Catholic bishops sever ties to Texas Right to Life, exposing rift

Feb 25, 2018
Stephen Spillman
Abortion opponents participate in the 2015 March for Life at the Capitol. STEPHEN SPILLMAN / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Exposing a deep and widening rift in the state’s energetic anti-abortion movement, the Catholic bishops of Texas have directed churches across the state to refrain from working with Texas Right to Life, which bills itself as the “oldest and largest statewide pro-life organization.”

According to a written directive, Texas Right to Life has engaged in misleading attacks against political candidates, lied about the Catholic Church’s position on legislation at the state Capitol and opposed church-supported bills by arguing that they don’t go far enough to limit abortions.

“We’ve asked our pastors, parishes and Catholic schools to refrain from asking (Texas Right to Life representatives) to come onto our premises because their teachings don’t always align with what the Catholic Church teaches regarding certain life issues,” said Bishop Joe Vásquez, head of the 25-county Diocese of Austin.

The one-page written advisory from the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, which sets policy for the parishes serving the state’s 8.3 million Catholics, was released Thursday and distributed across the Austin Diocese on Friday.

The directive laid bare a long-simmering clash over tactics and priorities that has increasingly divided groups that have a similar goal — an end to legal abortion.

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On one side are Texas Right to Life and its close associate, Empower Texans. Fueled by social and religious conservatives, the groups have adopted a take-no-prisoners approach at the Capitol, particularly when it comes to attacking organizations and politicians that oppose or decline to fully support their priorities. Both groups have targeted House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who is retiring, and other centrist Republicans, saying they have blocked abortion limits and other favored legislation for too long.

On the other side are groups that Right to Life and Empower Texans have denigrated as “fake pro-life organizations” — including the Catholic Conference of Bishops, Texas Alliance for Life and the Texans for Life Coalition.

Kyleen Wright, president of the Texans for Life Coalition, said the bishops’ decision to call out Right to Life for its bullying tactics was a watershed moment for the movement.

“This is really big,” Wright said. “It’s very, very unfortunate that it came to this. But for our organization, and me personally, to be maligned and slandered for several years, and for our candidates and people who work in good faith to advance good policy down in Austin to be unfairly and maliciously attacked, that hasn’t been good for our movement, either.

“It’s very difficult, this type of family war,” she said.

Leaders for Texas Right to Life did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

But state Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Deer Park Republican and Texas Right to Life supporter, said the bishops were “literally going after a group for being too pro-life.”

Voter guide at issue

In their directive, the bishops took issue with Right to Life’s voter guide and scorecard, saying the compilations were “not based on a fair analysis of a legislator’s work” but rather on each politician’s willingness to bend to the organization’s wishes — leading the group to oppose incumbents “who have consistently voted for pro-life legislation.”

Cain said the bishops were seeking to provide cover for Republican politicians who try to hide their lack of support, if not outright opposition, for strong limits on abortion.

“It is undeniably true that there are multiple members in the House Republican Caucus who have voted in favor of abortions. I have absolutely no sympathy for organizations that defend and support legislators who vote in favor of murderous activity,” Cain said.

Right to Life, he said, is “the leading voice on advancing pro-life legislation in the Capitol. They take arrows because they don’t provide cover for pro-choice Republicans.”

But Wright said the Right to Life crossed the line when it endorsed primary challengers to four Republican legislators who had received a 100 percent rating from Right to Life for votes taken in the 2017 legislative session as well as previous sessions — Reps. Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake, Wayne Faircloth of Galveston, Dan Flynn of Canton and Chris Paddie of Marshall.

“I have refrained from speaking out for a very long time. I’ve been more outspoken this election cycle because it’s gotten so bad,” Wright said.

‘Respectful advocacy’

Vásquez, the Austin bishop, said that although the directive raised objections to Right to Life’s scorecard and voter guide, its release during early voting for the March 6 primary was coincidental.

“We were working on this for a while. It has nothing to do with the primaries or the elections going on. It just happened to be that this was time we … were ready to send it out as a notice to our priests,” he said. “This needed to be clarified.”

The directive also noted that Catholic-supported legislation, which often sought to make “incremental improvements” to legal limits on abortion, has been opposed by Right to Life for being too tentative and contrary to true Catholic teaching — a contention that clearly chafed the bishops.

“Texas Right to Life is not the group or organization entrusted to defend Catholic teachings. That’s the bishops,” Vásquez said.

The directive also encouraged Catholics to remain active in opposing abortion and endorsed participation in Texans for Life Alliance, Texas Alliance for Life and “pro-life groups which engage in respectful legislative advocacy.”