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Biblical duty or crossing the line? Orange County's Bishop Kevin Vann walks an immigration tightrope

Biblical duty or crossing the line? Orange County's Bishop Kevin Vann walks an immigration tightrope

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As leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, Bishop Kevin Vann plays several roles: spiritual guide, fundraiser, enthusiastic salesman of the church and its ideals.

Vann, 64, has a less visible role as well – he’s one of the nation’s leading advocates for immigration reform.

Vann heads the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., or CLINIC, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income immigrants.

In September, Vann was one of two bishops who wrote a letter, on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to the Department of Homeland Security, urging executive action to protect the nation’s estimated 11.5 million residents living here illegally. In March, Vann hosted Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and San Bernardino Auxiliary Bishop Rutilio del Riego at the local Christ Cathedral, where they signed a joint letter to Congress urging comprehensive immigration reform.

But after penning the letter to Homeland Security, the diocese did not announce it. Nor did Vann write about it in his Orange County blog.

The usually affable and available bishop also declined requests made over several months to comment for this story on his role as a leader on immigration, though a spokesman later offered a discussion date for next month.

Vann’s public comments about immigration often are made to like-minded immigration advocates.

“I did what I could to stop (deportations),” he said last month at an immigration conference at Chapman University. “They are real people who we try to respond to.”

But for some local Catholics, Vann’s work on immigration crosses too far into the world of secular politics.

“The bishop’s advocacy for mass amnesty and citizenship for illegal immigrants teaches that rewarding lawlessness is legitimate,” said Steve Serra of Mission Viejo.

“This teaching undermines the rule of law, democracy’s central concept, by degrading its two bases: the people’s moral duty to obey the law and the government’s moral duty to enforce it.”

“As a Catholic and as an American, I am distressed at Bishop Vann’s advocacy for executive amnesty policies,” added Serra, who attended a 2013 prayer service for immigrants led by Vann.

Others not only defend Vann and the church’s position but say there is historical precedent and a biblical duty to welcome and protect foreigners.

“It would be anti-Christian to not do anything,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a national Latino evangelical association.

“The church has served as the proverbial firewall against the demagogues and those committed to the deportation of millions of individuals, who even though they came here illegally, have worked and contributed to our society, had children here, have been exploited as cheap labor,” Rodriguez said.

“The church is the reason why there is still hope for the immigrant in America.”

Immigrants certainly are key to the growth of Catholicism in Orange County.

About 47 percent of the 1.3 million Catholics in Vann’s diocese are Latino. About a third of all Masses locally are conducted in Spanish, and 15 of the diocese’s 62 parishes and centers celebrate at least one Mass every day in Vietnamese.

Ryan Lilyengren, a spokesman for the Diocese of Orange, said that although the Catholic Church (and most organized religion) is losing members in some parts of the country, and the world, the church is vibrant locally, in part because of immigrants.

“In Southern California, we don’t follow those macro demographics … We have a number of immigrant populations that are very engaged in the Catholic Church,” Lilyengren said, pointing to Latinos, Vietnamese, Koreans and Filipinos.

But others say immigration and the church should remain separate.

“It’s one of those divisive things in the church,” said Marguerite Telford, a practicing Catholic and spokesperson for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that supports lower immigration levels.

“The Catholic Church should let Congress do their job. And they should deal with our issues … Not on using Catholic money for amnesty.”

Noting that Vann has spoken of the prejudice his own Irish ancestors encountered when they came to this country, Telford said:

“Maybe he didn’t mean this, but a lot of people could take this to mean that those of us who think we should be thinking of the American worker and we should be enforcing our laws, that we are prejudiced.

“I’m sure hoping that’s not what he meant by that.”

In a recent Easter-day column published in the Register, Vann was asked about illegal immigration and responded by asking whether Jesus would turn away any one group.

“God loves you. It’s not about issues. It’s about people.”

But for Vann, advocacy also can get personal.

Vicky Bravo of Costa Mesa said when one of her sons was taken by immigration authorities and threatened with deportation, Vann made a call on his behalf.

Her son, Luis Bravo, a local immigration activist, later was released.

At the Chapman immigration conference last month, Vann said immigration was an important issue for him long before he arrived in Orange County.

About a quarter of the 700,000 Catholics in Vann’s former diocese, in Fort Worth, Texas, were Latino when he arrived there a decade ago.

He taught himself Spanish in part so he could pray with some of them in their native language. After some of those parishioners finished working late-night shifts at a local restaurant, Vann said, he would offer Mass to them at 11, 12 o’clock at night.

Priests and others describe Vann as a tireless, energetic pastor who connects well with people of all backgrounds.

After learning Spanish in Fort Worth, he’s now learning Vietnamese, a language spoken by another key part of his Orange County flock.

Lilyengren, the diocese’s spokesman, said Vann has a passion for Latin American culture and music, and because he plays the piano and organ, Vann likes to jam with young parishioners.

Rodriguez, of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Confererence – doesn’t know Vann personally but knows of his work on immigration reform.

“Without (the bishops’) leadership and advocacy on behalf of the immigrant, and those very strong voices in the Catholic community, we wouldn’t be here right now,” Rodriguez said.

“Leaders like Kevin (Vann) stood up and said we will defend immigrants.”

Thomas J. Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, wrote about Vann’s September letter to President Barack Obama’s administration. Reese noted that it was sent out “with little fanfare.”

It’s not that Vann and others are worried about pushing away big donors who don’t support immigration reform, Reese said. Rather, it’s a function of how Catholic bishops, in general, prioritize the causes they work on.

For bishops, the big issues in recent years have been opposition to abortion and gay marriage, as well as the religious freedom question that some believe was raised in the contraceptive mandate included in the Obama administration’s health care law, now known as Obamacare.

“There’s a split in the Bishops Conference between those who want to talk about all these issues and those who want to focus on what they consider the three most important issues,” Reese said.

“It can ... get partisan. When they talk about abortion, gay marriage, those are Republican issues,” Reese said. “Immigration justice, the poor – those are Democratic issues.”