ROME – On Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump will become the first sitting president to attend the March for Life in Washington. According to Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, his participation is a political move in an election year.
“In some ways, it’s the mirror of the controversy that was raised when President Barack Obama went to Notre Dame [in 2009],” Flores said. “One can have a disagreement with a president on a lot of things, but you’re not going to see a statement saying, ‘he’s not welcomed there.’ And the March for Life, it’s not actually an exclusively Catholic thing.”
“Everything is gearing up for the election, and this is working on both sides,” Flores told Crux. “I expect people are going to be visiting the border, who wouldn’t come otherwise.”
The bishop is currently participating in the ad limina visit to Rome, where bishops come to meet with the pope and the various Vatican offices. The U.S. bishops have been coming in groups since last November.
During the more than two hour meeting his group of bishops had with Pope Francis, Flores was seated next to the pontiff. He described it as a “gift” to be so close to him, while he had to remind himself of his mother’s scolding “sit up straight son, sit up straight.”
In Flores’s conversation with Crux – that began and ended with a smoke, something the bishop would like to stop doing but which he acknowledged probably won’t happen in the near future – he spoke about polarization in the Church and politics, corruption, and the release of the highly anticipated report on former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
Crux: How has the ad limina visit been so far?
Flores: It really has been excellent in terms of how it has unfolded. I didn’t really know what to expect. It seems like it’s been very different to the other one I’d been to, eight years ago. For one thing, we had the meeting with the Holy Father the first day, and that set the tone … “ok, we can now relax…” It was an excellent meeting, and I felt very invigorated by it. But I have to say, it is a schedule, they do keep you moving so I am a little physically tired.
Have you learned anything in these past days?
I did. I learned a lot. I have really appreciated that in a way, the way I have been thinking about my pastoral approach in the diocese was confirmed by the Holy Father. I felt strongly confirmed by what he was saying to us and I was encouraged to try to do even more in terms of what he said to us.
There is a lot of what he said that I will have to keep thinking about. But he told us to be with the people, and not only in terms of the big things. Be with them in the ordinary things. Just be present, because it makes a difference. You try to make that a priority, but you are conscious of the fact that you also have to spend time in the diocese. The people have a nose for this, and they know when the bishop is present.
It’s not a new thing to say, but it’s very heartening to hear it said, the importance of pastoral priority. Because you have so much pressure to attend everything to avoid disaster, and you have to, because that’s a bishop’s responsibility, avoid disaster. But you also have to take the time and enjoy being with the people.
This time around, being my second ad limina, I felt a lot more comfortable around the dicastery regarding what issues I could bring to them. The bishops of this region, we get together maybe twice a year, but it was good to be together now too. The sense of the communion of the bishops is very important. We are all very different, but it’s good to remember that we walk in this road together, with our people.
You sat next to the pope during the meeting. Was that memorable in a way, or did you just take it as ‘well, he’s one of us?’
Oh, I definitely didn’t take him as ‘he’s one of us.’ I kept remembering my mother, saying to me ‘sit up straight son, sit up straight.’ But as soon as he walked down the aisle and sat down, I didn’t feel nervous. He took the questions, and was very attentive, and from time to time he would look over at me, make sure I wasn’t falling asleep or anything. But I really felt moved by being that close to him.
It was quite a gift.
Despite the way he’s tried to humanize the pontificate, most people after meeting with him feel this way.
I’ve given this some thought, because it also has to do with the way people look at the bishop in the diocese. People tell me ‘you’re very human’ or ‘it’s not hard to talk to you,’ and that’s a good thing, I like that, though I’m sure there are some people who find me not so easy to talk to.
That the Holy Father has made it so easy for us to feel so close to him, the humanity of his office, of his person comes through very clearly. To me that’s the way the Petrine ministry works. Because there is something there that communicates the sacramentality of the Church. God works through limited human people. And he’s always had it that way.
We’ve put a lot of lights and whistles around it, but the basic reality of the faith is that this is the successor of Peter, and Peter in the Gospel is a very human character. And this is the Successor of Peter, and just like I would listen to Peter, knowing what we know about him based on the way that he’s manifested himself in the Gospel.
But I don’t think that the humanity of it all lessens the feeling of ‘I can’t believe that I’m here, listening to the Successor of Peter.’ Because sacramentality doesn’t operate apart from our humanity. It has to operate in it, or it’s not true sacramentality.
