When it comes to Catholic involvement in politics and public policy, the roles and responsibilities of clergy and laity are separate and distinct. Clergy’s job is to provide norms for the formation of conscience, to make the connection between Gospel values and the public order and, as importantly, to exhort lay women and men to act on their understanding of that vital connection.The laity’s role is to heed clergy’s exhortation: To act—to engage in the public square in ways designed to renew the temporal order, ways designed to sanctify the world. Here’s how the Second Vatican Council put it in its seminal Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium): “…the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They are called…by God so that by exercising their proper function and being led by the spirit of the Gospel, they can work for the sanctification of the world from within, in the manner of leaven.”
State Catholic conferences, manifestations of the U.S. church’s response to the Council, are intended by the bishops who charter them to facilitate the leavening involvement of the Catholic laity in the public square.
The typical state conference represents the pastoral and public-policy interests of two or more dioceses, is headquartered in a capital city, and is staffed by lay men and women who are skilled advocates, experienced in the ways and means of policy making. A conference periodically publishes instructive treatments of the application of church teaching to such policy issues as economic justice, the death penalty and end-of-life decision making. Its advocacy agenda features an array of anti-poverty and pro-life issues, the prospect of inaugurating or increasing state support for nonpublic-school children, and health-related matters that include expanded care for indigents, stem-cell research funding, and assisted suicide and other end-of-life matters.
In advancing the church’s positions on these and other aspects of its manifold policy agenda, a state conference is almost always either the lone advocacy organization, or the principal member of an advocacy coalition. In its anti-poverty work, it must vie for an appropriate share of significantly diminished public resources on behalf of a constituency incapable of advocating on its own behalf. In its work on pro-life, nonpublic-school and some health-care matters, its arguments are usually countered by interest groups with deeper pockets and more extensive political resources. This makes the involvement of the Catholic laity crucial to the success of a conference’s initiatives. It makes the creative employment of new technologies and organizing strategies a priority objective of all state Catholic conferences and an especially worthy focus of Catholic philanthropy.
For more on state Catholic conferences, consult Wake Forest University professor David Yamane’s The Catholic Church in State Politics: Negotiating Prophetic Demands & Political Realities (Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005). For information about the conference in your state, visit www.nasccd.org, the web site of the National Association of State Catholic Conference Directors.