WHEN THE American Congressional elections are held later this year one familiar name will be missing from the list of candidates. Fr Robert Drinan Si, the Jesuit priest who has been a Democratic member of Congress since 1970, announced his surprise withdrawal from the race a few days before the deadline for filing names. Immediatel,y Fr Robert Cornell, a Norbertine priest, also declared that he 'Would not be running.
Their decisions were prompted by directives issued from Rome, apparently at the instigation of the Pope himself. They underline again the firmness with which Pope John Paul is enforcing his understanding of the roles of different members of the Church in the light of the teachings of Vatican 2. In particular they emphasise his concern that priests should not he drawn too far into "worldly" affairs.
That principle is presumably to be applied internationally.
Indeed at the same time on Italian priest was suspended from all his priestly duties for refusing to withdraw from elections to the local city council.
Action may also be taken against three Spanish priests who sit as Socialist members of the Cortes (Parliament).
It should be said that these measures do not reflect a desire to discourage all Christians from a direct involvement in politics. Several times on his trip to Africa the Pope said that such activity was "an important challenge for the Christian", that Christians had "a right and a duty to share in political life."
However on an earlier trip abroad the Pope made it equally clear that priests should not accept public office. In January 1979 he told an immense international gathering of priests from religious orders in Mexico City: "You are priests and members or religious orders. You are not social directors, political leaders or functionaries of temporal powers."
Temporal leadership, lie said, could easily become a source of division while the priest should be a sign and factor of the unity of brotherhood; such secular functions .were the proper concern of the laity.
In fact the prohibition on priests in politics is not a new thing. It is generally thought to be enshrined in Canon law: Canon 139, though not absolutely clear. appears to bar priests from seeking elective office unless granted permission by their bishop or religious superior.
Several other Church documents point in the same direction. Vatican 2's decree on the Laity reserves to the laity the task of renewing the "temporal order".
And in 1971 the world Synod of Bishops approved by 143 votes to 1 a statement banning the clergy from taking an active part in politics unless special approval is given in extraordinary circumstances. The synod said priests like all citizens had the right to choose between various political options but it continued: "Since political options are by nature contingent and never in an entirely adequate and perennial way interpret the Gospel, the priest, who is witness of things to come. must keep a certain distance from any political office or involvement."
That is why both the Vatican and the US bishops have stressed that the order placed on Fr Drinan and Fr Cornell is not a new decision but a reaffirmation of existing rules.
In 1970 Fr Drinan was given special permission to run for Congress and that has been upheld by various Jesuit provincials ever since.
Nicaragua is another country where several priests hold political posts. Two — Fr Miguel D-Escoto and Fr Ernesto Cardenal -are Government ministers and others have been appointed tothe Council of State, a legislative advisory body.
Last week's announcement by the Nicaraguan bishops that priests holding political office should make way for lay people appears to amount to an order to the ministers to step down.
However, both were appointed to do specific jobs because of their particular skills. and have previously had the backing both of the bishops and the papal nuncio.
It could be that Nicaragua is seen as one of the special cases for which exceptions can be made, especially as the country is still in a period of national reconstruction after last year's revolution. Up to now there has been little evidence of "party politics" although opposition parties arc now beginning to emerge.
As far as the US is concerned it is clear that not everyone is happy with the enforcement of the ban. In a statement on the Rome directive concerning Fr Drinan, Fr Edward O'Flaherty, the Jesuit provincial, said that he had pursued "several avenues of appeal, stressing with the Roman authorities 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."
Fr Drinan also issued a statement accepting the decision of the Holy See "with regret and pain". He said: "I have spent 10 of the 27 years of my priesthood as a member of Congress. I am certain that I was more influential as a priest in those 10 years than in my previous 14 years as dean of Boston College law school."
His reference to his work at law school highlights an apparent anomaly in the ruling. Priest teachers presumably "campaign" for certain values in schools and colleges, just as priests in industry or hospitals do in their fields. Since those are outside the direct control of the Church such men seem inevitably compelled to make compromises which du not interpret the Gospel "in an entirely adequate and perennial way."
That being the case, it seems strange that priests should not be allowed to campaign for the values of the Gospel in the.area of politics.