Can the Catholic Church Cite An Authority Above the Tax Code For How It Deals With Politics?

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When Boston Archdiocese priest Monsignor Paul Garrity endorsed Joe Biden for president on his Facebook page, he reopened the perennial question about religion and politics:  Should churches or clerics endorse or otherwise support political candidates?

First, to be clear, church institutions and their ministers have the same right to engage in political advocacy that is guaranteed to every American citizen under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. No office holder or petty bureaucrat at any level of government has authority to interfere with that unalienable right.

The issues surrounding religion and politics are mired not in the free exercise of religion or the freedom of speech, but rather in the tax code. There must be a Henny Youngman joke in there somewhere:  “Take my IRS agent … Please!”

But seriously, folks. Like any non-profit organization, every religion has the right to apply for tax-exempt status. And virtually all churches become tax-exempt institutions referred to in the tax code as 501(c)(3) non-profits. 

Among the pitfalls that could cause the loss of this tax exemption is direct political advocacy from the pulpit. Outside the church, however, every priest, minister, rabbi or church official or employee retains all the rights of any private citizen to political advocacy, without threatening the tax exemption granted to the church institution.

Tellingly, the threat to religious freedom through revoking of tax exemption has a notably sordid political history. In 1954, Texas Democrat Senator Lyndon Johnson became infuriated at some Lone Star State pastors who opposed his re-election. And it was particularly dangerous to take on Johnson, the powerful Democrat Senate leader known for his ruthless tactics.

In a textbook case of tit-for-tat political retribution, Johnson slipped a line into the Federal Income Tax Code that threatened his opponents with loss of tax-exempt status should they continue to campaign against him. The punitive language targeted churches that did not toe the line laid down by Senator Johnson. Tax exemption was granted on good behavior to a church or non-profit “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

Using his enormous political clout, the vindictive Johnson bullied churches and pastors into submission. Of course, the Johnson Amendment was imposed in 1954, two decades prior to Roe v. Wade. Hence, most religions, including the Catholic Church, took little notice of this new restriction. At the midpoint of the 20th Century, there was no politician in either political party who uttered the word “abortion,” let alone advocated for abortion as a fundamental right while insisting that all taxpayers be forced to pay for it, as does today’s Democrat Party and its presidential candidate, Joe Biden.

It comes as no surprise that today’s Democrat politicians overwhelmingly favor maintaining the Johnson Amendment, named after the party’s 1964 standard bearer, President Lyndon Johnson. On the Republican side, President Donald Trump has campaigned to repeal the amendment, which he characterizes as an impediment to free speech and religious liberty. Using his presidential authority, Trump has issued an executive order designed to to limit the Johnson Amendment’s enforcement and restrain its implied threats to churches.

In response to the controversy surrounding Monsignor Garrity’s Biden endorsement, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, admonished the pastor by stipulating:  “The Catholic community has the right to expect the priests of the Archdiocese and those entrusted with handing on the faith to be clear and unequivocal on the Church’s teaching concerning respect and protection for life from the first moment of conception to natural death. This teaching is of the highest priority for the Church.”

Cardinal O’Malley further explained Church policy with respect to political campaigns. “With regard to statements of the clergy and religious and laity who minister or serve in the Archdiocese of Boston,” His Eminence wrote, “following the guidance of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as representatives of the Archdiocese they may not endorse or oppose candidates for election or political parties. This directive also applies to parishes and organizations directly connected to the Archdiocese.”

Clearly, Cardinal O’Malley is invoking his Church authority rather than any public law or regulation in prohibiting clergy and others from political activity, even when engaged as private citizens. No one seriously doubts his discretion to do so within the archdiocese, so long as one understands that represents a decision freely arrived at within the Catholic Church and most certainly not an unwanted imposition of arbitrary government power.

Likely because he was responding to an unexpected situation, His Eminence deferred offering a full explanation of why the Church chooses political neutrality. Instead, an exclusive report from the Catholic News Agency published citations from a letter addressed to parishes and Catholic institutions from Francis J. O’Connor, the general counsel for the Archdiocese of Boston.

According to CNA, “the memo focused on the tax implications of political endorsements.” The news report directly quotes the attorney’s letter:  “Blurring the lines between an individual’s personal thoughts and opinions and the appearance of a connection to the Church or a Church related entity to which those personal thoughts or opinions can be attributed to presents unacceptable risk and jeopardy to the Church’s tax-exempt status.”

The archdiocese’s prohibition of political advocacy goes far beyond tax policy, especially as generously construed by the Trump Administration. Undoubtedly, there are profound reasons behind this self-imposed religious restriction. Lacking a full explanation, one is left to ponder whether these Church-imposed limitations are based upon Scripture, the Church Magisterium, religious history, or prudential judgment. It would be inspiring and instructive if these reasons are better explained, rather than leaving the impression that the Catholic Church forms its political guidelines based upon a draconian interpretation of a tax code corrupted by Lyndon Johnson’s hoary political vendetta.

After all, the Catholic Church, along with all religions, answers to a higher authority than the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.


Joseph Tortelli is a freelance writer. Read other columns by Mr. Tortelli here.