Keeping the Faith

Women lawmakers endure – and defy – the anti-choice wrath of the Catholic Church

Dawnna Dukes
Dawnna Dukes (Photo by John Anderson)

Dawnna Dukes' great-grandmother was a French Creole. She came to Austin from Louisiana in 1914 and found herself among a growing number of black Catholics without a house of worship. Austin's white parishes wouldn't allow black congregants, so Dukes' great-grandmother joined with a group of like-minded souls to help found Holy Cross Catholic Church, the city's historically black Catholic parish on East 11th Street. The small congregation eventually became a local political powerhouse; in 1940, Holy Cross Hospital was built on the church grounds, and a year later, Holy Cross Catholic School was established. In the Seventies, Meals on Wheels and More was founded by Holy Cross volunteers, who used the church basement to start the successful charity. The parish was spiritual home to the city's first black City Council member, two Austin ISD board members, and two state representatives, including Austin Democratic state Rep. Dukes.

It was within the powerful confines of Holy Cross Church that Dukes grew up. She was baptized and confirmed there, and the church has married and buried most of her kin. So when Dukes was asked to serve as a guest speaker at the parish after services on the third Sunday in February for Black History Month, to discuss the contributions of black women, she was happy to oblige.

But Dukes never spoke; instead, a week before she was scheduled to appear, she was informed that the Catholic Diocese of Austin had determined that she would not again be allowed to address the congregation – specifically because of her ongoing support for Texas' Women's Health Program, a Medicaid-waiver health care program that aims to reduce unintended pregnancies and to provide basic health care for low-income, uninsured women. "I am a child of Holy Cross," Dukes said recently. And now, she says, "I've been banned."

Church Doctrine vs. Women's Lives

Dukes is among a group of public officials nationwide who have been called out – either privately or publicly – by the Catho­lic Church's hierarchy for their positions on women's issues, and specifically, for being pro-choice and for supporting access to birth control. According to Sara Hutch­in­son, domestic program director of Catholics for Choice, a progressive Catholic public policy organization supporting women's health and reproductive rights, the church's hierarchy, led by the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bishops, has since 2009 placed reproductive choice – no matter the context – at the top of its list of issues to oppose. In fact, Hutchinson says, the bishops were willing to oppose national health care reform – with its promise to provide millions of people with access to affordable health care – precisely because of the "small possibility" that access to legal abortion "wouldn't be restrictive enough." Rather than "falling back on the social justice issues," socioeconomic or otherwise, for which the church has traditionally advocated, the church has instead ratcheted up its rhetoric against any form of birth control.

Its vocal opposition to birth control and reproductive choice has grown even louder since the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services last year announced a new rule that would require health insurance plans to cover birth control. Although the new rule exempts churches, it does not exempt other Catholic institutions such as colleges or hospitals, and the Catholic leadership has cast the regulation as part of a broader assault on "religious liberty," describing it as the No. 1 threat to religious freedom. "We cannot waste time in this vital area," Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the USCCB, wrote to his fellow bishops in September 2011, because the assaults on "people of faith" have increased, he charged, thanks largely to federal policies "that would infringe upon the right of conscience of people of faith or otherwise harm the foundational principle of religious liberty."

Caught in the middle of the controversy are the millions of Catholics who disagree with the hierarchy's declaration of doctrine that they find largely incompatible not only with the realities of modern life but also with their own consciences and their personal religious liberty. "The reality is, their willingness to go full bore against almost any access to women's choice or access to women's health care has become the number one issue," says Hutchinson, describing an institutional pressure that she says "runs afoul of what most of us [would consider] pastoral care."

More specifically, the hierarchy has increasingly moved to openly reprove or shame public officials who are Catholics – and that's exactly what Dukes believes happened to her. "I grew up in a church that taught me to question," Dukes says, and in a family of "very strong matriarchs. They taught us that you don't just accept something because it's thrown at you like a pancake."

No Room at the Inn

Dukes was not the only local public official prevented from speaking recently at Holy Cross. Sheryl Cole, who serves on the Austin City Council and is the city's Mayor Pro Tem, is not a Catholic but was also asked to speak at the church, on the Sunday before Dukes was scheduled – and she, too, was subsequently disinvited. In Cole's case, moreover, she never received notice of the dismissal before she arrived at the church on Feb. 12. She sat up front but was never acknowledged; her name wasn't on the program, and she was never called to speak. "I was never told why," Cole recalled recently. Later, she says, in a gesture of apology, the church sent flowers.

