Julián Castro: Catholicism ‘has never been far from my life’

'What has always attracted me to the Catholic faith is the social justice aspect of it,' Castro said.

Julián Castro speaks at the start of the general session at the Texas Democratic Convention in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 22, 2018.  (AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez)

(RNS) — A few weeks after former San Antonio Mayor and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro announced his candidacy for president, the Democrat spoke with Religion News Service in January to discuss how his Catholicism intersects with his family, his heritage and his politics. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you made your official announcement for president, you did it in Plaza Guadalupe, across from our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church — and you mentioned your baptism. What about that image is important to you?

I had my announcement at the heart of the west side of San Antonio, where I grew up. The Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was really where my story started on the west side of the city, because I was baptized there, I grew up not far from there and went to school close to there.

I wanted my announcement to present to the American people who I am, and my family and I had been Catholic for generations. I can’t say that I go to church as much as I’d like, but I grew up Catholic, got married in the Catholic Church. My children have been baptized in the Catholic Church and my son currently goes to a Catholic learning center that my daughter previously went to. So it’s been a part of our lives.

How do you remember your faith as a part of your childhood and your rearing?

I grew up going to church, sometimes more often than in other times in my life. I went to one year of Catholic school. I grew up with a grandmother who used to go to church and wear a veil like women would a couple of generations ago. And I grew up with religious imagery all around. When I spoke at the DNC a few years ago, I talked about when my brother and I would leave the house to go to school in the morning, my grandmother would say, “Que Dios los bendiga.” “May God bless you.”

So the Catholic faith has never been far from my life. At the same time, I don’t want to give people the impression that I go to Mass every Sunday, but it is a part of who I am, for sure.

You often mention your grandmother, who came to the United States as an orphan immigrant. Does it speak to the intermingling of a Mexican-American identity and a Catholic identity?

The Catholic Church, in many ways, was a refuge for a generation of Mexican immigrants who came to places like Texas and lived a tough life. … Certainly my grandmother grew up in a lower-income household and they struggled with a lot. For women and for people of color, those are very difficult times. And the Catholic Church provided a sense of place and belonging and also a hope — a faith that things would get better.

My mother went to 13 straight years — well actually, more than that — I guess 16 straight years of Catholic school because she went into through 12 and then she went to a Catholic University, Our Lady of the Lake University.

But to me, what has always attracted me to the Catholic faith is the social justice aspect of it, and the vision that I articulated for the country (in my announcement speech) very much is in keeping with the social justice component of the Catholic faith, of caring for the poor, of understanding that everybody counts in our society, of trying to do what all of us can to sacrifice together so that we can lift everybody up.

So in that way, I think it was fitting to be there right next to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

You’ve vocally opposed President Trump’s proposed border wall and his family separation policy, all while calling for the protection of Dreamers. Do you also find resonance in the Catholic faith for your positions regarding the border?

Oh, absolutely. In the Catholic faith and many other faiths — and even people who do not subscribe to a faith — I’ve always seen a common denominator (that includes Catholicism) of ‘I’m treating everyone humanely.’ And there’s no better example of where we’ve gone astray than the family separation policy that this administration ramped up last year or over the last couple of years.

So I’ve been pleased to hear Pope Francis speak out against those kinds of policies. His is an important voice, just like I know that other religious leaders, faith leaders, have spoken out. I’m glad to see that.

I’ll answer a question you haven’t asked: Obviously the issue of religion and politics is one that over the last 40 years has been principally dominated by the right, and I’m not quite sure why that is. But there are a lot of people of faith on the left as well, many of whom I’ve met over the years. My mother at one time was a part of that Network, the Catholic social justice lobbying group.

I didn’t know that.

Yeah, and what I love about faith is the ability to bring people to a common understanding, a common humanity and compassion and peace and just … trying to get along. What I don’t like is that religion is used by some to try to encourage finger-pointing or blaming. I completely disagree with that approach.

That was, in fact, my next question. Relatedly, the Democratic Party has some of the most and least religious Americans in the country under the same umbrella. How do you as a presidential candidate speak to those who find deep resonance for their progressive values in faith as well as those who come to those conclusions without having any faith affiliation?

It starts with respect for people’s own opinions and beliefs. I have a deep respect for both people who believe in God and practice their faith and also people who choose not to believe. And I recognize that our Constitution respects both of those types of Americans and that whether you choose to believe or not, you have a great role to play in shaping the future of our country. So I’m confident that I can speak to both people of faith in our country and also people who may not believe.

You have supported same-sex marriage and abortion rights. How do you reconcile that with your faith?

I separate any one faith or belief system from the responsibility that one has in public service — to represent everyone. I recognize that I do have those disagreements (with the pope), but I also recognize that if I’m president of the United States I need to serve everybody in the country.

And I also have just a personal belief in support of members of the LGBTQ community — I believe in their equality — and also support a woman’s right to choose. I believe that those things are sound public policy.

In an address at the American Academy of Religion Conference shortly after Trump was elected, you called on religious academics and faith leaders to “show light” during his administration. Do you think faith groups have done that?

They always do. They always do. Especially now, when I believe we have an administration that has taken us in the wrong direction in terms of how people should be treated and violated the tenets of many faiths. But people of faith always have a role, and always should play an important role in helping to shape the future of our country.

What are the challenges that we have ahead? What we have now, what we’ll have in years to come, is to forge a common sense of purpose in this country. And I believe that that common sense of purpose should be to lift up every single human being by investing in their education, invest in their health care, investing in their ability to retire and respecting everyone. And people of faith are preaching that and practicing that all the time.

So they have a tremendous role to play in our nation’s future.

Finally, is there anything you think people miss in discussions of religion and politics?

I think there is a tendency to associate faith with only the right, with only conservatives — in the press and media — and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Except for, of course, folks who write about religion and cover that more in depth. But I mean, just in the mainstream media, there’s a tendency to identify faith with conservatives, and there are many progressives who are also people of faith that I wish that more attention were spent on, on how they see the world as well.

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