As Steel Magnificat covered last week, four priests showed up at the Trump rally in Montana, cheering and laughing as the Sex Predator in Chief made fun of sexual assault victims and ginned up the mob to jeer at the desperate refugees whose children he is traumatizing, kidnapping, and holding hostage. He also trashed two dying men (Bush 41 and McCain) and engaged in his schoolyard bullying of other political enemies. It was a disgusting display, made vastly worse by the scandal given by these priests.
A reader of mine, horrified, wrote the bishop of Great Falls-Billings and got a reply back from him that gives me some hope:
Dear Bishop Warfel:
I was concerned to see several priests of your diocese–in collar–prominently participating in the partisan rally held within your diocese by President Donald Trump last night. At least one of them has been identified as Father Garrett Nelson. These men were clearly applauding and otherwise acting approvingly at much of what President Trump said–even when it consisted of personal attacks, by name, on individuals such as former President George HW Bush and Senator John McCain, and even when it was demonstrably riddled with falsehoods. As a Catholic, I was quite disturbed by what can only be considered partisan and problematic behavior on the part of these clerics. As their shepherd, I believe you not only need to be made aware of this, but that you should counsel these men about the inappropriateness of their actions.
Thank you for your attention. May God bless your ministry and your diocese.
Sincerely, [Dr.] [redacted]
Dear Dr. [redacted],
I was not aware that the priests observed at the Trump rally would be in attendance. I was likely just as shocked as most to see that they were seated in a very prominent location in clerical attire behind the podium where the President would speak. Two of the priests were from the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings and two from the Diocese of Helena. I have contacted the two from the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings. They had been invited to the rally by a republican candidate running for office. One told me he is not republican and I believe the other isn’t either. They said in the line waiting to enter, there were people who spoke openly of their disdain from President Trump as well as Democrats who attended the rally so it was not solely a republican event. A number were there to protest against him and many others just to see a president.
I happen to know that these priests rarely are not in clerical attire so that they were was not unusual. This doesn’t take away from the negative optics! They told me that they didn’t know they would be seated in the front row right behind where the President would be speaking. They thought they would just be in the midst of the crowd, likely on the side or in the back. I hope they learn from this.
I informed them that they should not have been in clerical attire at a partisan event. I also pointed out that they were used by being placed in such a conspicuous location which was certain to capture them on national TV. They essentially were duped.
I was able to catch part of the rally on TV but then had to leave to celebrate a Mass. For the portion I was able to watch, I didn’t notice them clapping but then I didn’t see the entire event. If they were clapping at an inappropriate comment, it is possible that they got caught up in what the majority were doing. Not an excuse, but an explanation. I myself had been invited to the rally but declined knowing that I would likely be used in the same manner. And I’m not what you would call a supporter of many of the President’s policies.
I have received apologies from the two priests. It is highly unlikely that there will be a repeat appearance.
He also added later, to the same reader:
I just happen to be sitting at my computer as your email came in. I’ve been writing up a post for our diocesan Facebook page on the four priests and the event that has caused a bit of controversy. I have had a chance to speak with these priests as well as others and have discovered some additional information so I’ll send you a copy of the post. And you can use my previous email to you.
Here is the post:
A number of inquiries and comments have been posted on the Facebook page for the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings. I rarely view the diocesan Facebook page or consider responding to postings on Facebook when staff alerts me to something. I prefer responding to individual inquiries via email or regular mail. Given current interest, I thought I would respond to a number of inquiries about four priests who attended a rally in Great Falls at which President Trump spoke.
First, two of the priests are from the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings and two from the Diocese of Helena. Complaints were made that they were dressed in clerical attire and positioned in a very prominent location. I know these priests well enough to affirm that they almost always are in clerical attire. I know that being dressed in clerics was not a strategy to gain political support for the President. It is just how they normally dress. Unfortunately, this is not how their presence was received.
Secondly, the four had received an invitation by someone they know well and who is running for office. He thought they would appreciate an event at which a president was speaking. I know from speaking with them and others that the crowd was more than a republican crowd though it obviously was mostly republican. While I really do not know, I suspect all four lean toward the republican side of issues. At the same time, I know that democrats were in attendance as well as people who just wanted to see “a” president and not necessarily “the” president. There were many Catholics present as well as Protestants and those without religious affiliation. It is also obvious from comments I have received that both democrats and republicans watched the entire event on TV. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have received comments of concern as well as support. In many ways, it strikes me that there isn’t much difference between a person attending such a rally in person and one who watches on TV. They’re both interested in what will be said.
