By Shawn Peterson
After five very blessed years as Associate Director for Public Policy with the Minnesota Catholic Conference (MCC), I have decided to pursue a new opportunity with Catholic Education Partners, an organization whose mission is to advance public policies that empower families and children to enjoy the benefits of a Catholic education. I firmly believe that giving more children the opportunity to receive a great Catholic education through parental choice is one of the best ways we can spread the Gospel, bring more people to Christ, and build a better and just society.
As I leave, I wish to share some reflections on our work at the Conference. Looking back, I am reminded of two key truths: a few committed people really can influence the political process, and the Church has a necessary and effective voice in public policy. Consider the following three pieces of legislation for which MCC advocated in recent years.
Small things add up to big change
First, consider the Prenatal Trisomy Diagnosis Awareness Act, a law which now requires doctors to provide expectant parents with accurate, and often more positive, information regarding the outcomes for babies diagnosed with Trisomy conditions. This law, now in effect, counteracts the pressure on vulnerable mothers to seek abortions rather than choose life. This bill passed because a small group of passionate moms of children with trisomy conditions (Down’s Syndrome, for example) went to the Capitol to share their stories, to be a voice for the voiceless children who are at risk of being discarded because of a disability.
Second, there is the New Farmer Tax Credit which supports and encourages new farmers to take up the vocation of farming and help rebuild our rural communities. Its success was largely thanks to a group of young farmers who took time away from their fields to come to the Capitol and meet with legislators to share their experiences. This type of personal advocacy made the difference.
Third, is a bill to combat the epidemic of pornography in our culture by exposing its link to human trafficking. MCC worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Breaking Free, an organization which helps rescue victims of sex trafficking. This group of brave women were willing to come forward and share their very painful stories in a public forum so that others might not have to experience what they did.
All three of these bills perfectly illustrate how a small group of people willing to give their time and energy can make a big difference in society. As Pope Francis has often said, “Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.”
These laws also show that the day-to-day work of politics is not always about the issues you hear in the media. Often, it is about concerned citizens working for incremental change that protects human dignity and promotes the common good. Even though we may not feel capable of accomplishing “great” things, it does not mean we cannot do smaller things with great love.
The influence of the Church in the public square
In addition to the crucial role that citizen involvement plays, I have also witnessed the effectiveness of the Church’s institutional voice in public advocacy.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent passage of a $100-per-month increase for struggling families enrolled in the Minnesota Family Investment Program. MCC has supported this legislation for many years but in the last two years has strongly prioritized it and included it as one of the marquee bills for Catholics at the Capitol in 2017. In a single day, more than 1,000 Catholics united their voices to let legislators know this issue was a priority for Minnesota Catholics.
Not only that, but the bishops of Minnesota personally advocated for this issue with House and Senate leaders and the Governor. After 33 years of inaction and partisan divide, both parties came together to pass a long-overdue increase for struggling families, which I believe is in no small part thanks to the Church’s efforts.
HOW WILL YOU PARTICIPATE?
It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the Church in this corner of the vineyard, and I leave you with this, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as you consider how you might participate in this work for the common good: “It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person. … As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life” (1913-1915).
Shawn Peterson is director of policy and outreach for Catholic Education Partners, and recently completed his service as Minnesota Catholic Conference associate director for public policy on July 12.