Seeing the effects on children of families separated by the border, Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, is adamant that mass deportation policies represent “formal cooperation with an instrinsic evil — not unlike driving someone to an abortion clinic.”
In the case particularly of Central American mothers and children, and deportations into some parts of Mexico, “we are dealing with placing them in proximate danger of death,” he tells Crux.
Both the Republican deportation proposal and the Democrats’ abortion policies mean that “in diverse ways each [party] promotes a power structure that leaves the vulnerable and defenseless aside.”
But in an election cycle in which many American Catholics are turned off the political process by the choice of candidates, Flores believes they still need to participate and vote — even if only in state or local races.
Catholicism, he says, “is always realistic about the political dynamic in history. We neither expect it to usher in the eschaton, nor do we consider it useless. We try to work with it, participate in it, promote its progress, and oppose proposals that harm the human good.”
At its best, “politics is an imperfect expression of imperfect human beings trying to organize a society more justly.”
As a bishop whose diocese covers the four counties of the Rio Grande, Flores speaks from the experience of one of the poorest and most bilingual areas of the United States, where “people live connected lives” and “there is great generosity.”
“I attribute that to a long process of inculturation of the Gospel,” he says.
But his people are frustrated that neither party’s candidate appears to speak to their concerns and values.
Seeing Catholic voters paralyzed by this year’s choice of presidential candidates, Flores has some strong spiritual advice: discern, meditate, read the Sermon on the Mount, say the Rosary, and see the face of the crucified Christ “in the consequences of our decisions.”
You have a unique pastoral responsibility as Bishop of Brownsville, Texas. Can you tell us a bit about it?
The four counties of the Rio Grande Valley are home to about 1.5 million people. Everything from the metroplex that is what we call the Upper Valley, to small farming communities, citrus growers, and fast-sprouting colonias.
A young demographic: the average age is 26. This part of the country has been part of the US since 1848, but has never lost its family and cultural and religious connections to Mexico. This is probably the most naturally bilingual culture in the US. People are proud to be Americans, and we have a high rate of young people who serve in the armed forces; yet there is a deep and abiding love for Mexico. Families in the Rio Grande Valley do not see any competition for loyalty there. When we say we love Mexico, it does not mean we love the US less; it means we have big hearts.
Economically, there are growing opportunities here, but it is still one of the poorest regions in the US. Religiosity is still a big part of family life. I greatly enjoy the major feast days among the people in the parishes. People give generously of themselves for parish festivals, to feed the poor, to visit the prisons. The great majority of Central American mothers and children that have arrived in the US over the last few years pass through McAllen in this diocese.
The response from the poor here to help these mothers and children has been and continues to be amazing. It is true what they say: Often the poor are more generous than the rich when it comes to assisting someone in trouble. But really, the whole Rio Grande Valley came together, rich and poor, cities and towns, believers and non-believers, law-enforcement and regular folks, to do something to help these moms, dads and kids fleeing violent conditions we can hardly imagine. I mention this because it is paradigmatic for what I consider the single greatest blessing here. People live connected lives, there is great generosity. I attribute that to a long process of inculturation of the Gospel.
But there are powerful threats too. Violence in northern Mexico affects us; youth are vulnerable to the attractions of gangs. It’s about power and money proposed as the way to happiness — pretty much what the Church means by “the glamour of evil.” When economics are hard, parents work more, spend less time with their kids, thus making them more vulnerable to looking for connections and a sense of security in belonging to something other than family and Church.
All the worse when children are separated from their parents and siblings because of immigration law. Young people can get discouraged. I always say a young person decides by 14 if he or she thinks life is a cruel game or a beautiful gift. If they think it’s a game, a culture falls apart; if they realize it’s a gift, great beauty is possible in human life. A life of drugs and violence happens after a young person gets cynical and decides it’s a game. The Church is the bulwark defending the truth that life is a gift to be protected and cultivated.