And at the same time, giving the sacrament the value it deserves, doesn’t mean you are being clericalist…
You mentioned that as bishops of Texas you have common concerns. One of them is Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to withdraw the state from the refugee resettlement program. Did you get to talk about this with the pope?
Not specifically. It’s come up in some other congregations. But the context of our conversation about migration was more in the wider context of our particular responsibility to give that witness and his awareness of it.
This is not the first time that as bishops of Texas we’ve expressed serious disagreement with him on an immigration issue. For instance, when the legislative session passed the SB4, which basically opened up for local law enforcement to begin asking the immigration question, and the governor signed it, we were unanimous in our saying that this was a bad piece of legislation that was going to put a chill through the immigrant community throughout the state. And law enforcement was telling us that the immigrant community would not feel they had confidence to report a crime.
It’s not the first time. We don’t do that lightly, but I think that as bishops, we support the governor when he does something that is good. But we are trying to model a responsibility as pastors to articulate the teaching of the Church but also be a model to the people in the sense that ‘you might have voted for this person, but you don’t have to agree with everything they do or say.’
I think a Catholic in conscience, especially when you start looking at the election year, it doesn’t matter who you vote for, you have to make a conscious decision, very difficult choices all the way down the ballot. But it doesn’t matter who you vote for, it doesn’t mean that while that person is in office you have to agree with everything. Especially, as a Catholic, if the person you voted for takes a position that is contrary to the good of the human person that the Church talks about in her teaching. Just say that.
That is very difficult in our country. I’ve often said in my diocese that we have to understand that you can be a Catholic and a Republican, but you are Catholic first, and if you disagree by Catholic teaching on a principle being proposed by a candidate, you need to say so. And same thing if you are a Democrat. Why aren’t there more pro-life Democrats? There are a lot of them in my diocese …
Turning things around. President Donald Trump will attend the March for Life on Friday. We’ve seen many Catholic leaders, such as Cardinal Sean O’Malley, attend the rally. And Trump is a man who’s clashed with the bishops on issues such as immigration or the situation in the Middle East. Just as you can criticize Abbott, can you support this presence?
Presidents in the past have sent video messages or representatives. In some ways, it’s the mirror of the controversy that was raised when President Barack Obama went to Notre Dame. One can have a disagreement with a president on a lot of things, but you’re not going to see a statement saying, ‘he’s not welcomed there.’ And the March for Life, it’s not actually an exclusively Catholic thing.
We have done a lot for the pro-life movement in my diocese, we have a pro-life pilgrimage.
But he’s the President of the United States. He can be there.
Though, everything is gearing up for the election, and this is working on both sides. I expect people are going to be visiting the border, who wouldn’t come otherwise. On both sides of the debate actually, they will show up, make speeches about how we do or don’t need a wall.
Did you talk to the pope about the polarization that is present not only in society, but also in the Church?
I talked about the politicization of everything to the point where it’s difficult for a bishop to talk about the Church’s social teaching without being interpreted as a support or an attack to a political leader. The Holy Father is very encouraging in the sense that we have to continue being pastors, continue preaching the Gospel and telling people that they have to apply it, being very serious as they form their conscience.
The politicization, I don’t know that I talked about the Church in this context, but this is also an issue. Things that some criticized are used on the other side to promote an agenda. It’s become a tool to move the politics of the Church. I think this came up when we talked about the social media thing. He’s very conscious of how it can be a great instrument for proposing human dignity and raising certain things, particularly among young people.
The Gospel must be preached but we cannot privatize it in the sense that people must then take it to heart and recognize that it has consequences socially because it has consequences in human relations. The body of the baptized has a responsibility to form their minds according to conscience and take that wherever you go and let the chips fall wherever they will.
We have to be honest about what it means to follow Jesus, and we need to be conscious of the fact that Catholicism is not just about me and Jesus, but about us. And as soon as we are conscious of this, the Gospel will have consequences on how we treat people, on what I support in terms of the social, political world we live in.
There are two documents coming out relatively soon. One of them an apostolic exhortation by the pope after the Amazon Synod. Is this something your diocese is interested in?
I think there is interest in it. Certainly, I am interested in it, because it will provide another insight into the Holy Father’s discerning mind in charting a course that is a manifestation of the communion of the Church, a balance between the communion of the universal Church and the particular needs of the local churches. I think this has always been a preoccupation in the life of the Church, but there’s a particular way the Holy Father has been presenting this.
