A Montana bishop has criticized four priests for attending a Donald Trump campaign rally in Great Falls last week who were dressed in their clerical attire and seated front row as VIPs.
Fathers Garrett Nelson and Ryan Erlenbush are from the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings which serves central and eastern Montana; Fathers Kevin Christofferson and Christopher Lebsock are from the Diocese of Helena, which covers western Montana. The four of them were seen together front row in the audience last Thursday wearing VIP badges.
In a letter posted on the Facebook page for the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, Bishop Michael Warfel stated he didn’t know the priests would be in attendance, let alone in attendance wearing their clerical garb.
“I was shocked as most to see they were seated in a very prominent location in clerical attire behind the podium where the President would speak.”
Bishop Warfel spoke with Fathers Nelson and Erlenbush of his diocese and said they should not have been wearing their clerical attire at a partisan event, and that they should have moved to different seats once they were told they would be seated directly behind President Trump. Nelson and Erlenbush apologized, says Bishop Warfel:
“I have received apologies from the two priests for any misunderstanding or any hurt their presence caused.”
As a result of the controversy, Bishop Warfel issued an update to the dioceses’ policy on political involvement: “Supporting or not supporting a particular candidate as a representative of the diocese is not permitted.”
He clarified though that the policy only pertained to partisan politics, not widespread political issues. He gave the example of Pope Saint John Paul II visiting the Gdansk shipyards in Poland, an act that is often credited with helping spark the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, along with Pope Francis’ public statements on climate change and immigration.
Monsignor Kevin O’Neill, the administrator of the Diocese of Helena currently sede vacante, has sent a letter to all officials seeking their cooperation with the political involvement policy set by the Montana Catholic Conference in 2011.
Those guidelines say that religious leaders should avoid taking any positions on candidates or participating in political partys, even while acting as individuals.
“Although not prohibited, it may be difficult to separate their personal activity from their public role as a Church leader.”