UNDER the above head the American Ecclesiastical Review for January contains a most significant article. The Review is an authorized organ of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and is “devoted to the diffusion and interpretation of practical theology, more especially in its bearing upon church administration in the United States. It deals with questions of the day only in their principles and special application to the priestly and pastoral function.”
The reason given for the discussion of this topic at this time is as follows:—
Recent occurrences brought about by the elections in the United States have directed public attention to this subject, and thus render its discussion particularly opportune at this time.
The Roman Catholic Church in the United States has hitherto professed non-interference in politics. Of course everybody knows, or ought to know, that, notwithstanding this profession, the church has had a tremendous influence in American politics. This influence, however, has not been openly exerted, as in Germany for instance, but has been exercised through the wire-pullings of the individual priest, the organized lobby, and the Catholic Indian Bureau at Washington.
But in the opinion of the prelates of the church, as voice in the American Catholic Review, the time has now come when it is opportune to take a more active part in American politics.
To prepare the way for this change the Review sketches briefly the attitude of the pope and the Catholics of other countries toward the subject under discussion as follows:—
Considering the fact that the present attitude of the Catholic clergy toward national politics differs very widely in various countries, it may seem at first sight impossible to find principles, universal, and founded alike in reason and faith, which would justify apparently opposite forms of action. For, at the very time when a stinging protest is sent forth from the altar by a respected American bishop against the intervention, in purely political matters, of another no less popular prelate, we find bishops of other countries raise their voice to arouse their clergy and people to the exercise of their political rights. Nay, on this very point we see Leo XIII. in Italy, directing what might seem two opposite courses of political action. In regard to the Chamber of Deputies and the Legislative Assembly of the Kingdom established since the spoliation of Rome, the holy father advises clergy and people to maintain the political principle laid down by Pius IX.—Ne eletti ne ellettori, that is “we neither vote nor stand as candidates for election.” At the same time the pontiff strongly counsels Catholics to take active part in the municipal elections, and he encourages the clergy to exercise their influence in behalf of the establishment of conservative regime in the large towns, and particularly in Rome….
Everybody knows the history of the “Catholic Association” in Ireland at the beginning of this century, and what a stand the bishops and clergy, individually and collectively, have taken in the struggle for emancipation, a struggle which has been carried into our own days with the sympathy of every lover of justice and freedom. Here, too, whilst we find Leo XIII. counseling the clergy to be watchful lest the claim of rights in the political order would interfere with that  of the moral order, we see him approving their zeal for liberty, and thus indorsing their activity in behalf of political rights.
In England, too, the Catholic clergy have had repeated occasions since the restoration of the hierarchy to assert their influence in the domain of politics, when there was question of obtaining equal rights with the members of the Established Church, especially in the matter of elementary education.
The “Kulturkampf” period in Germany is fresh in the memory of the present generation, and the French Abbé Kannegiesser, in his lately published instructive work, “Les Catholiques Allemands,” has taken particular pains to point out to his countrymen that the success of the “Centre” party in Germany during the religious struggle of the last twenty years was due as much, if not more, to the exertions of a patriotic clergy, than to the noble leadership of such men as Reiehensperger, Mallinckrodt, and Windthorst. The parliamentary party in Germany has always counted a considerable number of the ablest clergy among its ranks, and at this present moment there are more than a dozen priests following as members of the Reichstag in the footsteps of the late Mgr. Ketteler, Archbishop of Mayence, or the present Archbishop of Posen, Mgr. Stablewasky.
In the Austria-Hungarian empire select members of the national hierarchy and mitred abbots have long since enjoyed the right of a seat in the Upper Chambers of Vienna and Budapesth. If under the present administration the Liberals have gained the ascendency [sic.] in the actual government of the country, the cause may be sought to a great extent in the lack of interest and activity, partly forced, partly voluntary, of the clergy. This circumstance is openly regretted by the truly conservative element in the Austrian empire, and the clergy may have learned some useful lessons from the bitter experience which the Catholics of Hungary have but recently met with through the liberal and laissez-faire methods of some of their spiritual leaders.
