It’s not uncommon in statehouses across the country for a priest or a bishop to offer a blessing at the beginning of the legislative session. But many Catholics might be surprised to learn that the Church’s presence in the halls of local governance continues well after the session has been gaveled in.
In state capitols from Sacramento to St. Paul, Tallahassee to Topeka, the Catholic Church is advocating for policies in line with a consistent ethic of life through the work of state Catholic conferences.
“The Catholic Church and Catholic conferences boldly and bravely enter the fray of politics with compassion, respect and, most importantly, the truth,” said Jenny Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference.
The roles a Catholic conference plays can vary slightly by state, with some conferences taking on added duties, such as administration of diocesan employee benefits. At the heart of it, though, a state Catholic conference serves as the official public-policy voice of the state’s bishops, coordinating the public-policy efforts of several dioceses.
“When we speak, we do so on behalf of our state’s bishops, and it is their positions on legislation that we convey,” explained Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference.
Like a state-version of the more well-known U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the bishops of a state comprise the conference and are served by staff. Staff sizes range from one to double digits and can include lobbyists, communications specialists and outreach coordinators.
Not all states have Catholic conferences, but Rick Barnes, the executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference and president of the National Association of State Catholic Conference Directors (NASCCD), says the number is growing. Forty-three states are now represented in NASCCD, including six single-diocese states that have a diocesan public-policy office in lieu of a state conference.
“More bishops in states that didn’t have them have seen the value of it,” Barnes explained.
The issues a state Catholic conference or diocesan public-policy office might work on in any given legislative session are staggeringly diverse. For instance, priorities of state conferences during this year’s legislative sessions include everything from resisting the legalization of assisted suicide to removing barriers that limit the ability of juveniles who have served prison time to get jobs and find housing. The entirety of the Church’s social teaching is typically represented, a reality that makes it difficult to pigeonhole a conference along ideological lines.
“I tell people that we are not a typical ‘special interest’ group, because we don’t have a particular political agenda,” explained Deacon Mike Leman, who lobbies for the Diocese of Cheyenne at the Wyoming State Capitol. “Our ‘agenda’ is the common good.”
Catholic conferences convey the views of the bishops to lawmakers through legislative testimony and visits. But while some conferences maintain that they still have great access and respect in the state capitol, others are attuned to the Catholic Church’s perceived decline in political clout.
“The days of the cardinal or the conference director calling lawmakers and telling them to do something because the Church says so are over,” said Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois.
Gilligan and other directors say this new reality means that Catholic conferences need to be creative in how they can influence the legislative process. Part of that includes working on specific issues in diverse coalitions — sometimes even with other organizations that might not see eye to eye with the Church on every issue.
Kraska, of the Colorado Catholic Conference, says that before entering into such coalitions, she makes it clear that the conference won’t be compromising its Catholic principles, such as its commitment to protecting life at all stages.
“Keeping this framework in mind, I think that if groups can operate in a realm of trust and respect, then … [we can] come together and collaborate on issues that we can agree on,” she said, adding that thoughtful consideration needs to be given before forging any new partnership.
In addition to working in coalitions, Catholic conferences boost their legislative influence by harnessing the power of lay Catholics across the state. Several state Catholic conferences have email-based advocacy networks. These free services allow users to stay informed about what’s happening at the state capitols and provide them with quick and easy ways to contact lawmakers on key issues.
Pursuing these strategies yields results. For instance, after partnering with the Maine Down Syndrome Network, the Diocese of Portland was able to help pass a bill that ensures mothers carrying babies with a Down syndrome diagnosis receive accurate information about their children’s condition.
“After a bumpy road and a lot of work and prayer together with other pro-life allies, we were thrilled to see the bill passed and the governor sign it into law,” said Suzanne Lafreniere, the diocese’s director of public policy.
In Virginia, Caruso attributes the Catholic conference’s success in restricting government funding for abortion, stopping death-penalty expansions and other areas to working in coalitions and developing grassroots advocacy.
“There are always setbacks along the way,” he said, “but it’s so important to be persistent and keep coming back.”
Forming Faithful Citizens
While the primary purpose of the Catholic conference is public-policy advocacy, many directors recognize the need to provide lay Catholics with deeper education on the Church’s social teaching.
“If we are going to be effective, then it cannot be solely about advocacy,” said Colorado’s Kraska. She points to a quote from Archbishop Charles Chaput, now in Philadelphia but formerly her boss in Denver, who said, “American political life … depends on ideas and beliefs that are large and long term.”
Kraska added, “Advocacy is important and practical, but if the Catholic faithful don’t have an appreciation and understanding of the principles of Catholic social teaching, then they won’t understand why we advocate, and our advocacy won’t work.”
Caruso makes this point in a different way. “Advocating without first taking the time to understand the principles is kind of like skipping to the end of a book. You read how it ends, but you don’t know how it got there.”
Catholic conferences address this need in a variety of ways. Conference staff speak at parishes, make appearances on Catholic media and produce resources for faithful citizenship, especially during election years. They also hold special events bridging the gap between faith and advocacy, such as the “Catholics at the Capitol” event taking place in Minnesota this March.
Lafreniere insists that a deeper appreciation for the Church’s social teaching is needed now in a political climate dominated by what she calls “hyperpartisanship.”
“I’m always reminding people that they are Catholics first, and not Republicans who happen to be Catholic, or Democrats who happen to be Catholic,” she said. “The Church’s perspective is unique because of its beauty and moral consistency. The foundational basis of the dignity of human life, solidarity and subsidiarity are such an integrated teaching that Catholics have to draw on and learn about.”
Overcoming Challenges, Providing Opportunities
In addition to partisanship, state Catholic conferences deal with the opposite challenge: political apathy.
“We have to be challenged to bring Gospel values to bear on public-policy issues,” said Barnes, the New York director. “We can’t keep what we do on Sunday separate from everything else.”
In Illinois, Gilligan says people’s busy lives and a lack of understanding of how faith and politics connect often keep them out of the political process. “I think we have huge untapped potential, in terms of the number of people out there we could reach, but how to get them engaged proactively is what we are trying to do.”
Advocates for the Church at the state level agree that helping people understand the impact they can make locally is an important first step.
“So many important laws that impact our daily lives are determined at the state level,” said Deacon Leman in Wyoming. “There are opportunities to have a tremendous impact locally, if only people realized it.”
For their part, Catholic conferences will continue to provide opportunities for lay Catholics to make an impact on state politics, while also helping them to see active citizenship as a natural extension of living out their faith.
“Whenever and wherever decisions are being made that affect whether people live or die and whether vital needs are met or unmet, we need to participate in those decisions,” said Virginia’s Caruso. “That’s part of what it means to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”
Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl also works as
the communications manager for the Minnesota Catholic Conference.