We are in the middle of an absolutely insane election cycle. I’m assuming many of the assumptions and lenses offered by the talking heads on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC are not shared by the people to whom you minister. What can we learn from their approach?
Media outlets tend to frame the discussions around winners and losers, conservative and liberal, who has power and who wants it. The people in my diocese, as in most places around the country, are first concerned about being able to raise a family and provide for their children. I learn a lot from parents doing their best to provide a safe and happy home. There are many struggles; I see a lot of heroism. Parents worry that their kids might become disconnected, or choose a wrong path due to cynicism. Young people are worried about being trapped in an economic system over which they have no control, or about not being able to pursue an education because of economic or immigration law restraints. There is concern about violence, not just here, but in Mexico. And not just because it affects our society in some abstract way, or because it threatens them, but because it affects our neighbors.
In my diocese there is a strong neighborly concern for the good of the community. Republicans and Democrats often work together on the local level for improving education, trying to keep kids in school and connected, and for attending to the needs of the poor. As I already mentioned there is great generosity here. There is also a sense that the social fabric is tearing. People know instinctively that the best way to address that is to help each other by acts of kindness and practical assistance.
The thing I most commonly hear from folks I talk to here in the Rio Grande Valley runs like this: “Why is it that one party is blind to the dignity of the unborn child, and one party is blind to the dignity of the immigrant? Why does one party exalt choice above even life, and the other exalt economic power above even the good of family life?” Such questions indicate that many see through the rhetoric of both parties, and are aware that in diverse ways each promotes a power structure that leaves the vulnerable and defenseless aside.
I tell local Catholics who have influence in the Democratic Party to be a strong voice on behalf of the dignity and right to life of the unborn child within the party. Defending the unborn child is the single most decisive social justice issue of our time. The “higher-ups” in the party need to hear their voice. I tell local Catholics who have influence in the Republican Party to be a voice of a comprehensive immigration reform that is family-friendly and that establishes a rule of law that can tell the difference between a criminal immigrant and an immigrant fleeing criminals. The “higher-ups” in the party need to hear their voice. I could testify to the power structures of both major parties that there is more diversity within their party ranks than they are willing to acknowledge. A lot of pro-life Democrats here. A lot of pro-immigration reform Republicans here.
The media may frame things in terms of right and left, or winners and losers, but they could learn something from the regular folks who see things in terms of hopes for children, helping people in trouble, trying not to forget the little ones, the elderly, the sick and the dying, the unemployed and the poor.
I’ve heard some Catholics say that, yes, Donald Trump has a position on immigration that is at odds with the teaching of the Church, but that is based on a prudential judgement and not one of the “Five Non-Negotiables.” What is your response to this kind of argument?
Prudence judges circumstances in light of principles that are rightly ranked in terms of gravity. Keeping that in mind, circumstances are different this year. It is not possible now to take the issue of immigration policy only as a matter of having diverse positions on a badly needed reform of the system. One could argue that in prior elections there was a dispute between the parties about whether a reform was needed, and about what principles would guide a possible reform.
This year, there is a proposal on the table to proceed with mass deportations of undocumented men, women and children. One cannot in conscience countenance a program of mass deportation. It is a brutal proposal. In some instances, particularly dealing with the Central American mothers and children, and deportations into some parts of Mexico, we are dealing with placing them in proximate danger of death. I consider supporting the sending of an adult or child back to a place where he or she is marked for death, where there is lawlessness and societal collapse, to be formal cooperation with an intrinsic evil. Not unlike driving someone to an abortion clinic.
So, even as a Catholic finds the radical pro-abortion platform of the other party beyond reprehensible, there is no comfort for the conscience of a Catholic on the side of a radical program of mass deportation. Both positions are assaults on the dignity of life, and in the case of mass deportations, can be linked to no. 24 of Faithful Citizenship (FC), “treating the poor as disposable.” Overall, I think we have to look at nos. 35-38 of FC very carefully. We should all read it and think about its implications between now and Election Day.
