In the USA, I've heard priests say that they can't endorse any candidates but the Bishops put out a fairly unambiguous voters guide every election that clearly says there are non-negotiable issues (mainly concerning life and marriage) which align themselves squarely with the more conservative parties.

But Fr. James Altman of the diocese La Crosse in Wisconsin is of the mind that "You can't be a Catholic and a Democrat. Period" and made it known on a widely circulated youtube video.

Possibly in response to this, a pastor at a local parish posted on Facebook:

The Catholic Church does not endorse a political candidate or a party. This means, that as a priest, I cannot endorse anyone.

and Fr. Altman seems to be in a bit of hot water from his Bishop for his statements.

However, why can't a priest tell a person not to vote for someone. If a Catholic is running for office who is excommunicated, wouldn't that be a non-endorsement of that person's character by the Church and if a person is running for office who is not excommunicated, but probably deserving of that excommunication, does that mean the Church cannot excommunicate that person for fear of looking like a political endorsement for his or her rival?

  • Great question! This may vary according to standards used in different countries, but I do believe that the Magisterium of the Church has published guidelines.
    – Ken Graham
    Sep 12, 2020 at 6:35
  • "You can't be a Catholic and a Democrat. Period" - I wholeheartedly agree, with the added mention that the exact same thing can be said about Republicans as well. Half-truths are the mark of the serpent, as seen in Genesis (3:1-5).
    – user46876
    Sep 12, 2020 at 7:13
  • "This means, that as a priest, I cannot endorse anyone."...now, on another hand, "if I speak as a private individual to the lay people in my congregation, I can of course say what I want about that"
    – user100487
    Sep 12, 2020 at 12:58
  • 1
    @Lucian while the US Republican party is not free from positions which at least somewhat contradict Catholic doctrines (especially on morality), it's not the case that those amount to the same degree of contradiction between the platform of the US Democratic Party and Catholicism. The guidelines published by the Bishops typically include ~5 intrinsically immoral political concepts; most of which are promoted by the Democratic Party and few to none are promoted by the Republican Party.
    – eques
    Sep 14, 2020 at 15:40
  • @eques: See my deleted comment on this post, published right before the one to which you replied; and, if you are not able to see deleted comments, be sure to send my kind regards to the moderators.
    – user46876
    Sep 14, 2020 at 21:55

3 Answers 3


The Johnson Amendment is a provision in the U.S. tax code, since 1954, that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Section 501(c)(3) organizations are the most common type of nonprofit organization in the United States, ranging from charitable foundations to universities and churches. The amendment is named for then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, who introduced it in a preliminary draft of the law in July 1954.

The Internal Revenue Code prohibition against political campaign intervention applies to religious organizations as tax-exempt organizations and to the actions of clergy or other religious leaders acting as representatives of their religious organizations. The prohibition does not apply to the political activities of clergy or other religious leaders undertaken in their individual capacities. Thus, clergy or other religious leaders, in their individual capacities and outside the context of any religious organization-sponsored function or publication, may endorse or oppose candidates and otherwise participate in election campaigns. When engaging in personal political activities, however, clergy and religious leaders should take steps to ensure that their actions are not imputed to their religious organizations.

While the amendment states that the organization must be organized and operated exclusively for religious, educational, scientific or other charitable purposes, only churches are automatically considered exempt and are not required to apply for and obtain recognition of tax-exempt status from the IRS, although religious organizations are not treated more harshly than schools, hospitals, social services agencies, colleges and universities, scientific organizations, museums or other charitable organizations exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the code.4 None of these organizations may intervene in political campaigns.

The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...” Although the Internal Revenue Code prohibition against political campaign intervention may burden the exercise of religion to the extent that a religious organization must choose between the receipt of the benefits of tax exemption and intervention in a political campaign, not every burden on religious exercise is constitutionally prohibited.

To date, courts have been unsympathetic to First Amendment challenges to the political campaign intervention prohibition. In the most prominent ruling on this prohibition, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld in 2000 the constitutionality of the political campaign intervention prohibition as applied to a church, concluding that the prohibition did not violate either the Establishment Clause or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

This prohibition encompasses a wide array of activities. It precludes direct political campaign intervention, including the making of statements, whether oral, written or in an electronic medium, supporting or opposing any candidate, political party or political action committee (“PAC”); creating a PAC;8 rating candidates;9 and providing or soliciting financial support (including loans10 or loan guarantees) or in-kind support for any candidate, political party or PAC. It also precludes indirect political campaign intervention of a sort that reflects bias for or against any candidate, political party or PAC, such as distributing biased voter education materials or conducting a biased candidate forum or voter registration drive.

