Guidelines for Parish and Church Organization Political Activity
As Catholics, we are called to fully participate in the political process. As individual citizens, we are called to be informed voters and to encourage our elected officials to act on behalf of the common good. At the same time, it is important to note that there are limits to official Catholic Church political activity.
“In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a
virtue; participation in the political process is a moral obligation.”
-United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
How Does the Church Work to Influence Public Policy?
When justice and the common good requires it, the Church expresses its official position on select public policy matters through the Minnesota Catholic Conference (MCC). MCC public policy staff lobby and advocate on behalf of the Catholic bishops of Minnesota on issues of concern to the Church. The Catholic bishops are the “conference” and guide the work of MCC staff; the bishops also visit with elected officials to communicate their public policy concerns.
As a general matter, clergy and laity have distinct roles in bringing the Gospel into public life. “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful.” Therefore, MCC also provides information and resources to help faithful citizens engage their elected officials to promote the common good.
The primary responsibility of bishops in public life, together with priests and deacons, and assisted by religious and lay leaders of the Church, is to teach fundamental moral principles that help Catholics form their consciences correctly, to provide guidance on the moral dimensions of public decisions, and to encourage the faithful to carry out their responsibilities in political life. Often, fulfilling that responsibility will entail offering educational and catechetical programming in parishes. In doing so, the Church's leaders, parishes, and Catholic organizations should avoid partisan political campaign activity so to not endanger the Church’s tax-exempt status. Furthermore, this limitation on her public expression—one that is also self-imposed—is guided by prudence. The Church seeks to be principled, never partisan, to offer a more credible witness of the Gospel to a wider audience in the community.
Why is Some Activity Prohibited?
Because of its tax-exempt status, the Church, its parishes, and ministries are subject to rules regarding political activity. Any individual or group acting in an official Church capacity must conform to laws and regulations that govern tax-exempt organizations. Although the Church may engage in a wide array of educational programming related to public policy questions, including issue-related advocacy activity, it may not be involved in partisan political candidate or campaign activities, including making endorsements of candidates or political parties, or using Church funds to support candidates.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reported that during the 2004 election cycle, it found some level of prohibited political activity in nearly 75 percent of the cases reviewed. The IRS has provided an extensive amount of guidance on its website, including practical examples, for churches and religious organizations that wish to avoid prohibited activities.
If a parish or a Church organization violates the law, the IRS may revoke the parish’s or Church organization’s tax-exempt status temporarily or permanently.
The IRS may also assess additional penalties and taxes on any funds that they believe the Church, parish, or Church organization spent on prohibited political activities.
What Activity is Prohibited?
The guiding principle for churches is that they may not intervene in political candidate campaigns. Therefore, any partisan political or electioneering activity is prohibited.
A common concern that arises during political campaigns is the distribution of voter information materials prepared by outside groups. Catholic organizations should be wary of outside groups seeking to distribute voter education or election-related materials on Church property or at official Church functions. Often, the groups preparing these materials are not subject to the same restrictions as the Church. Any materials not approved by the Minnesota Catholic Conference or your Diocese should not be distributed.
The Church and her parishes and ministry organizations are also prohibited from, among other things, the following types of activities:
- Endorsing or opposing candidates for elected office;
- Preparing or distributing campaign literature or materials that favor or oppose a specific candidate or political party;
- Using Diocesan or parish bulletins and websites to support, promote, endorse, or oppose any particular political party or candidate;
- Giving Church money or support to candidates for political office or to officeholders.
What Activity is Permitted?
The Church has a right and responsibility to weigh in on public issues. As Catholics, we are called to work for policies that protect the poor and vulnerable and uphold life at all stages. To that end, parishes and Church organizations are allowed to participate in the following types of activities:
- Advocacy for or against ballot initiatives such as constitutional amendments;
- Advocacy for or against specific local, state, and federal legislation, such as responding to an email from the Catholic Advocacy Network;
- Distributing materials related to specific issues that do not reference candidates or parties;
- Participating in non-partisan voter registration efforts or get-out-the-vote drives;
- Organizing issue-specific letter-writing campaigns or lobby day events;
- Sponsoring public voter education forums on specific issues; including candidate forums.
This information is intended to provide general guidance only. Contact your diocesan attorney with specific questions or concerns. More extensive information including hypothetical fact patterns on a variety of related issues is also available from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of General Counsel. https://www.usccb.org/about/general-counsel/upload/2020-07-21-poli_activity_lobby_guide.pdf (this is the correct link)
 Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship No. 16, quoting Deus Caritas Est. No. 29
 Individual church or ministry staff are not legally prohibited from supporting candidates or participating in political campaigns. The diocese, ministry, or parish may have its own rules about staff participation in partisan political campaign activity.
 Criticizing or thanking elected officials for specific legislative actions outside of the election season (typically, before the candidate filing period has ended and during the legislative session), is not normally considered political campaign intervention. Ultimately, such activity will be judged on a “facts and circumstances” test.
 For tips on running a successful candidate forum that do not constitute a political campaign intervention, please consult the following resource from the United States Conference of Bishops Office of General Counsel: https://www.usccb.org/resources/tips-conducting-candidate-forums
Updated June 2022