MADISON -- Spring election day in Wisconsin served as an opportunity for Catholics to get involved in their government on two levels: to vote and to arm themselves with the skills necessary for making their voice heard in the public square.
Much of the Catholics at the Capitol event held at the Monona Terrace April 5 was geared towards education on issues. The event, which had a theme of “Living Faith in the Public Square,” featured a keynote talk by Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, workshops on various social justice concerns, and a question-and-answer panel of four clergy and lay Catholic leaders, moderated by Viterbo University Professor Tom Thibodeau.
Following the event, many of the Catholics who attended went to the Capitol to meet with their legislators on topics of social concern.
Building civil discourse
The biennial event, sponsored by the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC), the state bishops’ public policy voice, in collaboration with Catholic organizations around the state, is an effort not only to help Catholics feel more comfortable engaging in politics, but also giving them the tools to do so intelligently and with civility.
“We realize that we are in a period where issues divide many of us,” Archbishop Listecki said in his keynote address. “The ability for civil discourse in a climate of mutual respect seems to be, at best, strained. Our state is hurting. Our people are divided. Our leaders seem to be reluctant to listen to one another.
“We are not assigning blame or taking sides, but we are here to help with the healing to lend our voice, our vision, and our heart to our government and its leaders to be a witness of the hope offered by those who serve Christ and his Church.”
We may honestly disagree on our political views and approaches to achieving a common solution to the problems facing us as a community, the archbishop said, but we need to be united in our resolve to have our state succeed in serving the common good.
“Today our differences should be placed aside so that together we might offer a message of hope which comes from our faith,” he said. “We are not ideologues who attempt to achieve our goals through any means possible. We are people who are committed to a person — Jesus Christ, and it is he and his Church, in its teachings, that inform and form our consciences and direct our actions toward the good so that we, as citizens of this great state and nation, can exercise our freedom to make our positions known with a sense of respect.”
Breakout sessions gave background on various social justice topics — from prison reform to pro-life promotion — so that Catholics could take that information, apply it to legislative issues and bills, and bring that perspective to their political discussions.
One session, for instance, addressed the state budget — a topic currently of considerable and heated debate — from its very basic economic background. Once we could determine whether we believed the current debt problem structural or cyclical, speaker Edgewood College, Madison, Professor Bill Duddleston explained, we could then understand not only how we wanted to fix it, but also how others approached the issue.
“A lot of the debate on the budget is on numbers,” Duddleston said. “I wanted them to see it from a broader perspective. What’s happening in Wisconsin is a reflection of what’s happening in the Midwest, a reflection of what’s happening at a national level.”
“The reason we engage this is because budgets aren’t just dollars and cents,” said John Huebscher, WCC executive director. “They’re about moral issues.”
Witnessing hope in uncertain times
The panel discussion at the end of the day focused on “Witnessing Hope in Uncertain Times.”
Panelists included Archbishop Listecki, Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Lydia LoCoco of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and Cecelia Klingele of the University of Wisconsin Law School. Professor Tom Thibodeau of Viterbo University in La Crosse served as moderator.
In discussing how to deal with controversy in our families, workplaces, and communities, Bishop Ricken suggested listening and treating people with dignity. “Listen from a place of compassion,” he advised. “The heart connection is so important as we strive to gain a deeper understanding of each other.”
Klingele encouraged people to try to understand others’ perspectives and look for the “positive motivation of others.”
Archbishop Listecki spoke of the need for proper dialogue with others. But he also warned. “When you’re involved with a particular issue, I hope you’re living it. It should translate into action,” he said, such as working with the poor or immigrants.
“It’s important to create safe places to have conversations,” noted Thibodeau. “Are our church basements safe places?”
Being salt and light
The panelists were asked: “The Eucharist is the source and summit of our lives. How are we to be salt and light?”
Archbishop Listecki said, “The Eucharist is the summit because it is a joining together of us with Christ. Our mandate is to go out and live that life in the world. We are called to be present to our brothers and sisters.”
The archbishop noted that “eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” We’re thankful to God for what he has given to us by giving it to others. “That summit and source has to be the reason why we do what we do,” he said.
Bishop Ricken said, “Charity and justice are two sides of the same coin. They go hand in hand. We return to the Eucharist as source and summit, then we go out to the world, to our home, workplace, and the world at large to people who need our prayers and our help.”
LoCoco said, “We have to be beacons of hope. The Church is a lone voice standing for the dignity of the human person.”
Archbishop Listecki suggested that people put their faith into action. “Just do something,” he said. “Do fund-raising, do social justice work, teach young people. If everyone just does something, imagine what the world would be.”
Klingele noted that the Church embraces everyone: the baby, the prisoner, the immigrant, the elderly. “People ask me if I’m a Republican or a Democrat,” she said. “I say, ‘I’m a Catholic.’”
Bishop Ricken said, “We’ve been so blessed with the great body of Catholic social doctrine. It gives me hope to see all of you.”
Archbishop Listecki agreed. “Thanks for your tremendous witness,” he told about 250 persons attending the event. “When you talk with your legislators, you are representing the Church and Christ. Let them see in you a person who understands the complexity of the issues.”