Thirdly, the four priests had no idea they would be ushered to the front row behind the podium where they certainly would be viewed prominently on national TV. They thought that they would be sitting on the side or in the back amidst the crowd and not in such a prominent location. I believe they would have preferred a less visible seating arrangement. In retrospect, they should have moved to another location. Though not intended, attired as they were and seated in the front row behind the podium was a not too subtle statement to many people, not only in Montana, but around the nation.Fourthly, there has been an assertion by many that the four priests clapped following various mean spirited or inappropriate remarks. I was able to watch the first part of the speech on TV but never witnessed any such reactions, other than some smiles. I had to leave after about fifteen minutes in order to celebrate Mass at the Poor Clares Monastery so I missed a majority of the speech. I had been invited to the rally myself but declined judging that it would be inappropriate for me as a bishop to be present at a political rally, whether republican or democrat. I have since discovered that an individual has reviewed a tape of the speech. He references locations at which a disparaging comment is made by the President, cites the time of the remark and then describes the actions and responses of the four priests. He discovered, while citing the exact time a comment was made, that the only instance where the priests are observed clapping is following a comment about removing MS-13 gang members. There are smiles on one priests face, but the review shows that they do not react to disparaging comments by clapping as the majority of the crowd does. As I noted, I was able to watch but the first part of the speech and never witnessed any clapping by any of the priests. I have since told the two from Great Falls that they should not have been in clerical attire at the evident and they agreed.
Reading through some of the comments as well as emails I’ve received, some individuals have expressed that the Church/religion has no business being involved in politics. If this means partisan politics, I agree. If it means restricting religious faith to the side lines, ruling out any engagement of religious groups (and some would just restrict Catholics) I completely disagree. I have a hard time imaging, for example, what may not have happened if Pope St. John Paul II had not traveled to Poland and publicly confronted the communist government at the time and supported the ship yard workers of Solidarity in Gdansk. I believe the world would be at a loss without the voice of Pope Francis today who has addressed a variety of political/moral issues such as global warming, environmental damage, abortion, refugees and immigration, the plight of the poorest of the poor, etc. The USCCB has a committee on International Justice and Peace (on which I am a committee member) as well as Justice, Peace and Human Development (for domestic policy) which involves the Church in an array of issues. Political issues are often moral issues. Non-involvement just doesn’t make sense. While the state understandably does not rely solely on the variety of religious arguments that are made, society (which is not the same as the state) can and should listen to religious wisdom and moral insights.
Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship has been issued by the USCCB for several decades and has been updated a year prior to each presidential election. It is important for bishops to assist the faithful in how they discern who to support while considering an array of issues. I cite from that document:
4. As Catholics, we are part of a community with a rich heritage that helps us consider the challenges in public life and contribute to greater justice and peace for all people. Part of that rich heritage on faithful citizenship is the teaching of Vatican Council II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae). It says that “society itself may profit by the moral qualities of justice and peace which have their origin in [people’s] faithfulness to God and to His holy will” (no. 6). The work for justice requires that the mind and the heart of Catholics be educated and formed to know and practice the whole faith.
5. This statement highlights the role of the Church in the formation of conscience and the corresponding moral responsibility of each Catholic to hear, receive, and act upon the Church’s teaching in the lifelong task of forming his or her own conscience. Foremost amongst those teachings are the four basic principles of Catholic social doctrine: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 160). With this foundation, Catholics are better able to evaluate policy positions, party platforms, and candidates’ promises and actions in light of the Gospel and the moral and social teaching of the Church in order to help build a better world.
I have reviewed and updated the basic policy on political involvement for the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings. It is as follows:
POLICY ON POLITICAL ACTIVITY
Please Review Carefully
The political campaign season is upon us once again. Supporting or not supporting a particular candidate as a representative of the Diocese is not permitted. This is the case, not only because it affects our tax exempt status, but also because it entangles us in partisan political positions. Candidate endorsements (either for or against) are prohibited, including such statements in a sermon, parish bulletin or newsletter, or editorial position in a diocesan newspaper. Catholic organizations (any which are part of the diocesan corporation) may not provide financial support or other forms of campaign support to any candidate, political action committee, or political party. Parish or other church-related facilities are not to be used for any kind of political activity.
Personal support for a candidate or a position is allowed, but if done so, must be clearly done as a private citizenship. Presence at any partisan political event should never been in clerical attire nor indicate that one is in attendance as a representative of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings.
A second caution has to do with distributing materials (including such things as voter guides, candidate’s questionnaires, and various forms of voter education materials) prepared by other organizations, even if such organizations present a “legal opinion” that the materials meet IRS standards (there are different types of standards. Materials used by entities of the diocese must meet the standards which apply to the diocese).
If there is a particular question about distributing materials, please provide a copy to the Chancellor who will have it reviewed by diocesan attorneys.
My one comment is that it’s about far more than optics. It’s about reality: why were they applauding and cheering? That’s the core problem, not where they were sitting. They should be in sackcloth and ashes.