She didn't "press it then," Cole says, but she has since learned that her longtime support for reproductive choice and women's health care had made her unwelcome. Indeed, Cole had served for two terms on the board of Planned Parenthood and has also voted to support a city ordinance that would require so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" to post notices indicating whether they are licensed to provide any medical care (most CPCs, including those run locally by the Catholic diocese, are not). Of the church's response to her public positions, Cole said, "It's a litmus test."

Sheryl Cole
Sheryl Cole (Photo courtesy of Matt Lankes)

According to Christian Gonzalez, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Austin, that's not precisely the case. In general, he says, administrators of the Austin Diocese, which is headquartered here but encompasses 127 churches across 21,000 square miles of Central Texas, prefer that speakers invited to any parish be precleared by diocesan leadership – a process that is mandatory whenever an event at an individual parish is "advertised" beyond the church to other Catholics or to the general public. Should an individual parish decline to seek approval, as occasionally occurs, the "responsibility" for that decision, Gonzalez says, rests on the church's pastor – which explains why both Dukes and Cole have previously spoken at Holy Cross. For example, in September 2011, Dukes was featured as a speaker at Holy Cross' 75th anniversary celebration – but since that was strictly a parish celebration, the pastor could invite her to speak without asking the diocese for permission. (The diocese still prefers to be asked, Gonzalez added: "It's a good idea.")

The Black History Month speaker series was open not only to all area Catholics, but also to the general public, which is why the diocese became involved in vetting Dukes, said Gonzalez. As Gonzalez understands it, a Holy Cross parishioner invited Cole, and it was the parish that later declined the invitation because of Cole's "stance on Planned Parenthood" and her vote in favor of the ordinance that would have the local Catholic charities post informational signage outside its CPCs. It was unfortunate, he says, that Cole wasn't formally uninvited before she arrived at the church.

Dukes says she was initially called by the church and told that she would not be able to speak because she was up for re-election and the church didn't want to appear to favor a candidate. "I paused," she recalled recently, "and then said, 'but I'm unopposed.'" The diocese still considered her candidacy a problem, said Gonzalez, since although no one had filed to run against her at the time, someone could have done so before the filing deadline and then the church would have felt it necessary to offer her opponent "equal time." "If someone is running for office and gives a talk, then candidate B would be given equal time," explained Gonzalez. "We have to be fair." Ultimately, he acknowledged, it was Dukes' position on women's health issues that made her unwelcome to speak at Holy Cross during Black History Month. As Gon­zal­ez bluntly put it, Dukes' support for reproductive choice, access to birth control and Planned Parenthood "falls on the other side of Catholic teaching when it comes to life issues. When someone [is] in public life with her record of supporting something that contradicts our faith [and is] against our principles and morals," she can't be allowed to speak in the church – on any topic.

Holy Cross personnel declined to comment for this story, referring all questions to the diocese; for her part, Dukes said that no blame for the situation should be placed on her parish. Instead, she lays blame for her public banishment directly at the feet of the Catholic hierarchy, within the diocese and the USCCB.

'Cruel to Gender'

Unfortunately, says Catholics for Choice's Hutchinson, stories like those involving Dukes and Cole are too common. "We certainly have stories, anecdotal stories, of public officials at every level being called out or spoken to" based on positions they have or beliefs they hold that are contrary to the current hierarchy's interpretation of Catholic doctrine – "It goes on regularly." The church hierarchy has long used its "unique relationship and unique access" to Catholic officeholders in order to try to influence their public stances on topics of importance to the church. Hutchinson says while admonishment of Catholic officeholders by church hierarchy is something of a commonplace, in recent years these reprovals have become more public and bold, with at least the tacit approval of the highest Catholic leadership. She says there has been a "march toward strict conservative [interpretation of doctrine] and public embarrassment and calling-out of officials who are representing their constituents" – as they should be, she says – "rather than the church leadership in their policies. There really are some disturbing stories."

Among those disturbing tales is that of former Williamson County Democratic state Rep. Diana Maldonado, who was publicly called out by then-pastor Joel McNeil of her parish, St. William Catholic Church in Round Rock. When Maldonado first decided to run for state office in 2008, she went to McNeil, she says, to ask for his blessing. He gave it – even knowing, she says, that Maldonado, a single mother of two and a former member of the board of the Round Rock Independent School District, was pro-choice. Back then, it seems, the revelation didn't raise the pastor's or the church's hackles.

