In a surprising move last week, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, the church’s public policy voice in a state of more than eight million Catholics, directed all parishes to refrain from activities with Texas Right to Life, the state’s oldest and largest pro-life organization.
“Texas Right to Life often opposes the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and has implied that the bishops do not faithfully represent Church teaching,” the bishops wrote in a parish advisory. They went on to highlight three main areas where Texas Right to Life has misrepresented Catholic positions or made misleading attacks on Texas legislators.
On pro-life issues, the bishops cited Texas Right to Life’s opposition to incremental reforms to reduce abortions like H.B. 200, a state ban on partial-birth abortion, arguing that such an approach is in keeping with the guidance of St. John Paul II’s encyclical “Evangelium Vitae.”
The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops directed all parishes to refrain from activities with Texas Right to Life.
On end-of-life issues, the bishops countered Texas Right to Life’s suggestions that the church supported legislation allowing euthanasia and “death panels.” The bishops stated that “the legislation reflected the long-standing Church teaching requiring a balance of patient autonomy and the physician conscience protection.”
Perhaps most topical, with Texas political primaries looming on March 6, was the bishops’ disapproval of Texas Right to Life’s voter guide, a scorecard that they say unfairly assesses legislators based not on their actual voting record “but rather upon whether the legislator has followed voting recommendations of Texas Right to Life.”
Joe Pojman, the executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, one of the statewide pro-life groups that remains largely consistent with the bishop’s positions (Texans for Life Coalition is the other), echoed that sentiment in an interview with America: “The Texas Right to Life scorecard is very misleading because it is not based on actual votes on the House and Senate floors. It doesn’t accurately characterize what happened.”
The bishops’ advisory has garnered its share of backlash.
While the communications director for the Texas bishops, Helen Osman, told America there has been an “overwhelmingly positive response” to the bishops’ advisory, it has also garnered its share of backlash.
Responding with its own statement—which mentions neither the Texas bishops’ conference nor the advisory by name—Texas Right to Life said that it was “disappointed but not surprised by recent politically motivated attacks.”
But as reported in the Austin American-Statesman, Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin maintained that the timing of the release was purely coincidental.
“We were working on this for a while,” said Bishop Vásquez. “It has nothing to do with the primaries or the elections going on.”
Republican State Representative Matt Rinaldi, the pro-life whip during the last session of the Texas legislature, issued a four-page letter to Bishop Edward Burns of Dallas, defending Texas Right to Life, speculating that lay staff and not the bishops themselves were responsible for the advisory and asking the the bishops’ conference to consider rescinding the advisory.
Conservative groups like Texas Right to Life are upfront about their aim to advance their legislative agendas and political candidates.
On Twitter, Mr. Pojman called Mr. Rinaldi’s letter “rife with inaccurate and misleading statements.”
The disagreement highlights the rift in the Texas pro-life movement, an ideological and political struggle that might be categorized as one of absolutist demands versus pragmatic steps and incremental gains.
Conservative groups like Texas Right to Life and its ally, Empower Texans, a free-market advocacy group, are upfront about their aim to advance their legislative agendas and political candidates. Texas Right to Life has endorsed primary challengers to four Republican legislators who had received a 100 percent rating on Texas Right to Life’s own scorecard for their pro-life activity in the last legislative session: Representatives Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake, Wayne Faircloth of Galveston, Dan Flynn of Canton and Chris Paddie of Marshall. When asked why the group opposed Mr. Flynn, despite his perfect score, Texas Right to Life political director Luke Bowen said, “Dan Flynn supported and propped up moderate [Republican] House leadership that obstructed strong Pro-Life bills.”
The divergence in Texas might be viewed as a microcosm of the larger national debate over what it means to be pro-life.
Across the divide are the bishops’ conference and pro-life groups like Texas Alliance for Life and the Texans for Life Coalition, which, according to the bishops’ advisory, “engage in respectful legislative advocacy.”
The divergence in Texas might also be viewed as a microcosm of the larger national debate over what it means to be pro-life, as showcased last fall when Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City was elected over Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, as chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
Archbishop Naumann’s approach of elevating abortion as the primary pro-life focus stood in tension with Cardinal Cupich’s preference for promoting a “consistent ethic of life,” a term coined by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, which prescribes a more holistic strategy on pro-life issues—including not only abortion but also capital punishment, euthanasia, nuclear proliferation, immigration and environmental concerns, among other issues.
While that discussion continues nationwide, pro-life advocates in Texas continue their work, even if divided. Looking toward the primary elections and beyond, Mr. Pojman of Texas Alliance for Life said he is focused on educating voters and trying to counter what he considers misinformation promulgated by Texas Right to Life.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Mr. Pojman told America. “As a pro-lifer, we must put partisanship behind us, regardless of the author of a bill or the political party that’s supporting it.”
Speaking for the bishops’ conference, Ms. Osman said, “As far as the bishops are concerned, parishes should continue to advocate for legislation that has a comprehensive approach to issues of human life.”