Explaining the Church to 21st-Century Reporters
Dennis Poust is spokesman for New York's bishops on a number of hot-button issues.
He knows how to deal with journalists because he worked for the archdiocesan newspaper Catholic New York for seven years, and both his wife and his mother write for the Catholic press. Register correspondent Stephen Vincent spoke with him about how he represents the Church in the media.
How is it to be surrounded by journalists in both your professional and personal life?
I followed in the footsteps of my mom, Mary Ann Poust, starting as a cub reporter at Catholic New York right out of college. Looking back, it was a great experience to get to work with her. I learned a lot just by watching her. But there was a downside, too. As a young man in his first professional job, I was establishing my independence while sharing a newsroom with my mother. And I was sensitive to the fact that I probably had something to prove to the other reporters.
I also worked with my future wife, Mary, who was the paper's managing editor in the early ‘90s. So I really owe Catholic New York a lot, personally and professionally. My mom is now managing editor there and my wife writes a monthly family column for the newspaper.
Mary is a gifted writer, but her primary focus for nearly seven years has been the raising of our children, Noah, 6, and Olivia, 2. She's doesn't quite fit the common definition of working mom or stay-at-home mom. Let's call her a work-at-home mom.
After years as a journalist, how do you like public relations?
I do very little journalism now, and I miss it. At the same time, though, I enjoy being on the other side of the reporter's notebook. The responsibility of speaking for the bishops on public-policy issues is an awesome one. If you say the wrong thing — and I have on occasion — it reflects badly on all of the bishops and on the Church. I've had to learn to be very selective in choosing my words and try to be concise, in order to reduce the chances of misspeaking.
Some Catholics might ask why the bishops need a lobbying group in Albany.
As Catholics, we are obligated to participate in the life of our society, and that includes the political life. The Holy Father and the U.S. bishops have been very clear on this. Everything for which we advocate is tied to the principles of Catholic social teaching.
If we want to protect innocent human life, if we want justice for the poor and vulnerable, if we want to assure proper care for the sick and aged, if we want to support the rights of all parents to direct their children's education regardless of income, then we have to be active in the political arena. That's where the decisions are made.
What are the most difficult issues to explain to the secular media?
There are two that stand out. The first involves a law mandating that employers who provide prescription health insurance coverage include coverage for contraceptive drugs and devices. The law went into effect Jan. 1 and applies to most of the Church's ministries, including Catholic Charities, health care institutions and schools, and is in violation of their religious freedom.
While I think a lot of the media understood where we were coming from, others just couldn't see it. They focused on the right of employees to use contraception. But that's not what the issue was. The right to use birth control has never been in question. How would we even know if our employees were using birth control? We were simply arguing that as Catholic institutions adhering to the Church's teaching against contraception, we should not be forced to provide it.
The second challenging issue is the scandal of clergy sexual abuse. You can't defend some decisions that have been made, and if you point out the relatively small number of priests who have been accused of wrongdoing, you appear to be glossing over the problem. Thankfully, I believe the New York bishops fully understand the seriousness of the crisis and are committed to fixing what has been broken. Knowing that makes my job easier, because I couldn't in good conscience publicly represent the bishops if I did not believe in their sincerity regarding this tragedy.
How has the scandal affected the moral voice of the bishops among legislators?
Certainly our credibility to speak on issues of sexual morality has been damaged. There's no doubt the Church's voice in Albany has diminished in recent years, but this predates the scandals and has to do more with the fact that the pro-abortion lobby is so very strong here.
Also, Catholics have been made to feel that we should not let our faith play a role in the political arena. So, more and more, we are seeing our job as not so much directly lobbying the legislators on behalf of the bishops but activating Catholics around the state to become involved.
Cardinal Edward Egan and all of the state's bishops see this very clearly and have directed us to put our efforts into forming a statewide network of Catholics who are willing to take action by writing, calling or visiting their legislators and holding them accountable. We think this is the future of the Church's advocacy nationwide, because a phone call from a bishop doesn't cut it with today's politicians.
Does the fact that many Catholics use or approve of contraception make opposition to the recent law a harder sell?
Clearly the general perception that most Catholics don't follow Church teaching on contraception did not help. But the fact is it shouldn't matter if only one Catholic follows the teaching. Our teachings are not subject to a popular vote. A religion has a right to hold certain teachings, and that right is not diminished if people don't follow the teachings. That's why our arguments have always stressed religious freedom.
The Church has the freedom to teach something, and Catholics and others have the freedom to follow or not follow the teaching. Our faith tells us that that if they do not follow the teaching then they are putting themselves in a state of sin. How can the state force us to provide something to employees that we teach is sinful? Would the state force a Jewish organization to serve non-kosher food simply because many Jews don't observe that requirement of the faith? If it tried, we'd fight that as well, just as many in the Orthodox Jewish community supported our position on the contraception mandate.
What legislative successes have there been recently?
We try to stay away from such measurement because it doesn't give an adequate sense of our impact. If our efforts result in a really bad bill becoming simply a bad bill, is that a success or a failure?
Having said that, one recent success demonstrates the potential of a Catholic advocacy network I mentioned earlier. After the Legislature passed the contraception mandate, we were immediately faced with another bill that would have mandated that Catholic employers cover morally offensive artificial reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization. Republican law-makers who went against us on the contraception bill took so much heat from their constituents that they told the leaders of their conference that they would not support any further mandates without full conscience protection for the Church. As a result, a bill covering only morally acceptable infertility treatments was passed.
On the other hand, the state Senate just passed an Unborn Victims of Violence bill that would allow prosecutors to charge an assailant with two crimes when an unborn child is harmed or killed during a crime of violence against the mother, such as what California prosecutors did in the Laci Peterson case. But the bill cannot even get to the floor of the Assembly because the pro-abortion Democratic leadership will not allow it. If it came to a vote we think it would pass. The real loser in such cases is the democratic process.
Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.