Catholics gather to learn about legislation and advocacy issues Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Kat Wagner and Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, Apr. 23, 2009 -- 12:00 AM
 Bishop Robert C. Morlino speaks during a panel question-and-answer session at Catholics at the Capitol March 31, moderated by Wisconsin Catholic Conference Executive Director John Huebscher, right. (Catholic Herald photo/Kat Wagner) Click here for more pictures.

MADISON — Nearly 400 people attended this year’s Catholics at the Capitol, a biennial legislative conference organized by the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the state’s bishops.

The theme of this year’s conference, the fifth of its kind, held this year at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison, was “Hope in Action.” It drew groups from around the state, including young people from several Newman Centers and groups from Viterbo College, Aquinas High School in La Crosse, and Edgewood High School in Madison.

The day’s events included a prayer service with Msgr. Daniel T. Ganshert, vicar general of the Diocese of Madison; a keynote by Bishop Paul J. Swain, bishop of the Diocese of Sioux Falls; breakout sessions that addressed legislation and issues across the broad spectrum of Catholic teaching; and a panel discussion that featured two state bishops and two state legislators discussing the relationship between Church and state.

After the conference closed, attendees were invited to go the short distance to the State Capitol to meet with their legislative representatives.

Living faith in the public square

As an advisor to former Wisconsin Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus, Bishop Swain had experience in state government before he converted to Catholicism and became a priest.

Bishop Swain congratulated the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) on “40 years of important service” on behalf of the Catholic bishops of the state. He said Chuck Phillips, the first WCC executive director, and John Huebscher, his successor, have explained, defended, corrected, and supported many pieces of pending legislation.

He emphasized the importance of faith-based advocacy. “We must live out our faith in all ways, including in the public square,” he said.

“Our faith in Jesus Christ requires us to do what we can to build a culture based on the Gospel,” said Bishop Swain, but he admitted that it’s a challenge to do so in the world, where some want to limit or remove faith from the public square.

There are some who want freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion as called for in the First Amendment, he observed.

Bishop Swain called public service — whether elected or appointed — a “noble profession.” He said, “We should thank our public servants and their families for their sacrifices.

Church’s vision of man

Bishop Swain said the Catholic Church has a vision that emphasizes the “pre-eminence of man over things” and teaches that man’s origin and destiny are in God. The Church invites others to share in its vision, “not to achieve political victory, but to save souls, all souls.”

He said this is a special moment to put hope into action. “There’s a restlessness in society, a sense that everything isn’t right.” He criticized the use of “sound bytes” and the “oversimplifying of complex problems” in our culture, where violence is “seen as the answer to problems.”

The Church offers the antidote: the teachings of Jesus Christ, “offered with love,” suggested Bishop Swain. The Church emphasizes principles such as respect for the life and dignity of each person from conception to death; recognition of the family; the right to work, to a living wage, and health care; care for all people, especially the poor and vulnerable; and stewardship of creation.

Bishop Swain urged Catholics to be faithful citizens, but addressed some cautions: the Church should be alert not to be used by special interest groups; the Church should not be tied to any personality or political party; the Church sometimes needs to sit out, so that when it stands, it is noticed; Catholic institutions have to be cautious about becoming dependent on public support at any price; be cautious of watering down of our teachings; be careful about who uses the term “Catholic” because they might not speak for the Church; and finally don’t get discouraged.

“Know what the Church teaches and why. Keep fixed on the mission,” said Bishop Swain. “Practice charity. Be faithful personally. Then you’ll be witnesses of hope in action.”

Q-and-A session

The afternoon featured a panel discussion moderated by Huebscher. Bishop Jerome E. Listecki of La Crosse, Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison, State Senator Jim Sullivan (D-Wauwatosa), and State Representative Pat Strachota (R-West Bend) answered questions about the relationship between Church and state.

The panelists addressed the questions of the origins and meaning of the constitutional “freedom of religion”; the ways in which this division is interpreted; and how to draw the line — when is it appropriate to challenge the practice of religion or secularism in civil court?

Panelists brought up the importance of the natural law, the rising tide of secularism, and the many cases of religion in the public arena, such as public nativity scenes, the 10 Commandments statue at a courthouse in Alabama, the “holiday” tree in the State Capitol rotunda, and the issue of prayer in public schools.

Said Bishop Listecki, “The whole idea of the founding fathers was that no religion should dominate.”

Now there is a threat of secularism growing in the country, he said. Secularism should not “replace our ability to be free to worship.”

We must be cognizant of the message we pursue when we challenge limitations on the free exercise of religion, said Senator Sullivan.  A nativity scene on public property is not hurting anyone, he said. But a two-and-a-half ton granite statue of the 10 Commandments is another matter.

“There you’re not seeking to lead by example — you’re seeking ways to divide . . . rather than bringing us together in the pursuit of common values.”
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