If you needed reminding why church and state are supposed to be separate, the latest round in the Austin ISD District 2 fight may help you. The Rev. Jayme Mathias, the challenger in the race, is asking the Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin to take its fingers off the election scales.
Mathias was a lifelong member of the Roman Catholic Church, and he spent much of his career as a priest in East Austin. Then, in March, he informed the Austin Diocese that he was leaving to join the more progressive American Catholic Church as pastor at Holy Family in Northeast Austin. The diocese ran a standard notice in the April 29 church bulletins, noting that Mathias was no longer receiving communion within its church, and that was that – until Mathias decided to run for the school board against incumbent Sam Guzmán. Five months after that first notice, the diocese started running it again, in English and Spanish, right in the middle of the election. When asked about the notice, diocese spokesman Christian Gonzalez said the bishop was simply clarifying "a matter of confusion about the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church."
But the Mathias campaign is concerned that the diocese is trying to politicize his departure. Having trained and taught in Austin, Mathias was appointed by Austin Roman Catholic Bishop Gregory Michael Aymond – now archbishop of New Orleans – as pastor of Cristo Rey in April 2009, after the sitting pastor, the Rev. Jesse Euresti, was murdered in Mexico. During his tenure as pastor, Mathias doubled the size of the congregation. Yet like many Catholics, he found himself increasingly at odds with the church for its stance on key issues. He had begun his path to the priesthood with the Conventual Franciscan Friars, which he called "a very progressive, liberal group," but saw the papacy as failing to live up to the reforming promise of Vatican II. He explained he had specific issues with the diocese – such as when Aymond's replacement, Bishop Joe Vásquez, banned Illinois Rep. Luis Gutiérrez from speaking to Mathias' congregation on immigration, because he is "too liberal" on birth control (see "High School Stakes," Oct. 5). The final break came this year, after Mathias finished a sabbatical and was introduced to the American Catholic Church. After meeting with Archbishop Lawrence J. Harms, Mathias said he finally decided that "this is the place where I feel I can be at home."
The Mathias campaign has now sent two cease and desist letters to the diocese, asking them to refrain from running the notice again: First, on Oct. 28, from campaign manager Steve Rivas, and then on Oct. 3, from attorney Alex Ryer. Telling the diocese that its actions were being viewed through a political lens, Ryer wrote, the timing "makes it evident that the republication was designed to scare voters away from our client and create conflict within the electorate."
This is not the first time the diocese has found itself in this political fight. Earlier this month, eyebrows were raised over a photo of Vásquez, Guzmán, and Guzmán supporter Frank Fuentes on Fuentes' Facebook page. According to Gonzalez, the photo was taken on Oct. 2 at Nuevo León, at the church's monthly public Theology on Tap luncheon, at the request of Guzmán and Fuentes. Vásquez "actually told them, 'Do not publicize it, because it is campaign season, and I don't want this to appear that I am endorsing anyone,'" Gonzalez said. "It is not the policy of the Roman Catholic Church to endorse or approve any party."