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When priests enter politics

Individual free choice is at the heart of the American democratic system of representative government. The difficulty of maintaining this deal when the clergy enter politics is dramatized by the case of Congressman Drinan (D) of Massachusetts, a Jesuit priest. The Holy See's decree against his seeking re-election left him no choice, as a committed clergyman, but to step aside. And thus it also limited the choice of the voters in his district, where majorities had chosen him for five terms despite any concerns about whether a priest under the discipline of a rigorously hierarchical church could truly exercise free choice in political matters.

It was not surprising that some of the congressman's fellow Roman Catholics raised questions about the imapct of a denominational decision in rome on US politics.

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"This is the freest nation in the world, and anyone ought to be able to run for public office," said House Speaker O'Neill.

"I pursued several avenues of appeal," said the Rev. Edward O'Flaherty, Jesuit provincial of New England, "stressing with the Roman authorities the fact that such an order would almost certainly seem, in the eyes of many people, to be an improper intrusion by the church into American political affairs."

Some saw the Drinan decision as being in line with a general papal thrust toward getting the Roman Catholic clergy out of active politics. Many Americans , indeed, are made uneasy by politicians in clerical garb and would welcome their staying out of governmental positions where their fixed religious doctrine or ecclesiastical instructions might come into conflict with their secular duties. This is an especially significant consideration because of the fundamental importance in the American constitutional system of preserving the distinct line of separation between church and state.

According to speculation, the ending of Congressman Drinan's political career may have been influenced by what was seen as his straying from some Catholic positions. He obviously satisfied his constituents that while he never denied his continuing priestly role, he legislated according to what he perceived as the public interest. The same test would apply to the Protestant clergymen who have served or are serving in Congress: Senator Danforth of Missouri, Representative Buchanan of Alabama, former Representative Andrew Young of Georgia.

It may not be seen as a denial of free choice for persons to join a priesthood knowing that its members are prohibited from running for public office, with special permission required for exceptions. Indeed, members of many religions adhere to practices and principles by choice, and voters might want to consider these in relation to qualifications for election. But, in a democracy, each individual should be able to choose whether to run, being satisfied that no membership in any other body would prevent him from exercising untrammeled judgment in office. Only thus is the candidates' -- and the voters' -- free choice ensured.

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