The political campaign intervention prohibition does not restrict discussions of issues that are not linked to support for or opposition to candidates. The fact that candidates may align themselves on one side or another of an issue does not restrict the ability of religious organizations to engage in discussions of that issue. That said, a religious organization may nonetheless violate the political campaign intervention prohibition if it communicates preferences for or against particular candidates as part of its issue discussions.

For a more exhaustive document on all aspects of politics and religion, see this Pew research paper.

  • Does the Johnson Amendment prohibit politicians speaking in churches? Because (as a foreigner) that seems to be somewhat common in the USA, but would be almost unheard of in a country like Australia.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 12, 2020 at 8:40
  • Churches may host candidates to speak about the election, but they must do so in a way that is not partisan and gives equal opportunity to all the candidates
    – Codosaur
    Sep 12, 2020 at 11:02
  • No political party is perfect. In the USA, both main parties have some troubling issues at hand. Some are similar, while others are not. I believe Catholic Churches should not, at least in their Churches properly speaking, since the Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary of most churches, have candidates speak about an election. It is not a fitting topic in a Catholic Church, especially from a non-member of the clergy.
    – Ken Graham
    Sep 12, 2020 at 19:55
  • This answer seems off-topic, more suited to Law StackExchange.
    – Geremia
    Sep 12, 2020 at 20:26
  • cf. "Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty" (May 4, 2017), §2 "Respecting Religious and Political Speech".
    – Geremia
    Sep 12, 2020 at 21:03

Clergy can involve themselves in politics insofar as it doesn't detract from their pastoral duties (not that pastoral duties don't include educating the faithful on politics).

Pope Leo XIII wrote in his 1882 encyclical "on the conditions in Spain", Cum multa, that

  1. […] it is not conduct consonant with the duties of the priesthood to give oneself up so entirely to the rivalries of parties as to appear more busy with the things of men than with those of God.
  2. They must, therefore, studiously avoid overstepping the reserve imposed on them by their office.

Commenting on 1917 Code can. 141 §1 (1983 Code can. 289 §2)—which says clerics should not

become involved in civil wars or disturbances of the public order in any way.

Canonist Charles Augustine, O.S.B., writes:

In purely political issues arising between parties the clergy are free, and the bishop cannot compel them to follow his opinion, much less forbid them to vote. For the right of voting is, radically at least, an inborn right, inherent in a citizen by the fact of his belonging to the State. And the State we hold to be of natural or divine origin. Hence the clergy, remaining citizens though clerics, cannot be deprived of that natural right by any authority, except by way of penalty.

However, we would not deny ecclesiastical authorities the right to forbid the clergy to vote in some particular case which involves great disturbance to state or diocese.71 But this only by way of exception. And what we have said concerning the clergy in general, must fully be applied to religious, for that mystic mors civilis has now ceased in most countries.

71. Leo XIII, "Cum multa"; Heiner, l. c., I, 229, justly remark that the bishops are empowered to see to it that the clergy do not, on account of political activity, neglect their clerical duties or transgress the bounds of Christian charity and truthfulness.

cf. The Moral Obligation of Voting by Rev. Cranny Titus, S.A., M.A., S.T.L., which cites several popes and bishops on the moral obligation to vote.

The Church "non-endorses" being a member of the Communist party or Freemasons, which is an excommunicable offense because such a party "machinate[s] against the Church" (1917 can. 2335) or "plots against the Church" (1983 can. 1374).

cf. Richard Murphy, “The Canonico-Juridical Status of a Communist”, Canon Law Studies, no. 400 (J. C. D. thesis, Catholic University of America, 1959).


How far are priests and other religious allowed to go in terms of political endorsements (or non-endorsements)?

First of all, what generally applies to bishops, will apply to priests and Catholic Religious.

There is a way to preach sermon that do so as to be able to instruct the faithful on both faith and morals in this area in such a way that the sermon remains non-partisan and simply present political statements on a moral basis. A good preacher need not to name parties or individuals, but after informing the faithful how to vote in an objective manner with their own freedom to do so according to their proper conscience and insight.

