MARY ST. PIERRE | FLORIDA CATHOLIC STAFF
TALLAHASSEE — In the complex network of state and national issues, one of the many challenges the Catholic bishops of Florida have is monitoring public policy matters, at both the state and federal levels. That is why they found it imperative to establish the Florida Catholic Conference (FCC) in 1969, to help them with research, planning and action on key issues affecting Catholic social teaching.
“Staff members at the conference are tasked with monitoring proposed legislation and state regulations and analyzing its moral dimension, as well as impact on the common good,” said D. Michael McCarron, executive director of FCC. “Every proposed policy is looked at through the lens of Catholic social teaching to see how it may work against or promote human dignity and protect human life.”
To learn more about the principles of Catholic Social Teachings, click here.
Within the framework of his office, McCarron is surrounded by Bible quotes. He jokes that he must be pretty insecure to have so many reminders staring at him. Among them is “Lord, may everything we do begin with your inspiration, continue with your help, and reach perfection under your guidance.” McCarron is anything but insecure and fully confident in the FCC staff that handles all areas of concern when it comes to the legislative environment and preparing needed information for the bishops.
“Generally the staff identifies the major issues and likelihood of consideration by the Legislature or regulatory bodies and recommends a prioritization to the bishops,” said McCarron. “Public policy positions of the Florida Catholic Conference always reflect full concurrence of the board of directors, i.e., the bishops.”
In situations where Church teaching is clear, or if past board positions provide clear precedent, a position is recommended to the board. McCarron said the meter for taking a position on proposed policy is to ask: “Does this bill demean or build up human dignity? Does it attack or support life?”
“The principles inherent in the seven themes of Catholic social teaching and the public policy statement of the Florida Catholic Conference serve as a guide to positions taken,” said McCarron.
HEALTH AND EDUCATION
With the health care reform bill a very present and ongoing area of concern, Michael Sheedy, FCC director for health, has had a busy year. On his computer screen are purposes that outline the mission of the FCC health desk, including in summary: promote communication between health ministries and bishops; promote collaboration among health ministries; advance and protect interests of health ministries in the public sphere. Above it to the right is a portrait of “Christ the Teacher,” surrounded by family pictures, holy cards and many quotes. While the health care reform bill presents many wording problems that go against the protection of life, Sheedy is pleased with the headway FCC has been able to make in other areas.
“Great progress has been made in increased protection for life, most notably Women’s Right to Know Act, Parental Notice of Abortion Act, Women’s Health and Safety Act, Partial Birth Abortion Ban and state funding of pregnancy support services,” said Sheedy. “The bishops’ support for educational choice was very instrumental in passing the Opportunity Scholarship Program (stricken by the Florida Supreme Court), the McKay Scholarship Program, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten system are other areas in which the conference was involved.”
Sheedy also gives examples of issues FCC fought against, helping to prevent the passage of bills that would have been problematic. FCC also worked to bring about change in systems that make the lives of the poor more manageable.
“We had a role among many others who could be considered lead organizations in legislation to further streamline Florida’s KidCare program to facilitate entry for eligible kids and families,” said Sheedy. “That was a priority for several years and many provisions we sought went into law last year. Our involvement helped bridge what had been perhaps a ‘partisan divide.’”
LIFE, DIGNITY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
While technology has made Sheila Hopkins’ job a whole lot easier, her full plate would be better described as an overflowing table. As director for social concerns/respect life, Hopkins represents FCC on issues of human life, dignity and social justice before the legislative and executive branches of government and private organizations. Through the State Pro-Life Coordinating Committee, she works with the diocesan respect life directors. Hopkins also staffs the Committee Against the Death Penalty and the committees of Farmworker Justice, Prison Ministry and Immigration. And then in her spare time, she initiates legislative networking with various groups, monitors and participates in the state appropriations process, and coordinates legislative and advocacy projects throughout the state.
“For all of us, I think the greatest challenge is managing our time. For most people today, the daily wave of e-mails is overwhelming at times but our work in public policy requires us to keep abreast of what is happening in the state as well as nationally,” said Hopkins.
With her table full of duties, Hopkins, like other FCC directors, relies on her faith to direct her. On her desk is the Bible quote from Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” She has memorized the verse, but often reads it as well when a reminder is needed as to who is in charge.
“Being rooted in our faith is what keeps us sane,” said Hopkins.
The challenge of FCC directors, Hopkins confirmed, is being present when bills are scheduled in meetings that are all in the same time block. Life bills take priority and after consulting with the bishops, FCC directors assess where their presence would make a difference.
“Building relationships with legislators is critical so you can have honest conversations and establish trust,” said Hopkins.
“Even if they do not agree with the Florida Catholic Conference on all issues, legislators have a respect for where we stand on moral issues.”