But of all countries in Europe, Belgium has best demonstrated the beneficial results of a judicious, courageous intervention on the part of the clergy in its national politics. Ever since the establishment of the kingdom, the clerical element has been strongly represented in the “Constituante.” The celebrated Canon de Haerne did not cease to the last days of his active life to urge upon the legislative body of the country the necessity of granting “true liberty for all” in conformity with the constitution, amongst the signers of which his name will always be honorably remembered. The Abbé Pottier received but a short time ago the grateful testimony of popular confidence by a proffered candidacy to the Chambre, whilst the valuable services rendered to the national cause by a simple country priest, the Abbé Keesen, were publicly recognized by his election as a senator of the kingdom in the Catholic province of Limbourg. There can be no doubt that the overwhelming victory of the Catholic party in the late general elections is mainly due to the exertions and loyal vigilance of the clergy, who, in the political crisis of the time, proved to be equal to their social duties. Moreover they did not fail to exercise the right of the so-called vote plural, established by the late legislature, in virtue of which nearly all the members of the clergy are accorded a triple vote, viz.: as citizens, as representatives of the learned professions, and as tax-payers.
Let us here mention the neighboring kingdom of Holland, which, like Belgium, small in territorial extent, enjoys more constitutional liberties than any other State of Europe. If, in this Protestant land, the Catholic minority has succeeded in exercising so marked an influence upon the laws passed within the last few years, the credit is mainly due to the Rev. Dr. Schaepman, whose reputation not only as a poet and orator but as a member of Parliament, has gone far beyond the limits of his native land….
As for our neighboring country, Canada, everybody knows that the clergy are recognized as a potent factor in legislating for the two million Catholics among its inhabitants. If Canada possesses to-day, perhaps, the best educational system and institutions of varied learning supported by the State, it is entirely due to the exertions of an intelligent priesthood interested in the common welfare of their people.
From the rapid and imperfect sketch of the foregoing facts regarding the participation of the clergy in politics under circumstances widely different in character, we are enabled to draw several important conclusions:
1. The members of the clergy enjoy the political rights accorded to every other citizen.
2. Generally speaking—that is to say, abstracting for a moment from particular places, times and circumstances—the character and profession of the priesthood, is not obstacle to the exercise of the political rights accorded to every citizen; on the contrary the moral and intellectual advantages secured him by reason of his profession, give him a distinct title to fulfill his social mission by the salutary exercise of his political rights. This exercise gives to his efforts in behalf of the common good the mark and seal of true patriotism.
3. There are places, times and circumstances when the assertion and exercise of his political rights becomes a positive obligation on the part of the priest. He may even, as the legitimate guide of his people, take an active part in purely political movements when their results affect the temporal as well as spiritual welfare of the flock entrusted to him. In this case, it is needless to say, his conduct must be guided by the law of prudence.
4. This same virtue of prudence, looking above all things to the methods best calculated to promote the salvation of souls, which is the principal object of our holy ministry, may, on the other hand, oblige the priest, under certain circumstances, to use his political right with discretion or even to abstain wholly from its exercise.
Following this summing up, the Review concludes with the promise “to examine in detail these different conclusions” in future issues.
From all this the careful observer of the signs of the times will expect to see the Roman Catholic priest in the United States take a more open and “active part in purely political movements when their results affect the temporal as well as spiritual welfare of the flock entrusted to him.” And since the “temporal as well as spiritual welfare of the flock” requires that the Government continued its appropriations to Catholic Indian schools, commence to divide the public school fund,—in short, requires that the church, as Pope Leo puts it, “enjoy the favor of the laws and the patronage of public authority” “in addition to liberty,“—we may expect to see the church in the near future enter upon open and aggressive political action.
But why not? Have not the popular Protestant churches and societies already done so? Have they not publicly combined and boycotted legislators into giving them the legal power to compel all men to submit to their interpretation of the fourth commandment? If Roman Catholic priests follow their example in the interests of their church and beat them at their own game, as they surely will, they will have no one to blame but themselves.
But between the upper and nether millstone of Roman Catholicism and apostate Protestantism what will become of “the land of the free”?