issues; quality of human life; global inequality; the emphasis on some societies on consumption of goods; science and faith…and more.  The Letter is worth reading if you want to understand the Holy Father’s views on important societal, governance, political, financial, economic, and business subjects.

Climate change is of course a “hot topic” in the broader society — and one of the most powerful persons on earth has put forth important perspectives on the topic.

The Pope arrived in New York as the city officially celebrated “Climate Week 2015” (September 21-28).  A wide range of folks, official and unofficial, are of course talking about climate change, as the Pope so eloquently expresses his views.  (On the floor of U.S. Congress, at the big hall of the United Nations, at the 9/11 Ground Zero Memorial site.)

But what about climate change and other societal issues that are on people’s minds, are in the public dialogue, that are dividing folks left/right, conservative/liberal, north/south, east/west, young/old, faithful/agnostic…and so on?  In general, we can ask — here are the clergy views on these in the public dialogue?

In our everyday lives we often hear the question asked — why don’t clergy speak out — when “hot topics” are being discussed.  This is a Guest Commentary by my colleague and friend,  Reverend Tom Goodhue, Executive Director of the Long Island Council of Churches (New York).  The original commentary appeared in the LICC newsletter, The Prelude, July-August 2015. I think you’ll find his views very enlightening.

Commentary By Rev. Tom Goodhue:
Recently at a meeting of our Council’s Public Issues Committee, someone expressed a sentiment that I hear often: “Why don’t the clergy speak out on this issue?” Perhaps, I suggested, clergy wish that those in the pews lead the way on this issue.

Usually when I raise such a question, stunned silence ensues. It has seemed to be so obvious to my audience that pastors, priests, rabbis, and other religious leaders should support their political point of view that they have assumed any failure to do so can only be explained by cowardice.

Which is what many clergy imagine, I suspect, whenever laity want their parson to fight their battles for them.

People often want parsons to put their own ministry — and livelihood — at risk addressing issues on which they [themselves] either have remained silent or have spoken about without any real risk. If you want someone to take a chance of being fired by their congregation or transferred by their bishop to Siberia, and you have not taken a similar risk yourself, who is the coward?

Let me caution, to begin with, that if you get clergy to speak up, you may not like what they say.

Your pastor may not see the problem the way you do — or may think your solution is all wrong. Reasonable people can differ, after all, and both the nature of our most intractable crises and the right way to address them are not necessarily obvious — even if you think they are.

You may want your pastor to denounce high taxes — but she may think we need taxation to be more progressive and simpler to pay.

You may think, as I do, that we should adopt Medicare for everyone, the single-payer model. But your pastor may think that we could make medical coverage affordable by reforming malpractice laws and repealing laws that protect pharmaceutical companies from price competition.

And while clergy sometimes hesitate to address controversial issues out of fear, they often have good reasons to do so. Here are a few:

(1)  The governance of your congregation or denomination may limit their ability to make pronouncements on topics. The rules of the Long Island Council of Churches empower me, our board chairs, and the chair of our Public Issues Committee to issue statements, sign onto letters, and such only after we have studied the issue and reached a position consensus.

And we have a policy that we do not do foreign policy. Clergy who belong to hierarchical denominations may not be free to disagree publicly with the official position of their hierarchy.

Even in traditions such as mine — where clergy enjoy “freedom of the pulpit” — we are supposed to remember that only the General Conference of the United Methodist Church can speak for all of us. If you don’t like this, join another denomination. Don’t pressure parsons to do what they cannot do.

(2) Clergy rightly avoid mucking around in partisan politics. You may think of a burning social issue as a matter of simple justice, but others may see it as an ideological quagmire. Some issues are so thoroughly identified with one political party or another or one wing of a party that it is difficult to tackle them without being seen as wrongly taking sides.

And the fact that some congregations do invite candidates to preach from the pulpit and denounce the shortcomings of elected officials from only one party does not make it any easier to wade into the debate without being perceived as being inappropriately partisan.

You would be wise to always begin any appeal to speak out by first making it clear that you are not asking them to support any candidate or party. Even if you believe that your favorite politician is on the side of the angels, it is good to remember, as the Apostle Paul said, that in this, as all other matters, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

(3) Clerics sometime mistakenly think that America’s separation of church and state means that religious institutions are prohibited by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution from any advocacy on public policy. They may not be clear exactly where to draw the line between encouraging their parishioners to be good citizens and violating IRS rules restricting politicking by nonprofits.

And as someone observed recently at an Amos Project workshop, many Americans also think it is simply impolite in public company to talk about religion and politics.

In our newsletter there is our annual reminder about what faith communities should or should not do–how to be engaged in political issues without being partisan. As the Mahatma, Mohandas Gandhi, put it, “I could not be leading a religious life unless I identified myself with the whole of mankind, and that I could not do unless I took part in politics.”

(4) Clergy may not yet know what to say about any given topic. Preaching is very hard work, particularly if you are trying to do it well. If you doubt this, give it a try yourself.

Those who follow a lectionary or other calendar of Scripture readings for worship may not have yet encouraged a text that speaks to the issue you think is urgent. Or they have not have received “a word from the Lord” on this topic and are waiting for clarity and inspiration. This is the reason I always prefer to offer workshops on how to preach and teach about difficult issues before I expect anyone to follow me into battle.

(5) Last but not least, they may not have heard yet from their flock just how this issue affects them. My colleagues often talk about the necessity of prophetic preaching, but God seems to call many more people to be pastors, priests, and rabbis than to become prophets.

The most powerful sermons I have heard have been from clergy whose words grew out of the pains and joys of those they serve.

People in the pews sometimes tell me that a particular sermon was a stirringly prophetic when I know that God had not planted any burning ember in my mouth: I simply listened to my parishioners. I have rarely felt led by The Almighty to mount the barricades. But I have often reflected in worship the questions, doubts, struggles, and triumphs of the congregation.

If you want your parson to venture into troubled waters, share how something affects you and those you love. If the people lead, as we said in my youth, the leaders will follow.

Shalom/Salaam/Pax/Shanti/Jai Jinendra,

Tom Goodhue

Background:  Reverend Tom Goodhue is the Executive Director of the Long Island Council of Churches (New York).  LICC is the coordinating body for the ecumenical work of churches throughout Nassau and Suffolk Counties [of New York State].  For almost four decades LICC has been an effective center for the coordination, referral and assistance for low-to-moderate income Long Islanders.  LICC mobilizes the volunteer and advocacy efforts of almost 800 faith communities. LICC is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) interfaith organization serving vulnerable populations in Nassau and Suffolk counties, New York.  Reverend Tom Goodhue is executive director.

Disclosure by Hank:  I am a member of the LICC board of directors.  Information at: http://www.liccny.org/