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  • Writer's pictureJ. Basil Dannebohm

'Abuse of Pulpit': When a priest's political rhetoric inevitably creates parish division




"There is no room for politics in the Gospel. Politics seeks authority,

whereas the Gospel preaches love, sacrifice, self-emptying, and the Cross."

-- St. Sophrony of Essex




Jeremy Basil Dannebohm
J. Basil Dannebohm

Something of great concern to me is clergy who use the pulpit (or social media) as a political soapbox. I don't know about you, but I don't attend divine services to hear a pastor offer his latest armchair insight of current events. I tend to think that most people attend the divine services as a means to escape all of the noise of the world and experience a more intimate encounter with the Almighty. Indeed, to "set aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all, Who comes invisibly escorted by the Angelic Hosts."


If I wanted to hear some gas bag ramble on ad nauseam about the latest political headlines, I could just as easily sit at home on Sundays and watch any number of news programs offered by the mainstream media.


The best way to destroy a parish is to infect it with politics from the pulpit.


Granted, opportunities often arise to use current events as examples to reinforce the lessons of the gospel. To be clear: this is far different than abusing the pastoral pulpit as a bully pulpit. When the pastor's personal political convictions, whether right or wrong manage to largely deflect from, or detract from the message of the gospel, there is a very serious problem.


I am reminded of the words of the Righteous Seraphim Rose of blessed memory, who said:


"I think the central need of our time is not in the least different from what it has always been since Christ came; it lies, not in the area of "political commitments" and "social responsibilities," but precisely in "prayer and penance" and fasting and preaching of the true Kingdom. The only "social responsibility" of a Christian is to live, wherever and with whomever he may be, the life of faith, for his own salvation and as an example to others. If, in so doing, we help to ameliorate or abolish a social evil, that is a good thing—but that is not our goal. If we become desperate when our life and our words fail to convert others to the true Kingdom, that comes from lack of faith. If we would live our faith more deeply, we would need to speak of it less."


Fr. Richard Heilman

Recently, a Roman Catholic priest who is only a few years from retirement was relocated to a different parish after serving the same one for many years. Though he was previously warned by his bishop, he was shocked. He took to social media lamenting that he was somehow being persecuted. Naturally, his massive number of virtual followers sympathized and called for protest. The facts, however, speak for themselves. The priest photoshopped an image of himself with Donald Trump's hair. He launched a military-esque so-called "Grace Force" podcast that promotes especially divisive political views and sells various Catholic sacramentals for profit. His social media (especially his photos) is chock full of MAGA rhetoric. One only need watch the livestreams from his parish to observe that every week his homilies were not much more than political grandstanding. The priest wore a "Make America Great Again" ballcap to many parish functions. He even offered to pay the legal fees of those implicated in the January 6th insurrection. Meanwhile, he scratched his head in bewilderment and alleged persecution when his bishop assigned him to a different parish.


In truth, he only had himself to blame. But instead of having the humility to recognize the error, he sought comfort from a social media fan base in an effort to soothe his damaged ego. He reached the point of being too arrogant to see his own mistake -- and a virtual audience made up largely of strangers fueled his sin of pride.


See, here's the thing: maybe somebody agrees with the priest on his political views. Maybe that person loves the MAGA movement and finds it just dandy that a priest sports a cap. However, other members of the faithful might not. As a shepherd of the flock, a priest cannot push any of the sheep away by such behavior. Offer counsel on the morals of certain political issues? Definitely. But donning promotional items and clothing that promote a candidate -- that's a no-no. Moreover, when offering counsel on certain issues that present themselves at the crossroads of politics and religion, a priest must realize that not every issue is as black and white as his political leanings might suggest. Discernment and discretion are imperative in such instances. After all, the left wing and the right wing belong to the same bird.


Speaking of which, there is another egocentric member of the Roman Catholic clergy who has taken to social media to spread his message that, "You cannot be a Democrat and be a Christian."


In fact, he's not just wrong, his statement is abhorrently stupid and absurdly dangerous.