By the time she was running for re-election in 2010, however, a new bishop, Joe S. Vásquez, had taken the reins at the Austin Diocese, and things had apparently changed. After a couple of "deep-pocketed" parishioners (as Maldonado put it) approached McNeil to complain that Maldonado supported reproductive choice and access to birth control, Maldonado says McNeil called her to his office for what she recalls was the most awkward two-hour meeting she's ever endured. The priest said her soul was in trouble because of her beliefs about reproductive health and rights, and he tried to persuade her to accept instead what he considered the Catholic way of things. She refused. "I told him I'm not just going to fall in line," she recalls. She explained to him the reasoning behind her beliefs and asked him a question: "Here I am, a single parent, raising two kids and putting them through school; I'm a public employee, and I have worked with the school system," in addition to being a lifelong Catholic active in church life. "'Because I happen to be pro-choice, all of this doesn't matter?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'My conversation with you is done.'"

And that was that – or so Maldonado thought. Instead, McNeil composed a letter that he sent to the entire parish – save for Maldonado and her parents, also parish members. In it, McNeil noted Maldonado's candidacy and all but explicitly discouraged his parishioners from voting for her because of her support for reproductive choice, which the church considers an "intrinsic moral evil," McNeil wrote. "One assumes because she is a member of the Catholic Church and has publicized her affiliation with St. Williams [sic] on her website, in the press, and on our parish bulletin that she would think with the Church [emphasis original] in the most important areas," he wrote. "In some areas she does. However, there is concern about her stands in some other areas," he continued. McNeil's job, he wrote, is to "explain the faith so that all might correctly form their consciences based on truth known both through human reason and revelation."

Maldonado, according to McNeil, didn't sufficiently accept his explanations. "Several people [presumably, St. William parishioners] have contacted Diana's campaign office," McNeil wrote. "The manager of her office confirmed in no uncertain terms on multiple occasions that Diana is pro-choice," he continued [emphasis original]. "They have forwarded those emails to me, and I have read them. This is not 'hearsay.'"

Maldonado was horrified – in part because McNeil had used portions of their private conversation in the text of the letter, but more directly because of the public position the church was taking regarding her personal beliefs. "He was adamant that this was something parishioners had brought to his attention and he was heeding their requests," Maldonado recalls. "I asked, 'what about me as a parishioner?' He was pitting us against each other." (Indeed, McNeil's wading into partisan politics may also have crossed the line into the kind of express advocacy that jeopardizes the church's tax-exempt status; whether that circumstance was ever vetted by McNeil's superiors is unknown, but Maldonado says McNeil was subsequently reassigned to a parish in Nebraska.)

Diana Maldonado
Diana Maldonado (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Maldonado ended up leaving St. William, and for the better part of two years has wrestled with her Catholic faith. "I stayed away for a couple years. I was questioning all of the hypocrisy," she says. In part, Maldonado says, she believes the Catholic church is in "some ways ... cruel to gender. There are far more requirements and stipulations for women than for men." And being a woman, a Catholic, and a public official is what she believes made her a specific church target. "I think that there is more of a push or emphasis to wrestle with women legislators" when there are areas of conflict with doctrinal interpretation, she says. Hutchinson agrees. Again, anecdotally – Hutchinson declined to share the details of any of the numerous stories she's heard from officeholders around the country – "I find that the stories I hear [of] the more strict and patriarchal reactions have been with female legislators," she says. Although there are plenty of male lawmakers who are Catholic and who are pro-choice, including in Texas, it doesn't appear that church hierarchy calls them to task nearly as often as it does their female counterparts.

The Austin Diocese disagrees; Gonzalez says the diocese has applied its guest speaker rule equally for male public officials. When Chicago Congressman Luis Gutierrez came to Austin to speak on immigration, Gonzalez said, the diocese refused to let the event take place on church property because of Gutierrez's "100% approval rating from NARAL." "Because of that, we could not allow him to speak on church grounds." More­over, in fall 2010, the church told Rabbi Alan Freedman of Temple Beth Shal­om that he would no longer be able to use church property for Yom Kippur services because Freedman serves on the board of Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region, as chair of the group's Clergy Advisory Group. (Not­ab­ly, although neither Gutierrez nor Freed­man's positions were new or secret, the Austin Diocese did not act to move either event until just days before they were to take place; indeed, Freedman had been allowed to use church property for services for about a year before the Yom Kippur incident.)

Life Issues

The Austin Diocese gets between 10 and 20 speaker requests per month, says Gonzalez, and it tries to review each carefully and fairly. "We do our best to have the rules applied fairly, across the board," he said. In general, a speaker is asked to submit a bit of personal background information, and then the diocese vets the person for "what the background is, what the topic is, and how vocal" the person is on any particular issue – in particular issues that might contradict Catholic teachings. "We look into as many different things as we can," he says. Obviously, though, a "politician who puts [him- or herself] out there" on any particular issue is going to be easier to review than a more private citizen, he notes – thus, for example, the disagreement with Dukes.

