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In a very current “cause celebre,” four Catholic priests attended, prominently and enthusiastically, a Trump/Rosendale rally in Great Falls. I do not know their motivation and never have had a political conversation with them.

I am well aware, from my long personal history of mistakes, that we priests make them like everyone else. In my opinion, an error in judgement is, by far, the most likely cause of this drama. I know two of the priests well, as very sincere and capable guys. While their decision has numerous supporters, in spite of their clerical collars, they represented no one but themselves.

Social media voices have accurately pointed out that other priests have previously appeared at campaigns for the other major party. But to justify inappropriateness by providing other examples of it, is inadequate.

Nobody disputes the priests’ constitutional right to attend the rally. But with priesthood comes the calling to answer to a higher authority than the Constitution.

Monsignor Kevin O’Neill, current administrator of the Diocese of Helena, has the authority to enforce the wise policies of former Helena Bishop Thomas. O’Neill sent an excellent letter to priests, deacons, religious Sisters, parish administrators and all diocesan employees. He unequivocally requests that we keep away from involvement in political party matters and taking public positions in favor of a specific candidate. His letter, and not a presence at a rally, represents the expectations of the Catholics of western Montana.

A notorious 8th century forgery, the so-called “Donation of Constantine,” long considered authentic, dragged the Church into several dark centuries of politics. It led to the emergence of the two bitterly conflicting political parties of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, which formed the medieval fabric of bloody nightmares for both Romeo and Juliet and Italy as a whole.

There is a quasi-mathematical law about priests and politics that has been remarkably consistent throughout history: The more partisan politically a religious leader becomes, the more his/her moral credibility and spiritual authority are diminished. In a climate of hyper-partisan rage, I believe it is the duty of the pastor to preserve the church as a refuge for peace and respect. One dives into the sea of incivility at one’s own peril.

There are numerous exceptions to this rule: The Gospel clearly has political and philosophical implications. Priests in both Ireland and Greece became very effective foot-soldiers in the emancipation movements of their nations and shared fearlessly and disproportionately in the persecution of their flocks.

And in one of the most heart-breaking tragedies of last century, Father Georgy Gapon led, in St. Petersburg, a massive crowd of poor people bearing sacred icons. They arrived, in January 1905, in front of the Winter Palace to petition Emperor Nicholas II for better living conditions. The inexcusable response of the Tsarist troops resulted in the massacre known to history as Russia’s “Bloody Sunday.”

On occasions, I have had political and philosophical conversations, private, polite and very pleasant with both U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte. I will never turn down an opportunity to engage an elected representative when I have an issue of conscience.

Comparably, I encourage my congregation to challenge the power of all political parties with our shared values. When I look at the pews of the two churches I serve in Butte, I see a politically diverse group who have strong and opposite opinions. Yet our faith community has remained a haven sheltered from the national crisis of hate and divisiveness. Anger and disrespect are not welcome among us.

God has blessed us with a very loving, respectful and united parish family. It is my sacred duty to preserve it.

Patrick Beretta is the parish priest at the St. Patrick and Immaculate Conception parishes, and chaplain at Montana Tech.

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