Bishop's Interview: Working with state legislators for the common good

Editor: Bishop Vásquez, last month we talked about the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, so this month I would like to go into more detail about the TCCB and their role. What is the TCCB?
Bishop Vásquez:
The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is the official public policy voice of the Catholic bishops of the 15 dioceses (and archdioceses) in our state. The TCCB advocates on behalf of the Roman Catholic Bishops of Texas for policies and programs that support the life and dignity of every human person from conception through natural death. Jennifer Carr Allmon serves as the executive director, and she and her staff work with the bishops to make sure that the information we bishops want to communicate regarding legislative issues is communicated to all the Catholics and non-Catholics in our state. The bishops want to help people become informed and hopefully get involved and engaged in the political arena. The TCCB helps us to understand and advocate for legislation that is just and good for all. As we seek to promote the common good, first we have to raise the consciousness and awareness among the people. 
Editor: Before each legislative session the TCCB develops a legislative agenda. How is that established?
Bishop Vásquez:
Under the guidance of the Texas bishops, the TCCB staff conducts policy assessments — with the input of diocesan departments, ministries and agencies — to evaluate public policy needs and opportunities across the state. The bishops extensively review and discuss the proposals before setting the legislative priorities for the upcoming session. The public policy positions are based in Catholic social and moral teaching to uphold the sanctity of life, help the poor and vulnerable and promote the common good. 
Editor: Tell us about what is on the agenda for this upcoming legislative session.
Bishop Vásquez:
First of all, we are always concerned about life issues because we are all made in the image of God, all of our social obligations and rights flow from the inherent value of human life. We are particularly concerned about the protection of the most vulnerable –– the unborn. Human life is intrinsically valuable and should be protected from conception to natural death. Therefore, we continue to fight for an end to abortion, to prevent euthanasia, to stop the destruction of human embryos and to oppose cloning. We also oppose funding abortion providers, which includes opposition to funding for contraceptives 
The bishops of Texas are also very concerned about children and families. We support legislation that promotes strong, stable and healthy families. Parents are the primary educators of their children and we support the freedom of parents to choose a school for their children that is safe and provides a good education. We also support school choice tax credits to provide equal educational choices for low-income families.
Health care is essential for the proper development of life; the bishops want to make sure that medical and behavioral health care is available for all of us. We advocate for the availability of health care for all, especially for those with special needs because of age or mental or physical disabilities. Health care coverage is so important because nearly 6 million Texans have no health insurance.
The bishops are very concerned about the growing numbers of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. Most of them are from Central America and they are escaping violence and exploitation in their countries. As Catholics we are called to care for immigrants and provide for their safety. 
We also continue to support efforts to bring about comprehensive immigration reform. The tone and rhetoric used in the recent presidential campaign regarding immigrants was of great concern to the bishops. The comments were derogatory and incendiary as they harshly judged the immigrants who come to this country seeking safety to provide for their families and to make a better life. Because of those comments, many are frightened and hurting; children are scared that they and their parents might be deported. Consequently, individuals and families are suffering. Our immigrant brothers and sisters have contributed greatly to this country. The U.S. is a country built by immigrants. We join with our immigrant brothers and sisters in prayer and solidarity, and we pledge to work to protect them and insure justice. 
The protection of the poor and the vulnerable is another of our priorities as we continue to advocate for the common good. As St. John Paul II reminded us throughout his pontificate, “A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members ...” Therefore, we support access to safe and affordable housing, water and power for low-income Texans. We also support efforts to end human trafficking and we support regulatory standards for payday and auto-title lending to curb usurious lending practices and prevent a cycle of consumer debt.
In terms of criminal justice we continue to oppose the death penalty. We want to make sure that inmates are treated fairly and with dignity. We seek legislation that will help parolees reintegrate into society, and we support efforts to better train correctional officers as they work with offenders.
Editor: I know that it is still early in the legislative process, and things can change quickly after the session begins, but are there specific bills that the bishops are closely monitoring?
Bishop Vásquez:
There are several bills that we are following. As I discussed in last month’s interview, the bishops want to see an end to the use of the death penalty in our state. With this in mind, the Texas bishops support efforts to revise capitol jury sentencing instructions. A capitol jury has a tremendous burden of determining whether an inmate lives or dies; therefore, they need to be fully informed as to the punishment they can impose. This legislation will at least improve the fairness of the current system. 
There are many bills that will be introduced and the TCCB will be following all of them closely and issuing updates as the legislative session moves along. The Texas Catholic Network is a way that we can learn more about these important issues that are before the State Legislature. Through the network, Catholics can receive action alerts for public policy efforts, learn about educational opportunities and events across the state and get updates on how to communicate and advocate for the common good. To sign up for the network, visit the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops website at www.txcatholic.org. 
Also, forthcoming in the next few months will be more information about Texas Catholic Advocacy Day, which will be held April 4 at the State Capitol. On that day, we want to communicate face to face with our legislators and express clearly what legislation we support that would benefit not only Catholics but the common good of the state.
Editor: As we begin the New Year and as the legislative session begins what is your prayer for the people of Texas?
Bishop Vásquez:
My prayer is that we become aware of what is taking place in our state. Many times we tend to focus on what is happening in our local neighborhood, community or city, and we lose sight of the fact that there are many things at the state level that need our attention. We must remember that what takes place here locally or in our own diocese impacts the rest of the state. Therefore, I pray that everyone participates as fully as possible in engaging our legislators and in trying to bring about laws that are just and benefit everyone, not just a few. 
I encourage all of us to communicate with our legislators, get to know who they are, get to know their positions on legislation, and then also get connected with the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops for information on what the bishops support and why we support it. The bishops of Texas hope that through the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops people will engage with their state legislators and work with us to advocate for the common good.