Catholic Church cuts ties with Texas’s largest pro-life group

James Jeffrey |

Texas’s most prominent pro-life lobby group has been rocked by a rare public rift with the Catholic Church.


A written directive released at the end of February by the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (TCCB), the church's influential public policy voice in the state, directed all parishes to refrain from activities with powerful Texas Right To Life (TRTL), the state's oldest and largest pro-life organisation.

TRTL is a very influential lobby group, well-funded by GOP donors and its endorsements of candidates can fundamentally affect elections.

The Catholic Church’s bishops’ directive stated that TRTL has engaged in misleading attacks against political candidates, misrepresented the Catholic church’s position on state legislation and argued that church-supported bills don’t do enough to limit abortions.

According to the bishops, TRTL undermines the anti-abortion agenda laid out by Pope John Paul II because of its extremist policies.

The war of words has highlighted the delicate situation of the church’s involvement in state politics.

State vs Church

“People of faith   ‘the church’   have always been needed in politics,” says Helen Osman, communications consultant for the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops. “People driven by moral and spiritual values are the same folks who are interested in making the world a better place  through not just religious organisations, but through civic institutions as well.”

Texas is increasingly seen as the frontline of the abortion debate in the USA. It has garnered headlines nationally and internationally for passing pro-life legislation viewed by critics as discriminatory towards women.

Despite the numerous victories for the pro-life lobby, observers say the bishops’ directive has laid bare a long-simmering and widening divide between the two groups despite their shared goal: an end to legal abortion.

“It seems a difference not of opinion but of process and focus when it comes to incremental changes versus strident ones,” says Stephen Stein, who attends St. Mary’s Cathedral in Austin, a few blocks away from the Texas State Capitol (home to the government of Texas). “I can respect both sides.”

Other end-of-life disagreements

The dispute isn’t just over abortion, though. The two groups clashed over end-of-life reforms, with the directive saying that TRTL has falsely implied that relevant legislation backed by the bishops supporting a balance between patient autonomy and medical best practise   would allow euthanasia and death panels.

The final straw was a TRTL scorecard system used to show which Texas politicians are pro-life, which the bishops said isn’t based on fair analysis rather upon whether a politician has followed TRTL’s voting recommendations, resulting in other pro-life politicians being unfairly penalised during local elections last year.

“I agree with the bishops,” says Joe Larsen, a Catholic in a Houston parish. “My family are voters and we look up a politician’s stance on issues and then we decide. TRTL was undermining voters by putting out information they thought we wanted to hear rather than the entire picture.”

Since the bishops’ bold and surprising move, however, there has been a backlash from some Catholics siding with TRTL, resulting in the church “having to backtrack,” says Melissa Conway, TRTL’s spokesperson.

“This is not a Catholic discussion, it’s a pro-life discussion as we have all sorts of members, some religious, some atheist,” Conway says. “Texas Right to Life, our staff, our board, and our members are unapologetic in speaking the truth, including during election time, about which elected officials help or hurt the Pro-Life cause.”

Highly effective lobbying group

“The TCCB has proved itself one of the most effective organisation at promoting pro-life legislation,” says Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, a pro-life organization that works closely with the Catholic Church.

That may be one reason why this public row has added to concerns among some Catholics about the church getting overly involved in politics.

“I carry a banner every year during the annual pro-life march to the State Capitol, but I’m not there for the laws, I’m simply there for the right to life,” Stein says. “The church shouldn’t be involved in politics.”

Around the same time as the TRTL directive, the bishops made another public declaration in support of extending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme that allows children born to undocumented immigrants to remain in the US   a source of great political friction in Washington   urging parishioners to contact their politicians.

“It’s a very political issue and while most Catholics don’t think children of undocumented immigrants should be sent from their homes in the US, they are also uncomfortable about their church getting involved,” says Jon Dahm, another attendee at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Conway says the bishops took exception to TRTL’s recommended candidates during last year’s elections because those politicians were not supportive of other key issues for the bishops, such as immigration.

“The Catholic Church does not tell people which candidates or political parties they should support,” Osman says. “The bishops encourage Catholics to form their consciences in accord with Catholic teaching and then use their prudential judgement to engage in the body politic and make sound moral decisions.”

Anti-abortion momentum will continue

Texas’s Governor Greg Abbott, who is Catholic, has said he will keep Texas the most pro-life state in America.

“The pro-life position will continue to make gains in the Legislature,” Pojman says, adding that due to the strength of pro-life Republican politicians there, if the US Supreme Court passes a resolution allowing states to decide on abortion there is enough political muscle to ban abortion in Texas.

“Why is Texas so prominent in the anti-abortion movement? I wish I knew and could then bottle it up and sell it to the rest of the country,” Pojman says.

While the Catholic Church hierarchy is clearly anti-abortion, and parish priests claim most parishioners oppose abortion, the views among the roughly 8 million Catholics in Texas’s 28 million population may be more varied than appreciated.

According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of Texas Catholics think abortion shouldn’t be allowed in all or most cases, while 45 percent believe it should be allowed in all or most cases, with the remaining 5 percent unsure.

In dealing with multiple complex moral issues such as abortion, end-of-life decisions, and immigration all of which are hotly contested in Texas the Catholic bishops are having to strike a balance between their church’s core spiritual role and engaging in the political realm where policies affecting people’s daily lives are debated and ultimately decided.

“People come to the church for moral guidance, but the moral issues of the day, and not just for Catholics, wind up in the political sphere,” Dahm says. “But the further the church gets involved politically the more uncomfortable it is for congregations as you have a country that is split half-half on these issues.”

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