I think it is worth citing number 36 in particular: “When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.”
It seems that if a Catholic votes for either major candidate, he or she must do so with a conviction that the evil the candidate supports can be successfully opposed, and that other aspects of their policy proposals are sufficiently good to warrant voting for them. Thus if a Catholic votes for a pro-abortion candidate or for a pro-mass deportation candidate, for what FC calls “morally grave reasons,” because the candidate is deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods there should be conscientious commitment by the voter to oppose strenuously the pro-abortion agenda or the pro mass-deportation agenda respectively And there are other factors that FC rightly asks us to think about, including a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue.
And note, that I have not even addressed the issues of targeting innocents (who may be relatives of evil-doers) in military actions, or indiscriminate use of drones in warfare. Nor have I mentioned a great many important issues raised in FC and which we must take into account.
Another kind of response from Catholics is to refuse to participate. I’ve heard calls to “fast from voting.” The philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre insisted back in 2004 that when we are given two bad options we must choose neither. What do you think of this approach?
Yes, well, FC no. 36 does recognize that possibility. MacIntyre had in mind a broad awareness that the two political parties are in different ways locked into positions that contravene the common good.
It may be that a Catholic in conscience judges that both major candidates are likely to be successful in enacting intrinsically evil policies. Here, the voter makes a judgment that the effect of voting for such a candidate offends divine justice– even if one commits to opposing the evils a candidate supports– to such an extent that it stains their conscience before God.
I know a number of ordinary folks who are actively contemplating the option of not voting in the presidential race. Others are thinking about supporting a third-party or write-in candidate. I could understand such a position, but hasten to add that we are still bound in some way to participate in the political process, in this case by voting in Congressional races, and state and local races for candidates who do in fact support the protection of unborn life, who will work for economic and racial justice, justice for immigrants, and care for the poor and marginalized.
Hence, the decision not to support one of the main presidential candidates is not a decision to abstain from the political process altogether, but rather a decision to register a voice that says the two major presidential options are unacceptable, while at the same time voting with a well-formed conscience in other races.
No doubt many Catholics will in fact vote in the presidential election. I pray they do so with great seriousness, and with a clear mind about what in the candidate’s positions is worthy of support, and what in his or her positions must be actively opposed should they be elected.
When MacIntyre says “Why should we reject both? Not primarily because they give us wrong answers, but because they answer the wrong questions,” I have great sympathy for his perspective. The fact is that for a Catholic the current positioning dynamic that governs the party system is precisely not adequate because it does not flow from a considered reflection on what is indeed good about, in and for human life. In that sense, both political parties too often give answers to the wrong questions. A Catholic feels this keenly when faced with a shrill rhetoric that emanates from both corners of the ring.
Still, Catholicism is always realistic about the political dynamic in history. We neither expect it to usher in the eschaton, nor do we consider it useless. We try to work with it, participate in it, promote its progress, and oppose proposals that harm the human good. At its best, politics is an imperfect expression of imperfect human beings trying to organize a society more justly. The historical danger has ever been that the political dynamic becomes primarily a cynical battle about power and control. This is poison in a democratic republic.
Finally, as we try to make our way through this quagmire of an election, do you have any spiritual practices or prayers to recommend?
In addition to reviewing the major principles of Catholic Social Teaching, and Faithful Citizenship, I would recommend meditating the Sermon on the Mount slowly and frequently, between here and Election Day. And I would recommend praying the Rosary for the well-being of the nation, that the vulnerable be protected, and that good may come from the overall judgment of the electorate. And I would recommend meditating on the Passion of the Lord, recognizing that he became flesh and endured the Cross to remind us that whatsoever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to him. That teaching follows us into the election booth whether we realize it or not; it is better that we realize it, and vote a conscience that sees his face in the consequences of our decisions.