Catholic Advocacy Day 2015: ‘Faith calls us to citizenship – not partisanship’

April 7, 2015

AUSTIN — More than 3,000 Catholics from across the state descended upon the 84th Texas Legislature on March 24 for this year’s Catholic Advocacy Day to voice support or opposition to more than 300 pending bills that affect the quality and dignity of life for all walks of life in between conception and natural death.

Led by Texas’ bishops and hosted by the Texas Catholic Conference — the bishops’ public-policy lobby — Catholic constituents visited with local lawmakers and their legislative staffs to express concerns on issues that affect not only the disenfranchised and vulnerable, but everyone: from right to life to the abolition of the death penalty, from the protection of immigrants and the poor to the strengthening of families. The bishops’ legislative agenda is nearly four times as long as its 2013 concerns — and with good reasons.

The bishops were led by Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, who in a rally on the Capitol South Steps prayed that lawmakers deliberate “wisely, with prudence and right judgment.” 

Statewide, twice as many faithful turned out for this year’s Advocacy Day than did for the 83rd Legislature’s event in 2013. More than 700 local participants traveled in buses chartered by the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston — more than three times the 2013 turnout. Approximately 540 of those participants were students and adults representing Archdiocesan Catholic schools. One of this session’s legislative priorities is the Texas bishops’ support of school-choice tax credits that provide more educational choices for low-income families. During Advocacy Day, students from all over Texas also participated in mock hearings inside the State Capitol.

Deacon Arturo Monterrubio, the director of Family Life Ministry for the Archdiocese, accompanied students and a teacher from Incarnate Word Academy during their legislative visits.

“I was amazed by their desire to be active participant in decisions affecting everyone in Texas,” he said. “It was especially meaningful to see these students request access to private education for families without the economic means to get it.”

Among the other legislative priorities for the Texas bishops are 40 bills that would impact immigrants. More than 20 would make it more difficult for immigrants to access jobs, health care, housing and affordable education — and punitively allow law enforcement to detain immigrants until they proved legal status. 

While in agreement that current laws need reform, the bishops seek reforms that include a path to citizenship and ensure that basic needs are met.

“Even before we advocate for legal changes, the first responsibility of the Church is to respond with human compassion to human suffering,” Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville said during the rally. “We must respond always to a human face to human suffering. ...Because the first law we must follow is the law which says, ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of mine, you do to me.’ … 

“Our credibility as a Church as we advocate for human dignity is precisely based on our willingness as human beings to respond to other human beings. Before we ask, ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘What papers do you have?’, our question is, ‘Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Do you need someone who can help you?’ … 

“And that is what makes our witness credible in a world that sometimes finds ways to talk about human dignity and yet say it doesn’t apply to certain ones. It applies to everyone. …We must give that witness in a world that seeks to divide, that seeks to say, ‘Some are important. And some not.’ … Everyone merits a response.”

The most basic of human rights is the right to life, said Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo. 

“These social teachings come to us from Scripture, and are inseparable from what we believe: that every human being was created in the likeness and image of God and has an inherent dignity and the right to life...” he said to rally participants on the South Steps. “I am pro-life, because I want to witness to God’s love, and my love for Him, by loving the most vulnerable. I want to show His mercy, especially to those in the womb.”

The bishops support access to safe and affordable housing, water and power and policies to alleviate food insecurity and efforts to end human trafficking. 

They also seek more stringent regulatory standards for payday and auto-title lending, an issue they took up with the 83rd Legislature. “We often serve clients who have obtained a pay day loan to pay a utility bill or some other necessity such as a car repair so they can get to work,” said Catholic Charities CEO Cynthia Colbert. “Unfortunately, they find themselves charged outrageous fees and interest rates that end up trapping them into escalating debt. 

“The State Legislature must act to prohibit the exorbitant interest and fees that consumers are charged on these types of loans.”

Deacon Sam Dunning, the director of Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, said he was moved as he looked over the sea of blue Catholic Advocacy Day t-shirts taking part in the rally on the South Steps.

“All of these Catholics took time away from their busy schedules to support our bishops and to advance the social and moral concerns of the Church, to pursue the common good,” he said. “I just felt so blessed to be a part of it. We may not be able to measure it tangibly, but we will have an impact over the course of time. (State representatives) respect our bishops, respect the organizers. They may not agree with us on all of the issues, but they listen to us. And I think that consistency and persistency makes a big difference.”

As a co-leader with an advocacy team from St. Clare of Assisi Church, Robert Kehoe was also impressed with what he saw taking place at the rally and inside the capitol building.

“For me it was very exciting because we spoke directly to three elected representatives and their staff members about serious Catholic issues,” he said. “It was very encouraging to see so many Catholics turn out to make the Bishops’ positions known.”

Met by chants of ‘¡Viva Cristo Rey!’ during the rally, Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio emphasized the vital role that Catholics must play in the formation of public policy — a core tenet of Catholic Social Teaching.

“Our faith calls us to citizenship, and not partisanship. Our faith calls us to serve the common good — not to be self-serving.” said Archbishop Garcia-Siller. “Our faith calls us to be a voice of the voiceless — all of the voiceless, and most simply a silent majority.

“There are those who voice concern about people of faith involving that faith directly in public life. However, their fears reflect a lack of understanding of our purpose. Our presence here is intended to be a blessing for all people, as we raise our voices to protect the dignity of every human person.

“Faithful citizenship is not shaped by public opinion, false and partisan politics. It is a foundational principal of our great nation that a person of faith as the right to participate in the political system. And to do so as a person of faith.”

Approximately 30 parishioners from St. Ignatius Church in Spring made the trip to Austin, studied the issues and were prepared to be active participants during Advocacy Day, according to Monica Hatcher, the Director of Outreach at St. Ignatius who coordinated the parish group.
“We had a great meeting before our trip to round out our legislative teams and get everyone up to speed on the policy issues we’re tracking,” Hatcher said. “A great group of intelligent, passionate and committed people were involved, and really took the opportunity to put our faith in action in a way many of us had not done before so intentionally.”

Before this year’s Advocacy Day, Hatcher said many of the participants from St. Ignatius had never directly advocated before their representatives as constituents.

“I think most of us came away from the trip feeling like we had a voice and that we have the power to influence our government as faithful citizens,” she said. “Most of us didn’t know beforehand who are state representatives were, so the trip was highly formative for us. Hopefully, this is the start of a committed advocacy effort going forward.”

Hatcher not only came away from the experience informed but also inspired.

“It was wonderful seeing our bishops take the faith from their respective cathedrals to the state capitol and proclaim our Gospel values,” Hatcher said. “It was a meaningful trip and I think we all felt like we had important work to do there.”

Deacon Monterrubio said it was a blessing to be at the State Capitol in Austin “and witness our very own Cardinal DiNardo lead our senators and representatives in prayer. Jesus Christ is calling us every day to follow him, everywhere we are, and put our ‘Faith in Action.’”

“I was very happy to see our leaders, our bishops from all over our state, standing there on the South Steps of the Capitol, proclaiming the good news of the Gospel, as they urged lawmakers to take measures to uphold the values of Life, Justice, Charity, and Religious Freedom, which are so integral to our faith,” he added. “What a blessing it is to be able to use our freedom of speech and share our Catholic beliefs with everyone.”