As I read it when it comes out, I’m sure I will find things that are applicable to some of the realities of my diocese.
Can the global Church learn how to discern?
Yes. I’m not a Jesuit but I’ve read enough about the Jesuit tradition and I’ve known enough Jesuits to know that the rules of St. Ignatius are about applying discernment between two good decisions. If it’s about choosing between right and wrong, it should be a slam dunk. But when you are talking about church discernment, the larger body of the global, universal Church, several other elements come into play, and one of them is how does the Holy Spirit manifest these signs of discernment, especially if it’s a question of a synod or the universal council. The signs by which the Holy Spirit manifests the calmness and rightness of a direction. I think this takes longer than a personal discernment, but this is important.
Even in personal discernment, you always have to have the voice of the director who is outside of yourself. Otherwise, you are just talking to yourself. And nobody in the Catholic tradition has ever said that discernment is about talking within your own head. There has to be an outside voice, because we have a great capacity to seal off the things we don’t want to deal with. But we have to address them. As bishops, we have to address these things, listen to outside voices, but at the end, take responsibility. And the same thing with the Holy Father.
And it’s not like the Holy Father has to address all the problems with the time he has. He’ll do as much as he can, and as much as the Holy Father allows.
The second document coming out is the report of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Do you think it will come out, and that it should?
Do you have any sense of what’s going to be in it?
Not in any concrete sense. I know I would like to see it address, because a lot of people ask me about it, how does somebody rise with that much that we now know? Who knew and how does somebody rise in this situation? It shouldn’t be that way, and we should make sure that it never happens.
I hope it answers the ‘what failed?’ in the sense that we are supposed to be transparent, seeking the good of the Church. What failed?
Do you think you’ve addressed things in your diocese, to do what you can to make sure there’s no McCarrick coming from Brownsville?
I think it’s important to have people involved in the overall dialogue of the good of the Church, especially in the administration, so it’s very important to have strong, conscientious lay people involved, men and women who are truly involved for instance, in our finances. If you have enough people involved in the vetting of things, then when it gets to me, I’m not overtly concerned about one person pushing for things to come out in a certain way.
I think that as a leader, you have the responsibility to always question ‘where did this come from.’
Some five years ago in my diocese we had the conviction of an ex-Oblate who had been accused of murder. The case was never prosecuted in the 1960s, before the diocese was a diocese. A young girl was killed. The district attorney brought the case back. It was very hard for the diocese. The man had left the priesthood decades ago, was very elderly during the trial. It was broadcast throughout the diocese, there were a lot of politics involved in what had happened in the 1960s. And in the end, he was convicted, serving the rest of his life in prison.
I felt a responsibility to say something to the local church, so I wrote a letter. I don’t have a lot of confidence in letters, but once in a while, you have to say something. I wrote a letter about the conviction of this man, where the system had failed, why wasn’t he prosecuted when the crime took place.
The Church is certainly held to a higher standard, but every institution has to be very vigilant about protecting itself from internal corruption where it becomes easy to just pick up the phone and ask for a favor. This culture of ‘today for you, tomorrow for me,’ is a culture I am constantly warning about.
I wrote in the letter about the trial, that this culture of ‘favor’ is true of the Church, is true of politics, of the media, of the corporate world. We have to have good people doing these checks by which not only one pair of eyes controls something.
Our culture is rightfully suspicious of every institution, because every institution falls into this hermeneutic: it’s all about who has the power.
The trial was an authentic moment of sorrow for the local church. Most people didn’t remember it, I hadn’t even been born when the crime was committed. But it had to be addressed because this is a perennial deep problem: The problem of corruption that becomes ‘we have to protect the institution.’ And the Church has certainly been guilty of this, but we are not the only ones. And if we are authentic about this, we can call on others to be authentic about this too.
The great temptation for the Church and for other institutions is power, to influence other people. I told my people that I will not pick up the phone and ask a politician for a favor.
You like architecture. How much are you enjoying walking down the streets of Rome, taking pictures, sharing them on Twitter?
I like taking pictures and seeing the art, because it represents different moments in the Church’s tradition. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to contemplate them. I know that flesh and blood made these things and all things will pass, but it is a tribute to what faith can create in a beautiful way.
Architecture and art also transmit the faith.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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