Could a non-Catholic ever be a speaker? That's happened before, says Gonzalez, because "everyone is looked at on their own merits." What about a divorced person? Perhaps, says Gonzalez. But he insists that the diocese takes seriously positions beyond just reproductive health issues – including beliefs on the death penalty, which he says also fits into the realm of "life" issues.

While that may or may not be the case in Austin, it certainly isn't the norm around the country, says Hutchinson, who can't readily recall any officeholder being admonished for countering church doctrine on anything other than reproductive health issues or support of LGBT equality. "That is the only [area other] than in women's health [issues] where this is happening," she says.

Yet the lessons seem not to be bearing fruit. According to a recent report from the Guttmacher Institute, just 2% of sexually active Catholic women actually use natural family planning, the only method of "birth control" condoned by the church; 87% of sexually active Catholics use some other form of contraception, including birth control pills, condoms, or sterilization, and 70% of Cath­olics are sexually active by the age of 24. In other words, it doesn't appear that the hierarchy's hard line has had much effect, at least on the church's own members. And that may in fact be the point not only of taking a stance on health care reform and the birth control coverage rules, but also of being more adamant and public about calling out public officials who deviate from the party line, says Hutchinson.

"They've been unsuccessful convincing Catholics in the pews of the strict and harsh policies of the church. They know people are making choices for their families that don't necessarily follow church teachings," says Hutchinson. "They can't get them to follow them within the walls of the church, so they're moving outside" to lawmakers and into politics to get to where they want to go. "I don't know that it's happening more than it used to, but they're willing to be more public about it."

In Defense of Conscience

Dukes says the decision to prevent her from speaking was nakedly political, and that she won't back down. She's taken some heat, mostly from posters to the blog of, who suggest that the diocese merely stood up for what was right and moral. "She has turned her back on God, God's Authority, and God's creation of life," one poster wrote. "She is pro-abortion and contraceptives. She has made a decision to turn her back away ... instead of joining God hand in hand in the fight for HIS unborn."

Ironically, the Women's Health Pro­gram – support for which Dukes says was the stated reason she was given for being disinvited to speak at Holy Cross – actually aims to reduce unwanted pregnancies and, consequently, abortions. The program is only open to women of childbearing age who are not pregnant and who wouldn't be eligible for Medicaid coverage unless they were already pregnant. This is no small issue in Texas, where more than half of all births are paid for by Medicaid; under the WHP, in 2009 alone, more than 6,000 unintended pregnancies were avoided. By all accounts, the program has been a tremendous success. Unfor­tun­ate­ly, it now faces an uncertain future because the state insists that Planned Parent­hood, which serves nearly half of all women enrolled in the program, be officially excluded from participation. The federal government has said this new "rule" imposed by the state violates long-standing federal law and has laid out a plan to discontinue the program; Gov. Rick Perry says the state will find some way to find alternative providers and fund the program on its own.

Dukes says she will not waver from her support for women and their families, who are trying to responsibly plan their reproductive lives, regardless of the diocesan response. "This is about wellness," she says. On that point numerous other Austin-area clergy (although certainly not all) agree; last week, 58 faith leaders, led by Rabbi Freed­man, signed an open letter to the governor affirming their support for the WHP and for Planned Parenthood. "We believe when we give women and families access to basic health care that includes contraception, as WHP does, we strengthen the moral fabric of our homes, communities and state," reads the letter. "We believe that God gave us all the responsibility to make decisions when it comes to the most private aspects of our personal and family lives, and that charting the course of life is a holy act, not a political one," it continues. "We are unanimous in our belief that the conscience of the woman has a higher moral standing than ideological agendas."

In short, says Dukes, it would take far more than a public knuckle-rapping from the church to change her mind. Maldonado, who has only recently returned to worship, says she, too, will not waver from her beliefs, but that her public conflict with the church taught her a valuable lesson: "It's been a journey. I'll always be a Catholic. Man can try to take away my religion, but they'll never take away my faith."

Download the letter from Archbishop Timothy Dolan to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, concerning national health care and "religious liberty."

Download the letter from Fr. Joel McNeil to the parishioners of St. William Church in Round Rock, concerning the candidacy for state representative of Diana Maldonado

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Catholic Church, censorship, Diana Maldonada, Dawnna Dukes, Sheryl Cole, Holy Cross Catholic Church, Catholic Diocese of Austin, Women's Health Program, WHP, abortion, contraceptives, birth control, health care, pro-choice, pro-life, Catholics for Choice, Planned Parenthood, Gov. Rick Perry

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