Tucked at the back of Senator Eddie Lucio Jr’s office in the grand State Capitol building in Texas is a small side room that serves as a chapel. Statues and icons flank a centrepiece painting of Christ catching St Peter’s hands as he sinks into the waves.
Catholicism and politics have long had a strained relationship in America, permeated by suspicions of slavish obedience to Rome. Such tensions certainly aren’t going away. A number of prominent Catholic Democratic politicians at the national level have avoided discussing, or even supported, positions in conflict with Church teaching.
But Lucio, a Texas Democratic politician since 1986, says that “Any legislative bill I take up quite literally goes through the faith process.” In the past, such bills – some of which succeeded in becoming law – have covered issues such as feeding hungry schoolchildren, defending religious liberty, facilitating end-of-life care, and stopping taxpayer money going towards abortion.
In 2017, he was criticised by fellow Democrats for supporting a bill which would have restricted public bathrooms to people of the same biological sex. (He says: “Children, youth and parents in these difficult situations deserve compassion, sensitivity and respect without infringing on legitimate concerns about privacy and security from other students and parents.”)
When we met earlier this year, before the lockdown, Lucio told me about his background. Raised by Catholic parents along with nine siblings, he says he was the only one of six brothers who didn’t serve as an altar boy.
“Now I consider myself an altar adult,” he says. He serves as a Eucharistic minister and assists the priests at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in his hometown of Brownsville, which straddles the border with Mexico.
He credits his father for the strength of his faith. When Lucio won his first election, his father got in touch to arrange a meeting at the start of his first day.
“I thought he wanted to take me to breakfast and have a talk, offer some advice,” Lucio says. After all, his father was an experienced public figure who served as a sheriff for 30 years. “He told me he would pick me up at six, and I said, Dad, that’s way too early, eight would be fine.” It turned out his father intended to take him to Mass first.
“Afterwards we had time to quickly get a taco before I arrived at work five minutes late,” Lucio says.
It was the beginning of a long tradition of the two of them going to mass together at the beginning of each day. After his father died 17 years ago, Lucio began rosary sessions in Brownsville, which began to attract people who wanted to prayer for their deceased loved ones.
Now, when the Texas Legislature is in session – it meets for 140 days biannually (a classic Texan formulation to limit governmental interference) – Lucio holds a rosary session every Wednesday in the Capitol building’s Civil Rights room.
He says another strong influence was New York governor Mario Cuomo’s speech criticising Ronald Reagan, who had described America as a shining city on a hill.
“Cuomo pointed out the less fortunate people who were at the bottom of the hill and forgotten by Reagan,” Lucio says. “That helped inspire me to get into politics.”
When it comes to his political party’s stance on certain issues conflicting with Catholic teaching, Lucio explains his approach is to avoid any state or national agendas and stay focused on letting his faith guide him. “I do not weigh up something, I do what is the right thing,” he says. “Then it is up the people who vote to decide.”
He believes the voters he represents –many of whom are Hispanic and Catholic – are sympathetic to that approach.
That said, he is headed into a primary run-off election for his Rio Grande Valley seat against a pro-choice Democrat challenger. This has shades of the situation faced by Dan Lipinski, an eight-term Catholic pro-life congressman, who was recently ousted by another candidate heavily backed and financed by outside pro-abortion groups.
Catholics have never had it easy in American politics. As Lucio pointed out to me, American Catholics felt they were going to have a place at the table in Washington when John F Kennedy was elected as the first Catholic president. But Kennedy publicly emphasised his faith wouldn’t influence how he governed. Some argue this had a detrimental knock-on effect for Catholic politicians now trying to speak up over America’s most contentious issues.
“What people are often hearing is a misrepresentation of me,” Lucio says. “We should live the Gospel daily – if I can do that, I can serve with dignity, treat people with respect and include everyone.”
For him, it comes back to Scripture. “If you believe in the greatest book and those who lived it, that’s the foundation of any family and home or public entity that really believes we are one nation and state under God.”