Bishop's Interview: Preparing for the 2017 Texas State Legislative Session
Editor: Bishop in mid-October the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter on the death penalty. What was the purpose of the letter?
Bishop Vásquez: The purpose of our letter, titled “Capital Punishment: The death penalty does not fulfill justice,” was to raise awareness among our own people. We released the letter during October, which is Respect Life Month. The death penalty is a life issue, especially in our state because for many years Texas has led the nation in executions. Therefore, we wrote this letter to make our voices heard regarding Catholic teaching on the use of the death penalty.
The death penalty is disproportionally used on poor, racial minorities and the vulnerable in our society. “The death penalty in and of itself perpetuates the notion that life is in some instances disposable, or can be judged of no worth,” we write in the letter. Many on death row do not have the resources for a proper defense so often they depend on a state appointed public defendant. There has also been times that the death penalty has been applied to people with limited mental capacity, who do not understand the nature of the crime or the punishment that will be imposed. As Catholics we know that every life is precious and every person, no matter their sins or wrongdoing, should be treated with dignity.
The second issue we have with the death penalty is the extreme cost to the state. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “The cost of housing and feeding a prisoner for a life sentence is three times lower than the court costs incurred by a lengthy appeals process for a prisoner on death row.” Capital punishment is a long and extensive process that consumes the resources of time and money both in our justice system and in the lives of the families of the convicted. Those expenses are carried by the people –– the people who pay taxes. That means our money is going to execute someone. As a church we strongly object to this.
The liberal use of the death penalty can also lead to the execution of innocent people. As we write in the letter, “There are at least 23 documented cases of innocent people who were executed in the United States in this century for capital crimes.” Together we need to stand against the execution of innocent people.
St. John Paul II stated clearly that there is very little reason for someone to be executed. We believe it is more cost efficient to put a convicted criminal in prison for life to allow the possibility of conversion and rehabilitation. Capital punishment does not allow room for mercy and love, which is ultimately what prisoners need. “Our prison ministries are founded on the mission given to us by the Lord to offer a call to repentance to those who have lost hope, or whom the world has given up for lost,” we write in letter (second the last paragraph).
Editor: The state legislative session will begin in January. How will the bishops be working to abolish the death penalty during the session?
Bishop Vásquez: On April 4, Catholics from throughout the state will come together for Catholic Advocacy Day during which we will address capital punishment with our governor and with our legislators. We will explain the church’s position on the dignity of human life and the consistency of our teaching that all life is sacred. We will also continue to do what we have done for years now ––when someone is close to execution then we send a letter to the governor and to our legislators asking them to stay the execution.
Editor: What other topics do the Texas bishops see as critical in the upcoming state legislative session?
Bishop Vásquez: As bishops our top priority is the defense and protection of the most vulnerable in our society and that is, of course, the unborn. We want also to look at school choice and make sure that our families with children who are in Catholic schools or who would like to attend Catholic schools are able to receive tax credits that would enable this possibility. We want parents to have a choice as to where they send their children to school.
Pay day lending practices are also one of our priorities. We want state regulations on pay day lending agencies because they are predatory and take advantage of the poor often charging high interest rates from 100 to as much as 800 percent. We consider this usurious and it takes advantage of the poorest people who are simply trying to pay their medical bills or their rent, but find themselves stuck in a vicious cycle of pay day lending. There are also other topics that we will consider priorities in the upcoming legislature. I will go over our priorities in more detail in the January Catholic Spirit.
Editor: How can Catholics keep abreast of what is going on in the legislature?
Bishop Vásquez: First of all, I encourage all of the people of this great state to inform themselves about our state legislature and the particular bills that are being put to vote. I also encourage everyone to communicate with their representatives. It is important that we make our opinions known to our legislators so that they understand our point of view. The Texas Catholic Conference has much information about what we as the bishops of Texas see as priorities on their website at www.txcatholic.org. You can stay up to date with what the TCC is doing via the website, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.
As bishops we are always looking to strengthen the common good. We desire what is good not just for Catholics but also for all people of the state. The Advocacy Day on April 4 will be an excellent opportunity for us to make our voices heard at the State Capitol. We invite all Catholics to come out on that day to help us go to our legislators and communicate what it is the Catholics want from this legislative session. We want to communicate face to face and be able to express clearly what legislation we support that would benefit not only Catholics but the common good of the state.
Editor: What is your prayer as 2016 concludes and we prepare for the next year?
Bishop Vásquez: Our country has recently undergone a contentious election season that has caused division among our people. I pray that all Americans will join in prayer asking God to guide and give wisdom to our president-elect and all our elected officials. May they serve all people and may we all work together to seek the common good. Because our hope is in Jesus Christ, we must trust him to help us heal and unite to strengthen our country.