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Washington State Catholic Conference: 25 years as a ‘voice for the poor, the
by Terry McGuire, Catholic Northwest Progress
(From the Dec. 6, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)
While thumbing through 25 years’ worth of newspaper clippings on legislative matters of importance to the church, Dominican Sister Sharon Park soon realized that not much has changed over the past two-and-a-half decades.
Abortion and the death penalty remain perennial issues. Proposed cuts in services affecting poor or disenfranchised people have loomed over almost every legislative session.
“The same issues that are mentioned in 1977 are still mentioned today,” said Sister Sharon, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops.
One thing that has changed, however, is the image of the WSCC. It has gone from an organization that no one had heard of to a respected resource for lawmakers seeking a moral perspective on the issues.
“When we first started, nobody knew anything about a Catholic conference,” Sister Park said. “Now we get the phone calls: ‘Will you come and testify on this?’ ‘Will you be holding a position on this?’ Legislators call us; the governor’s office calls the bishops on some issues. There’s a much greater awareness in the legislature of the role of the church.”
The WSCC is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Seattle’s Archbishop Alex J. Brunett, president of the WSCC board, hosted a celebration in Seattle, along with Seattle’s Auxiliary Bishop George L. Thomas, Bishop Skylstad, and Bishop Carlos A. Sevilla SJ of Yakima. They will join past and current staffers and board members in celebrating the WSCC history.
Established in the summer of 1976 by now-retired Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen, the WSCC was modeled after the Catholic Conference in Montana, Sister Sharon said, where Archbishop Hunthausen had been bishop in Helena.
That model includes lay people on the advisory board, instead of only bishops, she said. It’s a model that enables the bishops to receive feedback from people from different walks of life about how proposed legislation will have an impact on them or the people they know.
Besides the bishops, the 13-member WSCC board consists of two lay persons and a diocesan liaison from each of Washington’s three dioceses, and includes a priest and a woman Religious representing the state.
Though most people know the WSCC for its lobbying efforts in Olympia, the bishops also issue statements through the WSCC on statewide initiatives that are of concern to the church. “They’re not telling people how to vote,” Sister Sharon said. “They're saying, ‘Based on church teachings, this is how we see the situation.’”
But lobbying the lawmakers on behalf of the bishops is a large part of the work for Sister Sharon and the WSCC lobbyists.
Not being affiliated with any political party is an advantage in the marbled halls of Olympia, she said, because Republican and Democrat legislators know they’re dealing with a nonpartisan group. “It isn’t party politics we support — it’s the issue,” she said, “so we can talk with everyone. And if they don’t agree with us on one issue, they may agree with us on another; and that’s not true of all groups who lobby in Olympia.”
The issues for the WSCC over the years have revolved around life issues, providing adequate funding for social services, and making sure private education gets a fair shake. Life issues related to abortion and the death penalty have been especially challenging in a state known for its pro-abortion history.
“We’ve never been as successful as we would like to have been on the life issues,” said Sister Sharon. “It’s partly because of the makeup of the legislature and our state; but we’ve been there speaking on behalf of the unborn, on behalf of those on death row.”
WSCC has found more success in its role as a “voice for the poor and disenfranchised.” By lobbying against cuts in social services and by pushing for adequate funding of the programs, it has served as an advocate for children, low-income families, the elderly, disabled persons, mentally ill people and people without health care insurance.
For example, state programs such as the General Assistance for the Unemployable have “been cut a number of times,” Sister Sharon said, “and we’ve helped reinstate” the funds.
In 1981, when lawmakers cut chores services for elderly and disabled people, the WSCC helped lawmakers establish the Volunteer Chore Services program, now administered by Catholic Community Services.
Over the years, the WSCC has gotten parish social justice committees and everyday Catholics involved in the political process. It provides informational bulletin inserts and publishes The Catholic Advocate, a newsletter that summarizes pressing legislative issues and suggests courses of action.
The conference also educates voters on the initiatives upon which the bishops have taken a position – from the minimum wage and property taxes to abortion and assisted suicide.
Ten years ago, the WSCC accomplished a major victory: the defeat of assisted suicide Initiate 119. Sister Sharon worked on that effort with Edward “Ned” Dolejsi, the WSCC’s executive director at that time and now director of the California Catholic Conference.
“Most people didn’t know what assisted suicide was,” Sister Sharon said. “They didn’t know how to make a distinction between that and withdrawing treatment at the end of life, which we do allow under certain circumstances.”
The bishops, WSCC staffers, Human Life of Washington and other pro-life groups and representatives blitzed the state with speaking engagements, bulletin inserts and other efforts to educate the populace. The initiative fell by a 54-46 margin, and Washington escaped the notoriety of becoming the world’s first government to officially legalize assisted suicide.
“It was a marvelous effort on behalf of so many in the church,” Dolejsi said.
Part of the WSCC legacy lies in the commitment of its staffers.
Father Harvey McIntyre, the founding director, was a champion of local human rights and housing efforts before Archbishop Hunthausen appointed him to head the WSCC. Father McIntyre held the post for 12 years. He died in 1992.
Dolejsi, his successor, served as executive director for nine years. Both Sister Sharon Park and former WSCC lobbyist Margaret Casey began following bills for WSCC during the 1977 session.
Casey served the WSCC in one capacity or another for 22 years. She helped get a number of pieces of legislation through the process, including several pieces benefiting children.
Contacted last week, she said she regarded the work of the WSCC as a “political ministry,” one that focuses on the systems that have direct impact on people’s lives — from taxes, welfare and criminal justice to education, housing, health care, and agriculture and land use.
She said the WSCC “offered the Church and community at large in Washington State a prophetic voice that advocated for economic and social justice, as well as a host of religious issues.” All of it was accomplished “in collaboration with both the ecumenical as well as the inter-religious faith communities” in the state.
With the constitutional separation of church and state, some people over the years have questioned whether the Catholic Church belongs in the political arena in the first place.
“I say, not only do we have a right to be involved in politics, we have a duty — because politics is really about stating where our values are,” said Sister Sharon. “Where we spend money and how we support the poor often is done through the political system, so government has a great deal of say in that. And if we’re not involved, there’s a strong moral voice that’s missing.”
“We have a vision of life that we feel is healthy and marvelous and rooted in Scripture and tradition, and we have a theology that requires us to share that vision,” said Dolejsi.
In the wake of the recently projected $1.3 billion shortfall in state revenues, vision will be needed in large quantities when lawmakers convene the next session in January.
Sister Sharon harkens back to 1981 as the last time she saw such a dire situation. And “this time there’s no money in reserve,” she said.
“Many, many social services were cut (in 1981),” she said, “and that’s what it looks like we’re coming up against this time.”
But now — as then — the WSCC will be there, serving as a voice for the poor and disenfranchised.
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