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For Abbott, A Balancing Act Between Catholic Faith and Politics

A practicing Roman Catholic, Gov. Greg Abbott often cites the spiritual underpinnings of his political positions. His stance on barring Syrian refugees from Texas is his latest break with many leaders of his faith.

Jason Taylor from the Barnone Cowboy Church prays after Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 2065, the Pastor Protection Bill on June 11, 2015

Nearly a week after Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he does not want to allow Syrian refugees into Texas, a group of college students who attend Abbott's church — the University Catholic Center in Austin — posted a simple sign in the church’s vestibule.

A standard sheet of white office paper, it quoted from the Bible, Matthew 25:35, “For I was ... a stranger and you took me in.” The words “Pray for Syrian Refugees” were typed in bold underneath.

Whether Abbott saw the plea before it was taken down to make way for Christmas decorations is unknown. But its message would certainly not have been new to him, echoing calls from the Vatican and Roman Catholic leaders across the country urging elected officials like Abbott not to turn their backs on the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children fleeing terror in Syria.

As a practicing Roman Catholic, Abbott often points to his faith as a building block of his political values. Religion and politics often being inseparable in Texas, the governor routinely takes to social media calling for prayers and quoting scripture.  

But his thus-far unsuccessful effort to bar Syrian refugees adds another issue to the list over which the governor diverges from his church. Bridging the tension between his Catholic faith and his conservative politics requires Abbott to navigate tricky crosscurrents between the scriptural and secular, often under the scrutiny of constituents who take cues from their own paths of worship.

“He’s not the Catholic governor of Texas or the governor of Catholic Texas. He’s the governor of Texas who is a Catholic,” said Bishop Michael Olson — a longtime Abbott friend who leads the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth and delivered the benediction at Abbott’s inauguration. “He has the responsibility to form his conscience rightly as a Catholic.”

Abbott’s office declined to comment for this story. Instead, a spokesman referred The Texas Tribune to a previous interview in which Abbott explained that his refugee stance was driven by his responsibility as governor “to keep the people of Texas safe.”

“If you want to just be pure biblical about this, it is the role — and I respect the role — of individuals to treat their fellow men with the charity that the Bible speaks of,” Abbott told the San Antonio Express-News. “Similarly, the Bible speaks of the role of government, which is among other things focused on protecting the safety and security of its people. And if we all do our jobs, the world works out better. But my hope is that people understand that I am thinking solely about doing everything I can to keep them as safe and secure as I can by making the decisions that I do."

"Our Catholic call" to help refugees

Saying they weren't convinced refugees were being screened well enough to keep out terrorists, Abbott and more than two dozen mostly Republican governors vowed to bar Syrian refugees from their states. The federal government says governors have no power to block refugee resettlement, and several refugee groups in Texas said they will continue aiding Syrian refugees despite the governor’s directive. Texas has since gone to federal court to keep them out, but Syrian refugees continue to arrive in the state.

Church leaders have not explicitly criticized Abbott for trying to block refugees at the border, but they have broadly called on Catholics to recognize the plight of those fleeing war-torn Syria and provide hospitality — if not food and shelter — to those trying to adjust to life in new lands.

In October, Pope Francis — who has called Jesus a refugee — called on “every sanctuary in Europe,” to host a family as the flow of migrants surged on that continent.

Almost immediately following Abbott’s announcement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged state governors, including Abbott, to not “forsake our heritage and undermine our moral leadership” by refusing Syrian refugees.

And last month, well into Abbott’s anti-refugee push, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops blasted out a statement calling on “all parties — including governmental leaders, political officials, and advocates — to avoid impulsive judgments in setting public policies regarding the placement of Syrian refugees.”

“We firmly believe that it is possible to maintain security at home while also welcoming refugees,” the statement said. Jeffery Patterson, executive director of the group, later told the Tribune the statement spoke for itself and was not directed specifically at Abbott or anyone else.

As fears and rhetoric about refugees escalated in Texas last month, Olson called on his congregation to prevent “the evil actions of a few to cloud our Catholic call to help refugees who are in desperate need.”

Olson told the Tribune his statement was not directed at Abbott, whom he described as “a man who takes his faith seriously.”