Father James Altman

Likewise, he was reprimanded by his bishop multiple times by his bishop, but he also ignored. Eventually, he was removed from priestly ministry. But that didn't stop him. Instead, like the aforementioned priest, he likewise took to Facebook to soothe his hurting ego. And just like the other deranged cleric, his following came through with cultish gusto. He refers to himself as a "cancelled priest," a popular term turned movement by a group of clergy who have been removed from ministry for a variety of reasons. Don't worry, though. He makes good money from speaking engagements where he spews the same garbage that landed him hot water.


Incidentally, the two priests I cited as examples are close friends -- color me not surprised.


The problem is not exclusive to Catholicism, though.


In Orthodoxy we have similar priests who cause similar divisions and feed their egos through social media. These priests are notorious for hopping from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, often settling in a more obscure one where they have little oversight. These reckless clerics similarly cry persecution and their social media audiences respond with visceral anger against whoever calls out the fact that "the emperor (priest) has no clothes."


St. Maria of Paris once said, "Christ, who approached prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners, can hardly be the teacher of those who are afraid to soil their pristine garments, who are completely devoted to the letter, who live only by the rules, and who govern their whole life according to rules."


Only somebody who is completely out of touch with the Gospel insists on constantly preaching (and posting) matters pertaining to worldly politics and spreading division from their pulpit. It's a good way to spot the wolves wearing sheep's clothing. I consider such men to be narcissistic, wannabe gurus, who masquerade as clergy. Jesus called men of similar stock "vipers" for a reason.


Fueling extremist rhetoric, divisive politics, and hatred has no place in the Church. The world should become immersed by the Church. The opposite has occurred. The Church has become so immersed by the world that the faithful become offended when you try to bring them out of it. But the fact remains: we are called to live in this world, but not of it.


People who grow tired of the political infiltration of the Church eventually make their way to other pastures. Tired of the noise, and with a fervent desire for the sacred, they search for God elsewhere. The salvation of such a wandering soul, that is to say the blood of that lost soul, stains the hands of the political priest.


What's perhaps more unfortunate is that while the political priests strives to satisfy his "base," in the end nothing the Church has to offer will ever truly suit their needs. They are far too caught up with the noise of the world to authentically appreciate the silence they experience when encountering the Divine Mystery.


In the Catholic Church, these people generally bounce from the so-called "novus ordo," to some form of a radical traditionalism, and often complete the Catholic experience as members of the so-called "Byzantine Rite."


Dormition Skete Buena Vista, Colorado

In Orthodoxy, these people generally start their journey in one of the more balanced jurisdictions before bouncing to something a little more extreme, and conclude their journey with some sort of deranged schismatic sect.


Whether in the East or the West, extremists are rarely satisfied and far too often they are enabled, instead of counseled.


Recently, a priest with a keen sense of the problem offered a superb observation:


"People who are intensely concerned with 'issues' -- left or right -- never stay in the Church. The Church is either too regressive or too progressive for them; it's always too strict or too liberal; etc. The problem for them is that the Church, while having to live in the world, is not 'of' the world, so it's never going to conform to your personal politics or socioeconomic vision. It's observable that people for whom their spiritual life is always bound up with 'issues' don't actually have a spiritual life. ... The best way to apostasy is constant, incessant outrage and casting of blame. That way one always feels righteous for being on the correct side of whatever issue (even though that determination is almost always subjective), but one never has to do the hard, uncomfortable work of becoming righteous."


If you find yourself holding up a bible while standing at a protest rally for some social or political issue, but you are not practicing the authentic message of the gospel ... well ... you just aren't doing it right -- and somebody needs to correct you, not enable you.


Logic would suggest that your priest should be the one pointing out this imbalance. But how can he if he is part of the picket line?


St. Silouan the Athonite reminds us:


"Here is freedom: love for God and neighbor. In this freedom, there is equality. In earthly orders, there may not be equality, but this is not important for the soul. Not everyone can be a king, not everyone a patriarch or a boss. But in any position it is possible to love God and to please Him, and only this is important."


Where does your loyalty rest?


What gospel are you proclaiming?


Are you caught up in the cult of personality that often surrounds political priests?


How many sheep have left your parish flock as the result of worldly noise being injected into the sublime nature of Divine worship?


Remember: A friend of the world is enmity with God.




Recommended Reading:


by M. Scott Peck, MD


 

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