ABC’S OF FCC
James Herzog’s role as FCC’s associate director for education, can be broken down into key areas under the broad topic of education. He follows the motto, “Never underestimate the power of a kind word or deed.” His spectrum of duties includes public policy, governmental issues (state and federal), federal aid/title programs and accreditation. He also serves as a staff resource person to the Florida bishops, the FCC and superintendents for Catholic schools in Florida, and represents Catholic education to the Department of Education, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other government or religious entities.
Within a given school year, issues related to the health, safety and welfare of students can quickly surface. A big part of his job is keeping a pulse on short- and long-term issues such as enrollment trends, keeping prekindergarten to 12th grade schools viable in these difficult economic times. “Another big way to impact schools is via my interactions with lawmakers,” said Herzog.
The toughest part of Herzog’s job is managing accreditation for the 188 Catholic schools in FCC’s program. At present they are searching for an accreditation program manager to take on this task.
Communication on all fronts is obviously very important to FCC. To get information out on important matters, be it for the sake of moving people to action or educating them about upcoming legislation or passed bills, Michele Taylor, associate director for communications, relies on every available modern-day method to reach the Catholic faithful and others of good will. By working closely with diocesan communication directors, Taylor is able to communicate information directly to pastors who are encouraged to pass the information to parishioners via Sunday bulletin or Mass announcement.
“We also work to keep secular and Catholic media informed in hopes of getting our messages out through daily newspapers, and in particular, diocesan magazines and newspapers, such as the Florida Catholic,” said Taylor.
Taylor also relies on the FCC Advocacy Network (http://tinyurl.com/fccadvocacy), an electronic e-mail newsletter of short- and long-term proposals that need action from the Catholic community. This method proves most effective when it comes to communicating messages related to the ever-changing and fast-paced reality of public policy.
“Through the network we are able to send alerts at a moment’s notice that will reach members instantly. The system also provides a platform for individuals to send targeted messages regarding pending legislation to their elected officials,” said Taylor.
The FCC Web site (www.flacathconf.org) also serves as a good resource and is continually updated with fresh news and information.
“Last year we took our first step into the growing world of social media by establishing a Facebook page,” said Taylor. “Approximately six months later we have nearly 1,000 fans, many of whom were not being reached through more traditional forms of communication.”
CALLING ON THE DEPUTY
And of course, every company needs someone to be the “Mr. Wizard,” so to speak, who takes care of the business basics. For FCC, that’s Ken Roeder, deputy director for administration. Roeder’s responsibilities include development and management of budgetary documents, internal control policies, personnel records, administrative files, equipment inventories, building and financial management. He also coordinates completion of special projects and is considered the “go-to” person for anything that has to do with building management and employee care.
As a cancer survivor, Roeder feels very fortunate to be working for FCC since 1991 and finds inspiration not only in the FCC family, but also Psalm 95:7-8 — “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”
“To me,” said Roeder, “that means always being open to God speaking to me through whatever means (be it) another person or the beauty of my surroundings.”
Through the years, the FCC team has accepted that they can’t change the minds of people in one swoop. It takes time and often baby steps. By remaining patient FCC has been able to accomplish much.
“Politics is the art of compromise,” said McCarron. “It is a legitimate strategy to work for incremental change that will bring about good, or limit the bad result from existing policies.”
It will not be possible in the short term, McCarron stated, to abolish the death penalty or do away with abortion. However, major progress has been made in both of these areas through incremental changes in public policy, for example, the ban on the execution of the mentally retarded or on those who committed their crimes while a juvenile. Another change to death penalty legislation FCC hopes to see some day will be the requirement for a unanimous jury recommendation before death sentence can be handed down. Likewise in the arena of pro-life legislation, all of the pro-life bills passed in the last 20 years have added protections for pregnant mothers and have led to a decline in the rate of abortions in Florida.
“Pope John Paul II addressed this question of incrementalism (belief in advocacy of change by degrees) in his great encyclical ‘Evangelium Vitae,’ the Gospel of Life, in saying ‘when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well-known could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality,’” said McCarron.
Another quote, McCarron has on his desk is, “He who kneels before God can stand before any man.” Knowing the serious work the bishops have entrusted to FCC directors, McCarron is grateful that for many years the FCC staff has been gathering at 3 p.m. each day to pray and kneel before God. It is not mandatory, but each day seven to 10 people participate in the daily readings and close with prayer for special intentions. Some days everyone is there and everyone sees the value in this ritual of gathering two or more in prayer. “I think the time we take for spiritual community has been very helpful to our work,” said McCarron. “No one is forced to participate, obviously, but it is my sense that everyone sees value of it. One of our three mottos is, ‘Prosper the work of our hands, O Lord (Ps 90:17).’”