Abbott often highlights the importance of his Catholicism and how it informs his views on charged political issues such as abortion, which he vehemently opposes. But the state’s fight over Syrian refugees isn’t the first time Abbott has disagreed with Catholic leaders.

Health care and executions

The Texas Bishops in September urged the governor to reconsider expanding Medicaid eligibility to provide health insurance to more low-income Texans. Expanding Medicaid — the joint federal-state insurer of last resort — is a key tenet of the federal Affordable Care Act. But Texas Republican leaders, including Abbott, have refused to participate, criticizing the program as inefficient.

This created a “coverage gap” of more than 1 million Texans too poor to receive federal subsidies for private health insurance but too rich to qualify for coverage under Texas’ current Medicaid requirements.

“We make this appeal guided by our belief that achieving affordable and accessible health care coverage for all stems from God’s precepts about the fundamental right to life and dignity,” the bishops wrote in a letter to Abbott. But Abbott has remained steadfast in his opposition to the federal health reform law and expanding Medicaid.

Abbott also breaks with the Catholic Church when it comes to the death penalty. On his recent trip to the United States, Pope Francis emphasized that the church’s pro-life message opposing abortion should include opposition to the death penalty. But Abbott — top elected official in the state most practiced at executions — has defended his support for it. The difference between abortion and the death penalty, he says, is one “between innocent life and those who have taken innocent lives.”

Perhaps the governor's most prominent point of contention with Catholic leaders is immigration.

Shortly before leaving the attorney general's post to take over as governor, Abbott fulfilled a campaign promise by launching a multi-state legal challenge to the Obama administration's immigration policies. The lawsuit, which has now reached the U.S. Supreme Court, has successfully blocked an executive order that would have protected up to five million undocumented immigrants, including half a million Texans, from deportation.

Abbott has also adamantly pushed for tough-on-immigration policies, including reining in so-called "sanctuary cities" that he says don't comply fully with federal immigration enforcement. 

Meanwhile, Catholic leaders have called for compassion when it comes to Mexican immigrants. The Texas bishops group has said it supports efforts to reunite families separated by migration and immigration reform that is "merciful, charitable and compassionate to those here simply working for a better life" and that it opposes efforts to "compel local and state agencies to enforce federal immigration laws."

Pope Francis echoed that sentiment in his Congressional address earlier this year, asking that Americans "educate new generations not to turn their back on our 'neighbors.'"

"On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities," Francis said. "Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation."

Breaches between the church hierarchy and Catholic elected officials in the United States are hardly unheard of among Republicans and Democrats. 

Picking state over church

Generally, the positions of the Roman Catholic Church tend to line up with Republican stances on life, family issues and religious liberty while tracking Democrats' approach to social justice and the environment, said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

It's a dilemma that's led to public shunning of liberal Democrats over abortion. Archbishops across the country have a history of asking prominent Democrats — including former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Kathleen Sebelius, former Health and Human Services Secretary — to stop receiving communion because of their support of abortion rights.

"What politicians often do is stress the religious basis for those issues that comport with their own partisan agenda but are reluctant to — on the basis of faith — buck their party orthodoxy," said Wilson, who studies the intersection of religion and politics. "That’s what we see in this case. When it comes to the refugee question, Greg Abbott is taking the Republican position, not the Catholic position, and that is very often what we see from our elected Catholic politicians.”

The fight over Syrian refugees might not come with immediate negative political implications for Abbott because public opinion is on his side, but it highlights the competing influences devout elected officials, particularly those who are Catholic, might face in making policy decisions, said Mark Jones, chairman of Rice University’s political science department.

Unlike many religious traditions, the Roman Catholic Church takes definable, single positions on issues that cut across political party lines, leaving Catholic elected officials to either strike a balance or split regularly with the church.

“It’s little more difficult to be a Catholic [public official] than it is an Evangelical Christian, given that for a Catholic you have a Catholic church with doctrine and policy,” Jones said. “At the same time, public leaders who are devout often do not share all of the positions their religion holds.”

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2013. Rice University was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2011, 2012 and 2013.  A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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