Pope Francis may not technically be coming to Texas, but for all practical purposes he might as well be. When he arrives in Juarez on Wednesday, Mexicans and Texans alike will be watching.
As many as 200,000 Catholics are expected to cross from El Paso to attend the papal mass in Juarez and thousands more are expected to watch from the American side of the border. Notably absent from the spectacle and celebration will be Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Abbott, a practicing Catholic who often makes reference to his faith from the stump and the Capitol, was invited, but declined to attend due to a scheduling conflict. He intends to swear in the state’s new education commissioner on Wednesday.
It’s no secret that the presence of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly this pope, poses a political problem for Abbott. Pragmatically speaking, the dilemma is strategically easier for Abbott to navigate by being absent, rather than risk a public scolding by the pontiff.
Although Francis’ visit to the United States last fall was met with rock star enthusiasm by the public, his reception by Republican leaders was more muted. While Catholic theology and GOP ideology align on matters of abortion and gay marriage, the list of issues where they part ways is long: global warming, immigration, Syrian refugees, aid for the poor and the death penalty. (Texas executed Gustavo Garcia on Tuesday for for the shotgun slaying of a suburban Dallas liquor store clerk. The execution was the state’s third this year.)
Of all the Christian denominations, the Catholic church is one of the most publicly exacting on the intersection of politics and faith. In fact, that is why until recently Catholic lawmakers in the U.S. have tried to place political distance between their religion and their policies. They have let President (then candidate John F. Kennedy’s famous speech on the subject be their guide:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
It’s a strategy that Abbott has shrugged off on matters where he and the church agree, but may place him in difficult positions in the future as the number of Catholics and Latinos in the state continue to swell.
Francis has used his popularity and his pulpit to remind those in power of where the Church stands. Considering the fallout from Pope Francis’ visit last fall, maybe Abbott is wise to stay away.
Speaker of the House John Boehner met the Holy Father in private and quit his job the next day.
Correction: This blog has been updated to correct John Boehner’s title.