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THE CATHOLIC STANDARD AND TIMES
Puerto Rico: The 51st State?
The Bishops of the American Island Are Solidly Neutral on
by Lou Panarale
October 1, 1998
©Copyright, The Catholic Standard and Times
WASHINGTON (CNS) - The bishops of heavily Catholic Puerto Rico are staying
out of a battle in the U.S. Congress that could set up a historic referendum
allowing Puerto Ricans the right to decide their jurisdictional fate, including
possible entry as the 51st state.
The Unite States - Puerto Rico Political Status Act (H.R. 856), sponsored
by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), will expire unless the Senate approves it
before an expected mid-October recess.
In a cliffhanger vote last March, the legislation passed in the House,
209-208, after Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) changed his vote at the last minute
from "no" to "yes".
Referendum Before 1999?
The legislation stipulates the referendum must be held in Puerto Rico
before the end of 1998 or the island will remain a commonwealth for the
The island's 3.8 million Puerto Ricans, most of them Catholic, are statutory
U.S. citizens, which means they cannot vote for a U.S. president.
However, they can travel to the United States' mainland without passports
and live here. They pay a scaled-down version of U.S. federal income tax
and 200,000 of them have served in the U.S. military since World War I.
No Vote in Washington
Their representative on Capitol Hill is Carlos Romero-Barcelo, called
a "resident commissioner". He can serve on committees, sponsor
legislation, speak out on the House floor and offer amendments, but he can
vote only in committee and not in the full House.
"I don't have the vote, yet I represent six times more people than
any House member," Romero-Barcelo said.
Two of Romero-Barcelo's most vocal opponents of H.R. 856 have been Puerto
Rican Americans - Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.).
Velazquez urged House members "not to be fooled" into thinking
H.R. 856 was for self-determination. "The American people should know
that this bill was designed to guarantee statehood for Puerto Rico,"
Gutierrez called H.R. 856 "a flawed bill (which) distorts the definition
of commonwealth, the favored status of the plurality of Puerto Rican people."
The bill offers three options: retention of commonwealth status; entry
as the 51st state; or sovereign independence.
- Commonwealth status would allow Puerto Rico to continue the current
structure of internal self-government, with Congress having authority to
exercise full powers over it.
- Independence would establish that Puerto Rico eventually becomes a
sovereign republic with full authority and responsibility over its own
territory and population.
- Statehood means Puerto Rico would eventually become a fully integrated
U.S. state with all the responsibilities and privileges accorded to all
Romero-Barcelo told Catholic News Service (CNS) that Velazquez and Gutierrez
were wrong in claiming the bill was slanted in favor of statehood.
If the referendum ended with no majority for any of the three choices,
Puerto Rico would remain a commonwealth, he said. "The commonwealth
can win even if it loses."
Romero-Barcelo said he believes the Catholic hierarchy in Puerto Rico
has not always been neutral on the three choices, and at times has been
critical of the pro-statehood movement.
Despite Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. commonwealth, the Church there
is oriented toward Latin America. Its bishops are considered part of the
Latin-America hierarchy, have their own bishops' conference and are not
part of the U.S. Catholic Conference.
Romero-Barcelo said he thinks Puerto Rico's three bishops may fear they
will "lose their status" if Puerto Rico becomes a state and their
Church falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Catholic bishops.
CNS spoke by phone with Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio, apostolic administrator
of Caguas, Puerto Rico.
Three Legitimate Choices
"All three choices are in accord with the Church's teaching. We
have no problem with Puerto Ricans choosing whatever they want," said
"If Mr. Romero-Barcelo thinks Puerto Rico's Church hierarchy is
hesitant about being neutral, he is mistaken," he said. "I can
assure you that I and the other two bishops in Puerto Rico are well versed
on the situation.
"We all believe that a diversity of opinion is legitimate, and the
Church affirms that."
Bishop Corrada referred to the 1983 Declaration on the Political Situation
of Puerto Rico, in which Puerto Rico's bishops wrote: "We want to establish
clearly at this time that none of the three political alternatives...are
in conflict with the teachings of the Gospel."