The following article, although for issues in Canada can be of much insight for other countries too.

The Church in any particular country would have carefully tread in political sermons in order to avoid losing their tax exemption status from various governments also.

Considering clergy in general, political activity is not their responsibility, but that of the laity. Consistent with this, Canon Law not only commands clergy to acknowledge and promote the mission of the laity in the world, but forbids clergy to assume public office. Granted: clerics may, with the permission of their superiors, play an active role in political parties or trade unions in order to defend the rights of the Church or to promote the common good. However, this kind of activity is clearly exceptional, justified only when the laity is unable to act effectively without direct clerical assistance. Such circumstances have existed and continue to exist from time to time in different places, but they do not now exist in Canada.

Bishops do not exceed their authority or competence simply by commenting upon political issues. Faith and morals are a bishop’s proper and primary concern. But marriage, divorce, pornography, abortion and euthanasia are all moral issues which are the subject of intense political debate; so is the just distribution of earthly goods. The Church has not only the right but the duty “to pass moral judgements even in matters relating to politics whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it.”

Neither of these concepts can be narrowly defined. Among the fundamental rights which popes and bishops have defended, for example, one finds private property, life, health, religious freedom, the right to form unions, the right to a just wage and decent hours of work, and the right to be free of excessive taxation.

The goal is to help shape public policy that is in conformity with the law rooted in our nature that governs us all no matter what our religious belief. Thus, politicians are called to try an ensure that the laws that govern us protect human life, respect the human person, preserve the unique nature of marriage, support family, ensure the safety of children, guarantee religious freedom and make it possible for all citizens to share in the conditions that are necessary for humane living.

In arguing for such things, bishops attempt to clearly enunciate general principles concerning the purpose and use of created things,10 peace, war, the just distribution of material goods and the “fraternal coexistence of all peoples.” They may also, “after mature reflection and with the help of qualified persons,”pass judgement on the morality of secular works or institutions, and explain what is needed to safeguard and promote transcendent moral and religious principles. Bishops may do this well or do it badly, but they do not “interfere” in politics by doing it.

The relationship of bishops with politicians who identify themselves as Catholics begins with three assumptions: the truth of Catholic teaching, the inseparability of faith and life and the sincerity and integrity of the politicians.

If Catholic politicians support policies and laws that seriously contradict Catholic teaching, bishops, led by charity, will assume that the politicians? views are the result of ignorance or poor instruction. Since it is reasonable to believe that sincere Catholics would not wish to remain in error about Catholic teaching, it is reasonable for bishops to attempt to correct them. - The Clergy and Politics

The faithful have the right to be instructed in order to make a moral and informed decision about voting. A good sermon would give the Catholic principles for discerning how to vote without pronouncing a sermon without a particularly partisan aspect to it. It is an art that seem to be hard to achieve by many of the Catholic clergy.

Catholic pastors must educate the people of God in political matters so that informed decisions in the political field in regards to the Christian principles of the Catholic Church.

Priests are also encouraged to vote according to their informed consciences.

Catholic clergy are forbidden to hold a political office. This is backed up in Canon Law.

Can. 286 Clerics are prohibited from conducting business or trade personally or through others, for their own advantage or that of others, except with the permission of legitimate ecclesiastical authority.

Can. 287 §1. Most especially, clerics are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people.

§2. 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.

Can. 288 The prescripts of cann. ⇒ 284, ⇒ 285, §§3 and 4, ⇒ 286, and ⇒ 287, §2 do not bind permanent deacons unless particular law establishes otherwise.

For further insights, I would encourage the reading of the following articles:

  • 1983 Can. 287 §2 doesn't apply to Fr. Altman's case, though.
    – Geremia
    Sep 12, 2020 at 20:35
  • @Geremia The question is: How far are priests and other religious allowed to go in terms of political endorsements (or non-endorsements)? Fr. Altman’s case is simply an example that the OP places in his question.
    – Ken Graham
    Sep 12, 2020 at 20:37
  • Also, how is 1983 Can. 286 applicable here? Dom Augustine defines "negotiatio and mercatura" as "generally understood to mean habitual buying and selling for the sake of gain".
    – Geremia
    Sep 12, 2020 at 21:47

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